CHRISTIAN FORMATION IN A PLURALIST ENVIRONMENT LOOKING AT A PICTURE BOOK
Abstract: Christian formation in a pluralist environment looking at a picture book. Our pluralist environment seeks to safeguard social cohesion - among other things - through a limitation of knowledge about what is recognized as “objective reality” to the paradigm of science. In such an environment, the project of raising children in a faith that proclaims such reality as Divinely created is counter cultural. In the past, traditional techniques of educational disciplining and instructing had facilitated that project; such techniques have become inacceptable, even to some extent illegal. Parents and teachers must look for alternative educational guidance from the resources offered by Holy Tradition.
This essay addresses one such resource. It explores the support which the teaching about Christ as “the Word”, can offer for an Orthodox design of picture books for children. As a recent publication on the biblical “creation story” illustrates, a properly oriented “reading” of properly designed images can involve both educators and children in a spiritual journey that follows the salvation economical “way” of the “Divine Word”. Here top-down formation is supplemented by an invitation into a shared journey. Such an approach, so this essay submits, can immunize, children against the misguided claims of an ideologized science they will encounter as adolescents.
This essay addresses pluralism not as descriptive, but as an axiological concept: It examines the endorsement of moral, religious, ideological, and life-style diversity marking secularized Western societies. As a child of the Enlightenment such pluralism reflects a ‘scientist’ rationalism: in discounting transcendence, such rationalism takes diversity to be inescapable. Even more, the pluralism discussed here issues from a liberalism that affirms individual freedom in terms of political entitlements. These entitlements are no longer limited to protection (against human interference); they also envisage the enhancement of freedom (through removal of other impediments) to its successful use (1). Thus embedded in both science and political governance, pluralism informs the ethos of the European Union today. While the plurality it affirms has causes in the past, axiological pluralism envisages the future. It is this future-orientation, through which pluralism displaces the eschatological horizon framing traditional Christian education.
Our reflections on such education within such a hostile environment attends to (I) the reasons for that hostility, (II) resulting impediments, (III) a remaining option for young children, and (IV) with opportunities for supporting older children in their struggle against that environment.
I. Pluralism’s hostility against Orthodox Christian education
Pluralism opposes (a) the encouragement of Christian asceticism, (b) the endorsement of noetic knowledge, and (c) the exercise of discernment.
a) Cultural diversity and variety in personal self-expression are of course appreciated not only in the contemporary West. It is also welcomed in Orthodox Christianity: here diversity and variety are acknowledged as integral to a life of the Church that reflects the richness of God’s creative love (2). Contemporary pluralism, in contrast, affirms such diversity and variety only in view of the implied opportunities for individual self-realization (3). It affirms the Enlightenment’s quest for emancipation and autonomy. Such pluralism reflects a liberal culture.
Classical liberalism seeks to defend freedom on a “macro” level. It has opposed the clerical hierarchies in the West. Because these had lost touch with the one holy Catholic and Apostolic witness to God’s creative love, such hierarchies were experienced as monolithic and confining. Globalization, of course, has rendered that witness in the Orthodox Church more visible. Yet her teaching about the Divine human vocation to freedom is no longer understood in the liberal mainstream. Here freedom got associated instead with the exercise of human reason. The reliability of that capacity, after all, had long been affirmed by the scholastic theology proclaimed by those Western hierarchies. As a supplement to the Divine revelation for believers, moral reason was to offer normative guidance even to (able and well-disposed) rational unbelievers. Eventually however, the implied “right faith”-proviso undergirding Medieval Western rationalism got denounced as irrational bias. With the Enlightenment, a new, independent human reason attained authority. Mankind’s Divine calling for freedom was replaced by an inherent human vocation: As rational beings, so Immanuel Kant concluded, humans realize that vocation by submission to the demands of some supposedly (and paradoxically) “native” moral rationality. Two centuries of continued secularization later, faith in the ability of such native rationality to secure universal assent has waned. Today, postmodernity affirms both “freedom” and “human fulfillment” in terms of individual choice. The quest for human perfection has now comes as quest for authenticity.
Such ultimately arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of “freedom” is of course just what traditional Christians diagnose as enslavement to the passions. In focusing on the immanent and the finite, liberalism takes the affirmation of one’s passions to promote such authenticity in terms of personal identity and integrity. Once the freedom-destructive impact of those passions is no longer recognized, the life of the Church becomes incomprehensible. In particular, cultural resources are lost for making sense of ascetic therapies. It becomes inconceivable how and why a Christian education should help children restore their fallen nature to the very different, i.e., deifying freedom they are called to. In limiting human fulfillment to the conditions imposed by that fallen nature, the liberalism at the root of pluralism disparages those therapies as suppressive and alienating. It accuses Christian education of “black pedagogy”.
b) The post-modern plurality of worldviews (welcomed by in the interest of multiplied options for individual self-realization) comes with the risk of social dissent. No universally acknowledged criteria are available for resolving such dissent. Worldviews, along with religions and lifestyles, are therefore classified as merely subjective (even if often culturally conditioned). They are distinguished from the objective knowledge associated with the empirical sciences exclusively (4). Validity claims thus get limited to some confessed “perspective”. Unlike “facts” visions of human flourishing are relegated to the sphere of (collective or private) fiction. A properly science - (and Enlightenment) proof advocacy of such visions must acknowledge their inescapable plurality and (ultimate) contingency. Their proclaimed truth must be culturally or personally relativized.
Such inescapability itself, of course, is not a scientific fact. It has no empirical basis beyond the existing plurality of worldviews. The possibility of an eventual resolution of their disagreements (say, through a Final Judgment) can surely be dismissed as (secularly) unreasonable. But from a strictly rational standpoint, there is no basis on which (at least as a matter of principle) such a resolution can be excluded. The claimed contingency of all worldviews thus reflects a decision to recognize as truly knowable only what appears to the senses. The contingent character of that decision itself is highlighted by Christianity’s traditional endorsement of a further type of empirical knowledge: Such knowledge addresses not facts about interpersonally sharable data of sense experience. It addresses a Divine Self-revelation to His chosen saints, meant to be passed on (and proclaimed as uniquely valid) to the whole world. Such passingon, as recorded in holy Tradition, can enable recipients to develop their own receptivity to such Divine Self-revelation, and to become Tradition-bearers themselves. The difficulties involved in accessing such experience should not reduce its plausibility: scientists too, after all, need years of training before they can check any offered evidence (5).
Science itself, of course, as source of insight into the world of material things Adam was to rule, and as a resource of technology for alleviating the burdens imposed by that world as fallen, has always been appreciated by the Church. But the Enlightenment’s wholesale disparagement of Divine Self-revelation has overlaid the pursuit of science with yet another worldview: scientism (6). This worldview disparages Christian education and its focus on facilitating access to noetic knowledge as altogether misguided (7).
The previous section revealed the endorsement of autonomous individual self-realization as the circumstance that renders pluralism’s welcome of cultural and personal diversity an impediment to Christian education. Likewise, so this section reveals the contemporary obsession with “scientific objectivity” and the scientist faith in the ultimate undecidability of normative disagreements (marking the plurality welcomed by pluralism) as a similar impediment.
c) Classical liberalism conceives of its commitment to individual freedom in terms of protection against private and public interference. The social liberalism marking pluralism in continental Europe today affirms that commitment as a call to efforts at enhancement. It conceives of freedom in terms of resources for its successful exercise. Here, not only lacking resources, but even their unequal distribution is taken to limit the freedom of those suffering from competitive disadvantage. Such comparative handicap must be remedied through redistribution of material goods and abolishment of legal privileges. The material and social sacrifices imposed on those comparatively better positioned are justified in view of a purely this-worldly “native human dignity”: Such dignity is taken to entitle to “respect” in view of basic rights and opportunities accorded its bearers. It obligates society (as politically constituted, or as state) to satisfy those basic needs, the non-fulfillment of which would compromise members” ability to exercise their rights.
Prominent among such basic needs is the psychological craving for social recognition and inclusion. Its satisfaction is threatened not only by material and status inequality. It is compromised also by moral, aesthetic, and religious disapproval. This is why the requirement of subjectivist bracketing of moral and religious truth-claims, which scientism stipulates as rationally inescapable, is politically taken to be socially indispensable: Advocates of diverse worldviews (and followers of their corresponding lifestyles) must present their views as subjectively chosen and contingent on such choice. Only if they do so even in their assorted foris internis, can their temptation of judging, and excluding, advocates of alternative views be at least attenuated. Only if the celebrated plurality of worldviews and lifestyles is downplayed to a plurality of tastes, will “inappropriate” missionary zeal appear pointless. Particular group solidarities will then no longer attenuate the universal social solidarity required to support the liberal policies of equalizing redistribution. Competition in communal struggles for public recognition and representation will no longer nurture mutual resentment and hostility.
It is the implied concern for safeguarding social peace in a pluralist environment, which exposes Christian education in a non- subjectivized, traditional sense of the term to political pressure. Somewhat like the diversity-spanning emperor worship imposed on the religiously diversified environment of the early Church, so today, the diversity spanning emulation of a purely secular human dignity imposes on all believers the burnt-offering of indiscriminate social recognition and inclusion. This requirement leaves no space the Truth Who is Christ, for Divinely ordained “rights and wrongs”, and for struggle against the temptations offered by a culture obsessed with mankind’s fallen passions. In encouraging future citizens to withhold their required (welcoming acceptance-) contribution to what their fellows are held to (need, and therefore to) be entitled to, such education is perceived as socially inacceptable.
II. Impediments resulting from such hostility
As already mentioned, Traditional Christianity also recognizes freedom as core to human fulfillment. Thus St. Theophan takes the Christian life to begin with a person’s free adoption of what his education had imposed8. Yet while liberalism configures freedom as “native,” and as the object of “rights”, Orthodoxy recognizes its character as a Divine “advance offer,” with continued access depending on its proper use. While liberalism envisages human flourishing in terms of arbitrary individual choice, the Church aligns such flourishing with man’s Divine design.
Both liberalism and the Church recognize the need for education. But liberalism focuses mainly on development of latent potential, and on emancipation-oriented support for increasing independence. The Church, bent on correcting the effects of humans’ fallen nature, emphasizes obedience to rightly oriented authority. In order to enable children freely to adopt the life of faith, they have been taught, Orthodox education places comparatively greater emphasis on parental intervention and correction.
According to two major Patristic teachers, i.e. St. John Chrysostom and St. Theophan, such intervention focuses on
- the educators themselves, their attitude to the child as entrusted to their care by God, and their role as models of Christian faithfulness (St. Theophan, op.cit. p. 44 ff),
- immersing the child in the fullness of the life of the Church, i.e. in an environment with very specific scents, images, music, rituals, encounters, biblical stories and Holy Communion, quite regardless of his ability to grasp the meaning of what he experiences (St. Theophan, p. 42ff, 53
- obedience and mastery of self-will (9),
- resilience in view of physical and psychological hardship (St. Theophan, pp. 48f, 51, St. John Chrysostom, op.cit., ## 68ff),
- virtue, as modelled on the righteous and holy people portrayed in Holy Tradition and encountered among living saints (St. John Chrysostom, ##’ 18, 39, 43ff),
- protection against any external influences which affirm those very passions the child must learn to subdue (St. John Chrysostom, op.cit. ## 22, 28, 37 ff, 56ff).
In a pluralist environment, as described above, surely, nothing can in principle hinder parents from conforming to the first two requirements. Especially the second, i.e. immersion in the fullness of Orthodox life, can teach children to love what their loved ones love, and to do so willingly, long before they realizef good reasons. Here a habit of implicit trust is established in following parental guidance and in harmonizing one’s very ways of feeling, perceiving, and acting with the beauty marking life in the Church. Here the core condition for receptivity to noetic experience is secured.
To be sure, both requirements (and in fact, all of them) take time; they require a setting of undisturbed leisure. Such a setting is hard to maintain in an environment which dis-emphasizes parental care. The social liberalism affirmed in the European Union recognizes extensive claim rights to a social support. The satisfaction of such rights is costly. It depends on parental integration into the tax-producing work-force. This is why such a culture proclaims the gospel of “work-life balance.” Its insurance- and pension-policies make it hard (and risky) for families to rely on a single income (or even on two half-incomes). The endorsement of female emancipation through a narrowly “career-” oriented self-realization signals the liberal disregard for maternal care. It signals the supposed need for reliance on the pedagogic professionalism available in public institutions already for infants.
Surely, families can resist that mainstream by accepting the costs. More challenging are the third and fourth principles of Christian education (i.e. training in obedience and resilience). Both are designed to liberate the child from the tyranny of self-will and fallen passions. Both will risk intervention by child protection agencies10 in the name of children’s “natural rights” and a very different vision of their “best interest”.
This risk is especially high in countries like Gennany, which - bent on emancipation from parental suppression and safeguarding equality of opportunities - prohibit home-schooling. Here children are forced to spend the bulk of their waking hours away from home. They practically live with peers raised in, electronic media profiting from, and educators seeking to inculcate the “wide and easy path”.
Any witness to the moral and spiritual discernment taught at home (viz. requirement 5) exposes children to the charge of discrimination and divisiveness. Here, even stay-at-home mothers are unable to protect their children from cultural influences that repudiate the very goals of their education.
A central issue here concerns human sexuality, i.e. mankind’s bi-sexual design. This conflict revolves around the alternative between the world as Divinely created for the purpose of human theosis on the one side, and the world as the outcome of purely physical and biological events, and subject to a law of evolution with space for contingent human choice on the other side. It thus makes sense to take a closer look at ways in which Christian educators (at home and in Church) can use the “creation story” of Genesis in preparing children in a pluralist society for the struggle they will later have to wage, - both against the temptations offered by that society’s liberal commitments and against its implied scientist prejudices.
III. A remaining option: Genesis in pictures
Atheist rule was bad. But it offered a clear picture of the challenge Christians confronted. That challenge - ultimately - left no alternative beyond betrayal and suffering. Just like under Roman or Muslim persecution, so under Communism most Christians failed. But the prayers of the martyrs helped them repent and return.
Pluralism presents itself as tolerant. Yet the challenge of having to choose between a worldly or an otherworldly outlook remains. The sanctions for faithfulness are mild: loss of career opportunities, jobs, penalty payments, limited prison periods. But it has become difficult to discern just where a courageous Christian confession is called for. Children in the European Union today grow up with “science” accepted as authority over all “relevant” (in an everyday sense of the term) truth (11) The idea of a creator God claiming authority over all spheres of human life is no longer accepted (12).
In the West, Christians attempting to re-assert that Divine authority have pursued two equally unhelpful routes. They have either affirmed a literal understanding of Genesis, while also trying to integrate evolutionary cosmogony and biology. Such attempts, forever lagging behind scientific progress and change, have remained as unpersuasive for their non-Christian target audience as they are cumbersome to Christians (13). Or else, Christians have adopted allegorical, or symbolic interpretations. In spiritualizing the Christian message (14), this approach no longer orients man’s incarnate conduct. The order of nature, as revealed in Genesis, is no longer taken to clarify how God wants mankind to look at biological kinds, at the position of man vis ä vis the world, at his vocation to Divine likeness, at the second place accorded to women, and at the human mission to “fill the earth”. Safeguards are therefore lost against the liberal normalizing of sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman, against gender-equality, trans-genderism, contraception, abortion, destructive embryo research, heterologous insemination, egg donation, surrogate motherhood, divorce, genetic transmutation of biological kinds, aspirations towards developing super-humanity all the way down to physician assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. It is this second route which the residual Christianities of Western Europe has adopted.
Once “nature” has been altogether separated from its Divine design and abandoned to a science that follows the evolutionary model, safeguards are also lost against mistaking that model itself as normative (15). The young are thus tempted to envisage their own behavior in terms of evolutionary behaviorism, and to adopt its insights as “natural,” in the sense of ‘objective’ and ‘inescapable’ (l6). Still, the challenge for Christian educators seeking to immunize children against the ruling moral anomy does not lie in evolutionary science as such - and whatever useful results it may offer in view of in-kind developments under conditions of fallen nature (17). The real challenge also does not lie in the philosophical ambitions pursued by the popularizers of such science. Instead, the serious challenge lies in the conceptual (and then also practical) separation of the pursuit of science, and of humans’ outlook on the “reality” addressed by that pursuit, from the normative framework provided by the Genesis account of origin and goal. In other words, the problem with liberalism, pluralism, and scientism lies in the separation of believers’ Sunday frame of mind from their weekday frame of mind. Christian educators must therefore not only insist that an account of origins (by God’s command) falls beyond the competence of a science whose empirical bases concerns post-origin settings (18). Christian educators must also proclaim the weekday-relevance of the Genesis account of the origin for such settings. They must not only avoid presenting that account in terms of a “pre-scientific” statement of “facts”, and thus as vulnerable to refutation by developed science. Instead, educators must insist on the authority of Genesis to guide our dealing with “facts,” including our pursuit of science. Looking for guidance from Holy Tradition, it is helpful to turn to two major teachers: St. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (19) and St. BASIL of Caesarea (op.cit). Their accounts offer - roughly - three methods for affirming that authority for their own time and society.
- Their commentaries come as homilies. These are integrated in worship and intended for the “edification of the Church” (St. BASIL, op.cit. p. 93). Such a setting restores mankind’s focus on God the creator, which Adam had lost through disobedience. The mark of human fallenness is preoccupation with the world of sense-experience. Therefore, both teachers use the creation account to render that material world (once again) transparent to the word, the work, and the will of its Divine creator: “Raise thy soul above the earth” (St. BASIL, Horn. IV-2, p. 102). Their explanations develop into ravishing glorifications, powerfully drafting their audience into an offering of praise and thanksgiving (St. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, 1986, op.cit., Horn. 4-12, p. 58ff).
- They offer a teaching in humility: God the unfathomable One has revealed to Moses what He had decreed as necessary and profitable. As recipients of such Divine condescension, we must align our desire to access the Divine work to what is thus revealed. We must avoid getting distracted by any self-willed curiosity into issues God had withheld (St. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, op.cit. Horn 2, p. 32 ff, Horn. 9-14, p. 125) (20). Our quest for insight into the mysteries of origin cannot but - as it were - crucify reliance on our human capacities. The world as Divinely created is not accessible to a human grasp that is trained in terms of knowledge of that world as fallen (21).
- Their account of creation spells out the spiritual (22) and moral (23) consequences which follow from the revealed creative will (cf. St. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, op.cit. Horn 3-15, p. 48 ff).
How can Christian educators today profit from such models? Quite obviously, we cannot read those homilies to our children, - even most grownups today are no longer able to follow such extended explanations. Also, the moral teaching offered must seem overly constrictive for children raised in a liberal environment. It must also appear far removed from the challenges they encounter every day. Neither the possibility of conforming to, nor the relevance of such teaching can easily rendered plausible. It makes sense only from within a firmly established Church life.
These difficulties suggest a different approach, as exemplified by a recent publication about “God’s world” (24).