Christian Life and Education: The Christian Belief in God

The sacramental vision of an authentically Christian education enjoys the sense of the holy in all things, and imparts a kind of sanctity to the study of all disciplines, seeing in each an avenue to the Creator Logos … (it) is an aspect of discipleship, a component of growth in Christ.

The Christian belief in God as the Logos, which Benedict XVI affirmed in his Regensburg address, grounds the Christian view of life and education. The Holy Father posed the fundamental question that lies behind all Christian discussion about war and terror. If God is Logos/Word, it means that a norm of reason follows from what God is. Things are, because they have natures, and are intended to be the way they are, because God is what he is. He has his own inner order. If God is not Logos/Word but “Will,” as some hold Allah to be, it means that, for them, Logos places a “limit” on Allah. He cannot do everything because he cannot do both evil and good, true and false. He cannot do contradictories. Thus, if we want to “worship” Allah, it means we must be able to make what is evil good, or what is good evil. That is, we can do whatever is said to be the “will” of Allah, even if it means doing violence as if it were “reasonable.” Otherwise, we would “limit” the “power” of Allah. This is what the Holy Father meant about making violence “reasonable.” This different conception of the Godhead constitutes the essential difference between Christianity and Islam, both in their concept of worship and of science.

Christians must consider education, in the light of our faith conviction, that God is the eternal Word (Logos). If we believe that truth is the conformity of the mind with reality, we believe that a reality exists that we do not ourselves make. It is a reality that cannot be “otherwise” by our own will. It also means that God, the eternal Logos, established what is, not we ourselves. Thus, if we are to know the “truth” that makes us “free,” it means that we know that what God created, is what it is. We rejoice to know the truth that we did not create. The wonder of what is, elates us.  This conviction underlies the Christian contribution to the intellectual tradition of the West.

If Allah is pure will, then anything that is, can be the opposite of what it is, so that nothing really is what it is. It can always be otherwise.

Matters of Consequence
John Paul II, in his encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesia, asserts that Christian professors and teachers must “set the content, objectives, methods and results of their (teaching and) research within the framework of a coherent (Christian) world vision.” 1 Richard John Neuhaus states that “A Christian university will settle for nothing less than a comprehensive account of reality. Not content with the what of things, it wrestles with the why of things; not content with knowing how, it asks what for. Unlike other kinds of universities, the Christian university cannot evade the hard questions about what it all  means. Therefore, theology and philosophy are at the heart of a Christian university.” 2

Christian faith is a guide to philosophy. Not all philosophies reach the reality that is. Faith directs itself to reason, and that reason is a reality that is not invented by the human mind. We did not fabricate the mind we have that thinks. We are to use it. We invent neither it nor reality.

Surely something has to be said about the wonderful intelligibility of the universe, as assumed and verified by science, in the full context of God as primary cause. Part of the mileage theology gets from the scriptural datum, that the human images the divine, is the insight that our understanding of the universe is the exercise of a created logos mirroring the divine Logos. It is a step from this realization to Augustine’s notion that it is the graced logos in us that is capable to recognize the Logos in Jesus Christ.

Although philosophy is possible and available to every person, some philosophies cannot defend either faith or reality. This is the problem of the “voluntarism” of classical Islamist philosophy. This same philosophy exists in the West, as Pope Benedict indicated.

But why is connecting a Christian mind to learning such a matter of consequence? What makes this issue of doing the church’s educational work from the vantage point of a coherent Christian vision of the world, and from the perspective of the historical biblical revelation account of reality, so important. There are at least three good reasons.

First of all, it is a matter of consequence because the integrity of the church, and the Christian character of education, depends upon it. If it is, indeed, true, as T.S. Eliot once asserted that “we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life,” how important it is, then, for Christian people to establish programs of education that are consistent with their most fundamental beliefs and confession of faith. 3 For integrity’s sake, Christian schools, worthy of the name, must be rooted and grounded in a radically comprehensive biblical picture of the world that supplies the first principles, and constructs the frameworks by which they operate.

Secondly, it is a matter of consequence because a genuine Christian perspective of the academic enterprise supplies a cogent philosophical alternative in contrast to the fragmentation and incoherence of the educational systems in our secular culture. “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone” bemoaned the English poet/preacher, John Donne (1572-1631), in a poem describing the modern period, when a new secular science and philosophy had called the old verities into doubt. This dissolution of the spiritual and intellectual unity of the West, no doubt, lies behind George Marsden’s recent claim that, “Contemporary university culture is hallow at its core.” In his opinion, not only does it lack a spiritual center, but that it is without any real philosophical alternative of its own. 4 And, certainly, what is true for many colleges and universities, is true for many primary and secondary schools as well.

But this is exactly where a Christian worldview comes to education’s rescue. It offers a fresh set of neglected theological assumptions, based on the infinite/personal, creator/redeemer Word /Logos, that provide an epicenter to the educational enterprise, tie things back together again, and infuse the academic venture with renewed vigor, meaning, and purpose. Christian educators, instead of feeling like they must emulate secular models, must capitalize courageously and wholeheartedly on their theological heritage, creating, by these resources, schools of such quality and distinction that their non-Christian counterparts must play catch-up. 5 This kind of Christian vision supplies a sound, visionary alternative for the educational task in our disintegrating cultural context.

Thirdly, and finally, it is a matter of consequence because of the enormous potential influence of a Christian school in today’s needy world. A distinctively Christian school has a distinctively Christian impact on students, their families, the church, and our culture. In short, the overall well being of a plethora of institutions depends largely on the supply of wise persons, educated with the mind of Christ. As Wisdom 6:24 says, “In the multitude of the wise is the welfare of the world.”

Therefore, relating the historical biblical revelation of the Word/Logos is of remarkable importance for three reasons: (1) because the church’s integrity, and a school’s Christian character, depends on it; (2) because it provides a solid educational alternative over against the incoherent characters of secular academic systems; and (3) because of the enormous impact of a school, founded in Christian truth, can have.

Christian education rests on fidelity to the Word of God about creation, the fall and redemption. Christian faith, within this context, empowers and enlightens reason in all its academic pursuits, and education itself, as a rigorous enterprise, has the potential for fostering obedience to the grace and call of God within all the contexts of our relational human existence.

The Christian Worldview and Christian Education
Despite the pervasiveness of evil, biblical narratives envision the world as God’s very good creation. In fact, God, in the creation of man and woman, assigns them a shared stewardship of cultivating and keeping the creation garden. God’s creation decree entails a cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28) for humanity to establish culture and civilization. God’s commission sets forth the human project, defining the human identity as the imago Dei, and the human purpose in terms of being fruitful, and of governing the earth.

The Judeo-Christian vision of faith shares that of its Creator: “And God saw all that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Paul reiterates the same point, stating “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). All creation, for the eye of the biblical faith, is a theater for the display of God’s goodness, wisdom, and power. Such was God’s gracious gift of a very good world. Made in his image and likeness, we are called to enjoy it and care for it.

But what meaning does Christian belief in a loving and generous Creator have for Christian education? There are at least four implications for consideration.

Objectivity is the first implication. The world, that God has created and designed, embodies an inherent, objective, knowable order that is the basis and object of all scientific pursuit and academic study. In other words, on the basis of creation, Christian education, teaching, and learning consists of a search for the truth that is to be discovered, not made nor invented. Rather, reality is God-given, and we submit to it, receive it, seek to understand it in all its diversity and mystery. Hence, it is human wisdom to discover the way God had made the universe, and human life within it, and to order our lives accordingly. It would be foolishness to be ignorant of, or rebel against, the God-given order of things. The objective character of creation not only makes science possible, but it also makes it the exciting discovery of God’s truth.

“Science” is not a monolithic source of secure knowledge. There are mysteries within the world which find their reflection in science. Theories proliferate before the rational conundrums of human thought: Is the universe limited or unlimited in space and time? Are space and time continuous or discontinuous? What are the smallest building blocks of reality? Are electrons and photons waves (continuous) or particles (discontinuous)? How can probabilities be known except in relation to a certitude? How can anything be measured without an absolute standard? Yet, the absolute standard, precisely because it is absolute, transcends the realities to be measured. (If the speed of light is Einstein’s absolute, serving as the measure of all other velocities, how can it be measured? But if it cannot be measured, how can it serve as a standard of measurement for others?)

There is always the mystery of human knowing: How can the human mind know reality when reality is outside of, and different from, the human mind? How can a part be known aside from the whole which influences it? Our analyses fail to grasp the living whole in our dissecting the inanimate. Materiality and life (soul) are as much mysteries for modern science as they were for ancient Greek philosophy. We must remember that human intelligence works with abstractions, and that all our human laws are abstract. If we cannot fully understand ourselves—and we allegedly “know” ourselves from within—how can we expect to comprehend the universe, and encapsulate it, in a United Field Theory, or anything similar? Our theories are conformed to law since we cannot think haphazardly. Law implies determinism: there are no exceptions. How then is our freedom compatible with an all-encompassing law? How can we speak of God’s law except very analogously? His intelligence infinitely surpasses ours. The Infinite cannot be grasped by the finite. It is a wonder that our thought reaches reality at all. Yet, it does. It somehow approximates the reality which only the infinite God can comprehend. God alone can join in a “law” both the regularities of the universe, and the “randomness” of our freedom.

Yet, there is an analogy between our knowing and God’s, because an all-good God made the universe, revealing the mystery of his love through it. We know that for sure through the Incarnation of God’s only Son, rather than through the multifarious scientific theories, often contradictory in their premises even when called “complementary.” He is the analogy that assures us that the Infinite is not opposed to the finite, but rather supports it, making himself intelligible through it. We need non-determining intelligibility in order to respond freely to the demands of his love.

Subjectivity is the second implication. God has not created an objective world to be known; but, he has also made human subjects to know it. In psalm-like terms, we might say that metaphysics and epistemology have met; reality and knowledge have kissed each other. For by divine design, God made human beings in his image and likeness, with a multifaceted cognitive structure capable of investigating and knowing the cosmos. For this purpose, there is a compatibility between human knowers, and the things to be known. Not only are human reason, and the five senses, adequate for logical analysis and empirical knowledge, but God has also blessed us with creativity, imagination, and affectivity for knowing and delighting in the full range of creation, and its Creator. Our Christian belief in our Creator Logos grounds our confidence, not only that there is a world to be known, but also through our God-given abilities to know him, and his world.

Wholeness is the third implication. Perhaps, one of the most pernicious problems thwarting the enterprise of Christian education has been the tendency to divide into parts what God has made whole. This penchant for dualism has led dichotomizing reality as sacred or secular, persons as body or soul, knowledge as faith or reason. Our Christian conviction that the Eternal Word (Logos) has created a universe to be embraced as an integral whole, rather than as unrelated and incompatible parts, enables us to recognize God in all things, knowing him through our knowing his universe, and developing a sacramental perspective on reality.

“The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isa 6:3). All creation, and all aspects of life, are iconic in that they disclose something about their Creator Logos, “speaking” in the meaning-full creation that he has “spoken.” The sacramental vision of an authentically Christian education enjoys the sense of the holy in all things, and imparts a kind of sanctity to the study of all disciplines, seeing in each an avenue to the Creator Logos. In this sense, Christian education is an aspect of discipleship, a component of growth in Christ. Hence, the recovery of the Christian vision of wholeness is indispensable for Christian education.

The principle of wholeness applies to our understanding of God’s Word, speaking to the church today. As the whole of Scripture is greater than its parts, its meaning cannot be restricted to the human author’s explicit intention as God is the author of its totality. Hence, Scripture has to be read from within the course of its own development toward Christ and, then, with the living tradition of the Christian mystery, especially in relation to the church’s liturgy.

The same principle applies to our understanding of the church, existing at the heart of the world, like the soul in the body. Church and state are diverse institutions, yet, inseparable and mutually influencing one another. Because the church has upheld the sacral authority pervading man’s conscience, the Western notion of freedom was able to flourish. Indeed, if this freedom is alienated from its Christian roots, it threatens to wither and vanish. For the church shows the limits of secular authority, in recalling man’s spiritual transcendence and the obligation of the moral law. Although the church has a public role, it does not act directly in the democratic process as would a particular political party.

The responsible fulfillment of the cultural mandate, set forth in the original commission of Genesis 1:26-28, is the fourth implication. An authentically Christian education is based on the premise that God has a task for human beings to fulfill, one that gives expression to their God-given identity as his image and likeness: to have dominion over creation. This is a call to nothing less than the formation and development of human culture and civilization. This is a call to the generational unfolding, and historical development, of the cultural possibilities hidden in the womb of creation. And, it is to be done for God’s glory, and human happiness and fulfillment.

Christian educators have the privilege and responsibility to foster in students a love and appreciation for our human cultural task and its achievements, in encouraging its study, being its astute and constructive critics, playing a part in its preservation, promoting its transmission, and contributing to its further development, on the basis of one’s talents and interests. The cultural mandate implies both a teaching mandate, and a student mandate, for human development and fulfillment, under the sovereignty of the Creator Logos of the universe.

Our Christian commitment to the grace and call of our Creator, the Eternal Word, grounds the enterprise of Christian education in affirming the following:

  1. Objectivity: there is truth to be known.
  2. Subjectivity: there are the capacities of the human subject for knowing the truth.
  3. Wholeness: a recognition of the integrity of creation.
  4. Cultural mandate: learning about, and participation in, the divine commission to establish an authentically human culture and civilization.

Recovering the Christian Intellectual Tradition
Recognizing the contribution that the Church has made to western civilization, it is important for Christians to recover the resources available in the historical Christian intellectual tradition. We lose touch with the dynamic classical Christian tradition in education to the detriment of our schools, colleges, and universities. For centuries, the church was at the heart of the educational enterprise in the West. Her leading theologians and philosophers reflected profoundly on the foundations and meaning of the educational enterprise in the light of faith. They committed the best of their reflections to writing, forming an unofficial canon of texts that served as an amazingly rich literary resource for subsequent generations. They put their theoretical considerations into practice, establishing various kinds of schools, and creating a pattern of education and scholarship, grounding a distinctive Christian intellectual tradition of remarkable breadth, depth, and influence, that for centuries constituted the heart of Western intellectual life.

Without a working knowledge of the church’s intellectual heritage, Christian educational endeavors suffer a serious loss. As a result, we may be using methods, and pursuing goals, that are more in keeping with the current Zeitgeist than with the wisdom of our Christian heritage. It would be foolish to think that the church’s academic task today can be undertaken successfully apart from the accumulated wisdom of her past. For it is only by standing upon the shoulders of giants that we see. As Robert Wilken has affirmed: “…there can be no genuine Christian intellectual life that is not rooted in history … The Christian intellectual is inescapably bound to those persons and ideas and events that have created the Christian memory.” 6 Or as this author has asserted: “… a tradition is an orientation for a particular future.” 7

Six Major Benefits of Catholic Education
A university not only can, but ought to, be Catholic if it is to achieve its highest potentiality. I wish to call attention to six major benefits that higher education can receive from being Catholic:

1. Personalism. (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, E.C.E., Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, No. 18). Our modern utilitarian and technological society tends to reduce the individual to the status of a mere instrument, a docile servant of the state or of the firm, an efficient tool in the workforce. Education, however, is more than an acquisition of technical skills. It is cultivation of the students’ active powers. A genuinely humanist formation will help them to rise to the full level of their humanity, enabling them to find truth and meaning in their lives. As Newman contended, liberal education is its own end.

2. A Sense of Tradition. Although all religions have traditions, the Catholic Church has a special affinity with tradition. It has lived by tradition for 2,000 years, and has consistently defended the rights of tradition against those who denigrate it. It knows how to preserve the past, not as a dead museum piece, but as a living memory, enriching the present.  By its very nature, the school ought to be a locus of tradition. It passes on to new generations a fund of knowledge and skills that has been built up over time, presenting it in a form appropriate to the current situation. The goal is to enable the young to take advantage of what their elders have learned, rather than having to begin again and, so to speak, “reinvent the wheel.” Thanks to their humanistic formation, students should be able to adapt the heritage of the past to the needs of their own day and, in some respects, to make progress beyond what was previously known. Catholic institutions, instilling a lively sense of tradition, are especially qualified to form students for this task.

3. Rootedness in the Culture of the West. The Catholic Church, I would contend, is the principal bearer of the great heritage of wisdom that emerged from the confluence of biblical revelation and Greco-Roman culture. While other cultures have much to offer, none of them, I believe, has equaled Western culture in the fields of literature, philosophy, and science. However that may be, it may be safely said that most students in western society today can best find their identity in relation to this biblical and classical heritage, which has been foundational for that society, and the whole family of nations, which belong to it.

Some are asking now whether education should be multicultural. To the extent that cultures are consonant with authentic Christian values, their diversity is something to be celebrated, not suppressed. An educational institution should respect the various cultures from which the students come, and to which they are likely to return. Any given university will take account of all the major streams of culture that are vitally represented in its own student population.

Catholic universities, located in other parts of the world, such as Central Asia and the Far East, will have special responsibility to engage in dialogue with non-Western cultures. Without prejudice to other civilizations, Pope John Paul II expressed his deep respect, in particular, for the spiritual traditions of India, from which humanly sound and beneficial elements may be gleaned (Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, “On Faith and Reason,” No. 72). But in carrying out this discernment, the Christian will have to make use of the full range of wisdom that has been acquired from Christianity’s prior inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought.

4. Unity of Knowledge. It is of the very nature of a university to impart knowledge of many fields. It is good to have courses in the various arts and sciences, even though no individual student will be able to take more than a limited selection. While specializing in certain areas, students should see their fields of specialization in relation to the realms of knowledge that they have not been able to study in detail.

This fourth criterion for Catholic education, therefore, is that it be such as to impart a sense of the unity of knowledge. In the absence of this sense, one could not have a true university but, at best, a “multiversity.” In some schools, the struggle for coherence has been abandoned, with the result that the students are disoriented and perplexed. How can the claims of different specialties, they ask, be reconciled and integrated? Reason itself teaches us that there can be no ultimate contradiction between truth and truth. In the Catholic university, the search for a higher synthesis will be kept alive.

5. The Light of Faith. Christians are convinced that no synthesis of knowledge will be successful without reference to God, the supreme Truth; and to Christ, who is the divine Logos, the center of creation and human history (E.C.E., No. 16). In this season of national and international peril, it needs to be said quite simply that the future of the world will be in danger unless it turns to him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (E.C.E., No. 4). A university that neglects the word of God deprives itself of an important source of truth.

Theology, which studies all reality in the light of divine revelation, has its proper principles and methods, defining it as a distinct branch of knowledge (E.C.E., No. 29). It should, moreover, interact with the other disciplines by bringing a perspective and orientation not contained in their own methodologies (E.C.E., No. 19). In the words of Pope John Paul II: “In promoting the integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic university’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason, so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth” (E.C.E., No. 17). The university should be a place in which faith enters into conversation with reason on every level, including historical reason, scientific reason and philosophical reason.

6. A Sense of Mission.  As they are intellectually formed in the light of faith, students will become aware of moral imperatives, and the power of the Gospel, for the transformation of human society. Conscious of the gap between what is, and what ought to be, according to God’s design for the world, they will be motivated to bring ethical values and a sense of service into their lives as husbands or wives, parents or children, employers or employees, citizens or statesmen. They will work for peace and justice in the family, the neighborhood, the nation and the world. By their integrity, they will evoke trust and respect, not only for themselves, but for the tradition within which they stand. They will bring credit upon the religiously oriented education they have received.

For all the reasons I have given, I believe that every university, no matter how excellent it may be, would stand to gain if it stood fully within the Christian and Catholic tradition. Most American Catholic universities, to be sure, fall far short of realizing their promise. For the most part they are relatively small, young and poorly endowed. But with all their limitations, they are on the right path. Even now, they are capable of giving their students an excellent formation as persons, imbuing them with a keen sense of tradition, an appreciation of the biblical and classical heritage, and a capacity to see the bearing of faith upon the whole universe of knowledge, and upon every area of human conduct. If students take advantage of the specific strengths of Catholic higher education, they can be proud of their alma mater.

James V. Schall in his Ignatius Insight website article “Praying at Assisi” (October 16, 2006) clearly communicates Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the relationship of reason and religion:

Calling together in a certain place—that special place of Assisi—representatives of the various religions simply to pray together is not intended to be a juridical body or even a forum for discussion. This Pope has long recognized unreasonable religion cannot be religion. And prayer to God cannot make it so. But, he also affirms that modern scientific method cuts itself off from the deep longings and appreciation of human beings found in the great religions. Something beyond politics exists in this world. The mere fact that the religions pray together is a first step. When they pray, they are to pray as they believe. The question of the right way and of the right understanding of God and his will for us remains. It is precisely this issue, as both John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted, that was to be kept for its own consideration and resolution. No religion, including Catholicism, can avoid asking itself about these fundamental things.

  1. On Catholic Universities: Ex Corde Ecclesiae (U.S. Catholic Conference, 1990), 19.
  2. Richard Neuhaus, “The Christian University: Eleven Theses,” First Things, January 1996, pp. 20-22.
  3. T. S. Eliot, “Modern Education and the Classics,” in Essays Ancient and Modern (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932, 1936), 169.
  4. George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.
  5. George Marsden, “The Opportunity and the Need for Academic Leadership,” The Southern Baptist Educator 66 (Fourth Quarter – 2001), 4-5.
  6. Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1995), 173, 180.
  7. John Navone, S.J., Toward a Theology of Beauty (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 71, n. 15.
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avatar About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).

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  1. “The Earth is NOT flat, and the Earth is NOT the center of the Solar System. What can we do? God created it this way!!!”The myth that Christianity believed in a flat earth has been proven false many times.

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