Fifth in a Series
To teach about the bible even as literature includes its comprehensive vision of the supernatural, of an eternal moral order, of a self-revealing God, and of the whole drama of redemption. Even the Bible’s claim to divine authority can be set forth as a claim that many people have accepted and still consider to be valid. Indeed, it may be properly noted that people do not ordinarily preface their remarks with “Thus saith the Lord!,” while certain literary aspects of the Bible make sense only in that context.
Instructors in public schools are not, however, to plead the special authority of the Bible. And while the public school may adduce the Ten Commandments and the biblical sanction for morality, it must also indicate the various other sanctions adduced for moral behavior; to insist on subscription to any one sanction is definitely precluded. Christians should be content to allow the Bible to be self-interpreting and self-authenticating.
The Supreme Court opinion refers not merely to the literary and historic influence of the Bible but to its “literary and historic qualities”; there is no implication that to study the Bible as literature inevitably reduces it to fiction or myth. In contrast to religions based on internal experience and reflection, biblical religion claims to be firmly grounded in historical revelation; the scope here accorded an interest in the Bible is therefore very great. To teach about the Bible on its historical side is to recognize the Bible as one of the sources of ancient history. If some scholars protest that the Bible’s historicity is unclear, it should be noted that much of other ancient history derives from accounts whose historicity is unclear. As it is, the Bible is the source not only of much trustworthy historical information but also of a particular view of history.
Such study is not to be an outlet for a teacher’s personal beliefs or unbeliefs; it is intended, rather, to enlarge students’ understanding of biblical history and content. Nor may the Christian or Jew or humanist insist that his special area of interest be taught only by a committed partisan. To be sure, the fact that a person is personally in revolt against a particular position in no way makes him an authority in that given area. But what the Bible says is open to all. The teacher’s first task, therefore, is simply to present the literary content and historic claims of the Book. Personal interest in and devotion to the subject matter nurtures competence and expertise.
Teaching about the Bible as here delineated differs markedly, of course, from church-school instruction with its perspective of faith and evangelistic outreach. Public schools are not intended to be channels for achieving the unique goals of the church. Yet because public schools and church schools emphasize different aspects of religion and the Bible, they need not be regarded as competitive. Young people knowledgeable only about the literary and historic aspects of the Bible would certainly be a great advance over those wholly ignorant of their religious and cultural heritage. Such ignorance stems, not only from absence of the Bible from any public schoolrooms, but also from the failure of many of the Sunday schools to reach them.
The third point of the Schempp decision stipulates that study of the Bible and of religion must be “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,” limitations that presumably would be expected also to characterize the teaching of politics and other subjects. With respect, first, to the emphasis on a “secular program” as the context of education, the difference between church-related and public education is quite clear. Christian education is free to insist that the Logos of God is the center of all existence and truth, and to expound the whole of life and learning in the context of revelational theism. A secular program of education is by no means precluded from exhibiting, but may not insist upon, this option; it is not prohibited, moreover, from indicating that revelational theism continues to be one of the enduring explanatory systems in Western thought, and from indicating its philosophical implications.
To present only alternatives, or only the preferred alternative of a particular instructor, is to compromise American education into unworthy indoctrination. A secular program is one thing; a secular program of education is something much more demanding and precise. To present the compelling options and the reasons adduced for them, and to indicate the problems these options raise for the contemporary mind, and to exhibit the assumptions peculiar to modernity as well as to man in the past—all this is necessary and integral to competent education.
A question we need to ask, however, is this: What is the integrating factor of life and learning in a secular program of education? Such an integrating and cohesive center is hard to come by today, though secular efforts to supply it have been legion. Multiple deities expiring into the death of God, and value systems collapsing into a value-vacuum and into self-assertion, seems to characterize and summarize the present drift to radical secularity. Modern university learning currently has no unifying principle, and its emphasis on personal self-fulfillment leads in the absence of norms to ethical relativism. While secular education has every freedom to raise the subject of such a principle, it carefully evades it, hereby helping to cause its current moribund state. Strange to say, teachers at the elementary level seem more concerned about indoctrination for a cohesive education, and often carry on as if religion somehow can pull and hold everything together, while the secular campus, in its virtual absence of interest in religious realities, implies that the irrelevance of God is its central item of unanimity.
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