Thursday 26 January 2012

Religion for Atheists?

In recent weeks, there have been a couple of newspaper articles commending the Christian faith for reasons other than faith. Two of these have had me thinking about the source of the media attention and whether the hostile full frontal attacks by atheists might have led some to adopt a different approach. Perhaps some atheists have concluded that their cause is furthered by simply acknowledging the odd merit of the church, while effectively still telling Christians that they are all deluded and wrong; in a more polite way of course. This is not far removed from the approach of some within the church who would want to airbrush out all the 'difficult' bits of Christianity.

This strategy of course is very convenient for those people who want the cultural practices of religion without the faith. The first article that got me thinking was in the Sydney Morning Herald several weeks ago, 'Churchgoers keen to take a pew despite their disbelief'. In it, a parishioner from a Uniting Church shared how he does not believe in God and doesn't see this as necessary for church attendance. He's right of course about belief not being required for church attendance, any Christian church would welcome him. However, the idea that you might attend church for cultural, social and justice reasons alone, is out of step with the teachings of Christianity. As well, I suspect it says something about the vague message of the specific church he attends as well.

The parishioner commented:

"[My spirituality] drives me to want to be in a spiritual community that has a sense of a mission to do good things and to help do justice in the world...but also I like the Christian and other religious liturgies and spiritual practices – I find that they're very good for me. But, for me, belief in a literal god is quite unnecessary."

Interestingly, the man said he rejects the label "atheist" because he sees it as having militant connotations.

The second article was a brief interview with Alain de Botton about his soon to be released book, 'Religion for Atheists'. When asked why an atheist would write this book de Botton says:

"...The supernatural claims of religion are entirely false - and yet religions still have some very important things to teach the world."

We'll have to wait for the book to see what he thinks the 'very important things are'. But in both these examples, one from a churchgoer and the other from an atheist, we see a common way to deal with Christianity, cut out the hard bits from the Bible with which you can't agree and simply stress the positive and get on with life. Both approaches are a rejection of God.

In one sense, as a Christian, I'm pleased when someone like de Botton takes a less hostile line than atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, however, I can't help feeling that de Botton whether with a silk glove or an iron fist, is still displaying the same arrogance and pride in his own knowledge as a churchgoer who says he needs only the cultural bits; the music, lifestyle and good friends. In each case, there seems an effort (whether deliberate or not), to domesticate the Christian voices that would want to stand firm to the claims of the Bible.

However, I don't want to end on a negative note. It seems to me that while we need to be wary of those who damn us with faint praise, at least people like de Botton, Geoffrey Blainey, Clive Hamilton, Terry Eagleton and others like them, provide an opportunity for conversation and apologetic exchange. While we mustn't allow the message of Christianity to be softened, or watered down to make it acceptable to others, we do need to enter into dialogue with atheists and agnostics with humility and respect for those with different views.

Related links

'Reason, faith and revolution' - A review of Terry Eagleton's book HERE

Interview with Alain de Botton on his new book HERE

'Apologetics is more than winning arguments' HERE

'Humble Apologetics' HERE

Monday 16 January 2012

Education as Formation: Integrating faith, learning & teaching

Professor James K.A. Smith will present the New College Lectures in Sydney on the 23rd and 24th May 2012. He will also deliver a keynote address on the 26th May to a conference to be co-hosted by CASE and the Anglican Education Commission. The New College Lectures have traditionally been run in Aug/Sept but this 'space' is so now crowded with so many Christian events that we are moving the Lectures to May each year.

James Smith is Canadian by birth, but now lives in Grand Rapids (Michigan) where he is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. He teaches in the Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies and serves as a Research Fellow of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He has written or edited 17 books including 'Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning' (with David I. Smith), 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation', 'Science and the Spirit', 'Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture)' and, 'Hermeneutics at the Crossroads' (with Kevin Vanhoozer and Bruce Ellis Benson).

The all day conference on Saturday 26th May will be for anyone interested in education, with most of the sessions to be school focussed. Prof Smith will present the opening address. This event is part of the 'New Perspectives' agenda that has been an outcome of the work of the Anglican Education Commission, and in particular, the Anglican Education Forum which it has co-ordinated.

This is preliminary notice of both events; I will post additional details in the next few weeks. If you live close enough to Sydney and have an interest in education put this date in your diary. Registration for both events will be available soon. Watch the CASE blog and website.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

The importance of the imagination for flourishing and faith

I write regularly about developing the imagination of children on my blog 'Literacy, Families & Learning' and have written from time to time on the CASE blog about the imagination, play and creativity. This post is a modified version of one I wrote early in 2011. It was based on a book by Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island.  The central thesis of his book - 'Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child' - is that the way we raise, care for and educate our children is increasingly destroying the imaginations and creative capacities of our children. He draws heavily on the writers of classical and modern literature to reinforce his point.

Underlying Esolen's argument is his belief that God made us to imagine and that it is at least partly through our imaginations and longings that we seek him and experience all that he intended for us.

Esolen uses a wonderful cross section of literature, music and even art to make his simple points about the nature of imagination, its ultimate purpose, and the dangers of shutting it down in our children. The writing is ironic in style as the title suggests. At times this seems a little forced but overall, it works powerfully.

His 10 'Methods' that will destroy the imagination of children, bring into focus that which can stifle learning and close down the possibilities for the imaginings of children. Throughout his chapters he argues that if we do shut down children's imaginations, that we also reduce their ability to solve problems, write with voice and effectiveness, and be transformed (or at least shaped) by the language and power of literature.   

Esolen's 10 Methods to destroy the imagination

1. Begin by rearing children almost exclusively indoors - give in to the threats of the outdoors; don't risk allowing them to have unbridled experiences out of our observable space. Lock them up in classes and organised instruction and avoid giving them opportunities to run free.

2. Never allow children to organise their own worlds of exploration of that which is interesting or challenging - replace the spontaneous and child initiated and replace it with 7 days of structured activities controlled by others and a timetable that leaves no scope for exploration, time wasting and contemplation.

3. Don't risk allowing children to explore machines or encounter those who know and use them - privilege safety above all things, cut craftsmen from the child's world, despise practical and craft knowledge, forget about the challenge and fascination of maps, diagrams and the like.

4. Replace fairy tales with clichés and fads - water down stories to remove the evil and violent, look for tales that 'flatten' and homogenise, replace fundamental truths with clichés and ideological manifestos.

5. Denigrate or discard the heroic and patriotic - remove fathers who are heroes, men who are warriors, lose sight of the 'piety' of a place like the Welsh uplands and coal mines of Richard Llewellyn's 'How Green was My Valley'. Ignore the dignity of simple people and their ways.

6. Cut down all heroes to size - don't allow a sentimental admiration of a hero, dismiss courage, beat from our boys any hint of hero worship. Instead grow men 'without chests' who spend hours on violent video games but never rumble in the back yard.

7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex - replace the music and tenderness of love in the Odyssey, or the poetry of Stephen Foster for a lost love, with a reduction of love to the mechanics of sex; "reduce eros to the itch of lust or vanity". Replace the first pangs of curiosity of a boy for a girl, or a girl for a boy, with a bombardment of images of what love isn't.

8. Level all distinctions between man and woman - just as individual personalities are washed from our classrooms, so too, reduce all differences of gender, and convince children that boys and girls are just the same.

Paintings at Lascaux (Wiki Commons)
9. Distract the child with the shallow or unreal - fail to encourage the child to hear and sharpen the senses before creating, and abolish solitude and silence. Instead, fill the child's life with the 'noise' of television, video games and other forms of banality. Don't just allow 'noise' to get in the way, but more importantly, allow mental and spiritual interference. Separate the child from the relationship of family, neighbours and friends and place them in after school care, preschools etc.

10. Deny the transcendent - deny the idea of God, ignore the mystery of faith and religion, ensure that unlike the ancients in the caves of Lascaux there is little opportunity to contemplate and create a veritable cathedral born of their imaginings. Do everything possible to erase any opportunity for your child to search out the inscriptions of praise on each human heart.

Summing Up

Esolen has put his finger on something important. He isn't the first person to write about imagination and, as he suggests himself, he's probably not the best-qualified person to do so either. But his book reminds us that imagination is not just a cognitive state to be prodded and used for the banal or even the practical. In fact, it has moral dimensions that can be seen in a biblical anthropology of personhood. A view of the person that sees the ability and desire to imagine as part of God's blueprint for his people.

Esolen also offers a useful social commentary on the tendency to seek the banal rather than that, which is rich and complex. His ironic commentary on approaches to teaching and child rearing that value the tangible and measurable, rather than the whimsical and creative is helpful, although in places a touch too simplistic. One example of this is that in dismissing technology and in rightly pointing to the abuses of gaming and television and their ability to distract from friends, play, exploration etc, he fails to acknowledge that technology can expand the imagination too. Technology can open up a world of new facts that trigger exploration, or offering opportunities to create images, videos and complex texts that expand the imagination.

Some won't like Esolen's ironic style, for there is a danger in its over-use. At times it tends to give the sense that Esolen is trivialising the issues and ignoring complexity and ambiguity.  This might lead some not take Esolen's arguments seriously. This would be a pity for there is much wise advice in this book.  

Esolen offers a timely and beautifully written analysis of pop-culture and a world where we 'flatten' the view of what it means to be men and women, we lose a vital focus on moral centring and values, we accept an impoverished view of childhood, and we replace love for lust, the thirst for the deep with the shallow and flood children's lives with banality instead of richness. This book will have non-Christian detractors, but it will also stimulate discussions concerning the loss of childhood and the place of the imagination not just in life but also in grasping something of the transcendental and an existence beyond this life. As Esolen reminds us:

The imagination opens out not principally to what it knows and finds familiar, but to what it does not know, what it finds strange, half hidden, robed with inaccessible light. The familiar too can be an object of wonder, but not by its familiarity... 

Some Other Practical Posts for Parents and Teachers Interested in the Imagination

1. 'The Importance of Simple Play' (HERE)

2. 'Place, Folklore & Play' (HERE)

3. 'The Role of Adults in Children's Play' (HERE)

4. 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (HERE)

5. 'Understanding and Developing Creativity' (HERE)

6. Posts on Esolen's book on my daughter's blog (HERE)

7. Raising boys' sights above the gross and the violent (HERE)