Archive for September, 2011

A Liberal Case for Educational Pluralism

September 27, 2011

(This essay was published in   The Newman Rambler: Faith Culture & the Academy. Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 2007, pp.22-9.)

In this essay, I argue that a proper understanding of liberalism and liberal values entails that we should have a system of educational pluralism.  Of course, there are critics who would argue that it is impossible to make a liberal case for educational pluralism.  But, I think these critics have got it wrong.  However, I will admit that there seem to be some areas of tension between my case for educational pluralism and liberalism or liberal values, particularly surrounding the inclusion of religious schools which would of course be one kind of school in a genuine system of educational pluralism.  There are further what “seem” to be tensions between liberalism or liberal values and the kind of education that is offered in religious schools.  The second purpose of this essay is to address the question as to how we can negotiate these “seeming tensions.*  To achieve these two objectives, my method shall be to outline five positive liberal arguments for education pluralism and at the same time, to explore briefly the ensuing tension which seem to be inherent in these arguments.

1.  John Stuart Mill’s classic liberalism and the argument for intellectual freedom

In his wonderful essay, On Liberty, published in 1859, John Stuart Mill provides a brilliant defense of the liberty of thought and discussion.  Here he applies his defense of intellectual freedom to the area of education:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character,                 and diversity of opinion and mode of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education.  A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation – in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.  An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence (1978, 104-5).

Many liberal academics and educators react critically to this statement.  They don’t like it; they try to reinterpret it; they argue that the context in which Mill wrote it was somehow different from today’s context.  Indeed, times are changing, but, if nothing else, Mill’s argument for intellectual freedom is even more necessary in the contemporary world than it was in his day.

There are compelling arguments in objection to monopolies of all kinds (whether political, economic, or religious), but there is reason for particular concern about monopolies in the realm of ideas.  It is difficult to comprehend why, in liberal democracies that strongly value freedom of thought, state-maintained systems of education are considered to be appropriate.  Schooling, no matter how liberal, involves the transmission of culture.  Therefore the question of who controls the education of the young is of crucial importance.  A state-controlled system of education is inherently illiberal and undemocratic.  Coupled with the principle of compulsory education, it is an expression of the worst kind of totalitarianism.  Schooling never is, never was, and never can be value-free.

The liberal value of freedom of thought and expression entails that we need a variety of schools, reflecting a variety of ideological or religious outlooks.  It is important, however, to make one important qualification to this first argument.   While each school within a system of educational pluralism will reflect a particular ideological or religious worldview, there must also be the ideological space within each school for a critical evaluation of this worldview, exposure to differing worldviews, and the freedom of students to reject the worldview being taught within each school.  I shall return to this point.

2.  Parental rights argument

A second liberal argument for educational pluralism focuses on the issue of parental rights and responsibilities.  The family is the building block of any society.  Children belong to their parents.  Parents naturally love their children and therefore have strong incentives for looking after their best interest.  Parents are self-governing adults entitled to choose and pursue their own conception of the good life, unless it rejects some basic moral or liberal-political norms on which there is a general consensus among reasonable people in a society.  Thus, parents should have the authority and primary (though not exclusive) responsibility to educate their children in accord with their own conceptions of the good life.  This view is reflected in The Universal Declaration of  Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, which states: “Parents have the prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Article 26, Section #3).

In any given society, however, parents hold differing conceptions of the good life; accordingly, parents would choose different kinds of education for their children.  Therefore, we need a variety of schools so that parents might be able to choose an education for their children which is in accordance with their own worldview and their own values.

Not all liberals will agree with this argument.  Some liberals would argue against it on the basis of children’s rights (e.g. James Dwyer, 1998), while others may argue against it on the basis of state rights.  These arguments, however, fall prey to the either-or fallacy (that is: either parents or the state have the right to educate children; or, education should be designed either in terms of children’s rights or parents’ rights).  Fortunately, there is a middle way that affirms both parental rights and children’s rights.  Parents can and should uphold the basic rights of the child, but the state also has some rights with regard to the education of children.  While affirming the primacy of parental rights, this position must not be confused with the claim that parents have exclusive rights with regard to the education which their children receive.  Instead, there are multiple bases of authority, rights and responsibilities with regard to education; the state has some rights, teachers have some rights, and children themselves have some rights.

There are two qualifications to my argument for the primacy of parental rights which must betaken into account.  First, despite the fact that there have been some outlandish claims made with regard to children’s rights in the area of education, there is still something valid about the notion of children’s rights.  Children need to be cared for and loved; they need to be treated as persons; they should be recognized as unique; they need to be helped to grow toward maturity and independence.  Secondly, as children mature, they should have increasing input in their own education.  At a certain age, children should be permitted to refuse to go to the schools their parents would have them attend.  Within religious schools, too, students should increasingly be allowed to participate in decision-making with regard to the education that they receive.

3.  Argument from the nature of liberal education

Bruce Kimball, in his Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (1986), describes two very different ideals of liberal education.  The first, which he calls the oratorical ideal of liberal education, is unashamedly committed to passing traditions on to younger generations.  The second, which he calls the liberal-free ideal of liberal education, understands liberal education in terms of liberation; education is supposed to free students from narrow prejudices and to cultivate open-mindedness.  This second ideal has gained dominance in contemporary thought, as exemplified by Charles Bailey, who writes: “A general liberal education is characterized most centrally by its liberating aspect indicated by the word ‘liberal’ … What it liberates the person from is the limitations of the present and the particular” (1984, 20).

Certainly, children do need to have their horizons broadened and to learn to think critically about what they have been taught.  Charles Bailey and others who focus only on the liberation aspect of liberal education, however, fail to address, adequately, the question as to how we acquire that from which need to be liberated.  They further forget that initiation precedes liberation.  They also fail to acknowledge the potential value of the particulars into which we are initiated.  This brings to the fore a fundamental, though problematic, assumption underlying Bailey’s definition of liberal education as liberation from the present and the particular.  Bailey views the present and the particular as a limitation, a restriction, and an impediment from which one must be liberated.  His view, however, heads in the wrong direction.  The present and the particular, the primary culture into which a child is initiated, is a very positive and healthy thing.  Indeed, various writers (e.g. Ackerman 1980) and many researchers have shown that children need a stable and coherent primary culture.

Therefore, a new paradigm of liberal education is needed which combines the oratorical ideal of liberal education with the more common liberal-free ideal of liberal education.  This new ideal of liberal education blends initiation with liberation; teaching for commitment with teaching for critical openness.  This paradigm does not see the oratorical and liberal-free ideals as opposites, but rather as complementary.

Unfortunately, our public schools simply cannot do justice to the initiation component of liberal education.  The variety of cultures, worldviews, and religions in modern society are too great to make this feasible.  At most, public schools can teach about various religious traditions, but this is not good enough for a healthy ideal of liberal education.  Thus, a plurality of schools is needed so that a child can be sent to the school which corresponds with his or her home environment.

Some might argue that the nurturing phase of liberal education belongs in the home and that parents already have five or six years during which their children may learn particular values before they reach school age.  A counter argument suggests that there needs to be continuity between the home and the school.  The radical disconnection between the home environment and the school environment could be traumatic for children.  Children’s exposure to “an endless and changing Babel of talk and behaviour” could harm them and prevent them from developing into autonomous citizens (Ackerman 1980, 141).  A plurality of schools helps to prevent this from happening by providing continuity between the classroom and the home.

Here there is a need to add one qualification to my argument.  Religious schools must ensure that they do, in fact, recognize the liberation phase of a liberal education.  Religious schools are often unfairly charged with indoctrination.  Only when teaching for commitment fails to be balanced against teaching for openness can the charge of indoctrination be levelled.  Indoctrination only occurs when children are not given the tools to question their heritage critically, or when they are prevented from achieving normal autonomy.  Religious schools must, therefore, take care to balance initiation and liberation, teaching for commitment with teaching for critical openness.

A few practical suggestions on how to balance religious education in religious schools with other educational objectives might include the following:

i.   Religious teachers at religious schools need to be honest and authentic about their convictions and their desire to share these convictions, while enabling their students to consider these commitments freely and critically.

ii.   Religious education at religious schools should be seen as involving both initiation into a particular religion and openness to other traditions (especially as students become older).

iii.   Balanced religious education should attempt to foster cognitive growth in a rational grounding of religious convictions in atmosphere of honest grappling with criticism and doubt.

iv.   Religious education in religious schools needs to maintain an appropriate balance between the student’s psychological need for stability and the educational objective of growth beyond the secure primary culture.

v.   Religious education in religious schools needs to balance the affirmation of the existence of Absolute Truth with a commitment to humbly search for the Truth.

4.  Argument from liberal and civic virtues

Some virtues are essential to any liberal democracy:  the ability to understand others, the ability to communicate, the ability to cooperate, and the ability to cope with differences.  How do you best nurture these essential liberal and civic virtues?  It is often argued that state-maintained common schools are best able to accomplish this task by providing an environment in which children from diverse backgrounds might play together, converse with one another, learn together, and thus acquire virtues of great importance in a liberal democracy.  I should like to make the case that a system of educational pluralism is better able to cultivate civic virtues that are essential to a liberal democracy, especially the virtues of tolerance and deliberation.

As I teach ethics each year, in the context of a secular college, I ask myself: How do I provide a justification for the ethical values that I think are essential for any society?  How do I inspire my students to live according to those values?  Liberal theorists like John Rawls and Stephen Macedo would ask students and teachers within a common school to adopt a kind of epistemological neutrality, to “bracket” their ultimate commitments when liberal/democratic values are being discussed, and to limit themselves to a “public reasonableness.”  It is very difficult, however, to achieve a neutral public rationality; indeed, various writers today maintain that there simply is no such a thing.  Civic education based only on public reasonableness further requires a kind of intellectual schizophrenia from students and teachers.  It forces them to leave behind their most cherished beliefs in public discussions.

By contrast, consider what can happen at a religious school.  Here, civic values can be integrated with religious values, and so have a foundation.  Civic values can be given a particular justification within the context of a particular community that reinforces these values, both theoretically and practically.  There is a growing realization in the field of ethics that what is needed today is character formation, not just a theoretical discussion of abstract moral principles.  Virtue ethics maintains that moral character and identity can be developed only within the context of a specific community through shared practices, covenants, and symbolic meanings.  Such character formation is best developed within the context of particularist schools in a system of educational pluralism.

Amy Gutmann argues that schools should not only be concerned with cultivating an appreciation of cultural diversity, but should also teach students “how to engage together in respectful discussions in which they strive to understand, appreciate, and if possible resolve political disagreements that are partly rooted in cultural differences” (1996, 160).  How do we nurture such tolerance, a key liberal virtue, in the best way possible?  Intolerance invariably grows out of a sense of insecurity.  People who are comfortable with themselves as persons can afford to be generous with those who differ from them.  A stable and coherent primary culture is essential for children to develop the sense of identity that is in turn a prerequisite for developing tolerant and loving relationships with others.  James Banks, in a review of existing theory and research concerning ethnic behaviour in Western societies, underlines this point; “understanding and relating positively to self is a requisite to understanding and relating positively to other groups and people,” Banks argues (1985, 138).

A school that reflects a child’s cultural or religious heritage will be able to provide a safe and secure environment from which the child can gradually become aware of, and learn to tolerate, difference.  This conclusion is supported in an important study of Catholic schools by Anthony Bryk et al (1993).  Lois Sweet, in her book God in the Classroom, provides a poignant illustration of this theoretical and empirical generalization.  Esther Enkin believes that the very survival of the Jewish people depends on Jewish children getting a Jewish education and she is determined to pass on her Jewish identity to her daughter.  Enkin sends her daughter to Hebrew Day School despite knowing how important it is to teach children about living together.  “But there’s a paradox,” she says, “the more I teach her who she is, then the better she can live with others” (Sweet 1997, 112).

In giving these arguments, I am making the important assumption that each school within a system of educational pluralism will, in fact, be teaching the virtues of understanding, tolerance, cooperation, deliberation.  From a liberal point of view there are some tensions in thinking that religious schools can teach a virtue like tolerance.  For example, does not the exclusive stance taken by some religions preclude the nurturing of tolerance in students?  Is it not intolerant to label other religious beliefs as false?  Here we are up against a misunderstanding about the nature of tolerance.  Tolerance has been taken to mean tolerating, accepting, enduring, bearing, putting up with each others’ differences.  According to some liberals, liberal societies need a more thorough acceptance of differences, an acceptance that precludes criticism.  Ultimately, this attitude is itself very intolerant.  We cannot demand of a religious school that it adopt a relativistic stance with regard to its own religious commitment.  Instead, we need to admit that there are fundamental differences between members of a pluralistic society.  It is precisely because we disagree with each other that we need to be tolerant.

Tolerance has to do more with our relationship with persons than with their particular beliefs.  Different people have very different beliefs, and we simply cannot seem to overcome these differences in belief.  Tolerance is the praxis of respect for a person whose beliefs or understandings differ from your own.  Indeed, it requires that I defend your right to hold beliefs that differ from my own.  We disagree about our beliefs, but we respect each other as persons who hold these beliefs.

It might be argued that I am restricting the notion of tolerance too much.  Surely tolerance means that I respect not only persons who disagree with me, but also the beliefs that they hold.  But, what does it mean to “respect” another’s beliefs?  Although tolerance does not preclude criticizing another’s beliefs, we need to pay careful attention to the way in which we express our disagreement.  It is only disrespectful disagreement that should be labeled as intolerant.  Thus, there is no problem with religious schools teaching that other religions are false, but ridicule, satire, and misrepresentation of these religions are wrong and intolerant.

I would like to pursue one other civic virtue, that of deliberation.  In a recent essay entitled, “Discrimination and Religious Schooling” (2000), Eamonn Callan argues that education should prepare students for life in a “deliberative democracy,” in which diverse views are voiced and collectively evaluated, and in which all citizens have a part in making, applying, and revising societal norms (64).  This leads him to worry about religious schools because such schools do not lend themselves to a sufficiently open-ended discourse.  “For example, ” Callan writes, “if we want inclusive deliberation on the standing of gays and lesbians in the polity and civil society, then a deliberative arena in which all take it for granted that homosexual sex is sinful, and therefore reprehensible, does not fit the bill” (64).

I would argue that there is nothing to stop a religious school from putting alternate positions with regard to homosexuality on the table, thus practicing inclusive deliberation.  Callan fails to take into account the fact that religious groups are never completely homogeneous.  Differences of opinion will arise even within the classroom of a religious school and deliberative skills will be developed even there.  Of course, Callan will complain that even though both positions are put on the table, a religious school will still endorse only the one position, and hence it is not really inclusive.  He assumes, however, that it is possible in public schools to teach in such a way as not to endorse a position.  Even if common schools try to remain neutral, there will be an implicit, if not explicit, suggestion that there are a variety of equally valid positions with regard to sexual ethics.  To suggest this is to advocate a particular position.

Callan admits that some disagreements between reasonable people about what is good and right are simply irreconcilable (1995, 261-2).  It would seem that the issues of homosexual sex and same-sex marriage are examples of this kind of disagreement.  Callan forgets that when dealing with deep, irreconcilable differences, the aim of deliberation is not to gain agreement about the differing “convictions” about what is good and right, or to assess the reasonableness of the convictions themselves (1995, 264).  Instead, the aim of deliberation is merely to find a sufficient degree of consensus concerning how to live together in peace and harmony despite our differing convictions.

Where do we draw the boundaries, concerning what is taught about homosexuality and same-sex marriage in religious schools?  I want to suggest a few guidelines:

i.   Religious schools must be allowed to teach and advocate that which is in keeping with their religious and moral convictions concerning sexuality and marriage.

ii.   The curriculum and the teaching in religious schools should include exposure to other viewpoints with regard to homosexuality and marriage, which would vary depending on the grade level being taught.

iii.   Religious schools must distinguish between sexual behavior that they label as wrong, and the need for respect for persons, regardless of their behaviour.

iv.   Religious schools need to teach students to engage in respectful disagreement over controversial issues like sexual ethics.

5.  Unity argument

How does one foster and maintain unity within a society?  This is an agonizing question for many countries of the world today, including Canada and, more specifically, Quebec.  Fear of fragmentation underlies the brief of the Comité sur les affaires religieuses to the Quebec Minister of Education in 2004.  This brief sees the emerging model of a secular school as a more suitable response to a social context marked by the complexity and diversity of religion within society.  It maintains that programs of teaching about religion, and citizenship education are “all the more necessary since adherence to a particular group or belief system can be a source of tension in a pluralist society” (2).  Yes, adherence to a particular group or belief system can be a source of tension, but it need not be.  Indeed, in a recent article, Philip Barnes argues that religious schools have made significant contributions to unity and harmony in Northern Ireland (2005).

This might not seem to be a uniquely liberal argument, but remember that liberalism is universalist and affirms the moral unity of the species.  Remember also that classic liberalism grew out of the attempt to found a united state on a non-religious basis, due to the experience of religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Modern liberalism, too, is concerned with finding ways to overcome the deep differences that tend to separate people.  The question of unity has always been a key consideration when initiating a state-maintained system of schools that offer a liberal education.  For example, in his book The Myth of the Common School, Charles Glenn maintains that social cohesion was of more importance than purely educational concerns in the founding of American public schools.  At the heart of what Glenn calls “the common school agenda,” there was, and continues to be, “the deliberate effort to create in the entire youth of a nation common attitudes, loyalties, and values, and to do so under the central direction of the state” (Glenn 1988, 4).

In general, liberalism has tended to focus on recognizing the diversity of individuals, rather than the diversity of groups.  This has frequently led to a criticism of liberalism as being too individualistic.  I think it is fair to say that there is an increasing recognition that we need to pay more attention to group diversity.  We need to acknowledge the importance of particular group identities, whether these are ethnic or religious.  And when these particular group identities are given proper recognition, then we will achieve a healthy level of unity within a society.  The key to promoting harmony within pluralistic democracies is to acknowledge and respect the deeply held cultural and religious differences that exist within our society, not just among individuals, but also among groups.  The recognition of group identities, whether ethnic or religious, ultimately entails a system of educational pluralism, in which schools reflect the differing religious/ethnic identities that exist within a society.

A state-maintained system of common schools that attempts to bring about social cohesion via government decree is, in fact, counter-productive.  This is the central theme of Stephen Arons’ description of the culture of American schooling (1986).  After a careful analysis of a variety of conflicts and court cases over the control of orthodoxy in the American public school system, Arons concludes that “nothing is more certain to fragment a community than the public coercion of private decisions” (1986, 194).  Indeed, in repressing dissenting values, “seeds of future consensus and social cohesion,” the very goals so often used to defend state-maintained and controlled schools, are destroyed (196).

James Skillen argues that just as ecclesiastical disestablishment brought about unity, so, too, will the disestablishment of educational state-monopolies (1994, 92).  The works of Charles Glenn provide extensive documentation of the positive effects of educational pluralism for pluralistic societies (1988; 1989; 1995).  Allowing for schools that are expressions of cultural and religious traditions, while ensuring that these schools teach liberal/democratic values, will do much more to create harmony within a pluralistic society than the imposition of liberal values and multicultural programs within a school environment that is alien to students from minority cultural or religious traditions

I conclude by noting that in making a liberal case for educational pluralism I have had to address some tensions that seem to exist between liberalism or liberal values, and  religious commitment or the kind of education that occurs in religious schools. In each of my arguments I have made some important qualifications to address these tensions.  My approach is similar to that of Amy Gutmann who argues that there is a need for mutual adjustment between liberal values and the particular values held by various religions (1996, 165).  This means that when religious parents send their children to school, they need to be open to having the thinking of their children changed in the light of liberal democratic values that must be taught in all schools.  At the same time, it must be acknowledged that liberal democratic values too might need to change in the light of the beliefs and values of various conservative religions. Here I want to distance myself from what I like to call “liberal fundamentalism,” – a thick version of liberalism which is narrow and dogmatic. What is needed here is a thin version of liberalism, the only kind of liberalism which I believe is philosophically defensible.  A thin version of liberalism keeps the demand for agreement between competing values systems to a minimum.  What is absolutely essential is that we learn somehow to live together despite our deep moral differences.  I believe that a system of educational pluralism can contribute to such harmony within a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.


* Although there is some dispute about the essence of liberalism, I believe, with John Gray (1995), that there is as an identifiable strand of thought and practice which can be traced to the seventeenth century.  Common and central liberal values include the following: individualism, rationality, freedom, autonomy, tolerance, equality, stress on universal human nature, liberal education, liberal democracy, finding unity midst diversity, and the improvability of human life through the use of critical reason.

Works Cited and Selective Bibliography:

Ackermann, Bruce. 1980.  Social Justice in the Liberal State.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Arons, Stephen. 1986.  Compelling Belief:  The Culture of American Schooling.  University of Massachusetts Press.

Bailey, C. 1984.  Beyond the Present and the Particular: A Theory of Liberal Education.  London: Routledge.

Banks, J.A. 1985.  “Ethnic Revitalization Movements and Education.”  Educational Review, 37(2):131-139.

Barnes, Philip. 2005.  “Religion, Education, and Conflict in Northern Ireland.”  Journal of Belief & Values, 26(2):123-38.

Bryk, Anthony, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland. 1993.  Catholic Schools and the Common Good.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Callan, Eamonn. 1995. “Common Schools for Common Education.”  In Canadian Journal of Education, 20(3): 251-271.

_________________. 2000.  “Discrimination and Religious Schooling.”  In Citizenship in Diverse Societies, ed. Will Kymlicka & Wayne Norman, 45-67.  New York:   NY: Oxford University Press.

 Comité sur les affaires religieuses.  “Religious Education in the Schools: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Choice.”  Brief to the Minister of Education Abridged             Version.  March 2004.

Crittenden, Brian. 1988.  Parents, the State and the Right to Educate.  Melbourne University Press.

Dwyer, James G. 1998.  Religious Schools v. Children’s Rights.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Gilles, Stephen G. 1996.  “On Educating Children:  A Parentalist Manifesto.”  The University of Chicago Law Review, 63(3):937-1034.

Glenn, Charles Leslie. 1988.  The Myth of the Common School.  Amherst:  The University of Massachusetts Press.

_________________. 1989.  Choice of Schools in Six Nations.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

_________________. 1995.  Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe.  Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Gray, John. 1995.  Liberalism. 2nd. ed.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.

Gutmann, Amy, ed. 1994.  Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition.  Princeton University Press.

Gutmann, Amy. 1996.  “Challenges of Multiculturalism in Democratic Education.”  In Public Education in a Multi-cultural Society:  Policy, Theory, Critique, ed. Robert K. Fullinwider, 156-179.  Cambridge University Press.

Kimball, Bruce A. 1986.  Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Macedo, Stephen. 1990.  Liberal Values;  Citizenship, Virtue and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1978.   On Liberty.  Indianapolis:  Hackett.

Sandel, Michael, 1996.  Democracy’s Discontent:  America in Search of a Public Philosophy.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Skillen, James W. 1994.  Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Books.

Rawls, John. 1993.  Political Liberalism.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Sweet, Lois.  1997.  God in the Classroom:  The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada’s Schools.  Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart.

Thiessen, Elmer John. 1993.  Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture.  Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

_________________.  2001.  In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges.  McGill-Queen’s University Press.

United Nations.  1948.  Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Chance and Divine Providence

September 5, 2011

“They’re funny things,  Accidents.  You never have them till you’re having them.”

Those who are familiar with Winnie the Pooh might recognize and appreciate the profundity of the above statement made by Eeyore, the melancholy philosopher.  We don’t like to believe there are such things as accidents and it is only after we have had an accident that we somewhat reluctantly are forced to acknowledge their reality.

It would seem that we as Christians have even more difficulty than others in facing up to the reality of accidents.  After all, we believe in divine providence.  Nothing happens by chance.  “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28).

The difficulty with this is that so much of life seems to be governed by chance.  We experience accidents.  Some people die of cancer, others don’t.  Some parents have children who are born healthy, while others must experience the pain and heartache of abnormalities.  Hail hits one farmer’s field, but misses the field right beside it.

This same problem is described so well in the poetry of Ecclesiastes.  “The race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong.”  The wise and learned aren’t always recognized and rewarded as they deserve.  “But, time and chance happen to them all.”  Some men get “trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.”  And all of us have to face the uncertainty of life.  “No man knows when his hour will come” (9:11-12).

The writer of Ecclesiastes, however, clearly indicates that there is another perspective from which we must view the seemingly accidental events of life.  Ultimately, what we do is in God’s hands (9:1).  It is God who has made both the times that are good and the times that are bad (7:14).

Christians believe in divine providence.  I want to suggest, however, that it is important for us somehow to do justice to the earthly dimension of our daily experience.  Here we find that much of life seems to be a matter of time and chance, even for the Christian.  We do have accidents.  Even if we believe in God, there still seems to be a chance component to life and we need to face up to this aspect of our experience.

The book of Ecclesiastes is instructive in that it interprets the events of our lives from both points of view.  From a human perspective, an accident is a matter of time and chance.  But there is another perspective – our times are in God’s hands.  Thus, in the passages referred to earlier, we find the writer of Ecclesiastes moving easily from talk about God to talk about chance, and even about accepting our lot in life (Ecc. 5:19).

He also explains why it is that life seems to be a matter of time and chance from a human perspective.  As finite human beings we cannot understand “the scheme of things” (7:24-28).  We are never in a position to see the total pattern of our lives.  It is because we see through a glass darkly that accidents seem to be the result of chance.  Really they aren’t, but they still appear to be so from our finite vantage point.

An honest recognition of the fact that much of life seems to be a matter of time and chance not only has scriptural warrant, but it is also the key to avoiding some very practical dangers.  The chief danger is that of pride.  We are constantly tempted to think that we are in complete control of our lives, that we no longer need to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are not as secure as we think; that much of our life is beyond our control; that we are completely dependent on our Father in heaven.  The best antidote to pride is a mind-set that acknowledges the chance component to life.

This mind-set will further help us to cope with the tragedies of life.  Accidents are difficult to take, especially for those Christians who tend to focus more on God’s love and care, and who thus demand that each event of their life must make sense and fit into a pattern.  The problem is that we cannot see the total pattern, and to pretend that we do will only lead to frustration and despair.  The best preparation for accidents is to be in a frame of mind where we acknowledge the possibility of the unexpected.

A balanced emphasis on both divine providence and chance will finally help those of us who tend to be a little too cautious in life.  If life is not entirely predictable, we are encouraged to venture forth in our tasks boldly.  Just as a farmer sows his seed in spring, even though he is not guaranteed a crop, so we too must act in faith and risk things for God (Ecc. 11:6).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 7, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)