Archive for January, 2011

Fortune Obligates

January 30, 2011

 Is it right for some people to be rich while others are poor, or should there be equality? Opinion is sharply polarized on this question.

Much of the conflict in the world to­day is rooted in opposing answers given to the above question. This is at the heart of most wage disputes in our coun­try, with appeals made to either equality or justified inequality, whichever happens to be to one’s advantage in this dispute.

In many coun­tries there is growing conflict, largely due to the disparity between a wealthy minority and a very poor majority. Some are warning us that the disparity between the wealthy nations of the West, and the underdeveloped Third World countries will eventually lead to world conflict. The question I have raised, therefore, cries out for an answer.

One would expect the Scriptures to supply an answer to such a fundamental question, but unfortunately Christians do not agree on what the Scriptures say about equality or inequality of material goods. Some point to the basic principle of “just desert” running throughout the Scrip­tures, as providing support for inequal­ity. “A man reaps what he sows”  (Gal. 6:7).   “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”  (II Thess. 3:10).  The parable of the talents is often interpreted as suggesting that he who is faithful in little, will be given more responsibilities and more reward (Luke 19:11-27).

However, others point to Scripture passages that seem to favor more equality. Jesus encourages a rich young man to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21).  It seems that many in the early church did sell their possessions, “had everything in common,” and “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-5).  Paul quite ex­plicitly refers to equality as an ideal (II Cor. 8:13).

How do we reconcile these two em­phases in Scripture?

I believe it is possible for Christians to learn something from non-Christians who are struggling with the same prob­lem. Some recent writings on the prob­lem of justice have helped me to see the Scriptural answer to the question I have raised from a fresh perspective.

John Rawls and other philosophers have argued that “nature” itself is not just in its distribution of natural capaci­ties. Some individuals seem to be born with all the advantages; others, with various handicaps. Therefore it is surely unjust to distribute benefits in society simply on the basis of achievement or merit, because this gives an unfair ad­vantage to those who have been born “lucky,” just as much as it gives an un­fair disadvantage to those who have been born with certain handicaps. Rawls, therefore, argues that the distri­bution of natural talents should be re­garded as a common asset. Those who have been favored by nature have an obligation to improve the situation of those who are less fortunate. Another writer sums up this principle in the phrase, “fortune obligates”.

Rawls’ stress on the arbitrariness of nature’s distribution of gifts and oppor­tunities is helpful, although we may want to reinterpret this from a Christian perspective. It is God who determines where we are born, and it is God who distri­butes gifts and opportunities. Most of us are born with normal abilities. We, in North America, live in a land of plenty and in the midst of abundant opportun­ity. Have we earned this? No! “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7)  Everything we have is a gift, a result of a “divine lottery,” if you will. Therefore we should be very careful not to become proud about our abilities and gifts.  It is simply wrong to give ourselves all the credit for what we achieve.  It is also wrong to feel that we are entitled to the advantages that we enjoy. 

Further, those of us who have been given an undue share of God’s blessings have an obligation to share with those who have been less fortunate. Fortune obligates. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48). We owe some­thing to those who have not been as richly blessed as we are. Generosity is not an option, but an obligation.

Again and again in Scripture, we find that God has a special interest in the dis­advantaged, and God calls on the advan­taged to help the disadvantaged. What follows from this? If the rich share some of their wealth with the poor, and the poor receive from the rich, then there will no longer be as much inequality between them. There is no way we can escape this conclusion. Paul is crystal clear on this point as he encourages the Corinthian church to be generous: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (II Cor. 8:13).

 Paul, in this same context, describes the meaning of the Incarnation: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”  (II Cor. 8:9). As followers of Christ, should we not similarly become poor, so that others might become rich, or at least equal?  

(This blog first appeared as a “Personal Opinion” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald,  Dec. 19, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)


Sports as Idolatry

January 21, 2011


There is something dangerous and wrong about the sports mania in contemporary society.

            The average citizen religiously attends sports events at the local arena or stadium, and spends many more hours each week watching professional sports on TV.  Our newspapers have entire sections devoted to sports news.

            Conversations during coffee breaks, or at any time for that matter, are dominated by sports talk, so much so that the person who does not know the names of all the players on all the major teams is forced to sit in bemused silence. 

            The heroes of our society are now sports personalities.  The exorbitant salaries they receive are an indication of who we consider to be most valuable persons today.

            Why all this emphasis on sports?  I suggest it is a symptom of a general sickness in our society.  It is an escape from emptiness and boredom.  The pervasive feeling of purposelessness can be seemingly overcome by watching someone very purposefully chasing a puck down the ice.

            Sports is also a vain attempt to overcome feelings of loneliness that plague us in our saner moments.  Being part of a big crowd in a huge arena gives one at least some sense of belonging.  Everyone is doing it.  Everyone is talking about it.  Therefore if I am part of it, I belong.

            Sports is the secular religion of contemporary society.  American theologian, Paul Tillich defined religion in terms of the ultimate concern of a person or a group of persons.  Sports would seem to be the ultimate concern of many today.  They depend on sports to give life meaning and purpose.  As Christians we believe that human beings are incurably religious.  If we do not worship the true God, we seek a false god.  Sports is today’s god and serves as a substitute for the true God.

            Sports is not only wrong because it is a false religion.  Professional sports encourages people to be spectators.  Hours of TV watching leave the mind atrophied and the body weak and flabby.  Children are neglected as parents spend hours in front of a TV set.  The crowd in a sports arena is susceptible to mob psychology.  Witness the frequent outbursts of mass hysteria and violence at sports events. 

            Children were meant to play games for enjoyment.  But instead, they are forced to join junior sports leagues where they are expected to compete, to wear uniforms like men in the big leagues, and to behave like stars.  Instead of sending them to summer camps we send children to soccer school or hockey school.

            Roy MacGregor, in a Macleans article correctly describes the situation thus:  “Children become gladiators, playing out NHL influences and parent’s frustrations rather than their own innocent dreams.”

            Many years ago I tried my hand at coaching a Tiny Mite soccer team, and the experience was most disturbing.  I heard children being ridiculed at games.  I heard parents putting pressure on their children to play hard, to win, even to “kill” a player on the opposite team.  I had to listen to parents shouting abuses at their own children. 

            It’s all part of the game.  But it’s cruel, terribly cruel.  I agree with Douglas Fisher, who in   a report on recreation for the Ontario Government described minor league hockey as a “barbaric” past-time.  Some children’s sports are indeed barbaric and cruel.  All this because sports is a god, and everything, including our children are sacrificed to this god.

            Jesus said we cannot serve two masters.  You cannot worship God and sports at the same time.  But that is precisely what many are trying to do today, including many Christians.  Christ calls us to separate ourselves from the world, especially its idols.

            This is not to say that we should spend no time in sports.  I am here only concerned with our excessive preoccupation with spectator sports, which I believe is a form of idolatry.  It is high time that the church address this sin of idolatry.

 (First published in “A Christian Mind” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 25, 1981, and here slightly revised and updated.)

Reflections on Christian Schwarz and Natural Church Development

January 13, 2011


There was much that impressed me about Christian Schwarz and what he said about Natural Church Development at the Leadership Conference of the Canadian M.B. Convention 2000. His sincere Christian faith and his commitment to the church were quickly evident.  He clearly practiced what he preached.  He demonstrated critical openness with regard to his own thinking.  He even dared to question some of the claims of current church growth gurus.  Schwarz is a very gifted communicator.  He served us well.  However, some of my initial misgivings were reinforced as I listened to Christian Schwarz’s explanation of his research program and his advice to the church. 

 Science and the Bible:

Let me first comment generally on his research program.  There can be no doubt about the seriousness with which the research is being conducted.  Data is being collected worldwide and is being fed into sophisticated computer programs which in turn generate instructive analysis about natural church development.  Again and again we were reminded of the scientific basis underlying this research program.  At one point Schwarz even challenged us to suggest any other way one might be able to find out what leads to healthy growing churches.  My answer – the Bible!    And here is my first concern – science has replaced the Bible as the authority of what we should do in church. 

This concern, of course, raises the question of the relation between the findings of science and the Bible.  Ultimately, for Christians there should be agreement between what the Bible says and any conclusions drawn from authentic scientific research.  Both are an expression of God’s Word.  And Christian Schwarz was careful to observe that the eight quality characteristics of growing churches that he had discovered via his research could all be affirmed by the Bible.  But why seek empirical confirmation of that which is already found in the Bible?  Is this approach not finally a betrayal of trust in God’s revelation? Is it not further an unnecessary accommodation to the scientism that grew out of the Enlightenment?  In my college teaching, I spend a good deal of time unmasking the pretensions of science.  I was therefore somewhat shocked to discover that the M.B. church itself has succumbed to these very same pretensions by inviting Schwarz as the main speaker of our convention. 

Surely at a church convention, the Bible should be held up as the ultimate and the main authority for any pronouncements that are made.  Jesus is the head of the church, not science!  I was therefore disturbed that in the leaflet advertising Convention 2000 and which was distributed to all the churches, Christian Schwarz was described as “an engaging speaker.  He’s easy to listen to, and his messages come from a level of knowledge which make him deeply credible.”  Surely credibility should be based on theological foundations, not scientific expertise.  Surely at a church convention, expository preaching should be the dietary staple – but there was little of this at our convention.  We have here just another illustration of David Well’s portrayal of the decline of theology within evangelical churches.

 Gaps and Biases:

Reliance on scientific methodology, of course, brings with it the problem of bias which is very common in scientific research, and there is evidence of bias in Christian Schwarz’s research program.  There are some noticeable gaps in the eight quality characteristics that are identified as essential to healthy growing churches.  For example, Bible teaching is not cited as one of the eight qualities.  My Bible, however, tells me that this is central to a healthy church.  Preaching, teaching, and the prophetic word are identified as the higher gifts that we should be striving for in the church (I Cor. 12).  But Schwarz said, “Scientific research shows that churches with pastors with a classical theological training are declining in quality and numbers.”   Really!?  Is there perhaps some other factor that is the determining cause in this alleged scientific analysis?  As any first year student in the philosophy of science can tell you, it is all to easy to identify a wrong cause because of bias in your methodology.

One of our senior church leaders identified another missing quality in Schwarz’s list of healthy churches – tithing and sacrificial giving.  Again, there are good biblical grounds for identifying this as an important characteristic of a healthy church.  Paul spends a good deal of time on this topic.  Should this characteristic therefore not also be confirmable by scientific research?  And I wonder whether its omission as one of Schwarz’s eight characteristics occurred because of a bias in the questions asked of churches in his international study – perhaps questions about tithing were not even raised in the research.  And what about suffering as another defining characteristic of a healthy growing church?  Or, obedience?

Schwarz might explain these omissions by claiming that these characteristics are subsumed under the categories of worship or passionate spirituality.  But could not worship itself be subsumed under passionate spirituality?  And why not place empowering leadership under gift-oriented ministry?  These questions raise another problem: Which characteristics should be included under which category?  Is there not a good deal of arbitrariness involved in selecting these specific eight categories as essential to healthy churches?  Might there be some other features that could be equally well highlighted as universally characteristic of healthy growing churches?  And what about the qualifiers attached to some of these eight characteristics, qualifiers which place a lot of emphasis on feeling and emotion.  “Passionate spirituality.”  “Inspired Worship.”  My Bible tells me that zeal without knowledge is dangerous (Romans 10:2).  It is important to pray with the spirit together with the mind (I Cor. 14:15).  Marva Dawn has recently warned us about the idolatries of excitement and charismatic personalities that govern much of the church today.

 The Mystery of the Gospel:      

Christian Schwarz describes his program in terms of “Natural Church Development.”  There is something odd about the use of the term “natural.”  Surely the church is also supernatural!  I realize that Schwarz would agree with this, but he tends to dichotomize the natural and the supernatural. Surely even the human contribution to church growth needs to be divinely inspired if it is to have any effect.  And can the supernatural be captured in terms of precise, measurable, and natural categories?  We must not eliminate the mystery that is at the heart of the gospel.  We must also be careful not to expect the precision of science to apply to people and to dynamic organisms like the church.  Church profiles can be wrong?  Gift-discernment also simply cannot be reduced to precise measurement as is assumed in various current programs advocated by Schwarz.  There are any number of people who think they have certain gifts based on these “precise” programs, but who have got it wrong, and who, as a result, are an embarrassment to the church, and who are ultimately hurting the church because of the errors involved in “scientific” self-assessment.  Again, we must remember that a genuinely religious phenomenon, at its heart and in its totality, escapes the net of scientific theory and analysis. Scientific naturalism, at its core precludes the divine, and hence there would seem to be a basic incompatibility between the biblical doctrine of church and Schwarz’s scientific analysis of a healthy church.

Quality and Quantity:

One final concern is the tension between quality and quantity in Schwartz’s approach.  At times he was careful to distance himself from thinking of church growth in terms of quantity.  Qualitative growth (healthy churches) is what we are after.  But excessive concern about a church’s spiritual health can lead to a kind of spiritual hypochondria.  Schwarz used the analogy of a thermometer to encourage us to make repeated us of his church profile to measure the health of the church.  We can be too concerned about measuring church health.  Might it not be better to wait for God’s final evaluation, “Well done”? 

On the other hand, Schwarz did at one point say that our motivation should not even be a healthy church.  Quality also is not a goal in itself.  Now I was confused!  What are we after?  In the end, it became clear that the dominant concern is growth in numbers.  Schwarz’s approach is very much an outgrowth of the church growth movement which is dominant in many evangelical quarters.  Success is where it is at.  But, the Bible teaches that faithfulness, not success, should be the norm.  In fact, some Old Testament prophets were specifically told that they would not be successful (Is. 6:9-13).  There is a danger in evangelical churches that we make an idol of church growth and success.  Christ wants a pure church (Eph 5:25-7).  And the last book of the Bible “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). 

Does the above critical analysis entail that Christian Schwarz’s program should be completely dismissed.  I don’t think so.  I agree that biblical norms for healthy churches should be open to scientific verification to some degree.  We must just be very careful to recognize the limits of science, and hence of Schwarz’s program.  We must also be careful not exaggerate the precision of the research results, church profiles, or gift-discernment programs used. Aristotle long ago warned us not to demand more precision than the subject matter allows. The church is finally a divine institution, and therefore not entirely subject to scientific analysis and prediction.  Above all, let’s allow the Bible to be the primary and final authority in defining the characteristics of a healthy church.

 (This article first appeared in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Sept. 22, 2000, pp. 6-7, under the title, “Reflections on Natural Church Development,” and is here slightly revised.)

Curriculum After Babel

January 5, 2011
 (Published in Agenda for Educational Change, edited by John  Shortt & Trevor Cooling.  Leicester:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1997, pp.165-80)[i] 

There would seem to be two Babels, an ancient and a post-modern one.  In Genesis 11:1 we read that “the whole world had one language and a common speech.”  But after Babel, the LORD confused the language of the whole world and scattered the people over the face of the whole earth.  Hence the “problem” of linguistic diversity and all that that entails.  Attempts have been made to return to pre-Babel times.  Postmodernists like to describe modernism in terms of another attempt to devise a universal language and a universal rationality. But we are experiencing another confusion of tongues, and various philosophers have invoked the image of Babel to describe postmodernism with its emphasis on multiple narratives and multiple forms of rationality (Stout, 1988, pp.1-2).

            In the first section of this paper, I want to argue that the postmodern Babel lends credence to the idea of a uniquely Christian curriculum.  But how does one describe the way in which a Christian worldview shapes the curriculum?  And can one affirm the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum and yet allow for commonness with curricula based on other worldviews?   After addressing these issues, some implications will be drawn for education in both Christian and state-maintained common schools.

Defense of the Possibility of a Christian Curriculum

            There are some who have objected to the very possibility of a uniquely Christian curriculum (Hirst, 1974, p.77).[ii]  However, such opposition to the very possibility of a Christian curriculum seems strangely antiquated in the light of more recent developments in philosophy.  Since the ground-breaking work of Thomas Kuhn (1962/1970), it is generally recognized that observation is theory-laden. The doctrine of “immaculate perception” which was at the heart of the traditional conception of science is now regarded as fundamentally flawed (Leahy 1990, 140).

            This, and other more recent epistemological developments, would suggest that rationality, knowledge, the justification of our beliefs, and by implication, the curriculum, are, to some degree, shaped by presuppositions and worldviews, by historical, social, and even psychological conditions.[iii]  The idea of a universal and neutral rationality is now recognized to be itself an expression of a particular narrative, an Enlightenment narrative.  All this is at the core of postmodernism, and all of this would suggest that the idea of a uniquely Christian curriculum is not at all far-fetched.

The Problem of Relativism

            There is, however, a danger inherent in the above justification of the possibility of a Christian curriculum. An appeal to postmodernism raises the spectre of epistemological relativism.  While all postmodernists stress that our access to “objective” reality is always mediated by our own particular perspectives, worldviews, or conceptual constructions, some go much further, suggesting that reality is a purely human construct. Thus, any “truth” we claim for our cherished positions becomes problematic and is often radically relativized.[iv]

             But postmodernists who carry their views to such an extreme invariably contradict themselves!  They are forced to concede that we can communicate, despite our conceptual differences. They also seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as better than that of old-fashioned modernism.  But better in terms of what?  Better presupposes a best!

            The private worlds of extreme postmodernists also tend not to remain entirely private.  Human constructions of reality seem to be subject to certain constraints, suggesting the inescapability of the notion of an objectively “given” reality.  And we also seem to find it difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense.[v]  

            It would thus seem that we need to retain some elements modernism.  We therefore need to find some way to reconcile the epistemological insights of modernism and postmodernism, avoiding the extremes in either position (Toulmin, 1990, p.175).[vi]  Clearly our beliefs are to some extent human constructions, but this is not to say that they are just that (Clark & Gaede, 1987, p.82). Hence many writers have adopted a form of “critical realism” as a compromise position.  Clearly our knowledge is always partial and particular, but it is not just that. There is a non-relative goal to our search for truth, and there are criteria by which to assess the adequacy of our human constructions in relation to this goal, although this is admittedly a complex process.[vii] 

            William James, the American pragmatist, prophetically captures this reconciliation between modernist and postmodernist themes when he describes the absolutely true as “that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” ([1948]1968, p.170).  For the orthodox Christian the aim of temporary truths is to produce human constructions of knowledge that conform to the ideal of God’s truth (Clark & Gaede, 1987, p.84). 

The “Foundations” of a Christian Curriculum

            It is time to move on more specifically to a consideration of a Christian curriculum.   In what follows, my indebtedness to what has come to be known as Reformed Epistemology will be apparent.[viii]  I want to deal with some of the key issues that have arisen in contemporary discussions of a Christian curriculum, responding in particular to a lively recent exchange on this topic in Spectrum (Allen, 1993; Velten, 1994; Smith, 1995).

            It would seem self-evident that for the Christian, the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments should play a “foundational” role in the development of a uniquely Christian curriculum.  Here it should be noted that there are some Christians who seem to deny this, claiming that the Scriptures are only concerned with salvation and spiritual matters.[ix]

            Clearly, the Bible is first and foremost a book of religion and not a textbook in history or science.  But as Smith observes, although the Bible does provide the answer on how to be saved, it also contains a great deal of information on how Christians are to interact with the world once they are saved (1995, p.11).  Further, the scope of redemption is not limited to persons, but includes the whole of the cosmos (Romans 8:18-25; Colossians 1:19-20).  The above objection to Scripture as a “foundation” to a Christian curriculum rests on a sharp divide between spiritual and earthly/cultural matters, an unfortunate legacy from American Fundamentalism which most evangelicals today reject (Buss, 1994).

            It is important, though, to recognize that the Bible is not the only “foundation” for a Christian curriculum.[x]  In addition to God’s special revelation, there is what theologians refer to as “general revelation” – God’s revelation in nature (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1-4).  Indeed, general revelation is the more immediate and normal source of much of our knowledge, even for Christians, a point stressed by Catholic theologians, but one to which evangelical and Reformed theologians have not always paid sufficient attention (Curtis, 1994, p.94).  It needs to be stressed, though, that for the Christian this general revelation is still God’s revelation.

            Here it might be well to draw attention to a problem that arises in special and general revelation being the “foundations” of a Christian curriculum.  Reformed epistemologists, very much in keeping with some emphases in postmodernism, stress that we must not forget the human interpretative dimension in understanding both God’s special and general revelation.  It must not be assumed that Christians can read the Bible in a neutral or positivistic manner which bypasses all problems of interpretation.  Hermeneutical problems also arise in the reading of God’s general revelation.  Christians come to the Scriptures and also to the world around them with presuppositions and biases, and these can lead to distortions and even errors in interpretation.  Hence there is a constant need for critical discernment and re-evaluation of one’s reading of the Scriptures and nature.

            It is not possible here to explore the complex relation between special and general revelation, except to note that these need to be kept in balance in developing a Christian curriculum (Curtis, 1994, p.100; cf. Wolterstorff, 1984, ch.13).  And it needs to be stressed that because God is the Source, Guide and Goal of all that is (Rom. 11:36), there must be a unity to all knowledge and truth.  All truth is God’s truth (Holmes, 1977).  Hence there must ultimately be coherence between the conclusions drawn from special and general revelation.

Deducing Curricular Implications from the Scriptures

            The Bible occupies a central position for the evangelical Christian.  Given what is often seen as the Christian scholars mandate –  taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), it would seem that it should be possible to “deduce” a uniquely Christian curriculum from biblical presuppositions.  It is this implication that has prompted perhaps the strongest objections to the Reformed perspective on curriculum.  Christian scholars often find it difficult to provide concrete examples of conclusions that follow from biblical presuppositions for their discipline.  Indeed, to cite just one example, neither Planck’s quantum theory, nor its denial could be derived from the Scriptures.[xi]

            Indeed, many of the claims of the sciences cannot be directly deduced from the Bible.  And therefore there is some justification for giving the label “pious rationalism” to the suggestion that it is possible (in every case) to get a “direct derivation” of curricular content from the Bible (Velten, 1994, pp.63-4).

            But if we are to make anything of the idea of a Christian curriculum, biblical perspectives and presuppositions must have some sort of influence on the curriculum.   But how is this influence to be described?   I want to review various models that have been proposed to help us understand how the Bible serves to delimit and inspire Christian curriculum.

            Allen introduces a commonly used analogy: “Our Christian beliefs should act, not so much as a pump pushing fuel into an engine, but more as a filter, letting through what is clean and keeping out what is impure” (Allen, 1993, p.19).  The filter analogy highlights an important scholastic emphasis that our beliefs in geology or psychology must not contradict any revealed doctrine of truth (Clouser, 1991, p.95).  But the negative function of filtering out what is impure can ultimately be restated positively.  Every exclusion entails an inclusion.  Thus Allen too makes certain deductions, e.g. a Christian anthropology entails the inclusion of physical education in the curriculum, and the doctrine of creation entails respect for diversity (Allen, 1993, pp.21, 23).  The Bible therefore doesn’t only work as a filter, but also as a motor and impulse (Velten, 1994, p.66).

            Some writers prefer to talk about a Christian “worldview” which changes our ways of looking at the world and hence shapes a curriculum.  Smith, for example, suggests that “worldviews are primarily lenses with which we look at the world” (1995, p.21).  For example, the Bible serves to open our eyes to creation and its normative structure, thus encouraging us to look for norms governing the political, economic, aesthetic and other spheres of life (Wolterstorff, 1980, Ch.2).

            Various writers introduce the notion of presuppositions – basic theoretical assumptions at the core of our belief system, that are often held unconsciously and that shape the rest of our thinking (Clouser, 1991, pp.101-7).  Wolterstorff describes these presuppositions in terms of “control beliefs”  which lead us both to reject certain sorts of theories which are inconsistent with these control beliefs, and to devise theories which are consistent with them (1984, pp.67-8).  Sometimes these presuppositions merely act as a general guide to developing curriculum.  But sometimes they entail specific truths for curricular content. 

            Here it is important to see that the influence of Christian presuppositions will be mediated at various levels.  The following diagram of a belief system serves to illustrate how presuppositions lead to philosophical theories, which in turn lead to scientific theories, which in turn finally lead to specific claims (see Figure #1).[xii]  All beliefs, however far removed from the centre of one’s belief system, are influenced by one’s presuppositions, though clearly those beliefs closer to the centre of one’s belief system, e.g. those related to one’s view of human nature, will be more significantly shaped by one’s presuppositions. This explains why the influence of Christian presuppositions is more apparent in some subject areas than in others.

            It should also be noted that influence does not only move from the centre outward.  Sometimes our experiences cause us to revise our theories and even our presuppositions.  As pointed out earlier, there needs to be a dynamic interplay between the conclusions Christians draw from general revelation and those drawn from God’s special revelation.  Christian presuppositions do not only influence science, but science sometimes causes Christians to correct their fallible interpretations of Scripture (Wolterstorff, 1984, p.94).



 Lessons from a Shakespearean Analogy

            Tom Wright, in a discussion of the nature of Biblical authority, has provided us with a very helpful analogy (1992, p.140).  He posits a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost. “The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement with the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.”  Instead, it is felt to be better  “to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.”

            David Smith, in an illuminating commentary on this analogy, applies it specifically to the area of Christian curriculum construction (1995, pp.22-4).  This analogy wonderfully highlights the need for creativity on the part of Christians in working out the implications of the biblical story in all spheres of life, including the academic sphere and the development of curriculum.

            Tom Wright’s analogy further underlines the importance of the actors immersing themselves in the first four acts and in the language and culture of Shakespeare.  The development of a Christian curriculum similarly requires a careful reading of God’s special revelation, which plays a foundational role in such development. 

            While each of the actors will no doubt have to study the first four acts on their own, they will finally have to get together in order to discuss the best way in which to work out the fifth act as a group.  Christian scholarship too should be conducted within the context of a community, allowing others to critique proposed suggestions as to what a Christian curriculum should look like (Walsh & Middleton, 1984, pp.159-61).

            Tom Wright’s analogy warns about the dangers of freezing the play into one form.  Smith highlights this point, arguing that it is impossible to arrive at a final, correct version of a Christian curriculum.  The first four acts should not be seen as a code, or a blueprint, “entailing one and only one set of practices,” or leading to “a static picture of reality.”  The analogy “allows for different (yet perhaps equally faithful) performances for different audiences and in different theatres, thus making room for the fact that the same principles will have different practical outworkings in different educational contexts” (Smith, 1995, pp.22-3).

            In seeking to be faithful performers in the area of education, Christians will not always get it right.  Though God is the author of the first four acts of the play, the Christian’s understanding of it is always incomplete.  The fact of human sin further leads Christians to resist and distort the truth.  There is the further danger of the actors being steeped more in contemporary ways of thinking and seeing than in the original characteristics of the play and its author (Smith 1995 p.23). 

            But there are public criteria by which to assess the appropriateness of the fifth act in relation to the first four acts.  Some things are simply required by the earlier acts and are not open to variation, as Smith points out (1995, p.24). Even in the creative applications of the first four acts, “there will be a rightness, a fittingness, about certain actions and speeches, about certain final moves in the drama” (Wright, 1992, p.141).  Then of course with regard to curriculum there is also the fittingness with God’s revelation in nature.  And a final more general criterion of faithfulness to the Christian narrative, is a life of faithfulness, a life of responsible action (Wolterstorff, 1980). 

            The analogy finally serves to remind Christians that every attempt to develop a Christian curriculum is in the end a human construction, at least in part.  Smith therefore reminds Christians not to credit human ideas to God or to claim his authority for the fruit of human invention (p.22).  And therefore also, any attempts to work out the implications of special revelation for curriculum must be offered tentatively and must be open to correction. This calls for critical thinking and constant reevaluation of suggested offerings of Christian thinking in various disciplines.  Humility and open-mindedness on the part of Christian scholars is essential.  But there is a goal – faithfulness to the original creator of the play!

 Transformationalism, Uniqueness and Commoness

            Much of my argument thus far has been stressing the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum.  Such thinking can easily lead to an extreme position in which communication with others starting with a different worldview or with different presuppositions is deemed to be impossible.[xiii]

            This extreme position flies in the face of ordinary experience.  Christians do communicate with others despite their differing presuppositions.  Further, Christians maintain that all human beings are created in the image of God and have access to the same general revelation.  This point is often expressed theologically in terms of the notions of “natural law” or “common grace.”  Obviously, those who reject a Christian view of human nature and reality will interpret this commonness differently, but as was argued earlier, some kind of an appeal to a common reality leading to some degree of commoness in beliefs seems to be inescapable for all human knowers.

            I would suggest that here again we need to try to maintain a balance between an emphasis on the uniqueness of Christian thinking with the rather obvious fact that Christians do, to some extent, agree with those holding other worldviews.  I suggest that it is possible to affirm, at one and the same time, that one’s belief system is unique, and that it shares truths with other belief systems (Smith 1995, p.21, n47; cf. Wolterstorff, 1984, p.83).

            Here a picture might be useful (see Figure #2).[xiv]  Imagine a series of ellipses, each representing a different worldview or belief system, but all overlapping to some degree.  Each ellipse is unique, and yet there is some common ground.   The common ground represented by the area of overlap of these ellipses will be interpreted and justified in very different ways in each particular belief system.  But what this common ground allows for is a pragmatic consensus to develop in a pluralistic world after Babel.

            Here it is important to recognize that this common ground should not be seen as a neutral autonomous sphere – a error inherent in liberalism and sometimes made by Christians in discussions on faith-learning integration.  We must further be careful not to see convergence as a criterion of truth or as a sign of intellectual respectability (I Corinthians 2:15-16; Plantinga, 1984).  Interpretation of experience is inescapable and the interpretative dimension of knowledge does not have a different epistemological status than so-called “facts” with which all agree.



            An approach which tries to do justice to the need for a balance between an emphasis on the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum and an emphasis on the common ground which Christians share with those starting with different presuppositions is sometimes referred to as “transformationalism.”  The transformationalist works from within disciplines as presently constituted, seeking to transform them, where necessary, so as to come closer to a biblically inspired understanding of that discipline (Nelson, 1987; Shortt, 1991, Ch.5).  Cooling labels this a “work-with” strategy, emphasizing the importance of Christians working with other scholars with differing worldviews, while trying to achieve a creative interplay between theological reflection and scientific/cultural analysis (Cooling, 1994, ch.10; 1995, p.156).

            There is of course always the danger that in seeking to work cooperatively with those who do not share their own presuppositions, Christians will dilute or even betray their own distinctively Christian perspective to the discipline in question. Transformation of disciplines is only possible if Christians have something new to contribute (cf. II Cor. 5:17).  Hence it is imperative that Christian scholars do two things at the same time, keeping these two activities in balance:  working within their respective disciplines together with other scholars, whatever their worldviews, and immersing themselves in God’s special revelation which will help them to gain a uniquely Christian perspective to the discipline in question.

            One other danger of a stress on the uniqueness of Christian truth is that it can lead to isolationism and even to a proud distancing from those who haven’t got the full truth. This is wrong, and betrays the incarnational emphasis of the gospel, as Velten correctly stresses (1994, p.66-7).  Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so Christian academics too are called to identify with the academic world.  God calls Christians to be servants, both in the citadels and in the grimy houses of our civilization. 

            And how do Christians relate to others adhering to different worldviews and belief systems?  There needs to be dialogue in which each remains true to their own presuppositions, and seeks to understand the presuppositions of the other.  The Christian can approach the other with a genuine attitude of wanting to learn from the other.  Truth in other belief systems needs to be affirmed (cf. II Thess. 5:21).  Such affirmation can further serve to invigorate the Christian’s own understanding of truth. 

            Genuine dialogue, however, does not preclude criticism.  Unfortunately, this point very often not acknowledged in today’s postmodern climate.  Given that most disciplines today are governed by presuppositions which are at variance with Christian presuppositions, Christians will need to expose and critique these. But this must be done humbly and lovingly.  A defensive posture and confrontational critique might in fact be a betrayal of the spirit of Christ who taught us to love even one’s enemies.  Clearly I am  here introducing ethical considerations.  But epistemology must not be divorced from ethics, a point stressed by the Anabaptists and their peace emphasis.  The ethical and the personal might in fact have a priority over the epistemological (cf. Yoder, 1992).

Conclusion and Some Practical Implications

            I have tried to show that a Christian curriculum is possible.  Indeed, developing a Christian curriculum is both a necessary and urgent task if Christians are to do justice to recent developments in the theory of knowledge.  This does not entail subjectivism or relativism as there is an objectively “given” reality against which all interpretations rub.  Differing human interpretations of truth also do not preclude the overlapping of these particular interpretations.  I have also argued that the Bible has a key role to play in shaping curriculum for Christians.  But this is not meant to imply a simplistic model of how that happens.

            Christian schools are therefore justified in developing a uniquely Christian curriculum.  A religiously neutral curriculum is impossible.  Thus, within a Christian school, the entire curriculum will be coloured by Christian presuppositions, and Christian education will be seen as taking place in all subjects. This will further serve to combat the unfortunate fragmentation inherent in today’s widespread disciplinary approach to curriculum.  However, there is still a place for courses which focus particularly on gaining an understanding of Christian presuppositions and a Christian worldview.[xv]

            By extrapolation, other religious traditions are justified in designing curricula in keeping with their own religious presuppositions.  The argument of this chapter would therefore seem to point in the direction of a plurality of schools.  Of course, many other factors come into play before one can draw such a conclusion.  Clearly, state-maintained common schools would seem to be in a unique position to facilitate dialogue with various religious traditions, something that can and should take place within religious schools as well.  How common schools can do justice to the inescapable religious particularity of curricula is of course another issue.  I would suggest this as a main agenda item for future discussion about common schools and religion.[xvi] 


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[i].  I am grateful for the helpful comments that were made when first presenting a draft this chapter at the “With Heart and Mind” Conference, held in Regina, Saskatchewan, May 14-17, 1995.  My thanks also to the independent reader and to the editors of this volume for their many helpful suggestions and careful editing of earlier drafts of this chapter.

[ii].  For a response to Hirst, see Thiessen, 1985.  It should be noted that Hirst now expresses some dissatisfaction with the idea of a universal, secular rationality, thereby acknowledging at least the second Babel (1993).

[iii]. See, for example, Clark & Gaede, 1987;  Young, 1971; MacIntyre, 1988; Clouser, 1991; Middleton & Walsh, 1995.

[iv].  Hence the title of a recent book on postmodernism by Middleton and Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (1995). 

 [v].  For a defense of objective knowledge from a Christian point of view, see Helm (1987).

[vi]. Jeffrey Stout also attempts such a reconciliation with regards to ethics in Ethics After Babel (1988).

 [vii].  Various writers, including postmodernists, have identified such criteria as the ability to interpret and encompass all empirical data, consistency, breadth, simplicity, fruitfulness and pragmatic considerations (Kuhn, 1977; Walsh & Middleton, 1984, pp.36-9; Cooling, 1994, pp.79-85).

[viii].  Reformed Epistemology can be traced back to John Calvin and other leaders of the sixteenth century reformation.  Key figures in its development are Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth century, and some contemporary American philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. See Shortt (1991) for a recent account of this approach to epistemology and its educational implications.

[ix].  Velten, for example, characterizes the Bible as primarily theological in nature, and this leads him to draw the rather extreme conclusion that “there are no biblically-deduced subject-area contents” (1994, pp.60-4, 69-70). 

[x].  This is an unfortunate error that is at times made by those adhering to a Reformed Epistemology, for example, Van Til, who holds that education should be “based exclusively upon the Bible” (Quoted in Shortt, 1991, p.70).

[xi].  See for example, Wolterstorff, 1984, p.59; Heie & Wolfe, 1987, pp.vii; Nelson, 1987, p.328, ftn.#6.

[xii].        This diagram is inspired by Quine’s important essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1953, pp.20-46; see esp. Section #6).   Shortt addresses the issue of varying degrees of influence of Christian presuppositions by introducing the notion of a “hierarchy of perspectives” (1991, p. 70).

 [xiii].  For example, Stephen Perks argues that Christians and humanists “can never agree fundamentally on the interpretation of the facts of reality at any point if they are consistent with their presuppositions.  For the Christian and the humanist, therefore, there can be no common ground” (Perks, 1992, p.28 – my emphasis). 

[xiv].  I have borrowed this from a presentation made by Trevor Cooling who also argues for overlapping belief systems (1994, p.115).

[xv].  For two excellent resources on this, see Wolters (1985) and Walsh/Middleton (1984).

[xvi].  For a defense of state education based on an epistemological framework similar to the one outlined in this chapter, see Cooling (1994).  See Thiessen (1995) for a criticism of this defense, and Cooling (1995) for a response.