Last week I had a coffee with a PhD student in Sydney who is researching religious education in NSW schools, where they still have scripture classes conducted by representatives of “approved religious organisations”. Her thesis topic is, What, in heaven’s name, are they teaching my 5-year-old? Does public education’s hidden Christian curriculum contribute to social exclusion? She says: “The ultimate aim of the research is to outline a model for socially inclusive beliefs education for Australia.”
One problem I think she faces is a focus on belief.
1. Harvey Cox in his recent book “The Future of Faith” suggests that an emphasis on belief took off at the time of Constantine as part of the institutionalisation of Christianity. Propositional beliefs are constructions. He points out that it didn’t take long for these “statements of faith” to become instruments used to exclude and vilify others, and as instruments of fear to maintain control over “people of faith”.
2. Belief propositions are set in historical moments. Life changes. Those who live today by a set of propositional beliefs constructed many years ago may find themselves feeling they have to defend beliefs that nobody believes anymore, and, if the truth be known, they don’t particularly see the relevance of either. Or they work hard at trying convince themselves and others of their relevance. Faith, on the other hand, is living.
3. According to the seminal work of missiologist Paul Hiebert, adherence to a set of beliefs is characteristic of a “bounded (or closed) set” way of understanding “who is a Christian?” (Hiebert, Paul G., Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House 1985)). Adherence to a set of beliefs is one way gatekeepers determine who is “in” and who is “out”. So it is little wonder that those who adhere to this model of who can be a Christian and who can’t, see their role as hammering “you’ve got to believe…” when it comes to what happens in scripture classes in schools. “You will go to hell unless…” as content to be presented to children is easily justified if you start with the “either/or” understanding of bounded set thinking. I know one person who had to be admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Childrens’ Hospital after being exposed to this kind of fear mongering.
I wonder whether a better place to start might be to think about “a model for socially inclusive faith understanding for Australia”. Certainly, the rubric “nurturing faith, building community” seems to serve us well as an inclusive multifaith chaplaincy serving the religious and spiritual needs of the university.
What do you think?