Earlier this week I read a blog that set me thinking. Written by Kristjan Kristjansson, the Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, it considered the concept of awe. Using personal examples, he suggested that awe could be characterised thus:
‘The subject of awe is the person experiencing it. The feeling of awe is intense and predominantly pleasant although it may be slightly tainted with a sense of impending terror. The object of awe is captured by the cognition that the subject is experiencing or has experienced an instantiation of a truly great ideal that is mystifying or even ineffable in transcending ordinary human experiences.’
I read that on the day that Tim Peake set off on his journey to the International Space Station and I identified with it straight away, for a number of reasons. I was still at primary school when Neil Armstrong took his small step for man and giant leap for mankind, but I can remember my feeling of awe as if it were yesterday. Watching a fellow human being walking on the moon for the first time definitely transcended ordinary human experience. Tim Peake grew up just along the coast from where I live so I know the schools that he attended. I couldn’t help but wonder whether his teachers ever noticed anything exceptional about him. In addition to his technical skill, physical prowess and commitment, did they see a sense of awe in him? Did he experience awe and wonder through their teaching?
A lot has been claimed by both the government and the media about the power of this space trip to inspire children to study STEM subjects, to become technically skilled and perhaps even to become astronauts. Little has been said about the awe of space travel, or the wonder of its future. Maybe children will need to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens to transcend the target driven measurement culture of their contemporary education.
It’s a time of year, too, to experience the awe of Christmas. Do we just celebrate the birth of a baby called Jesus? Or do we ponder in wordless awe on the mystery of how God became human? What did it really mean for Jesus to lay aside his majesty to live here on earth? The prophet Isaiah, foretelling Christ’s birth nearly 750 years before it happened, said that he would be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah also said that:
‘Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness’ (verse 7).
As we listen to the news of a world full of conflict, cruelty and war, we long for the time when there will be no end to peace. But peace begins within each one of us, so as you celebrate, rest and enjoy the awe and wonder of Christmas, think about how your life can be ‘a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’ (2 Corinthians 3:3).
I hope your Christmas break is full of rest, fun and friendship, and that 2016 starts peacefully for you all. It’s been a privilege to meet and work with many of you during 2015. I’m sure 2016 will bring its own challenges as we seek to become letters from Christ, as we engage in the challenge to retain a space for the expression of our distinctive faith in the public square of education and as we work with the amazing children and young people that are in our care.
So, see you next year. Until then, may you experience the awe and wonder of the Christmas miracle.
John Pritchard, the key author of this book, is the former Chair of the Church of England Board of Education. He retired as Bishop of Oxford in 2014. The core of the text is his talk at the launch of the National Institute for Christian Education Research, in which he examines the contribution that Christians can make to shaping contemporary educational values. Following chapters are written by a range of educational practitioners, all of whom are engaged in the debate, and the chapters are bookended by thoughts from Trevor Cooling, Professor of the Institute.
Common to each writer is the view that education is becoming a narrowed exam-passing activity in which each child is merely, but simultaneously, a trainee economic contributor and also a trained consumer. John Pritchard calls for Christian teachers to adopt a distinctively Christian approach to what they do, focused clearly on the narrative of the life of Jesus. He offers definitions of a human child in a Christian context and of community as seen from a Christian education perspective.
Successive contributors offer insights into how this can work in practice, as well as sounding a clear warning about the fragile position of the Christian faith in a national context which continues to embrace its values whilst systematically divorcing them from the faith in which they should be centred.
John Pritchard ends his chapter by pointing out that as Christians we are fortunate to have both a clear rationale for what we do and also a clear point of reference in Christ. He exhorts us to ‘seek human flourishing for every child of God through holistic educational practice’ knowing that the means of achieving it is through Jesus who said, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10 NIV).
Other writers consider the purpose and function that underpin our church schools, making them inclusive and distinctive; the role of church schools in developing character, and the role of Christian educators in creating communities which nurture wellbeing.
Although only 26 pages in length, this book provokes a great deal of thought about what it means to be distinctively Christian teachers and schools in an education service dominated by individualist and materialist ideologies.
Grove Books 978-1-85174-836-5 28pp softback £3.95 Available post free on 01223 464748, [email protected] or by visiting www.grovebooks.co.uk
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at the Leeds Prayer Spaces in Schools conference. I chose to talk about the power of stories. Why? Because stories are fundamental to our understanding of the world and they are the way we find a meaningful place in it.
I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people around. I’ve not only spent much of my life teaching, I’ve also spent most of that time, as a teacher of English and music, immersed in stories. What could be better than introducing students to other people’s stories through literature and music, and then helping them to tell their own stories in words and sound? It really doesn’t get any better: I was storifying in a range of media long, long before the power of stories was realised.
So imagine my delight this week when I came across the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values’ report ‘Knightly Virtues: Enhancing Virtue Literacy Through Stories’. The Foreword begins:
‘Only human beings can tell stories. And only human beings can pass them along. To communicate what matters most, we share great narratives from literature, as well as stories from our own lives. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 216) argues that our lives are so deeply narrative that we can only answer the question: ‘What am I to do [with my life]?’ If we can answer the question: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
Stories are fun. Stories motivate. Stories spark imagination. They help us to form knowledge; to make sense of our daily experiences and our memories. Stories are where we dream. But above all, stories are universal and it’s through their universality that we build relationships, understanding what it means to be human and learning how to live well with others.
As a Christian and a teacher, this has a particular resonance and it’s one that needs to be understood by all those who clamour for schools and colleges to be secular, neutral spaces. Apart from the fact that neutrality is impossible (everybody believes something), my faith is integral to my story. It informs my understanding of the world around me. It shapes who I am. I can no more leave my faith in the car park when I go into a school than I can leave my personality.
When Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board separated children from their daemons, creativity, intelligence and will were reduced; sometimes even obliterated. And so it is with the content of people’s stories. You cannot separate people from any part of their unique story and still retain whole, vibrant, creative people.
An article in The Conversation this week examined the increasingly vehement debate about religion and secularism, while a group of parents, with the backing of the British Humanist Association, is going to court to get humanism included in the RE syllabus. What this actually says is that we have become unwilling to listen to each other’s stories and as a result, we no longer have the necessary vocabulary to discuss them. So how can we make sense of what is happening in our schools, our communities, our society and our world when belief plays such a significant role in its events?
I would suggest that we could do so through stories. We live in a pluralist society, so no one story should dictate social orthodoxy. We should learn to respect each other’s stories and the experiences and beliefs that have shaped them. Christians and other people of faith are often accused of indoctrination and proselytisation as a means of trying to separate them from their stories in the public square. Why?
It’s in the values that we all share that our stories overlap and offer hope of a better future. Maybe one reason why faith schools are so successful in nurturing rounded humans is because those values aren’t just discussed. They are worked out in practice, in the messy business of everyday living in community. And in doing so, those values become virtues.
So instead of trying to impose a singular, secular ideology, why not find common ground in the nurturing of those virtues that we all share, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. When that happens, nobody will need to silence those with whom they don’t agree. We won’t need an Equalities Act to enforce by statute what we are currently unable to do by individual will – respect each other regardless. Just because.
I am Christian. Please respect my story. It defines me. Trying to silence me is to limit my ability to flourish as a fellow human. In return, I will respect your story as fundamental to your identity as we work together to give hope for the future to the students we teach.