Educating for failure

One of my old headmaster at Trinity Grammar School Mr Roderick West’s favourite stories was the story of the conversion to Christianity of the young scholar Augustine of Hippo, which happened sometime around 386 AD.

From the West point of view it is a perfect story to tell young men because not only does it tell of the conversion of one of the leading thinkers of all of Christian history but it is also a story for which knowledge of Latin is crucial. It is one of the few stories you can tell which involves a Latin pun.

The young Augustine, the wayward son of a Christian mother, Monica, has reached a point of crisis in his soul, despairing of himself, when he hears some local children crying out as they play a game ‘Tolle! Lege!’ – or ‘Take it! Pick it up!’. What game were they playing? We don’t actually know, although in Mr West’s telling of the tale they were playing an ancient form of knucklebones – that I certainly remember. But ‘Tolle! Lege!’ can also mean ‘Take it and read!’  - and that was what Augustine heard. He took up the Bible and turned randomly to Romans 13:13-14 where he read these words:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

As Augustine himself says of what happened next:

I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.

The world in which Augustine lived and ministered was a world teetering on the brink of collapse. The Roman Empire was a shadow of its former glory, made of mighty stones but held together with string and blue tack. It was, some historians have reported, a decadent and decaying society, even though it had officially converted to Christianity in the hope of staving off the rot. It was racked with infighting and corruption. It was led by self-indulgent and avaricious rulers. The barbarian hordes from the north – tribes with names like the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths and the Vandals – were making inroads into the Empire itself; and by 410 AD the Visigoths under their chief Alaric would sack Rome itself.

Into this mess strode the British monk Pelagius – a man whose life was so pure even his enemies would call him ‘saintly’. Pelagius has a serious and compelling message to offer Roman society and it was this: smarten up. You can choose to be more moral. You don’t to choose decadence; you can choose decency. We all have a spark of goodness inside of that we can fan into flame, if only we choose to. Pelagius was an optimist about human beings, you see: the human will has enough in it, with the right education and direction, to live the human life. If we fail, it is because we aren’t making enough use of it. What we need, what society needs, is a better example and a better education so we can unleash the power of this will of ours to do good.

It’s a compelling, even stirring message – and its persuasiveness shouldn’t be underestimated. Pelagius talks to you as if you an adult. He urges you to take responsibility and to find the resources within yourself to make a difference. He lifts your chin up and won’t let you wallow in despair or become morally lax. You ought to do better, and what’s more, you can, if you are shown how. It’s an attractive message.

The only problem is: it is not a remotely Christian message. As Augustine was to show, in the end Pelagius’ teaching made Jesus simply a moral teacher and a fine example of what human beings are like when they are at their best. There could be others like him, of course; we might discover other examples of noble human behaviour and we might hear of other moral teachers who can enlighten us: a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mother Theresa. Do not these deserve a place alongside Jesus as people who can teach us about what we could be if only we tried? In which case: Pelagius’ Christianity is really a religion that puts its faith in the self above all else. It is about turning inwards to discover that I am actually quite an impressive person.

And Pelagius' teaching was naïve about human nature. He was failing to see quite how dark the human heart is. He was failing to see that you can’t simply coax the human will into a better way of life.

But we know of course that in true Christianity, Jesus is not merely a good man or a moral teacher or an impressive example. He is the savior who dies on account of human sin. And that he dies for human sin reveals how deeply entrenched human sin is as a problem: that you can’t simply tell people to try harder or teach them a better path. You can’t tell them that they have it in them to change, because they don’t.

What has this got to do with education?

When schools such as the one I went to were being established in Britain and in Australia in the 19th century, there were those who saw in education the great panacea for social ills. Like Pelagius, they believed that the young person could with the right education become a noble citizen. Education was the bridle that harnessed the human will and directed it for good purposes – for a life of service to the community and diligent hard work in the professions.

That such schools wore a Christian badge was not at all a guarantee that the Biblical view of humanity was going to be presented; not at all. More often than not, the Christianity in evidence was simply a thin veneer of moralistic teaching. Many of these schools today around the English speaking world retain their ecclesiastical branding simply as a matter of convention – after all, if moral improvement is the goal, Christianity isn’t the only, or even the best, path. Christianity is reduced to that most horrible and dishonest of things – ‘Christian values’: a faith without faith, a moral system without hope.

My own school, Trinity Grammar, was started, a century ago, on the verge of the shattering of the nineteenth century’s dream of moral improvement. If had been possible to be a Pelagian in 1913, it certainly wasn’t in 1918. But it was a lesson humanity had to learn twice over: civilization, culture and education, even with a bit of religion on the top, are not enough to save us from ourselves, let alone prepare us to meet our maker. As the literary critic George Steiner once said:

We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning.

Nevertheless, it is a rare school indeed that insists that the education of its young people should take place in full view of the cross of the Christ who died for fallen humankind.

You might think that in response to the naïve optimism of Pelagius and his descendants I have painted too bleak a picture. If we are in such dire straits, so deeply entrenched in our sin and so unteachable, then isn’t education pointless? Shouldn’t we just view education as a pretext for what young men really need – which is evangelism? Isn’t it pointless to send them out from here well taught but unconverted?

But this is one of those cases where we can have our cake and eat it, too. The Pelagian vision is ultimately narcissistic; and by misdiagnosing the human condition makes things much worse. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us our need for a saviour, but it also teaches us that we inhabit a good but fallen world made by a good, powerful and loving creator. It tells us that there is suffering and evil in the world, that these are not mere illusions, and that God hates them and stands against them. It tells us that there is something to hope for. This vision is not one of human perfection but of human redemption.

And those who believe and teach this gospel can’t help but be nation builders and educators. After a trip to Malawi, the atheist journalist Matthew Parris wrote these words:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do…In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

This is part of the story of Australia, too: the Evangelicals of the early colony were not optimistic about the human will, but they did have faith in a God who has not abandoned humanity. They did not see building and supporting schools as contrary to the work of the gospel; rather they saw it as a direct implication of it.

True education is itself the result of a commitment to the kind of world that God has made – a world which is ordered according to the divine plan.  In the gospel is revealed to us the goodness and beauty and truth with which the holy God has imbued the creation, and for which he will hold we human beings accountable.

And this could prove more significant than we yet realise, for the barbarians are today at the gates of Western civilisation. In flight from its Christian roots, the West is pursuing a self-destructive course. In its denial of God, it is wilfully blinding itself to the reality of his beauty and truth and goodness.

Without God, it turns out, everything is permissible – the ugly, the false and the evil. Leading philosophers argue for infanticide. Even the New Atheists have begun to wonder how civilisation might be saved if the God of Jesus Christ is abandoned. They cannot paint a universe with any colour to it; they cannot appeal with any conviction to a sense of absolute right or wrong, and so any outrage they have looks insincere; and they cannot know that what they see around them is real. There is now a sense among them of tragic loss – an acknowledgement perhaps that their project has destroyed the only things worth having.

Perhaps a new dark ages is upon us. And perhaps, as after the decay of mighty Rome, it was the Christian monasteries that preserved the possibility of a less savage way of life, so now our schools and churches will need to become the protectors of the true, the beautiful and the good.

This is already in evidence. People with no faith can see that our Anglican schools preserve something precious which has been lost, and that in their devotion to what is true, and right, and beautiful in creation and in human life, they point beyond themselves to the source of all these things.

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