In case you haven't heard me mention it, let me say – I am now a grandfather. And I can't help thinking what little Ezra's school environment is going to be like a few years from now.
As you'll see from the outline in the service sheet, my title this morning is 'Education for Life'. Please turn in the Bibles to Proverbs 3.
The education that we receive in our first two decades moulds us for the rest of our lives. For centuries in this country the educational mould was itself profoundly moulded by the Christian faith. But in most schools, that's no longer the case. Very often now education is shaped by quite other convictions. And the danger is that we will be either blindly unaware of what's going on or too spineless to do anything about it.
A godly education is spoken of in the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs, by wisdom personified. We heard the beginning of chapter 3. A number of things are clear from those verses:
First, such an education in true wisdom is vitally important. It is 'a tree of life' (verse 18) to those who lay hold of it.
Secondly, the wisdom that should be the goal of education is not merely a matter of intellectual attainment. Education is moral and social and physical and spiritual as well as intellectual.
It's striking what's said about Jesus in Luke 2.52 – one of the very few insights into what was happening during his childhood. Scripture is mostly silent on the subject. But here the whole process of Jesus's maturing is put in a nutshell. Luke 2.52:
"And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man."
In wisdom [that is intellectual development – but it's more: it's learning how to live] and stature [that's physical development], and in favour with God [there's the spiritual dimension] and in favour with man [that's social development].
Education has to be concerned with the whole person – and above all, in relationship to God. An education that leaves God out of the picture is like a portrait without the face. The background may be interesting, but it totally misses the point. So, for instance, look at Proverbs 3.5, in relation to the life of the mind:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding…"
And verses 7-8, in relation to physical well-being:
"… fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones."
And verse 9, in relation to economic prosperity:
"Honour the Lord with your wealth, and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine."
Wisdom is not just intellectual attainment. True wisdom is knowing how to live and it's centred on relating appropriately to our Creator. And that's why Jesus is the key to wisdom because he's the one who reconciles us to God.
Thirdly, such wisdom is to be guarded. It's at risk. It can be lost. Verse 1:
"My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments …"
This whole section in Proverbs 3 is a warning about the loss of wisdom. A good and godly education is a massively valuable asset that it's all too easy to squander and lose.
Almost all of us are involved in the educational process directly or indirectly. So what are the issues that we face? I have four headings (as you can see from my outline): first, The Impossibility of Neutrality; secondly, The Loss of Eternity; thirdly, The Values of the Gospel; and finally, The Needs of a Child.
1. The Impossibility of Neutrality
The first reaction we may have is to say: 'Surely the education that's given in schools is essentially neutral? It deals with facts. It's the common ground about which there can be no dispute.' Clearly, there's some truth in that. In this country, English is our language, and we all need to learn to understand it and speak it and write it as well as possible. There's an alphabet to be learned. And so on, in many other areas, and at increasing levels of sophistication. There's always this common ground that might be called 'instruction'.
But education is inevitably a far wider thing than that. It inevitably communicates values. And that communication occurs at three levels. There's the curriculum – all the stuff that's planned and taught. Then there's the hidden curriculum – all the things that are taught and learned through the whole life of a school inside and outside of the classroom. Sometimes those things are consciously communicated, sometimes unconsciously. Then there's what has been called 'the parallel school' – all the influences on a child from outside the formal school itself. And that's obviously chiefly from home, though an average of several hours a day looking at a screen on one device or another, and the pressure of peer culture, have their impact as well.
At the end of last year, I got an invitation out of the blue to meet the A Level Religious Education students at a school in Northumberland. They had heard about my views as a Christian. There was a reference to me, they said, in their RE textbook. So could I come and speak to them? That was news to me! So the other week I went up and spent a lesson being politely grilled. What was disturbing to me, as I outlined mainstream, biblical, apostolic, historic Christian perspectives, was that you could have heard a pin drop as if none of the thirty or so students had ever met a real live person who believed these things before. It was rather as if I was an exotic species from a far off planet. It made me realise afresh how far we've fallen in our culture.
There's no such thing as a value-free education. The clearer we can be about what those values are, and what they should be, the better. An education that claims to be value-free is merely an education in which the values are unconscious and unexamined. It's impossible to be neutral.
2.The Loss of Eternity
Now I'm not saying that all in education is a disaster. In some places, there is still a strong Christian influence. The other day I had reason to visit the website of a local school, and I was so encouraged to see that the first thing it said was "[this] is a Christ-centred school". This congregation alone is a testimony to the many Christians who are amongst the thousands of teachers who work as hard as they can to do the best that they can to provide a good and godly education for the children in their charge.
And yet the prospect of generations that know nothing of their Christian heritage and careless is frightening. Years ago I was with the head teacher of a large Newcastle comprehensive when I happened to notice some stairs down into a basement. Out of curiosity, I asked him what was down there. He said he'd show me and we went down into a huge basement packed full of the junk and detritus of decades of school life. Knowing my own concerns he said to me: 'Somewhere down here is the old school Bible that was used in assemblies. I'll find it to show you.' But he couldn't find it. The school Bible was lost amongst the rubbish in the basement. That incident has stuck in my mind ever since. It seems to me to be such a powerful image of the loss of biblical values in the current educational establishment.
Just the other day I heard on the radio a university lecturer in English saying that she has to teach new undergraduates who Adam and Eve are, and about the very basics of the Christian faith before she can teach them English literature.
But if Christian values are in danger of being replaced, what are they being replaced with? It's been said that four fundamental values of the modern world are these:
First, what's right here and now might not be right there and then. Or in jargon: moral relativism. What's right depends on society, circumstances, and the surrounding culture. There are no absolute standards to refer to.
Secondly, the individual individual – or if you prefer it: autonomous individualism. In other words, in the end, I decide what is right for me. So in education self-expression becomes all important.
Thirdly, the pleasure principle, or (a bit of a mouthful this!) narcissistic hedonism. That is, the purpose of my life is for me to be happy and fulfilled. Then the purpose of education becomes to enable everyone to pursue that purpose as effectively as possible without, it is hoped, damage to others.
Fourthly, out of sight is out of existence. Or reductive naturalism. In other words, the reduction of reality to what can be seen or heard or experimented upon. This naturalism tends to lead to an evolutionary view that sees mankind as being on the up and up, both in terms of biology and in terms of society.
So the view is that by scientific and medical progress we'll eliminate disease and sickness. When we've got the United Nations working properly, then there'll be an end to war. Techniques can be developed that will enable children's behaviour to be trained as if they're merely sophisticated animals. Their minds need to be trained to think more efficiently. Education must be geared above all to the needs of the economy. But none of this is enough. We are not merely animals or economic units.
Those are some of the godless values that are often being pumped into the minds of the young generation by the educational and media establishment. The eternal, biblical perspective is being – or has been – lost. But if we lose eternity, we lose everything.
What we need, then, is for a Christian perspective to be reinstated. So:
3. The Values of the Gospel
Here are a few things that are of central importance.
First, we're created by a loving and all-powerful God. Genesis 3.27:
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
And Revelation 4.11:
"Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."
We're made in the image of God our Creator. That's the reason for the basic unity of mankind; for the dignity of mankind; for a right application of reason to God's creation.
Secondly, our fundamental failure lies in our sin – in our rejection of God's will and God's way, in turning away from his love. Isaiah 53.6:
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way …"
And Romans 3.22-23:
"For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …"
Thirdly, we are responsible. Responsible for our own actions. Our lives only really come into focus when we understand our accountability to God.
As the ditty goes:
At three I had a feeling of ambivalence t'wards my brothers
And so it follows naturally, I murdered all my lovers.
But now I'm happy; I have learned the lesson this has taught –
That everything I do that's wrong is someone's else's fault!
Not so. We are responsible. Romans 3.19:
"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God."
Fourthly, there is hope of redemption in Christ. Education has to be built on hope, but a false hope is no good. An inward-looking hope is ultimately bankrupt and hollow. What we need is a Godward-looking hope. Our hope lies in the love of God that's ready to redeem us out of our sin. Romans 6.23:
"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
There, then, are some Gospel values – truths might be a better word – that need to be basic to education: creation; the reality of sin; responsibility; and the hope of redemption in Christ.
Which brings me to my final main point. So:
4. The Needs of a Child
In the light of all that, here are three principles of a godly education from Proverbs 3 – three things that children need. They're simple. They're attainable. They're certainly not always easy.
The first thing children need is teaching. Teaching of wisdom – teaching that flows from those gospel truths. Proverbs 3.1-2:
"My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commendments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you."
And what they need is this teaching. Wise teaching. Godly teaching.
Children do not know best. We're born intellectually and socially ignorant, and with God-given characters already distorted and twisted by our deep-seated tendency to sin and evil. Left to our own devices we will self-destruct. We need moulding, training, teaching. This can be – indeed always is – a tough assignment.
One group of Sunday school children were told they should try to be 'like God' in all they did. Later on, the mother of one of them noticed that her small son was doing everything left-handed, although he was right-handed. She asked him about it. 'I'm trying to be like God,' he said. 'But why everything left-handed?' his mother asked. 'Well, God must be left-handed,' the child replied, 'because Jesus sits on his right hand.'
Children need direct teaching. But, important though that is, it's the model of living we provide that makes the deepest impression. We can't divorce what we say from who we are. Children see through it.
The second thing children need is discipline. Proverbs 3.11:
"My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof …"
Children need to learn, in a safe environment, that if they do wrong, one way or another there will be consequences they don't like. If they don't, then they'll find it out in an unsafe environment, maybe when it's too late.
We must avoid exasperating children. That's a matter of being courteous and respectful. But neither must we be timid when it comes to firm and effective discipline. The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6.4:
"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
Children need discipline.
Then thirdly, children need love. Proverbs 3.12:
"… the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights."
The foundation for all teaching and discipline is a permanent, unconditioned love. A love that's sacrificial. A love like the love of Christ. And that applies just as much in the school as it does in the home. Love for children needs to be the primary motivation of teachers as well as parents.
God loves us, not because we're virtuous. We're not. Not because we obey. We don't. But because that's what he's like. He never condones or minimises our misdeeds. He punishes when necessary. But he loves his children without condition. Children need that kind of love.
Being a teacher is demanding and difficult. At times it seems downright impossible. Every teacher and every parent carries with them the fear of failure. In one way or another, we do all fail. And when we fail, we need to go to God.
He's the one with the power to forgive. He's the one who can restore our reservoirs of strength, and redeem our deficiencies. He's the one who can remind parents and teachers that they too are children – his children. They too are still learning. They too are loved.
God is the one who is perfect – not us. He is the one who can remind us that though our responsibilities are onerous, there are limits to them, and the child bears responsibility as well. He is the one who can fill up in the life of the child the gaps that we or others leave. We can trust him.
The words of Proverbs 3.5-6 are not just for the consumption of children. They're for the adults who care for them as well:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."
There's no question that at the moment we're fighting against a rising tide of atheistic secular humanism in the educational establishment. Sometimes it looks as though all vestiges of our Christian heritage will be swept away. But tides do turn.
I remember once building a sandcastle above the tide line as the sea advanced up the beach. I expected it to be washed away by the unstoppable force of the ocean. But just as the water was about to reach my castle, the tide turned. The tide of rejection of God's wisdom about how to live can be turned too. Alone, we are powerless. But God can do it. He has done it in the past and he will do it again. Let's bear witness to his ways, and pray that the tide will turn soon.