As soon as Christians bring up the topic of faith and education, they quickly divide into two camps. On one side are those that argue passionately for educational equity, and see the foundational expression of the Christian faith in public education as one of equal access and “closing the achievement gap.” Here, justice is the issue.
On the other side are those in Christian schools and home schools who see the integration of faith and education as a plain matter of teaching Bible, theology, and the “Christian worldview” as the centerpiece of the educational experience. For them a version of “Christian education” is the answer. Here, truth is the issue.
Yet what I find disturbing is that these two groups rarely talk to each other. And instead versions of name calling usually take place. Those committed to public schools will call Christian school and homeschool families “separatists,” - they’re ignoring the needs of their community and instead living in a “holy huddle” instead of being “salt and light” in the world. And those in the Christian school and homeschool world look at those in public school with disbelief: how could you let a secular government raise your kids? Don’t you know there’s no such thing as a neutral education?
And because parents have made these decisions for their children, their most precious of treasures, any suggestion that they have made a wrong or “unChristian” decision is most likely to incur rage rather than rational discourse. For this reason, nearly every pastor I’ve ever spoken to about this issue refuses to bring it up. Why incur the wrath of moms on both side when I can just avoid it all together, and say, “Well, it’s a personal choice.”
What we lack almost completely is a view of faith influencing the practice of education itself.
Let me try to explain with an illustration. Last week, a well known Christian advocate for educational equity came to Denver and gave a conference at a church. She spoke about her organization, the needs of low-income students around the US, and the idea that access to a quality education is a moral issue - an issue that all Christians that care about justice should support and act upon. What followed were illustrations of Christians in after-school mentoring programs and families moving into low-income neighborhoods to send their kids to underperforming schools. Her argument was supported by biblical verses about justice.
Then the issue of prayer in public schools came up. Shouldn’t kids have the right to pray in school? What about before sports games? But after some discussion, the presenters (and pastors) agreed that Christians shouldn’t just be interested in praying in school - they must simply serve the needs of their community, which, again, meant educational equality.
What was never even brought up was how the Christian faith should influence the actual teaching and learning process. Because we’ve so largely accepted the idea that the gospel belongs in the private sphere (home and personal life, or in this context, homeschool and Christian school), we’ve by and large accepted the idea that speaking the gospel in a public school context is either rude or possibly illegal, and utilizing the gospel as a framework for understanding our work in public education is simply inappropriate.
So what are you saying? That public school teachers should share their faith in front of the classroom - maybe quote a few Bible verses before literature class? Realistically, any Christian teacher that did this would get a barrage of phone calls from parents - and possibly a severe reprimand from her principal. This path won’t realistically work in a pluralistic society.
But I am saying that in a republic that protects freedom of religious expression, there ought to be freedom for Muslims, Christians, Jews, secular humanists, Hindus, or those with modern scientific worldview to openly express their beliefs. Teachers could obviously not lead prayers, but neither should they feel forced to lie about the reasons why they act, think, or speak as they do. Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy cites the huge need that public school kids have for just understanding what religions believe - and several Supreme Court decisions that have protected the teaching of world religions in a public school context.
This alone would be a huge step forward. Right now, people of any explicit faith tradition feel afraid to even share what they believe openly. Instead, a dark cloud of silence rests on most public schools - and students leave schools largely ignorant of history’s most influential movements, ideas and beliefs.
But this is not what I’m arguing for. We need to begin a conversation (or, more accurately, continue from centuries past) about how the Christian faith can and should influence our actual practice of education within a pluralistic society. I see this happening on two planes: (1) placing religion back in the category of knowledge and (2) exploring the subtle, “subversive” ways in which Christian doctrine can influence how and what we teach - and so better serve students and communities.
First, teachers need to ask the basic question, Can claims about God, the supernatural, or even ethics in general be true or false in the same sense that there are true and false answers in calculus or chemistry? In the science labs, teachers expect students to have the right answers, but in literature and “religious studies” it is personal opinion that reigns supreme. Even though the vast majority of school districts would say they want their students to be people of “character” or “integrity,” when teachers try to define exactly what those are - and then teach students about a clear right and wrong, like a mathematics answer can be right or wrong - they are generally left with little institutional support.
A hard question to ask is this: Did Jesus rise from the dead? On Sunday, Christians would say, “Oh, yes. Absolutely.” But when pressed in a public school context, many of those same teachers would say, “Well, that’s what I believe.” But the question remains - did Jesus rise from the dead in the same, plain historical sense in which Caesar crossed the Rubicon or Pompeii was buried in ashes by a volcano? By raising these types of questions, public school teachers can at least highlight the historical claims of the Christian faith, and begin to usher religion back into the category of knowledge - something that can be either true or false. Something that students should all investigate for themselves.
This first strategy I see is one that will largely raise the tension level in many classroom settings. But the second strategy I think can be more covert and “subversive” - but also more of a widespread blessing to people of many backgrounds and beliefs.
My friend Bill Kurtz, the CEO of Denver Schools of Science and Technology, has built a network of public charter schools that are some of the best in the US. And he has done this in part by bringing his underlying Christian faith to bear on how he sees the human person, the human condition, and his motive for serving. So, for example, he believes students are made in God’s image but are fallen and in need of restoration. And so on Wednesday mornings all students at his schools gather to both praise students who have lived out the schools values and to hear public apologies from students who skip class or don’t “do their best” - one of the school’s core values. Restoration is a part of their school’s culture.
He also believes that each student has great potential, black and white, rich and poor, quick learner or slow. He shares this belief with his co-workers from many faith backgrounds - but it is nonetheless significant that he is animated by a hope that each student has value and each student can succeed and attend college. Such an overt and pervasive hope is indeed rare in public education. But he brings this hope ultimately from the story out of which he is living. (It is a hope which has led him to launch 8 schools so far, with 6 more planned in the next 8 years.)
Here both Christian school / homeschool and public school teachers need to begin a more robust conversation about faith and education by asking how doctrines like creation, incarnation, justification, original sin, and eschatology influence everything from how we evaluate the critical thinking movement to how we structure our lesson plans. (This, by the way, is needed just as much in Christian schools as it is in public schools.) This is the mostly untested, untried arena of Christian faith and education in a pluralistic setting. And here Christians ought to be unafraid to venture, because we believe (for there is no knowledge without belief, said Augustine) that the Christian faith is the best revealer of reality - for all people at all times and in all places.
Here is the great conversation we must begin between Christian faith and education. Here is a project that brings us beyond offended parents, fearful teachers, and cultural assumptions that say we must choose either justice or truth. Here is a better way than either crusading for our religious rights or passively adopting the assumptions of secular humanism. Here is the needed cultural space we must create between church and school - a space that is more faithful to God and a better servant of our neighbors.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.