Posts Tagged ‘Christian education’

Committed Openness and Education

April 29, 2015

Over the many years that I have been researching and writing about education, influence, and persuasion, there is one conviction that has been growing, and it has to do with the importance of open-mindedness. Now open-mindedness is not the same as empty-mindedness. Indeed, there are no empty minds. Contrary to John Locke, our minds are not blank slates at birth. And as we mature, we cannot help but have convictions. We are always committed. But there is a desperate need to combine our commitments with open-mindedness. Committed openness is an important intellectual virtue.

Some readers might object to the very idea of combining commitment and open-mindedness. Surely “committed openness” is an oxymoron, if ever there was one. I disagree. Indeed, I believe this combination describes what it means to be a healthy human being. It also describes a healthy Christian mind. I am convinced that the goal of Christian education should be the cultivation of committed openness.

One of the problems with writing books is that once they are published you can’t change what you have written. If it were possible, I would change the title of my first book, Teaching for Commitment (1993). I would choose instead the title, “Teaching for Committed Openness.” Not that I didn’t deal with the issue of critical openness in my book. But, I think it would have been better to highlight both the concept of commitment and the concept of openness in the title of my book.

The Bible calls us to be both committed and open-minded.

We all know the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Lk.10:27). There is a propositional component to Christian commitment. Commitment includes conviction. Throughout the Scriptures, men and women with strong convictions are held up as ideals (II Tim. 1:5, 4:7). Paul warns against being like infants tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching (Eph. 4:14). Instead, as Paul exhorts us repeatedly, we are to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that have been passed on to us (II Thess. 2:15; Titus 1:9).

The bible also calls us to be open-minded. After contrasting those who understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and those who don’t, Jesus says this about the latter group: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt. 13:13). And then Jesus turns to his disciples and says this by way of contrast: “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (v. 16). Paul gives us a depressing analysis of human nature – men and women suppress the truth because of their wickedness (Rom. 1:18). Elsewhere, Paul suggests that the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (II Cor. 4:4). And God invites such people to open their minds and hearts to the God who said, “Let light shine out of the darkness” (v. 6).

The Scriptures also encourage us to be critical thinkers. Watch out that no one deceives you, Jesus said, as he predicted a falling away at the end of the age (Matt. 24: 4). Don’t believe every spirit, John tells us, but test the spirits (I John 4:1). The Bereans are described as being of more noble character than the Thessalonians, we are told in Acts 17, because they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v.11). Nobility of character not only includes moral virtues but also intellectual virtues such as critical openness.

So we see both commitment and open-mindedness affirmed in the Scriptures. We therefore need to affirm both ideals. They are not contradictory. And Christian education must aim to cultivate this combination of committed openness in students.

Why is it that we today tend to think of committed openness as a contradiction in terms? I believe the roots of this error go back to the Enlightenment, with its pervasive suspicion about tradition and authority. Bruce Kimball, in his history of the ideal of liberal education shows how, since the Enlightenment, liberal education has been understood primarily in terms of liberating students from limiting traditions and narrow prejudices (1986). Implicit in this ideal of liberal education is a very negative assessment of the upbringing that children receive in the home where children are initiated into a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular set of beliefs. The purpose of a liberal education is therefore understood to involve liberating students from the narrow confines of their upbringing. Hence the emphasis on open-mindedness and critical thinking in education today. Liberal education is seen as the very opposite of teaching for commitment. Teaching for commitment is associated with indoctrination.

There are two problems with this ideal of liberal education. First, it is fundamentally wrongheaded to see parental upbringing and initiation into a particular culture and set of beliefs in such a negative way. Creating a strong primary culture for our children is one of the most valuable things we can give to our children. Healthy growth can only take place if children are given such a foundation. Secondly, this ideal of liberal education fails to do justice to the fact that liberation can only occur if children have first been initiated into a particular set of commitments and beliefs. Critical thinking is only possible if you first have something to be critical about. Doubt can only come after belief.

Liberal education, as traditionally understood, is therefore necessarily parasitic on something else, namely initiation into particular primary culture. In other words, liberal education is necessarily parasitic on teaching for commitment. Or, to use another metaphor introduced by Brenda Watson, nurture is the necessary “cradle” of (the liberating phase of) liberal education (Watson, 1987, 9). Of course, liberal education does not only consist of initiation into a particular primary culture. It doesn’t only involve teaching for commitment. There also needs to be liberation, opening up, broadening of horizons and encouragement to critically evaluate beliefs one is committed to. But such teaching for openness must be combined with teaching for commitment.

What about the worrisome charge of indoctrination? Teaching for commitment should not in itself be viewed with suspicion. I have argued that commitment is a good thing, and that initiation into a particular primary culture is an essential first component of a balanced view of liberal education. I believe the charge of indoctrination is made far too often, and that when it is applied to Christian education, it is often quite unjustified.

But, and this is a big but, we need to be careful. It is possible to take teaching for commitment too far. Teaching for commitment can be distorted into teaching for fanaticism. We can be too bold in initiating our children and our students into the particularity of a religious tradition. We can fail to give them the space to process and reject that which they are being initiated into. We can fail to expose students to anything beyond the Christian faith. And when we fail in these ways, we can legitimately be charged with indoctrination. I would suggest that indoctrination occurs when we fail to balance teaching for commitment with the liberation phase of liberal education.

Here another important question arises. What is the practical relationship between teaching for commitment and teaching for critical openness? When do we teach for commitment? When do we teach for critical openness? Does the one component simply follow the other? To some degree, yes. Teaching young children in the home consists primarily of teaching for commitment. But, even here, it is not only that. Two-year-olds, as any parent knows, ask many questions. They keep wanting to know “why?” But, given a healthy trust relationship, they accept a parent’s answers to their questions. What happens when children enter school at the age of 6 or 7 years of age? At this stage I believe the focus should still be primarily on teaching for commitment. That is why I believe in Christian schools for children from Christian homes. There needs to be continuity between the home and the school. Too much of a disconnect between the home environment and the school environment will be traumatic for children.

As children mature, there should be an increasing emphasis on broadening their horizons, and nurturing the ability to question and to think critically. But even here, there still needs to be some emphasis on teaching for commitment, and gaining a deeper understanding of the faith of their parents. The need for security, for being grounded in a particular commitment, and for having this reinforced by “plausibility structures” persists throughout a person’s life, according to Peter Berger (1969, 16, 22). At the same time, there should always be openness to critically evaluating our present commitments.

Much more could be said about the practical implications of the above analysis of the need for a balance between commitment and open-mindedness. For a more detailed consideration of these practical implications see my Teaching for Commitment (1993, Ch. 9).

By way of conclusion, let me highlight only one important implication. It is imperative that Christian teachers model this balance between commitment and critical openness. Here two sets of questions might be useful to help Christian teachers assess whether they themselves maintain this healthy balance.

Do you love God with the whole of your being, with heart, soul, strength and mind? Are you passionately committed to Jesus? Is following Jesus your ultimate concern? Is all of your thinking transformed by your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Are you committed to the Christian community that you are a part of? Do you love your neighbour as yourself? Do you regularly pray for your students?

Are you open to examining aspects of your commitment to Jesus? Do you find it easy to admit that you are wrong? Are you humble in your affirmations of truth? Are you slow to speak and quick to listen? Do you at least sometimes read magazines and books that run counter to your basic assumptions? Do you resist the temptation to unfriend your friends on Facebook who express opinions contrary to your own? Do you from time to time examine some of your fundamental presuppositions? Do you welcome others criticizing your convictions?

If you hesitated in giving a positive answer to some of these questions, then perhaps you should read this article again!

Works Cited
Berger, Peter L. 1969. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NJ: Anchor.

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

Thiessen, Elmer John. 1993. Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Watson, Brenda. 1987. Education and Belief. Oxford: Blackwell.

(This article was first published in Christian Educators Journal, Vol. 51, #1, October, 2011, pp. 23-6, and is here slightly revised. It is based on a presentation I made at the 2010 OCSTA Educator’s Convention. For an expanded version of this article, see “Teaching for Committed Openness,” in Cultivating Inquiry Across the Curriculum, ed. by Kim A. Winsor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Christian Academy, 2008, pp. 159-185. See also my chapter, “Religious Education and Committed Openness,” in Inspiring Faith: Studies in Religious Education, ed. by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing. 2007. pp. 35-46.)



February 2, 2014

To accuse someone of indoctrination is generally considered to be a serious accusation, especially in educational circles.  In fact, for most educators today, indoctrination is considered to be the very antithesis of what our schools are all about – educating in accordance with principles of rationality, freedom, and respect for individuals.

Religious instruction is particularly singled out as falling prey to the sin of indoctrination.  Not only the church, but church-related schools and colleges are often criticized because they are indoctrinate.  Christian parents are also frequently charged with indoctrination because they seek to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

How can those of us who are concerned about Christian nurture and education reply to the charge of indoctrination?  I want to suggest three possible responses.

There is first of all a problem in understanding what is meant by the term “indoctrination”.  Educational philosophers are particular concerned about clarifying the meanings of words, and much has been written about the concept of indoctrination in the last few decades.  But, as yet there is far from general agreement as to the exact meaning of “indoctrination”.  This disagreement is significant in that it indicates that the concept of indoctrination used by critics is itself vague and incoherent.

Thus, in defending oneself against the charge of indoctrination, one strategy is to ask the person making the charge to define the term “indoctrination”.  One will invariably uncover much confusion and many inconsistencies.  None of the critics of Christian education, to my knowledge, have as yet come up with a clear and defensible definition of this term.  The charge of indoctrination is therefore really vacuous.

When critics accuse Christians of indoctrinating, they are really only giving vent to their feelings of disapproval.  They are doing no more than shouting “Boo.”  Rational defense against such expressions of emotion is not only futile but unnecessary.

One of the major problems in defining indoctrination is that most, if not all proposed examples of indoctrinative teaching methods turn out to be unavoidable.  Thus another way in which to respond to the charge of indoctrination is to ask for specific examples of what are considered to be indoctrinative teaching methods.  One can then show that these very same methods also arise in what are generally considered to be acceptable educational endeavours.

For example, Christian parents are often criticized for imposing a specific religious tradition on their children.  The problem with this charge is that imposition is unavoidable in teaching children anything.  Parents, teachers, or society at large necessarily determine which traditions children are initiated into.  It is simply unfair to single out religion as uniquely susceptible to this supposed “problem.”

The final response has to do with the frequently made assumption that indoctrination is necessarily limited to doctrines or ideologies.  It is further assumed that such doctrines or ideologies are only found in religion, and that indoctrination is therefore impossible in accepted areas of knowledge such as history or science.

Against this it can be argued first of all that there are no good reasons to limit indoctrination to doctrines.  But, even if this connection is allowed, it can be shown that doctrines, however defined, are found in all areas of knowledge.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in all areas of knowledge.

Therefore another way to defend oneself against the charge of religious indoctrination is to ask the person making the charge what he/she considers to be a characteristic of doctrines.  Then show how this characteristic is also found in history or science.

For example, the late British philosopher Antony Flew described doctrines as beliefs which are “either false or not known to be true.”  However, a study of the history of science shows that there have been and still are many beliefs held by scientists which have been shown to be false.  Science also rests on basic presuppositions like the uniformity of nature or the principle of causality that are simply assumed to be true and hence are not really known to be true.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in science,  given Flew’s definition of doctrines.

There are some, in fact, who argue that indoctrination is very common in science.  Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, wrote:  “The dogmatism of science has become a new orthodoxy disseminated by the Media and a State educational system with a thoroughness and subtlety far exceeding anything of the kind achieved by the Inquisition.”

Of course many would reject Muggeridge’s put-down of science.  But it can be shown that science shares many, if not most of the supposedly negative features that lead some to call religious beliefs “doctrines”.  If therefore these “negative” features do not lead us to make the charge of indoctrination in the teaching of science, then I would suggest that we should also not use these same features to make the charge of indoctrination in the area of religious instruction.

This does not at all entail that indoctrination never occurs with respect to Christian nurture.  I do not want to dismiss entirely the charges of indoctrination made by critics against Christian education in homes and schools and colleges.  But what is needed first of all is a philosophically defensible and consistent concept of indoctrination.  Elsewhere I have argued that indoctrination should be defined as the curtailment of a person’s growth towards normal rational autonomy (Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination & Christian Nurture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).  The aim of all education, including Christian education, is to help children to grow towards intellectual maturity, and that includes helping them to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers.  There are limits to our being independent and rational, and hence my qualification of rational autonomy with the word “normal”.

There is research showing that initiating children into a primary culture is a key to helping children to grow towards normal rational autonomy.  So it is a mistake to think that parents who initiate their children into a particular Christian tradition are indoctrinating their children. As I have already argued, initiating into a particular and primary culture is inescapable.  It is only if parents or Christian schools fail, at the same time, to encourage children to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers (each qualified with “normal”) that they can legitimately be charged with indoctrination.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happens.  But I would suggest that it happens much less often than critics assume.

(This blog is a revised version of an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 16, 1982)



Educating our Desires for God’s Kingdom (Review Article)

January 6, 2013

[THIS ARTICLE is an extended review of James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), first published in the Journal of Education and Christian Belief (Vol. 14, No.1, 2010, pp.47-53), and here reprinted with permission from the publisher.]


Keywords:  worldview, worship, Christian education, pedagogy, philosophical anthropology, social imaginary, cultural formation


Christian education is centrally concerned with the teaching of a biblical worldview.  This has been the mantra of many Christian educators for several decades now.  But it has increasingly come under attack in the last while.  Strangely, some of the most forceful criticisms are coming from scholars who have their home in the Reformed tradition, the originators of Christian worldview education.[i]  James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is the latest offering in this emerging literature.  Perhaps it is even stranger that some of us who do not belong to the Reformed tradition feel called to defend Christian worldview education against this barrage of attacks.[ii]

A few years ago, I taught a course on “Worldviews and the Christian Mind” at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, a graduate theological school in Leuven, Belgium.  One of my part-time students, educated in business and now involved in sales, found my position on the Christian mind “very strange.”  Until now he had been dualist, he told me, and thus he had some difficulty appreciating my idea that “work could be a form of worship.”  He was excited about working on his major paper for the course – a Christian approach to economics and business.  After the last class he described my course as “revolutionary” for him.

David Naugle (2002), another current defender of worldview thinking, describes his first exposure to reformed theology and how his gradually deepening understanding of the Christian worldview transformed him. “From then until now, my imagination has been captivated by this biblical vision of the world.”   This vision has also shaped his mission to students, many of whom, when discovering the creation/fall/redemption scenario, “undergo a significant transformation at the root of their being and in the fruit of their lives (pp.xx-xxi).”

This has also been my experience, and so I make no apologies for defending a model of education that I have found to be inspiring and transformative, not only for myself, but also for my students. I have also found it a key to teaching and being a witness to God’s truth within the secular college/university environment where I have spent most of my career.  This does not mean that this model might not require some fine-tuning.  But I do not believe it deserves the sustained attack it receives in Desiring the Kingdom.  It would be a tragic mistake if we took up Smith’s suggestion that “we consider a (temporary) moratorium on the notion of ‘worldview’” (p.65).

Let me first provide a paragraph-summary of the book.  Smith holds as axiomatic that “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology” (p. 27).  We are not primarily thinking animals, but loving, desiring, affective, imaginative and liturgical animals (pp. 34, 37).  Smith objects to an over-emphasis on rationality and correct ideas that he feels are a part of the Reformed model of Christian worldview education (pp. 31-2).  Education is not primarily about information, according to Smith, but about the formation of our desires (p. 18).  What is needed therefore is a “pedagogy of desire,” a pedagogy “that aims below the head; it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination” (pp. 25-6).  Such a pedagogy will focus not on ideas but on formative practices which involve our bodies (p.24).  Hence, worship, and not worldviews, is the key to Christian education and the formation of students who will desire the kingdom of God.

I concur with much of Smith’s careful articulation of his philosophical anthropology in Chapters 1 & 2.  Drawing on Martin Heidegger, Smith maintains that for the most part we don’t think about a world of objects. Rather we feel our way around the world and are involved in it as traditioned actors (pp. 49-50).  We are fundamentally creatures of desire or love (p. 55).  Our desires are always directed to an ultimate vision of the good life.  This ultimate vision of the good life is better seen as a “picture” which is communicated to us most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays and novels (p. 53).  I agree that children, in particular, come to accept a vision of the good life, largely unconsciously, simply by being initiated into various practices that are an expression of this vision of the good life.  As adults, various practices serve to reinforce this vision of the good life.[iii]  Smith draws on Charles Taylor’s notion of a “social imaginary” to highlight the social nature of our affective, non-cognitive “understanding” of the world (pp. 63-71).  In Chapter 2 Smith provides a more careful analysis of how embodied practices shape our desires.  Of particular significance are “liturgies” which are “ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire” (p. 87).

In Chapter 3, Smith provides a fascinating analysis of contemporary culture “through the lens of worship” (p. 89).  The mall is seen as a representative site for the liturgy of consumerism.  Then there are the rituals and ceremonies of nationalism in our schools – each day students stand for the national anthem and/or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, thus creating in them a sense of loyalty to the nation “that threatens to trump other ultimate loyalties” (p. 104).  Smith also describes universities as “Cathedrals of Learning,” with their own rituals of baptism (Frosh week) and commissioning (graduation). Christians must be on guard against these powerful secular liturgies that shape our imagination.  Instead, we need to have our hearts shaped by Christian worship.

Chapter 5, “Practicing for the Kingdom:  An Exegesis of the Social Imaginary Embedded in Christian Worship,” is therefore described as the heart of Smith’s book (p. 131).  It is a long and interesting “first” analysis of the “essential,” “universal,” “transcultural” and “common” criteria of Christian worship (pp. 152-4).  This is of course to claim an awful lot, and I for one, could not help but wonder whether this analysis would not be more accurately described as an exegesis of worship as found in various high-church traditions.  This raises the additional question as to why the practice of worship in these historical traditions should be seen as normative.

I have a further problem with the overall agenda that underlies Smith’s 60-page analysis of the essential elements of worship.  In the chapters both preceding and following Chapter 5, Smith highlights his agenda of wanting to give priority, in Christian formation, to embodied practice over theoretical knowledge.  The church was a worshipping community before it got its doctrines in order, or articulated the elements of a Christian worldview, says Smith (p. 135).  “Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heady beliefs; Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview” (p. 216).  Instead, what Christians think and believe grows out of what Christians do.

Yes, but we must be very careful whenever we suggest that one thing comes before another, or that one thing is more important than another.  Perhaps doing and thinking are equally important.  Perhaps worship and worldview need to be combined.  Perhaps doctrines were more important to the early church than Smith allows.  Jesus spent a lot of time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines.  A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine (e.g. II Tim. 4:2-4).  In most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application.  Indeed, one of the worship services of the early church included such a long sermon that one of the members fell asleep and died from the resulting fall. After raising this unfortunate worshipper from the dead, Paul continued preaching until daylight (Act 20:7-12).

Smith would no doubt respond that he doesn’t want to rule out entirely the formative power of sermons and ideas, or a Christian worldview (see pp. 11, 63, 191, 216).   Indeed, his analysis of the essentials of worship include includes several idea-focused ingredients – reciting of the creed, reading of Scripture, and the sermon (pp.190-3, 194-7).  But even these elements function more as practices, something we do, performances that shape our imaginations, and that ultimately are “a means of grace” (pp. 190, 197, 135).  For Smith, “The practices of Christian worship function as the altar of Christian formation, the heart and soul, the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213).  Here again I wonder whether he is claiming too much.  Formal Christian worship in this narrow sense simply will not carry Smith’s agenda of fostering a genuine “desiring” of the kingdom of God.  The bible is full of warnings about the failure of worship to transform hearts (e.g. Is. 1).  History confirms this.  Various high-church traditions which have been strong on worship, have had rather mixed results in producing radical followers of Jesus Christ.  It was the Anabaptists, to cite just one alternative example, who produced passionate Christians, and they were strong critics of Catholic worship and stressed instead discipline and discipleship.  Jesus reminded us that we can go through worship routines, and still remain far from God (Mark 7:6-7).

Smith recognizes the problem and offers the beginning of an answer to this objection, promising to address this issue in more detail in a later volume (p. 208, #115).  But to suggest that Christian worship might fail because parishioners are too influenced by secular liturgies begs the question, because Smith’s claim is that Christian worship can serve as counter-formation to the powerful secular liturgies we are immersed in by virtue of our living in this world.  In the end, I believe that much of Smith’s emphasis on the efficacy of Christian worship in Christian formation hinges on a sacramental view of worship – God’s grace is dispensed via the elements of worship  (pp.135, 150, 208).   Smith’s argument will therefore carry less weight for anyone who does not share his sacramentalism.[iv]

More problems emerge when all this is specifically applied to education, particularly in a short, final chapter.  Smith sees Christian universities “as extensions of the mission of the church” (p. 220).[v]  A central objective of the book is “to re-vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project” (p.18).  It would seem that Smith’s overall thesis would entail that Christian universities should spend more time in formal worship.  Chapel services would seem to be the most important formative feature of a Christian university.  But, surely we have long seen that this is not enough, and Smith tries to disassociate himself from this implication (p.343).  And yet, given his overall emphasis on formal worship as the key to educating our desires, it would seem to follow that chapel worship should be a key to Christian education.  Indeed, at one point in the final chapter Smith comes close to admitting this when he says that “campus worship becomes an integral element of the academic project of the Christian university” (p. 225).  While I agree that campus worship is important, I believe Smith makes formal Christian worship carry too much of the agenda of Christian formation, not only in higher education, but also in relation to church life generally.

Smith might respond by suggesting that I have overlooked another aspect of his overall argument.  As we have already seen, Smith deals more generally with habits, embodied practices, or “formative practices” as playing a role in directing our desires (p. 24).  Formal worship is one kind of formative practice, but it is not the only kind.  Thus, it is significant that already in the concluding section of the chapter describing the essentials of formal Christian worship, Smith shifts his focus and describes some ancillary practices beyond Sunday worship that also serve to educate the desires (pp. 207-214).

In the final chapter dealing specifically with education, Smith focuses more on this broader notion of  “Christian practices” (p. 223).  Indeed, the penultimate section of the final chapter, entitled “Reconnecting Body and Mind:  Embodied Learning,” contains some fascinating suggestions regarding embodied learning (pp. 228-30).  For example, an advanced seminar in contemporary continental philosophy, investigating the theme of hospitality as found in the work of Levinas and Derrida, could require students to adopt intentional practices of hospitality throughout the semester.  I quite agree that such practical assignments could make a significant contribution to forming the imagination and shaping the character of students (p. 228).  Indeed, such “formative practices” might be just as effective, perhaps even more effective, than formal worship.  But again, why then the strong emphasis on Christian worship as being “the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213)?

I return to another major theme in Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith believes that the teaching of a Christian worldview is not that important for Christian education.  Yes, occasionally he is careful to qualify his position by suggesting that he doesn’t want to reject worldview talk entirely, or that he is merely opposed to a distorted form of worldview talk (pp. 11, 13, 24, 63).  But the overall impression given in the book is that there is something wrong with conceiving of Christian education in terms of teaching a Christian worldview.

This assessment is reinforced by the sheer frequency of critical comments made about the Christian worldview model of education throughout the book.  (The list of references would be long!)  Then there is the “either-or” language used by Smith.  For example, he offers his “person-as-lover” model as an “alternative” to the “person-as-thinker” model (p. 62).  Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices” (p. 220).   He describes his approach to education and the worldview approach as “two very different understandings of education” (p. 44).  Smith at one point also calls for a temporary moratorium on the notion of “worldview” (p.65).  And in the final chapter dealing specifically with education, the reader is hard pressed to find any significant role that a Christian worldview could play in Smith’s analysis of Christian education.  Smith’s overall project is seriously weakened by his near complete rejection of the notion of a Christian worldview as important for Christian education.  I further believe such a rejection is entirely unnecessary.

Smith’s analysis would be much stronger if he understood his project as one of “refining” the Reformed worldview model of education.  All the Reformed thinkers that I have read put faith and pre-theoretical commitment at the core of any worldview, as Smith himself acknowledges at one point (p. 25).  Indeed, I find Smith’s analysis of worship to be a helpful way to describe this pre-theoretical core at the heart of any worldview.  I would agree that there is a danger of Christian educators placing too much emphasis on the ideas of a Christian worldview.  But this is a danger only.  It is not an inherent weakness in the Christian worldview model of education.  Smith is simply mistaken when he maintains that, “worldview talk has misconstrued the nature and task of Christian education because the operative notion of worldview at work there has been tied to a stunted, rationalist picture of the human person” (p. 32 ).  The Reformed notion of worldview need not, and most often, has not been tied to a stunted rationalist picture of the human person.

Healthy worldview education can play a significant role in shaping the Christian imaginary and in Christian formation (see my examples in the introduction).  Smith’s attack on Christian worldview education, particularly in the last chapter, rests largely on a caricature of such education.  It is simply unfair to suggest that an emphasis on Christian perspectives in education entails resistance to Christian formation (p. 219 #6).  It is unfair to suggest that Christian worldview education domesticates the radicality of the gospel, and turns out professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do (p. 218).  In the Christian worldview courses that I have taught, my aim has always been to show how radically the gospel changes all spheres of thought and practice, and to inspire students to take up the challenge of being obedient and radical Christians in their later professions.

My criticisms thus far point to a deeper problem still.  Smith correctly maintains that ultimately pedagogy is rooted in philosophical anthropology.  He argues that “we inhabit the world not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it” (p. 47).  But, why can’t we inhabit the world as both thinking and affective creatures?  Smith does at times advocate a more holistic view of human nature (pp.39, 57), but in the end he tends to be nearly as reductionistic as the rationalists he criticizes.  I would suggest that we are both desiring and rational animals.  It is not one or the other.  A biblical anthropology combines heart and mind.  Contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience research shows that the cognitive and non-cognitive areas of our brains are much more interconnected than previously thought (cf. p. 60).  While I agree that we are fundamentally lovers and worshippers, the biblical notion of love and worship includes our entire being – loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind (Mark 12:30), and worshipping God in everything we do (Phil. 3:17).

So, what then should Christian education look like?  We need a balance between educating the desires and educating the mind.  We need a balance between teaching the ideas essential to a Christian worldview, and forming the desires that are at the heart of a Christian worldview.  We need Christian worship (a liturgical formative practice), as well as the inculcation of habits of obedience to Christ (formative practices in the broader sense).  Only such education will lead to the formation of genuinely transformed lives of students at Christian schools, colleges and universities.


Jacobsen, D. & Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Eds).  (2004).  Scholarship & Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Naugle, David K. (2002).  Worldview:  The History of a Concept.  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002) pp. xx-xxi.

Thiessen, E.J. (2007).  Refining the Conversation: Some Concerns about Contemporary Trends in Thinking about Worldviews, Christian Scholarship and Higher Education. The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible And Theology, 79(2):133-152.

Walsh, B.J. (2000).  Transformation:  Dynamic Worldview or Repressive Ideology. Journal of Education & Christian Belief , 4(2):101-114.

Wolterstorff, N. (1980). Educating for Responsible Action. Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans.



[i] Nicholas Wolterstorff  (1980) has expressed concerns about worldview education as not being concerned enough with praxis.  Brian J. Walsh (2000) addresses some reservations about the notion of a Christian worldview.  In the fall of 2004, a conference provocatively titled, “After Worldview:  Christian Higher Education in Postmodern Worlds,” was held in Michigan. The roster of presenters at this conference included a number of Reformed scholars.

[ii] See for example, my response (Thiessen 2007) to Jacobsen and Jacobsen (2004), an anthology critiquing the Reformed approach to scholarship and education.

[iii] Although Smith does on occasion mention developmental factors (e.g. p. 56), I believe more attention needs to be paid to how formative practices function differently for children and adults.

[iv]  I also wonder whether Smith’s defense of the importance of worship rests on a confusion of revelation and sacrament (cf. p. 149).

[v] Smith is mainly concerned with higher education, though he points out that many of the same issues and concerns arise in K-12 education (pp. 18n3; 217n4).


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] 


 Allen, R.T.  1993.  “Christian Thinking about Education.” Spectrum 25(1):17-24.

 Buss, Dietrich G.  1994.  “Educating Toward a Christian Worldview:  Some Historical Perspectives.”  Faculty Dialogue 21, Spring-Summer, 63-89.

Clarke, Robert A. & Gaede, S.D.  1987. “Knowing Together: Reflections on a Holistic Sociology of  Knowledge.”  In Heie & Wolfe, 1987, 55-86.

Clouser, Roy A. 1991.  The Myth of Religious Neutrality:  An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press.

Cooling, Trevor. 1994. A Christian Vision for State Education: Reflections on Theology and Education. London:  SPCK.

 —————.  1995.  “A Reply to Elmer Thiessen and Arthur Jones.”  Spectrum 27(2):153-64.

 Curtis, Edward M. 1994.  “Some Biblical Contributions to a Philosophy of Education.”  Faculty Dialogue 21:91-110.

Heie, Harold & David L. Wolfe, eds. 1987. The Reality of Christian Learning: Strategies for Faith-Discipline Integration.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Christian University Press.

Helm, Paul, ed. 1987.  Objective Knowledge:  A Christian Perspective. Leicester:  Inter-Varsity Press.

Hirst, Paul. 1974. Moral Education in a Secular Society. London:  University of London Press. 

 ————. 1993.  “Education, Knowledge and Practices.”  In Beyond Liberal Education, ed. R. Barrow & P. White, 184-99. London: Routledge.

Holmes, Arthur. 1977.  All Truth is God’s Truth. (reprint edition, 1983)  Downers Grove, Ill.:  InterVarsity Press.

 James, William. [1948]1968. Essays in Pragmatism. New York:Hafner.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962/1970.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago:  University of             Chicago Press.

 ———–.  1977.  “Objectivity, Value Judgment and Theory Choice.”  In The Essential Tension, ed. Thomas Kuhn, 320-339. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

 Leahy, Michael. 1990.  “Indoctrination, Evangelization, Catechesis and Religious Education.” British Journal of Religious Education 12(3):137-44.

MacIntyre, Alastair. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Middleton, J. Richard, & Walsh, Brian J. 1995.  Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be:  Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age.  Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press.

Nelson, Ronald R.  1987.  “Faith-Discipline Integration: Compatibilist, Reconstructionalist, and Transformationalist Strategies.”  In Heie & Wolfe, 1987, 317-339.

 Perks, Stephen C. 1992.  The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained.  Whitby, Avant Books.

 Plantinga, Alvin.  1984.  “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  Faith and Philosophy 1(3):253-271.

 Quine, W.V. 1953. From a Logical Point of View.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shortt, John. 1991.  “Reformed Epistemology and Education.”  Ph.D. thesis.  University of London Institute of Education.

Smith, David.  1995.  “Christian Thinking in Education Reconsidered.”  Spectrum 27(1): Spring, 9-24.

Stout, Jeffrey. 1988.  Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discourses.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Thiessen, Elmer John.  1985.  “A Defense of a Distinctively Christian Curriculum.”  Religious Education 80(1):37-50.

 ——————-. 1995.  “Review Article on A Christian Vision for State Education.” (by Trevor Cooling, London: SPCK, 1994) Spectrum 27(2):145-52.

Toulmin, Stephen.  1990.  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  New York: Free Press.

Velten, Dieter. 1994.  “Christian Thinking in Education.” Spectrum 26(1):59-70.

Walsh, Brian J. & Middleton J. Richard.  1984.  The Transforming Vision:  Shaping a Christian World View.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 1985.  Creation Regained:  Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Wolterstorff,  Nicholas. 1980.  Educating for Responsible Action.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

 —————-. 1984.  Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (2nd. ed.)  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Wright, N.T.  1992.  The New Testament and the People of God. London:  SPCK.

Yoder, John Howard. 1992.  “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel:   Particularity, Pluralism and Validation.”  Faith and Philosophy 9(3):285-300.

 Young, Michael F.D.,ed. 1971.  Knowledge and Control:  New Directions for the Sociology of Education.  London:  Collier-MacMillan.


[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.