Posted by: aboutalbion | November 27, 2012

Christianity: a schools report

Yesterday, a university research project reported that the teaching of Christianity in schools in England “lacks intellectual development” and can be “incoherent”.  This report arises because there is a legal requirement that English schools should reflect the fact that Christianity is the country’s main religious tradition.

This post reflects my doubts that Christianity can be taught coherently.

If you start with the premise that the teaching of Christianity means teaching the Bible, then my questions relate to the contents of the Bible.

Here, we find that the Bible contains at least 46 books in Part 1 and 27 books in Part 2.  To my mind, it is unreasonable to expect a library of over seventy books (written by a large number of different authors across several centuries and in different cultures) to cohere with each other – first of all, when the texts were brought together for the first edition, and then two millennia later when translated into English.  I would not expect 70 or more adults gathered in one place to have identical coherent opinions about how human beings should live their lives, and neither should readers of the Bible.

Alternatively, if you start with the premise that the teaching of Christianity means teaching the history of the church as it has read the Bible, then my questions relate to the history of the church.

Here, we find the church acting as a religious services provider offering a range of activities based on selected readings from the Bible.  Historically, there is ample evidence that the church has reformatted itself over the centuries in order to continue to provide services which it believes its members need.  In my post on 7 May, I referred to Keith Ward’s recent account (in six stages) of this historical development.  (1) The transformation during the first three centuries from a Jewish sect into a Gentile imperial cult.  (2) The fourth to eighth century development (using categories drawn from Greek philosophy) to arrive at definitions of the ‘incarnation’ and the ‘trinity’.  (3) The twelfth to fourteenth century development in the western Roman Catholic church of teaching about the ‘atonement’, ‘purgatory’, and ‘papal supremacy’.  (4) The sixteenth century protest by reformers in the northern part of western Europe against submission to an authoritarian dogmatic church and in favour of the development of personal trust in God.  (5) The reception by the church during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the validity of the scientific method and the acceptance (and importance) of the critical historical examination of the texts of the Bible.  (6) The twentieth century acceptance of the validity of other world faiths (alongside Christianity) in a global context.  Ward’s account is just one of the many ways of dicing and slicing the history of the church.  It is an account of different stances taken by the church in different centuries in order to extend and maintain its power.  It is inappropriate to expect intellectual development and coherence on the part of the church as well.

Whichever approach to the teaching of Christianity is followed, the probing question has to be asked.  “How can it be that the human blood sacrifice of a single Jew is the hinge and pivot of cosmic history?”  The lack of any consensus about an answer to this question is, to my mind, revealing.  For me, it begins to explain why the teaching of Christianity is more often than not described in school inspection reports as weak.

That said, I acknowledge that reference to Christianity is an essential background component to an understanding of English culture and literature.

[Ward, Keith (2007) Re-Thinking Christianity.  Oxford: Oneworld.]

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