About New Christianity and Education: What’s the Interaction?

Part of the development of the New Christian Church has been the mission of education. Why? Since soon after people started getting together to read and discuss Swedenborg’s writings, there has been a question about how much they suggested a distinctively new culture, and how much the ideas would permeate society, and change society from within.

The history of the church suggests that both things happened — there was a permeation of ideas to a surprising extent, and some of the efforts to figure out a distinctive culture have had long-term success. From some of the “distinctive culture” efforts have come New Church schools — in the US, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and the Philippines. They are doing some really useful work, and it’s interesting to look at the underlying philosophy. We’re taking this description (with permission) from the Pittsburgh New Church’s web site, and making it a little more general.

Values-Free Education – Not Possible

Much of the difficulty in modern education is caused by the effort to teach without values. It is, in our view, a doomed effort. There really can’t be a values-free education. Imagine this conversation:

Student: “Why do we study history?”
Teacher: “So that we can learn from the successes and failures of earlier peoples”
Student: Why should we do that?
Teacher: “So we can do better than they did.”
Student: “How do you know what is better?”

Well…what do you answer? More material wealth? More power? Less pain? Longer lives? More leisure? More happiness? More fairness (and what IS fair)?

Every answer is going to reflect underlying values. There’s no such thing as values-free thinking.

The real question, then, is this: What values are we going to base our teaching on? At bottom, there aren’t all that many choices.

God, or Not?

If we suppose that God doesn’t exist, and that the physical universe is without purpose, and that we are, as Bertrand Russell put it, “random collocations of atoms” then it is completely arbitrary to teach that something is right, and something else is wrong. In such a worldview, there’s no objective “use” in being good stewards for future generations or in fighting Nazis. We might as well teach our children how to get the most wealth, comfort, instant gratification, power – whatever they want – for themselves.

If, on the other hand, we suppose that God does exist, and made the universe, and, in the course of time, human beings, and that he did so for some reason, and that one of the things we need to do is try to understand the reason… then we have a very different school.

Let’s consider what that school might be like. (It’s going to take a little explanation, so take a deep breath, and… let’s get into it.)

It’s probably obvious that we subscribe to the second supposition. We believe that there is a God, that he is love itself and wisdom itself, and that there is an inner spiritual layer to the universe that corresponds to the outer physical layer. We don’t see a conflict between true religion and true science at all; in fact, they can inform each other. The processes of nature reflect and ground out spiritual processes.

We believe that God, being love itself, has as his underlying purpose of creation the development of people who can choose freely to receive his love, and return it, and be made happy thereby. It’s the reciprocal pursuit of happiness. America’s founding fathers had some inkling of how this could work.

People that are not free to say “no” to God aren’t really free. Animals that aren’t rational enough to really think spiritually aren’t really free either. And, if you are trying to teach someone truth, and lead them to good, and they aren’t free to say “no”, then a “yes” is forced too. So, God really wants us to be free, so that he can really lead us to be happy, if we choose to let him.

So, if you accept for the moment that we have freedom, we then also need rationality, so that we can think sensibly and clearly what to do with our freedom. Rational minds need to be fed with truth, and encouraged to develop loves for good things.

We believe that, ever since the dawn of human rationality, God has been communicating with us in ways accommodated to our abilities to listen – including, after writing was developed, the Bible. In the New Church, we also believe that Swedenborg’s theological works were also inspired by God, and that sacred texts in Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and other religions were at least in part revelatory, suited to the spiritual receptivity of people in those places and times.

Let’s go back to the idea that we need spiritual freedom – to choose whether or not to turn ourselves towards spiritual influx, and rationality, to help inform our choice. The freedom is an aspect of our human will – it’s what we love, or want. The rationality is an aspect of our understanding – it’s what we know, think, and understand

The will and the understanding need to grow together. As a person grows up, he develops a “ruling love”, and it falls on one side or the other of a clear dividing line – the selfish/unselfish line. On the unselfish side of the line, the person is mostly governed by love to the Lord, and to the neighbor. On the selfish side, the person is governed by love of self and love of the world.

You can imagine that, in a society where most people love themselves better than their neighbors, things get unpleasant. In a society where everyone is looking out for the other guy, it’s pretty nice. We read stories about both kinds of behavior in the news every day, and we see them played out in less dramatic fashion, all the time, in our daily lives.

In New Church schools, we’re trying to develop and inform the rational minds of our students, and we’re trying to help them learn to love God and the neighbor. It’s an effort that is very well grounded in life.

A School to Educate the Whole Child

In a school that was founded on beliefs like these, you would expect to find more emphasis on kindness, obedience, good manners, and thoughtfulness. You would also expect that children would learn about the world around them – from the standpoint of a respect for and interest in the way things work, since they are a part of the universe which God has made. You would also hope that the school would teach the children about the Lord, from stories from the Word, and from a thoughtful philosophy of education based on His teachings. This is the kind of school that New Church educators are trying to create.

The New Church is far from having established a perfect educational system. It is still very much a work in progress, even after over a century of New Church education. But we are pleased when we see our students helping each other, working together, and growing up nicely – well prepared for later school, for work and for living a useful, happy life.

So…the whole child…spirit, mind and body. Without question, the three are highly interconnected. New Church schools work with all three aspects.

They try to encourage healthy bodies through physical education classes, active games at recess, class activities such as circle games, crafts, and large scale art projects, and fairly light homework loads.

Working with children’s minds is a more subtle challenge. The growth of the mind has been an area of particular study for New Church educators. Four-year-olds typically love movement, sense experiences, singing, simple tales, and lots of hugs from their parents. Eight-year-olds will have more ability to imagine. They’ll appreciate the rich variety in skies, and rocks, and colors, and peoples. They love stories, and reading, and they begin to see deeper levels of meaning in characters and events. Twelve-year-olds love learning about the natural world, and they like to begin classifying, and seeing geometry at work. Their social horizon broadens from the classroom to the local community, and they get interested in legends, and history, and heroes, and literature. This stage is a great time for teaching science, and craftsmanship, and skills such as mechanics, weaving, and gardening.

All these stages are part of an orderly progression, in which the natural mind is opened, and filled with knowledges which can later form the foundation of higher thinking, and more spiritual awareness. The spiritual nature of children is developed by learning stories from the Word, by imagining heaven and eternal life, and by early efforts to live by the Golden Rule, the Two Great Commandments, and the Ten Commandments. We therefore teach stories from scripture to all ages, choosing ones which are appropriate for the various age groups, and gradually building up a sense of the continuous threads running through the Old and New Testaments. This distinctly New Christian education is an important foundation for later life, in which these truths will have to be called in times of temptation and doubt.