The Myth of Neutrality (Part 1)

The Religious Nature of All Education

By Joe Boot / April 1, 2011

Series Jubilee 2011 Spring - Education

Context Jubilee Journal

Topic Education

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The Myth of Neutrality in Education

Many Christians in our time have bought into the idea of the neutrality of the purpose and nature of education and ‘facts,’ that a table is a table and cats are cats, to the Christian and non-believer alike. On the face of it, this seems eminently reasonable, but I believe it is, upon examination, exactly what Cornelius Van Til called it: ‘a satanic falsehood.’[i]

Opposing Ultimate Realities

Christians believe that the uncreated being of God created the universe and everything in it, sustaining them in terms of his law and purposes; thus, we have an infinite God and a created, finite universe.  Non-Christians believe the exact opposite. They posit either a finite god as an aspect of an infinite or self-generated universe, or no God. Non-Christian education is thus, by definition, godless education, whereas Christian education is God-centred education.  What is most central and important to the Christian is entirely left out by ‘neutral’ education. The implications of this are immediate.  Godless education denies that we are created responsible to God, which entails the notion that man cannot transgress God’s law, for there is no law to transgress.  If man cannot transgress, then he is not a sinner, and so does not need Christ or the gospel.  A child educated in such a view soon believes that he does not need to live and think in terms of the triune God of Scripture, but must think and live only for himself.

More than Morality

The implications of this are not limited to the ethical realm so that, as long as we morally instruct our children, a ‘neutral’ education in all else will be fine By definition, non-Christian education holds that the child is surrounded by an essentially mysterious and unknowable universe.  Christian education holds that in Jesus Christ, who is the revelation of God, and through his infallible word, man is restored, in principle, to the light of God, in whom all things consist and in whose light we see light.  All things are only seen as they truly are when understood in the light of God and his revelation.  To deny this is to say that ‘methodological naturalism’ or ‘practical atheism’ is an acceptable path for the Christian.

The Educational Extent of a Worldview

The great gulf in purpose, content, and theory between a Christian and non-Christian education rests here, in the question of the uncreated, absolute, personal God. Christian education is comprehensive; it is not a mere condiment that can be added to flavour the otherwise neutral areas of life. We may have formal agreement with a non-believer that 2 +­ 2 = 4, but that is as far as the agreement goes:

When you think of two times two as four, you connect this fact with numerical law.  And when you connect this fact with numerical law, you must connect numerical law with all law.  The question you face, then, is whether law exists in its own right or is an expression of the will and nature of God.[ii]

The consistent and lawful coherence and dependability of God and his created order are guaranteed by the religious presupposition that God is the author of all law. The unbeliever has no such guarantee.

Mathematical Uncertainty

If laws of math and logic do not exist as abstract entities by the will of God, then what are they?  Solutions to this question have been diverse, from the ancient Greeks and some Enlightenment rationalists, which believed that numbers are eternal entities existing in another dimension upon which the visible world depends; to the pragmatism of John Dewey, which held that numbers are cultural products which stand for nothing; they are simply tools that help us do certain jobs, rendering mathematical equations neither true nor false.[iii]  How we answer the question of the nature of numbers has a major impact on the way theory-making takes place.

All Education is Religious

It is impossible to conceive of any subject area that is free from religious assumptions and that can therefore convey a religiously neutral worldview or information – fact and value are inextricably related.  Because we cannot conceive of any thing or event which does not exhibit properties and laws, and because these properties and laws must somehow be related to make that thing or event intelligible, the question of how they are related will affect every aspect of knowledge – and that is a religious question.  For the Christian, all the properties of our experience are real as they are not dependent on one created property, but on the uncreated God.

No Neutral Art

It is perhaps in the arts where we most plainly see the inextricability of values from practice. Consider the difference between the fragmented, abstract forms of modern art and the vision they convey, and that of the worldview communicated by the painters of the Dutch Reformation, which conveyed the beauty, reality and wholesomeness of God’s creation.  The musical compositions of J.S. Bach convey the worldview of a Reformed Christian, and are markedly distinct from both the compositions of the Renaissance era and the modern fragmented noise of John Cage.  Bach’s work was characterized by purpose and forward motion; it embodied the principle of linear time, of progress from a clear cut beginning to a fore-ordained end.[iv]  Art conveys a worldview, depicting a view of reality and a vision of beauty.

Conclusions

Either there is an absolute, personal God, who governs all things and surrounds man as our ultimate environment, or there is not.  If not, all interpretation of life reduces to the irrational absurd – we are derelicts on a shore-less sea of futility. If God is real and Jesus Christ is the eternal word and exact representation of God’s being, if in him we live and move and exist, then there is nothing more important to know about the facts than their relationship to him.  Christ is the ‘power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24), and in him are hid ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2:3).

 

For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “The Myth of Neutrality,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Jubilee.

 

[i] Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers (ed.) Dennis E. Johnson (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub, 1990), 16.

[ii] Van Til, Foundations, 7-8.

[iii] Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay On The Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 131-146.

[iv] Christopher J. Small, Music, Society, Education (London: John Caldwell Publishers, 1980), 36.