The term “Christian anthropology” I believe comes from Trevor Cooling, and it is a great help to my thinking about how we lead a school, particularly a church school, or in fact any school where there is a concern for children that goes beyond just the numbers game – so therefore, I think, all schools.
Two conversations and two books have informed this piece, and it may not be finished in a single sitting, as there is much to explore, and to comment on. The fundamental conversation was in a review some years ago (2011 I think) of Amy Chua’s book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. In the piece, an older Chinese parent commented on the fact that in the west, children are perceived as sources of weakness which therefore needed protection, strong motherly care, listening to, nurturing; whereas in the east it was more the case (not exclusively) that children were regarded as sources of strength and family wealth and therefore high expectations could be loaded on them fearlessly, and that they could be expected to be strong enough to be asked to do several hours of violin practice (for instance) knowing that the parent knew that this was for their own good and one day their children would thank them.
The second conversation, a reflection of the first, is happening right now at Christ the Sower, as it is in many schools, and it is between those teachers who think that setting high expectations for all and expecting compliance is the best way to tackle issues of children’s conduct and completion of learning, and those who pay close attention to the individual needs of children, taking care to reduce anxiety, supporting them over barriers to learning, working with the parents etc., so as to maximise the children’s chances of learning and feeling safe and comfortable. The former might be seen as more outcome-centred (perhaps!), whilst the second is more child-centred (again, perhaps!).
Both of these conversations are of course mirrored further in the national conversation over testing – high expectations with testing regularly to check on progress on the one hand, and the more “child-centred/let kids be kids” approach on the other.
Like any cultural approach to a problem in society, neither of these approaches would have lasted as long as they both have, unless both were right, or nearly so. If one were wholly useless, we would have abandoned one in favour of the other permanently, and have the numbers to prove it. Neither side of the conversation has proved the point beyond all doubt, and therefore both have use. They are lenses through which we see children in schools, and we must be aware that these shifts in perspective have big political, financial and societal implications. There is an unfortunate parallel in the western political world between the Hayek/Friedman free market approach (perhaps philosophically more similar to the “children as sources of strength” argument) and the social democratic/Keynesian ideal (where the needs of the learner are of more concern than the measured successful outcome).
I would argue that we have started in the wrong place, and seen children through our own cultural lenses, recent history and societal prejudices rather than seeing them in a Christian anthropology, using the Christian doctrines of creation, the fall, and redemption.
In this anthropology, all children are created in the image of God, to bear His image and (eventually) to re-bear that image fully once more. Children thus have their creator God’s creative instincts and abilities, His sources of strength, His abilities to be compassionate, wise, holy, loving, joyful, at peace, kind, patient, self-controlled, faithful and loyal – everything we need, in short, to build successful and kind societies that help one another flourish. The purpose of God’s creation in humanity, in children, is effusive and delightful, seen by Adam in the garden of Eden, wholly at peace with the natural world, creative and strong, open and worshipful. Further, they are unique, and uniquely loved, specifically loved and specifically called to a purpose by the God whose image they bear, whether they acknowledge his lordship or not.
Secondly, children are placed in families, the great extended networks of close relatives that give security, love, opportunity, direction, guidance and (most importantly) a chance to fail and start again. It also gives them a place to receive and give love that has no purpose except the expression of unguarded affection for another. In Ps68 God says that he sets the lonely in families and the deepest bonds we create as a society are as nought compared with those that grow and are set between family members, purposed by God in his creation narrative and throughout history for our good. This too is part of a biblical anthropology – that people are created by God, to bear His image, in communities and families. At no point are they expected to be “rugged individuals” exercising the image of God on their own. The fact that the first biblical family came to be a family fully after exclusion from Eden reinforces the importance of God’s purpose in them as a protector and sustainer of our societies. Those societies, such as early Sparta or Soviet society in the 1920s and 1930s, that rejected marriage and the family as a building block of the society it wanted to build, replacing it with the state, failed utterly at a deep psychological level as societies and in their impact on individual humans.
Further, children are endowed with the ability to make life choices and to choose to honour or to dishonour the image of God that is within them. When they dishonour that image, it always affects others in their community, family or school. This is sin. It is sin because it breaks the harmony and shalom that God purposed to be exercised by them for one another within family, community, school. I sense we do few favours either to children or to adults by insisting that something is right just because God says it is, nor the converse that God says something is wrong, so it is. Sin is measured by impact on relationships, on love, on self-regard or on society’s flourishing. A boss in a factory that in his management depreciates the value that each worker feels for themselves and one another is sinning against them to the extent that he offends against the image of God in them. The fact that they then go out and get drunk and hit their partner as a result is also a sin, because they damage the image of God within themselves and those they love. This way of looking at sin – the damage we do to the created and holy image of God in ourselves and in others through our actions and words, is a helpful link between the traditional right-wing view of sin as being all about personal conduct, and the left-wing view that sees it as structural and being a function of a mismanaged society. Both impact the image of God in those affected as victims of sin.
This is also important because it leads directly to a further Christian anthropological view of the image-bearing human as capable of offering and receiving forgiveness. This is a critical issue, and as Miroslav Volf has shown in Exclusion and Embrace, (particularly Chapter 4), it is deeply counter-cultural and leads us directly to the issue of having to deal with God’s grace. Until we see that God’s grace is available for the healing and restoration of children who have broken relationships by their chosen actions, we have not come close to the heart of a Christian anthropology. Teaching children to take responsibility for their actions, asking forgiveness and then experiencing the freedom that comes with that unrestrained forgiveness from another and from God – this must be part of the way that we bring children up, and to the extent that we do not, we endow them with a limp and a skew in their walk that may not show in their bodies (it may actually!) but is a characteristic of a spirit that walks in unforgiveness.
I mentioned two books. The first is the wonderful short story by Karen Blixen called Babette’s Feast, which it has been a thrill to read this week, along with some other, equally curious stories. If you know the story, or have seen the wonderful film of the same name, you will know this speech – otherwise it is a bit hard to explain. Essentially, the General in this story has many years ago fallen in love with and then left one of two conservative Lutheran Norwegian sisters whose home is the setting for a feast (in honour of the sisters’ dead father) prepared by Babette, the cook of the two sisters. The general has returned after 30 years absence, and is the only person present who has tasted (at the Cafe Anglais in Paris) the food prepared in a former life by Babette, and presented for him again. During the meal he has a revelation of sorts, culminating in this speech:
“Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble . . . ” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same tirne, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
It seems to me that here we have an insight into the expansiveness of grace – what Brennan Manning called “the furious longing of God” – that reaches everyone at every stage of their lives. Somehow this too is part of a Christian anthropology, and we must find a home for this in our thinking. We live in a world with walls, and find it hard to see that Jesus lives in a world where walls provide no barrier.
I want to publish this now, before it gets too long. The second book – Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance (2005) – will just have to wait a bit.