Looking Through Things: Some Thoughts on Religious Education

[From a sermon at the "Century Celebration" Eucharist for Ballarat and Queen's Anglican Grammar School, May 29 2011]

A century ago Bishop Arthur Vincent Green, alumnus of my College and one of the founders of Ballarat Grammar School, gave a series of lectures on the Gospel of John. Bishop Green said that he had an “extraordinary power of spiritual vision, this recognition of things as they are”, and that he “looks through things” to see the inner truths.1

You might think this was precisely the sort of thing fundamentalist preacher Harold Camping and his unhappy disciples were claiming for themselves last weekend as they shared secret knowledge of calamitous events to roll around the globe. But the alternative to "looking through things" is just that kind of existence that refuses to see further or deeper, whether it is clothed in religious or secular garb; any world-view that makes people into mere objects, and nature into mere commodities. To see with the Spirit, as John's Gospel puts it, is to “look through things”, and thus discern their deepest truth, and the character of our life as divine gift.

Religious education is a contentious matter at the moment, and while a debate in the Victorian community largely concerns state schools, there are lessons for all of us in it. It is equally unhelpful in educational contexts to see the faith dimension opportunistically, as a mere excuse to gain converts on the one hand, or to ignore it as irrelevant to our existence on the other.

The religious dimension of education does involve teaching and learning about history and culture, about the Bible and the sacraments, but it is also about seeing that deeper possibility in everything and everyone. The scriptures and the other elements of Christian tradition are gifts which, like other things in our world, can be misused, especially if students are mere cannon fodder for proselytizing; but they are also capable of helping us to see meaning not only in them, but in the world. And this deeper potential in the world Christians see as itself God’s own activity, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God’s being that suffuses all things and leads them to what they can be.

This is why education and faith, properly understood, are such intimately linked realities. The cultivation of that possibility of insight is thus the most genuine form of religious education. While there is an inescapably personal element to religious experience, a mystery to be explored rather than a puzzle to be solved or proposition to be taught, much of what is true about God is generally available to those with eyes to see; it does not depend on claimed special knowledge, but on the capacity to recognize beauty, truth and love all around us.

Any school can impart facts, and even skills; but what every school must also seek to do and be, whether or not it has a religious focus but certainly if it does, is to encourage the pursuit of truth, meaning and values.

All around this community, this nation and our whole world, we can see people "looking through things", seeing past the apparent to the real with the aid of the informing Spirit. A woman in Saudi Arabia courageously driving a car; students in Ballarat calling on leaders to exercise leadership over climate change;2 each of us responding to one another as sources of beauty and truth.

Where teachers see students and recognize the potential they have to lead and serve they are “looking through things” in the Spirit’s power; where students who see the possibility and fragility of the world and want to save or change it for good, they are doing the same.

1.Arthur Vincent Green, The Ephesian canonical writings; an elementary introduction to the Gospel, Epistle and Apocalypse commonly attributed to the apostle John. (Moorhouse lectures, 1910; London: Williams and Norgate, 1910), 124-5
2. http://www.breaze.org.au/action-groups/engaging-govt/media-rel/582-bgsaug10

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