Demythologizing Christian Education

Adolf Harnack
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Adolf Harnack begins his 1895 lecture titled Christianity and History by asking whether it is legitimate to maintain the “indisoluable unity” of the historical fact of “Christ’s person,” with the church’s creed.  His question, one hundred years later, is still a live one.   How do we teach our children the stories of our faith without, on the one hand, being overly critical and ruining the stories’ appeal, but on the other hand without leading them down paths that years later we’ll have to lead them back up and around?  The risk attending this Scylla and Charybdis is apparent — people are leaving the mainline Protestant church in droves.  Research suggests that this loss is directly attributable to a misuse of power in the teaching ministry. By misuse, I mean the failure to change from a traditional and once effective practice in the face of concrete evidence of ineffectiveness and evidence from scholars that our stories need to be understood and incorporated in our religious life in a more complex manner than has been allowed in church school.  As a result, modes of thought in adult years mature with great difficulty.

Prior to the task of Christian education, educators shall have dealt with the philosophical question that Harnack poses in his lecture.   What constitutes credible and appropriate method and content?  If claims of the religious can only be defended by force of assertion and will not bear up under intelligent analysis, no matter how accepted these claims are in the hierarchy of church history, should they be embraced and taught?

When all history seems to be a ceaseless process of growth and decay, is it possible to pick out a single phenomenon and saddle it with the whole weight of eternity? especially when it is a phenomenon of the past. Christianity and History, p. 18

Despite Harnack’s reputation among theologians today (he is either an unknown entity, or an object of scorn), Harnack has a subtle and important point to make.  In his day and for a century after his death, Harnack was hugely popular and highly influential.  He has been forgotten in recent days because a much less rigorous, much more mystical, but no more loving theology than Harnack’s has captured the fickle  spirit of the church with Christian claims which need not be credible.  In fact, it seems, the  more incredible the claims the more compelling they must be and the more proof served up that assertions forcibly and persistently stated have the imprimatur of truth.  Harnack would have none of this.  But he was not simply a rationalist in the eighteenth century sense of that word, relying purely on “Nature and Reason” for guide in all things.  History was history. Harnack instead wanted to understand that personality and development, two features of our faith in Jesus as the Christ, could not exist or be understood apart from history, but that these two elements of our life together could never simply be read as from a book.

I am well aware of the gravity of this assertion, and I am far from disputing the right of everyone  to make it if he chooses [the right base one’s faith on historical detail].  If God would but rend the heavens and come down, that we might behold Him! — it is a cry that is often heard.  But I know too, that it is not born out of the depth and strength of the faith which the apostle Paul describes, and that it readily falls under the utterances of the Lord:  Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. Great is the power of external authority in matters of religion; great is the power of signs and wonders; but only where their substance lies can faith and devotion find their ultimate assurance.  Their substance is God the Lord; it is reliance on Jesus Christ, whose word and spirit are even today a witness to the heart of the power of God. Woe to us if it were otherwise. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

Can we teach devotion and faith to our children which both takes history seriously and yet does not load it with substance that is other than the ultimate assurance or conviction?

On May 17, we celebrated Christian Education in our church.  Tom Stevens, our Christian Education Director preached.  He celebrated the fact that we do things differently.  It was the end of Tom’s first full year, and we have from the start, realized that to continue doing Church school like it was done to us, would not be helpful.  No longer could we teach the story of Noah’s ark and not teach the critical apparatus that must go with it.  Our children were applying the same lazy excuses that the opponents of Harnack’s critical theology applied in their solutions to the problem of History and Christianity:  the more difficult it is to believe, the more proof it is of God’s hand in it.  In our view, all that that kind of teaching could accomplish would be not to rock the boat, to succumb to the cultural anti-intellectualism and to take the intelligence of our children and their parents and fellow church goers lightly.

Tom preached using the text of the last Church School Unit on bread, saying:

In one reading the yeast is a poison, indicative of the evil men can add to another, while in the next reading it is a revelation of God’s spirit. This one ingredient, added in small amounts, can enlarge that to which it has been added. There is really no difficulty in understanding the concept. This is what we do everyday. This is what we receive everyday from others. And it is what we try to do every Sunday with your children. Add a little yeast, a little something that will grow inside of them – something organic and alive and yet completely benign until it has been fed with water and sugar and flour – unless, of course, it is tired and stale.

He goes on to say that while our expectations are humble, we do fervently hope they will see their faith and their devotion in it as an open door for their curiosity, intellect and heart.

We have no illusions that what our children take from us every Sunday will make them better people, per se, but we do have dreams that what we provide them will make them always feel welcome here and ready to learn, not just what we’re supposed to teach them, but whatever they wish, wherever they wish.

How have we done that?  We have taken Harnack seriously and have taken seriously too the gifts of our members.  We have said — let’s turn church school into an hands on exploration of our faith using the talents and passions of adults.  Let’s interpret those passions in the light of our tradition with help from each other and with plenty of time to process those stories so that they become real and fun and not literal.

So when the children arrived after their summer break, in September expecting to go to church school class again, they were instead met with a 10 week unit on creation in which some of the tools of interpreting scripture were introduced.  The group read various translations of the creation stories.  Individuals had their own version for the whole unit which they compared with others.  They compared that religious story with the scientific story of creation and evolution.  They began to join Christianity with History.  And they did some creating of their own when the performed a Creation Opera for the congregation.

Their next block of the year was spent with an artist (Denise Rundle)  talking about the fascinating story of the daughters of Zelephehad (Numbers 27).  The children absorbed this story of the unfair treatment of women by making a quilt — an ancient form of resistance story.  Again, they learned a story of the bible without having to swallow anything that they didn’t already understand.  This is not to say they did not learn things, or that the teacher was irrelvant to their learning — only to say that we teach best when what we teach is always already known — but perhaps not vocalized, realized or even cognized.  The Christian story is a story of the re-cognition of the power of the love of God.

The final unit of the year used bread as its hook to understanding the church’s concern with hospitality and with creating and nurturing good people.  They learned the story of passover and connected that story with the power of yeast to transform.  They made and ate the unleavened bread before Easter and the made and ate leavened bread after Easter.  The power of resurrection become the power of to liberate a people from slavery which was visualized in the unleavened to leavened bread.

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