Years ago at the end of the sixties, I went on a 4 month study course sponsored by the World Council of Churches at Bossey near Geneva. The course was an international affair with some 60 attendees from every part of the globe. It was an experience which was designed to immerse us in the issues of ecumenism as well as different approaches to theology. Most important it introduced the participants into the cultural variety that exists in the world and the way nationalities see problems differently. To cope with the sheer variety of approaches, it was important that each person there was ready be, at least, a little flexible in their thinking. Some managed this well and grew as a result. Others struggled and I have a particular memory of a conservative American Baptist minister. After one lecture he was in the throes of expressing a sense of dissonance between what his training had taught him and what he was now struggling to understand. I watched this uncomfortable scenario for a moment and then scribbled a note and pushed it to my neighbour. The note summed up what I thought was going on and read: ‘An ex-fundamentalist with nowhere to go.’ What I was witnessing was a man who knew that his conservative theological training was incomplete but he did not know how to process new ideas into the thought-system that still dominated his mind. What I would say now in the light of my subsequent reading is that not only had this American received an education which did not equip him for new learning, but it could even be called an anti-education.
In thinking about the Baptist minister of 45 years ago, I am also reminded of the couple encountered by Chris at Skegness. In each case there is an apparent inability to process new information successfully. Being able to decipher new knowledge or information is a very important part of our ability to flourish both in the world of work and in our participation in a modern democracy. Society expects us to be able to take part in the jury process when called upon to do so, so an impairment in our ability to reason, to weigh up varied arguments and points of view is, to put it mildly, something of a handicap. If we are right to suggest that our Skegness couple and the American Baptist minister cannot process new information adequately, how may we account for this? The answer lies, I believe, in the nature and assumptions of a style of Protestant religious education, particularly that found in America. This tradition, as we shall see, stands in contrast to the main-stream ideas of a liberal education which have around since the 18th century.
The particular Christian educational pattern that is provided to many Christians in conservative settings is based on a theory from 18th century Scotland known as Common Sense Realism. This philosophy states that any statement which can be taken at face value has to be taken in this way. The ‘realism’ being propounded was in contrast to the ideas of philosophers such as David Hume who put high importance to scepticism and doubt. Common Sense philosophy found a ready home in 19th century American universities, and can be seen to undergird the philosophical ideas of early fundamentalism. When applied to Bible, it is claimed that the meaning of statements in Scripture are the meanings that can be deduced by anyone through the exercise of common sense. If the Bible says that God created the Bible in six days, then that that is the truth, the literal truth. This belief allows the ordinary person with a Bible to have access to enormous areas of knowledge without having to defer to ‘experts’. The ordinary Christian thus also has in his hands the key to understanding history, both past, present and future. This idea of such truth being given to the ordinary man was very popular in the egalitarian early days of the American Republic. It was an idea that contrasted with the elitism that seemed to be dominant in the Europe that American citizens had left behind in emigrating to the New World. There are obviously other strands in the emergence of conservative Biblical scholarship, but this anti-elitist common sense dimension is important to understand.
What is the consequence of putting this approach to Scripture at the heart not only of Christian formation but also into the general education of millions? Conservative Christianity has always had a strong influence on the formation of the young, right up to college level. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how a belief in ‘common sense’ will flatten any understanding of complexity or nuance, whether it be found in dealing with Scripture, morality or social issues. God has spoken. What else is there for us to learn?
The typical conservatively trained American Protestant minister will have a good knowledge of the Bible. He will also have studied great preachers of the past, Charles Finney and Jonathan Edwards to name but two. But his entire education will have been neutralised (sabotaged?) by this overriding assumption that the entire body of truth and history – everything of importance has already been revealed. The skills that are needed are those of faithful study and re-presenting of this truth of Scripture week after week. Novelty of any kind will not be possible because the system of thought makes such newness unacceptable. The ‘common-sense’ words of Scripture and the permitted interpretations are all that is possible to hear in church.
It can be seen, from what has been said, that the undergirding principles of a conservative Christian education are in a collision course with the principles of a broad Western education. We describe such a broad education as a liberal education, recognising that this word ‘liberal’ is a hate word in large swathes of American society. Liberal values in education are nevertheless still upheld in most of the centres of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic. There seems little chance at present that this dominance will be overturned. In spite of being accused of obscurity and elitism, liberals will continue to fight for the values arising out of paradox, plurality and complexity as well as novelty. Truth cannot not be reduced to a democratic vote or be surrendered to the highest bidder. But meanwhile in a variety of educational institutions up and down the land, the values of anti-education rule. These deny the liberal values of the unexpected, the new and the constant possibility of change. One particularly depressing facet of fundamentalist behaviour, which arises from this type of education, is the inability to be wrong. We noted the failure of humour in the conservative personality and we could add to this a smug complacency of ‘knowing’ that they are always right.
In our newspapers today we read about the issues of an illiberal education being offered by certain Muslim schools in Birmingham. We would be right to call this anti-education. But we would want to extend this description to the way that countless Christian people in this country are taught, whether in school or in church.