What is a Christian education for?

In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, philosopher James K. A. Smith offers a trenchant criticism of Christian education that assumes it sufficient to equip students with “a Christian perspective” on the world. He writes:

What is a Christian university for? Or what is the end of a Christian education? Please note that this is not the same as asking, “What makes a university Christian?” The most common answer to the latter question is that a Christian education provides “a Christian perspective” on the world, equipping young people to be successful but redemptive contributors to society precisely because they have been apprenticed in the disciplines and professions from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Such an answer to the latter question assumes an implicit answer to the former question, “What is the end of a Christian education?” According to this dominant paradigm, the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy Leagues and state universities do, but who do them from “a Christian perspective,” and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society. So the Christian university graduates students equipped to take up vocations and careers that are largely the same as the graduates of the state university down the road: we graduate engineers and entrepreneurs, nurses and math teachers, museum curators and architects, social workers and audiologists, and a few philosophers to staff the local Starbucks. Our graduates have the requisite credentials to become productive contributors to society, even leaders, exerting influence on culture. And on top of all this, they are graduating not only with the requisite knowledge, skills, and credentials, but also with a Christian worldview. They have been trained to think about and pursue their vocations “from a Christian perspective.”

But what if that’s not enough? Or worse, what if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel? What if the rather abstract formulas of a Christian worldview turn out to be a way to tame and blunt the radical call to be a disciple of the coming kingdom? Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework – a “perspective” or a “worldview” – we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship. And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits. Sure, we might think that we’re supposed to be moral, but we’ll construe this in terms of personal integrity (e.g., “honest” business dealings) or instrumentalizing existing cultural systems for charitable ends (e.g., “redeeming” exploitative business practices by donating a portion of profits to charity; or generating philanthropy for non-profits that is fueled by the charity of the extremely wealthy). In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective.”

How does that happen? I’m suggesting that a Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they seem themselves as fostering individual “minds in the making.” Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectual rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions. This is because such intellectualization of Christianity allows it to be unhooked from the thick practices of the church. When the Christianity of “Christian education” is reduced to the intellectual elements of a Christian worldview or a Christian perspective, the result is that Christianity is turned “into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by the church.” “Such a strategy,” [Stanley] Hauerwas notes, “assumes that what makes a Christian a Christian is holding certain beliefs that help us better understand the human condition, to make sense of our experience.” Such a transformation of Christian faith into a belief system unhooks Christianity from the the practices of Christian worship, and thus keeps its distance from the radical revisioning of society that is implicit in Christian liturgy. Christianity “is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.” But the domestication of Christianity as a perspective does little to disturb or reorient our practices; rather, it too often becomes a way of affirming the configurations of culture that we find around us – we just do what everyone else does “plus Jesus.” Or, to quote some favorite lingo, our Christian schools will be committed to “excellence” – which turns out to be what other schools value, but we add some Jesus-piety to the mix. And all the while the liturgies of the mall and the military-entertainment complex are making us the kind of people who desire their kingdom, even though we might be thinking “from a Christian perspective.”

What’s the alternative? If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal? Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor. If the goal of Christian worship and discipleship is the formation of a peculiar people, then the goal of Christian education should be the same. If something like Christian universities are to exist, they should be configured as extensions of the mission of the church – as chapels that extend and amplify what’s happening at the heart of the cathedral, at the altar of Christian worship. In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.


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