The Christian Foundation and Purpose of Shore
It is a matter of historical fact that most of the independent schools in the UK and Australia were founded as ventures of the Christian Church, most often the Anglican Church. The Grammar School tradition reaches back into the middle ages, was strengthened in the Reformation and Counter Reformation and reinvigorated in the high Victorian era, the time when Shore was founded. Although not always consciously articulated it was a given that all such schools would have a Christian foundation. Society interpreted itself as Christian and so its institutions were presumed to be Christian as well. The Grammar schools originally produced educated people for the clergy, the legal profession and for the public service. The past twenty five years has seen a renewed energy in the founding of faith based schools. As society now moves to a post Christian view of itself the important question is asked-Why does Shore maintain its emphasis on its Christian Foundation and Purpose?
Early in the 21st century religious world views are under assault. While this is not new, it does demand that Christian people and institutions, such as Shore, be prepared to mount an argument that justifies the ongoing dependence on a Christian framework. Some schools around the world have consciously or unconsciously moved away from their Christian foundational values, seeing them as historical artefacts or anachronisms, a liability in an age of scepticism.
The criticisms usually made of religious world views in the context of schools are:
- There is no intellectual or academic credibility to faith based positions. (The School’s position is wrong-headed)
- Faith based institutions are intolerant, anti-democratic or promote social division. (The School’s position is morally /socially dangerous).
- Faith is not necessary for academic success. (The School’s position is superfluous).
In addressing these points of objection and in reiterating a commitment to the charter of the School we must avoid ‘excuse’ reasoning – “it is in our Charter and that is all there is to it.” Our commitment must be defensible and reasonable.
The intellectual argument has received widespread publicity with the publication and popular fêting of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchen’s “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” Notwithstanding the widespread academic critique (such as McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion) of both these books they are symptomatic of an underlying issue. In essence the argument against the intellectual feasibility of faith has traditionally rested on:
- Lack of testable evidence, particularly scientific evidence that “proves” the existence of God.
- Competing claims of truth between different religions.
- People of faith have done bad things (massacre to film censorship) and therefore faith must be bad
- Faith is dependent/childish and not suitable for adults.
A response to these objections may be phrased along these lines:
There are different types of evidence. The evidence of eye witnesses in a court is not the same evidence as an engineer giving expert evidence. We take many things as a given without scientific evidence: for example the existence of human rights is not “provable” scientifically but is almost universally taken for granted. Philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Popper, or eminent scientists such as Gould, would not claim that science can address all epistemological questions.
The faith traditions do vary in their claims about truth, but Christianity bases its claims in the story of the people of Israel, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how the apostles related those events to the believers they wrote to. There is an external verifiability, with the biblical documents viewed by both Christian and non-Christian historians alike as important/interesting documents for learning about Jesus. It is a mistake to assume, as is often asserted, that “intelligent people” do not have religious faith, as Newton, Descartes, Tolkien and a host of others would attest.
People of faith, and of no faith at all, have done terrible things, sometimes through deeply misplaced zeal, sometimes through ignorance and sometimes through a stubborn willingness to flout their own beliefs. This is not an issue of faith per se but of human nature. On the other hand it is a matter of historical record that many of the great advances in human society were driven by people of faith: the abolition of slavery, better working conditions, universal suffrage are just some examples.
Faith is not a childish thing, but many people never engage with faith as thinking adults. As Dorothy Sayers wrote seventy years ago, when people “find themselves comparing their adult knowledge and science and politics with the simple notions of Christianity they acquired at their mother’s knee, …..… naturally conclude that the Christian religion is only fit to be put away with the other childish things.” The fact is many people do not read or know about any of the deep thinking on faith and its application and relevance. They are unaware of the writings of great Christians or the possibility of an adult Christian view in science, art or politics. Criticism is therefore often done in a vacuum or with a lack of balance.
The “anti-democratic” criticism of faith hinges on notions of pluralism, democratic liberalism and the totemic concept of tolerance. These critics regard faith as a matter of personal, private choice and as inappropriate for shaping institutions or influencing the public debate. It is an interesting interpretation of pluralism that seeks to suppress or marginalise certain views that are held deeply by members of a range of faiths. However, the prevailing view is that faith should not influence public discourse. Most secular commentators cannot accept that faith is more than a lifestyle choice – in the same category as choosing a car or a football team. This engenders serious concerns for believers for whom faith is a matter of eternal truth and indeed may be seen as a matter of life and death.
Christianity, specifically, is one of the strands of modern democratic society. The non-conformist Christians of Parliament’s armies at the end of the English Civil War were early voices for political enfranchisement for all and took their views abroad, especially to North America. Responsible Christian voices remain determined supporters of freedom of speech, respect for divergent opinions and pluralism. There is some criticism that Christian schools promote social division, but Shore enrols students irrespective of faith background, as do most Christian schools and especially Anglican schools. Christian schools are much more likely to promote acceptance (a positive engagement as equals who have something to say to each other) rather than tolerance (a distant live and let live), seeing it as a more positive and engaged position. Acceptance is based in the biblical theology of human beings as uniquely created in the image of God and therefore of infinite worth.
At one level it is true that a school does not need to be a faith based school to achieve academic success or success in any other educational dimension. Nevertheless, the long-standing tradition in Christian thinking of human creativity in the arts, sciences, belles lettres, mathematics and so on has been and remains, an underpinning of much human, academic and artistic endeavour. Similarly, the theological view that the world is knowable and discoverable has influenced the work of many thinkers and continues to do so (see Francis Collins’ work in the human genome project). A Christian view of the learner is one that seeks to maximise potential in order to be of greatest usefulness in the service of others, which may differ from other rationales for excellence but nevertheless is one. In addition a Christian anthropology starts from the position that we are spiritual creatures, not only physical and conscious, and the most comprehensive education is one that does not divorce the spiritual from other aspects of learning.
The School’s position on faith draws upon its understanding of scripture and ultimately and most importantly what those scriptures reveal about Jesus Christ. This unique person, his life and his teaching needs to be dealt with, and done away with, if the school is to abandon its position. The Bible is a well attested collection of documents: scholarly work over generations has established the reliability of its text and origins. The Bible presents Christ as making unique claims to being God incarnate, as being the perfect bridge to restoring relationship with God, as the model of true humanity and in his death and resurrection the means of atoning for our errors and our acts of wrongdoing. This is the good news, and in the end is the basis of our view that a Christian foundation is the foundation for a healthy, dynamic, inclusive and effective School.
CS Lewis wrote “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Shore maintains its position because it views the Christian faith as of infinite importance.
Dr Timothy Wright