Students will bring differences.
They will bring many different religious beliefs and understandings of life. This will be expressed in their different worldviews or plausibility structures, that may or may not be conscious. These frameworks will affect their individual understanding of life, what gives them meaning and the coherence of their culture. It will also frame the decisions they make (Newbigin, 2014, p.100).
Smith (2014) describes a plausibility structure as ‘less of a reasoned position or articulated worldview and more a picture that holds us captive precisely because it is not conscious’. He describes it as a background to thinking, which is often largely unformulated, and to which we can frequently imagine no alternatives. It is not something reasoned to, but more something we reason from (Smith, 2014, p.94-96). It seems to be absorbed from our dominant culture and family.
Students will also bring a common exposure to cultural globalisation and hence pluralism and secularism. This may set the climate in classroom discussions and will need to be dealt with sensitively.
Secularism says knowledge must be objective and values must be treated as non-cognitive emotional responses or private subjective preferences. Knowledge, it says, is comprised of the objective truths that can be proven only by scientific method. Only that which can stand up under the critical examination of the modern scientific method can be taught as fact, or as public truth; the rest is dogma. This culture draws a distinct boundary between public and private morality in order to ensure tolerance for a wide variety of private lives. One is free to promote a personal belief, but to affirm it as fact is simply dogma (Kaizu in Newbigin, 2014, p.4–5).
While the scientific method gives us limited access to certain 'true' truths, it cannot speak to most of what matters to human life. And there is not an objective world solely discernible to unbiased, unprejudiced opinion, just as there is not a subjective world accessible only to those who prefer its patterns and opinions to others (Newbigin, 2014, p.72). This secular model leaves much of life unexplained and unexplainable. It delegates anything that cannot be proved scientifically into the personal domain where there is no common truth.
In this post-Enlightenment world, there is no voice, no perspective that carries more weight than any other, because no-one has access to certainty about anything. There is no story to make sense of the stories, no truth to make sense of the truths, no metanarrative to make sense of the narratives ... The worst face of post modernism is that nothing has metaphysical or moral weight. It is the culture of whatever, a nihilism for everyman (Garber, 2014, pp.71–73). It results in a rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy; the autonomy of man from any higher force above him; a boundless freedom with no purpose other than the satisfaction of his whims. This new world is not just the old world without God, spirits and magic. It is a world of facts without values, and values which have no basis in facts (Newbigin, 2014, p.38).
Our secular age is the product of creative new options, an entire reconfiguration of meaning (Smith, 2014, p.28). There is a shift in the location of meaning from the world into the mind. Significance no longer inheres (resides) in things, rather, meaning and significance are the property of minds who perceive meaning internally. There is no external truth or source of truth. The external world might be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are generated within the mind. Smith says the result is the modern mind that is a buffered self (Smith, 2014, p.29), who experiences doubt, longing and questioning as expressions of the cross pressures of the secular age.
In this world of exclusive self-sufficient humanism the final goal is nothing more than human flourishing.
Newbigin says relativism, which is not willing to speak about truth but only ‘what is true for me’, is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is a mark of the serious loss of nerve in our contemporary culture (Newbigin, 2014, p.22).
Keller explains that Western secularity and ‘what is true for me’ is not the absence of faith but faith in a new set of beliefs about the universe. These beliefs cannot be proven but also cannot be ignored when teaching the truths of the Bible. They have their own problems and contradictions for example:
- humanistic values are inconsistent with its belief in a materialistic only universe;
- non-belief based on a rigid and simplistic view of reason … they will not recognise that all approaches to reason involve belief (Keller, 2016, p13).
This understanding of life is in stark contrast to the Christian understanding of life that sets out a vision of cosmic history from the creation of the world to its consummation; of the nations which make up the one human family … and the one man called to be the bearer of this meaning of life to all nations.
This understanding of life is in stark contrast to the Christian understanding of life that sets out a vision of cosmic history from the creation of the world to its consummation; of the nations which make up the one human family … and the one man called to be the bearer of this meaning of life to all nations (Newbigin, 2014, p.89). The Christian understanding is based on the existence of an external truth that is communicated in the Bible, facts that exist without always being scientifically proven and values like the sanctity of life, that are not contestable. The creator God is active in His world, loves His creation, made man in His own image and has intervened in history by sending His son Jesus to live on earth and die so that mankind can have a relationship with God. It is a worldview in which what is true is true for everyone, for all time; where men and women must take responsibility for their lives; the plausibility structure explores meaning and a vision of life based on faith and hope.
We must ask how does this change the way we proclaim and teach faith? How does it impact faith formation?
In this new secularised world of new beliefs many acceptable rival stories offer a very different account of the world and a belief in God is seen as only one option among others. Polanyi explains that this leads to a danger of easily trading one set of beliefs for another. This is often triggered if a believer’s life goes terribly wrong and the tacit beliefs or underlying assumptions begin to crumble, then all the other teachings of the faith can seem unconvincing as well. When a background or tacit belief is disproven all of the foreground beliefs seem less compelling. This background or implicit belief may be part of a set of beliefs, attitudes and expectations which have been assumed rather than unpacked at the time the Christian faith was presented to the person. It is dangerous for Christians to assume what non-believers are like. We need to stay open and curious and suspend such assumptions.
When working with students who come from different faith backgrounds their personal underlying beliefs will usually be related to their home culture. In a faith-based school where the dominant school culture is based on Christian belief there may be a tendency for these students to add a layer of ‘Christian‘ belief on top of some of their existing beliefs resulting in a risk of syncretism.
Our world is also very different to that of the first Christians, but we serve the same God who asks us to remain faithful to Him, with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbour as our self.
We should remember that the world into which the first Christians took the gospel was a religiously plural world with many gods (Newbigin, 2014, p.157). In this world the early believers told the story of their encounter with Jesus and lived changed lives. Taylor suggests we need to offer the Biblical history as a story which is a counternarrative. We need to define who we are identifying in the story and what story we are a part of (Smith, 2014, pp.22–25). Our world is also very different to that of the first Christians, but we serve the same God who asks us to remain faithful to Him, with all our heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbour as our self (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27).
Garber, S. (2014). Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. IVP.
Keler, T. (2016). Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World. London UK: Hodder & Stoughton.
Newbigin, L. (2014). The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [New edition]. London: SPCK (SPCK classics).
Smith, J. K. A. (2014). How (not) to be Secular. Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
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