Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grounded in the Cross: A Lutheran Theology of Education, Pt. 2

The following is the second of two posts, separated because of length.  End notes included at the end of each post.  Please comment with your thoughts and criticism!

     If a community centered on the cross is one where all members both learn and teach, then Christian education necessarily becomes an expression of Christian vocation.  All believers, not just clergy, are called by God to a number of vocations in the waters of baptism:

For Christian perfection is to fear God earnestly with the whole heart and yet also to have a sincere confidence, faith, and trust that we have a gracious, merciful God because of Christ; that we may and should pray for and request from God whatever we need and confidently expect help from him in all affliction, according to each person’s vocation and walk of life; and that meanwhile we should diligently do external good works and attend to our calling.[1]

All believers are called to serve God according to their vocation not out of a need for self-justification but rather as a spontaneous response to God’s saving act through Christ. During preaching and teaching, multiple vocations are exercised. When teachers and pastors exercise God given vocations, students also fulfill a calling to learn more about God and grow in faith. Congregations teach (and learn from) their neighbors about the meaning of community by feeding the hungry. When a child teaches his or her parents by saying something profound after Sunday worship, that child is following a vocation to be part of the body of Christ.

      Parenting is a particularly strong example of how education is an expression of Christian vocation. In the Large Catechism Luther suggests that God specifically honors parenting as a vocation: “God has given this walk of life, fatherhood and motherhood, a special position of honor, higher than that of any other walk of life under it… he distinguishes father and mother above all other persons on earth…”[2] Luther also identifies education as part of a parent’s vocation: “… it is the duty of every head of a household at least once a week to examine the children and servants one after the other and ascertain what they know or have learned of it, and , if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.[3] Furthermore, teachers and government officials reflect and support a parent’s vocation:

For all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents.  Where a father is unable by himself to bring up his child, he calls upon a schoolmaster to teach him; if he is too weak, he seeks the help of his friends and neighbors; if he dies, he confers and delegates his responsibility and authority to others appointed for the purpose.[4]

Through the vocational calls of parenting, governing and teaching, individuals can learn and good order is established, thereby creating a fertile environment for the gospel to propagate.

     A Christian community centered on the cross recognizes that God’s calling to teach and spread the gospel is best carried out in a well order society. Such a community also humbly acknowledges it cannot properly educate believers all on it’s own. A Christian community centered on the cross therefore advocates for a strong education system that equips all individuals to fulfill their God given vocations. As Luther argues in To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany:
…if children were instructed and trained in schools, or wherever learned and well-trained schoolmasters and schoolmistresses were available to teach the languages, the other arts, and history, they would then hear of the doings and sayings of the entire world… Thus, they could in a short time set before themselves as in a mirror the character, life, counsels and purposes – successful and unsuccessful- of the whole world from the beginning; on the basis of which they could then draw the proper inferences and in the fear of God take their own place in the stream of human events.[5] 
All types of quality education are necessary to maintain a well-ordered society where the gospel can spread and individuals can practice their God given vocations. Therefore, from the perspective of vocation and evangelism, all education is Christian education.

      While all education is Christian education, the humility of the cross compels us to admit that the church cannot fully educate believers without the help of our wider society. What then does the cross tell us about what must be taught specifically in the church school? What is our role as Christian educators? Paul Tillich’s theology of education provides an answer. In Theology of Culture Tillich identifies three distinct aims of education. The technical aim teaches specific skills and arts. The humanist aim develops the full potentiality and pursuit of truth for an individual while the inductive aim instructs and initiates the individual into a culture’s symbols and values.[6] Tillich’s diagnosis of how these three aims have been co-opted by contemporary society seems quite accurate:
…the educational idea of our present society in this and other Western countries shows heavy problems and deep inner conflict. Certainly it serves well the aim of inducting the new generations into the demands of the monstrous process of mass production and mass consumption… it is being trained in the special skills, partly by vocational schools, but mostly be participation in the different crafts, arts, and professions themselves… the [humanist] way in this country is a kind of permissiveness which makes it possible for young people to express their willfulness and aggressiveness uninhibited by a stern discipline, but in such a way that after several years an astonishing adjustment to the demands of contemporary society has taken place and the revolutionary spirit of the young has evaporated.[7]
Our current educational environment only inducts students into an American civil religion of consumerism and hyper-individualism. It develops the skills and potentialities of an individual only so far as to make them productive in that system.

     What then is the role of the church school? A church school centered on the cross must compensate for however our current education system fails to proclaim the gospel and promote good social order. In communities where the technical aim of education is not met by public schools, the church either advocates for reform or works to provide better vocational training. In a society that has generally failed to meet the humanist and inductive aims of education, the church school works to fill the gap. It begins by teaching the stories, symbols and values of the faith at a level appropriate to a student’s stage of development. The church school then helps the student identify existential questions and potentialities. Here is where the contemporary church school generally fails both children and adults, and it is certainly where the church school failed me back in first grade. As students develop existential questions, Christian educators show how the symbols and values of the faith can provide answers. As Bonhoeffer observes in Acts 2.42, “teaching means preaching” and “the church continued in the apostle’s teaching.”[8] Church schools must teach the universally saving message of the gospel in a way speaks specifically to an individual’s questions and context. The task of teaching is also never ending one. Believers always need to hear that God has chosen them, that by God’s grace they have been saved in Christ, through faith.

      Drowned and reborn in the waters of baptism every day, believers are hungry for the gospel… they are really hungry! Grounded in the cross, Christian education delivers that gospel message, comforting terrified souls. Christian education humbly recognizes that educators are fallible and that everyone has something to learn. Using this balanced approach the whole congregation becomes a learning community where all are both teachers and learners. The Christian learning community then moves beyond its own borders, teaching and learning from the local parish and the wider world. When grounded in the cross, Christian education becomes an expression of baptismal vocation. The church advocates for government to act as a parent for society by providing for good order and equipping individuals to carry out God given vocations. In a society where education only develops and inducts individuals into blind consumption and hyper-individualism, Christian education teaches the values and symbols of the faith, proclaiming the gospel in a way that speaks to where a person is and who they are.

[1] Kolb and Wengert, The Book of Concord, 88.
[2] Ibid, 400 – 401.
[3] Ibid, 383.
[4] Ibid, 405.
[5] Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 473.
[6] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 147.
[7] Tillich, Theology of Culture, 150.
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan Paperbacks ed. (New York: The Macmillan Corporation, 1963), 278.

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