One of the areas of school leadership that is perhaps the most challenging to me as a Christian, is to find a way of reflecting the theological and spiritual realities of Christian teaching into a form that is accessible and real for the education of children. The same could be said for Christians working in any other field of public service.
One traditional evangelical Christian response to that would be – your work for the church, that is where the real work is, the “work of the kingdom”, but the workplace is just a passing phase, a place where you can witness to non-Christians and take the opportunities God gives you to teach them about Jesus, maybe invite them to an Alpha course, etc., etc. Those of you who know the landscape will recognise this stream of consciousness immediately. It tends to generate guilt among the timid, but it is a valid (if usually ineffective) response to ther biblical injunction to preach the gospel “in season and out of season”. However, it rests on the assumption that all humans are so sinfully condemned that they need rescuing from where they are, and that their present lived human lives have little to commend them. It can fall into the trap of regarding people as sinners before they are created beings in the image of God.
This view is less prevalent in many evangelical churches these days, often because of the impact of leaders in the UK like Steve Chalke and Tom Wright, and Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Dallas Willard and Shane Clayborn in the US, who have over the years enunciated a position of bringing the kingdom of the resurrected Jesus into every area of human endeavour, so that people are first of all to be loved as created beings and taught to live in a discipleship relationship to Jesus in the world. What follows from that may well be a more traditional telling of the good news, but it is increasingly contextualised, hospitable, open and accepting of people as people.
The other day a lady came to the school reception area and asked if we educated only Christians at Christ the Sower. Mel, on the desk, explained that we educated everyone who fell in our catchment, whatever their background. The lady enquired whether Muslims were educated here. Mel explained yes, at which the lady said that she did not want her child educated with Muslims, as she was a Christian, and left. I only heard about this conversation a couple of minutes later, otherwise I would have had a longer conversation to find out about the roots of her fears. It may have been that she had recently arrived from parts of northern Nigeria where to be a Christian in a Muslim society is a difficult thing, or from Indonesia, or from Afghanistan, or Turkey or any other place where persecution of a Christian minority is the norm. But it might just have been a prejudice. All I know is that I really would have liked to find out and help her to be more open to the many-sided aspects of God’s grace she would find in people of all backgrounds.
A way of understanding how a church school can be the nexus between the completed work of Jesus Christ and its implications for the salvation of all mankind (on the one hand) and how the affection and grace and desire of God for all his creation through being a school (on the other) is found in the excellent work of Miroslav Volf, currently professor at Yale Divinity School. Some of his most recent work is all about Human Flourishing – and his current challenge to Christians is to ensure that people of faith live in a way that “fits” the realities of their understanding of their lives, and that means that the heart of human flourishing is love – firstly love for God, then love for the communities we live in, and then and only then, love for ourselves. The book that explains all this is his Public Faith: How Followers of Christ should serve the Common Good. However, a shorter version of this argument is a Yale Divinity paper on God and Human Flourishing which is so far the best exposition I have found on how just being a Christian means that we should seek the flourishing of all human life. The Yale Center for Faith and Culture, where Volf does much of his work, has a God and Human Flourishing project, whose motive is summed up on their webpage:
For many today, God seems an enemy of human flourishing. Yet, in the Christian tradition, God is portrayed as a lover of creation — so much so that the early church father Irenaeus could say, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” While critical appraisal of malfunctions of faith are crucial, we must go beyond the critical moment to discover afresh today how and why God matters for human flourishing.
The broad argument of the paper referred to above is that both hope and love have been restricted in size since the 17th century, as the hope that people had in God and the understanding of our first love as towards God have been replaced in the Enlightenment by a more general hope in the destiny as humans or in our nation (e.g. American nationalism) and love for mankind (as in early Marx), and then, in the late 20th century, by a personal “love for self” and, in the case of hope, no expectation of hope at all. Volf argues that people are searching for personal satisfaction – this need have no moral or God-related aspect to it at all, and actually is entirely internalised and personal – satisfaction now has no “community relationship” in it. At the same time, the concept of human flourishing was degraded from humankind flourishing nunder God’s care and love, with an awareness of that, to a more generalised humanism, making “no reference to anything higher which humans should reverence or love or acknowledge”, through to what we have today which Volf describes as “experiential satisfaction” without any “reference to universal solidarity” so that:
what remained was concern for the self and the desire for the experience of satisfaction. It is not, of course, that individuals today simply seek pleasure on their own, isolated from society. It is also not that they don’t care for others. Others are very much involved. But they matter mainly in that they serve an individual’s experience of satisfaction. That applies to God as well as to human beings. Desire — the outer shell of love — has remained, but love itself, by being directed exclusively to the self, is lost.
This presents particular challenges for those who follow Jesus Christ in the predominantly secular world. Volf argues that the concept of Human Flourishing under God is rooted in the three major monotheistic traditions (expounding Ghazali’s The Alchemy of Happiness, Moses Maimonedes’ the Guide of the Perplexed and Augustine’s Confessions), but that many challenges to this view simply, by not taking account of our createdness, are unable to fit their view of human flourishing to the realities they describe. Marx failed, ultimately, because humans do not flourish in the type of society he had in mind. Those who think of experiental satisfaction alone generally do not care whether their search for satisfaction fits with their view of reality – it is the experience that counts. However, Volf argues, and I think convincingly, that accepting the createdness of people, flourishing under a creator, is the only way for humans to flourish in the way they were made, and the only way that fits reality. Using Augustine’s arguments about the nature of God, he states:
We may sum up his convictions about God, the world, human beings, and human flourishing in four brief propositions, tailored to highlight the relation of his position to that of Stoics, Nietzsche, and many of our contemporaries. First, he believed that God is not an impersonal Reason dispersed throughout the world, but a “person” who loves and can be loved in return. Second, to be human is to love; we can chose what to love but not whether to love. Third, we live well when we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with the God who loves. Fourth, we will flourish and be truly happy when we discover joy in loving the infinite God and our neighbors in God.
The implications of this – that God is love and we are created for love – then mean that our view of experiential satisfaction simply won’t do:
if we believe that God is love and that we are created for love, we will reject the notion that flourishing consists in being experientially satisfied. Instead, we will believe that we will be experientially satisfied when we truly flourish. When is it that we truly flourish? When is it that we lead our lives well, and our lives are going well? We lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by neighbors—when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history and notwithstanding our fragility and failures.
His final section is worth reproducing in full, because it argues, from Jesus’ command to love God and to love our neighbour, that it has the implications that we are seeking – how do we make this real in the world so people can see it – avoiding both the pitfalls of not loving God properly and not loving our neighbour properly.
The challenge facing Christians is ultimately very simple: Love God and neighbor rightly, so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing. And yet, the challenge is also complex and difficult. Let me highlight three aspects:
First, we need to explicate God’s relation to human flourishing with regard to many concrete issues we are facing today—from poverty to environmental degradation, from bioethical issues to international relations, from sex to governing. Without showing how Christian notions of God and human flourishing apply to concrete issues, these notions will remain vague and inert, with little impact on the way we actually live.
Second, we need to make plausible the claim that the love of God and of neighbor is the key to human flourishing. For centuries, non-believers have not just called into question God’s existence, but railed against God’s nature, against the way God relates to the world, and consequently against theistic accounts of how humans sought to live in relation to God. Sometimes it feels as if they would not have minded God existing if they could have just believed that God is good for us. And this just underscores how difficult it is to make plausible to non-believers the connection between God and human flourishing. For the notion of what is “good for us”—and not just the existence and character of God—is highly contested.
Finally, maybe the most difficult challenge for Christians is to actually believe that God is fundamental to human flourishing. And it is not sufficient for us to believe it as we might believe that there may be water on some distant planet. We must believe it as a rock-bottom conviction that shapes the way we think, preach, write, and live. Charles Taylor tells the story of hearing Mother Theresa speak about her motivation for working with the abandoned and the dying of Calcutta. She explained that she did the hard work of tending them because they were created in the image of God. Being a Catholic philosopher, Taylor thought to himself, “I could have said that, too!” And then, being an introspective person and a fine philosopher, he asked himself, “But could I have meant it?” That, I think, is today’s most fundamental challenge for theologians, priests and ministers, and Christian lay people: to really mean that the presence and activity of the God of love, who can make us love our neighbors as ourselves, is our hope and the hope of the world—that that God is the secret of our flourishing as persons, cultures, and interdependent inhabitants of a single globe.