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Christian Schooling in a Secular Age: Reimagining Education as Mission

Written on October 28th, 2014

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This year, the keynote speaker at the biennial Christian Schools Canada Leadership Conference was James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the editor of Comment magazine. Smith is also the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Over the next few weeks, the OACS News Service will provide readers with summaries of Smith’s four keynote addresses. This week’s summary (number three of four) invites readers to think about the nature of our secular age, and the implications it has for the Christian school movement. Where do the “spiritual but not religious” fit in? How do we make sense of the spiritual longings that endure in our culture today? Join with Smith in thinking seriously about how Christian schools can bless those who are longing for something more.

Christian Schooling in a Secular Age: Reimagining Education as Mission

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”—So begins the memoir of the notable English writer, Julian Barnes.

For Jamie Smith, it’s a sentiment that perfectly captures the ambiguous, haunted space that is our secular age. But what exactly is our current secular age all about? In his third plenary address, Smith does his best (in the hour allotted to him) to address that question, while unpacking the implications it has for the project of Christian schooling.

Early in his lecture, listeners are invited to challenge the notion that secularity (as a cultural moment) is synonymous with an age of unbelief, and by extension, with the cut and dry brand of atheism toted by authors like Richard Dawkins. True, many of the Secularists to make headlines within recent years have rejected the concept of transcendence and view the world as a product of random chance—but their belief that we’re all on our way to becoming atheists is hardly reflective of the cultural context we find ourselves in now.

After all, points out Smith, if our current secular age is, in fact, synonymous with atheism, why do so many expressions of spirituality endure?

A fixation on spiritual fulfillment seems to be embedded in the very fabric of our culture. Smith makes mention of widely popular musicians like Ben Gibbard, whose songs include lyrics like this one: “I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real”. Smith also points to the stories written by the late David Foster Wallace, which feature characters who want the world to be enchanted and feel pulled towards a religious way of life.

As a means of understanding this phenomenon and its relevance to Christian education, Smith returns to the work of Charles Taylor, a Christian philosopher and public intellectual with some valuable insights about the emergence of the secular. Taylor clearly wrote that the emergence of the secular was never about simply rejecting the spiritual, says Smith.

“What you needed to do was actually create the possibility of having a meaningful, significant life without any appeal to God, transcendence or eternity”.

Smith goes on to remind his listeners that before the secular age we had the healthy sense that the world was open: He suggests that we’re now forging meaning within an enclosed, imminent space (made up of the projects we create to make our lives feel full and significant).

Taylor describes this as a “cross pressured space”, says Smith, where everybody’s convictions are challenged: So, yes, the believer is tempted to doubt, but the unbeliever is also tempted to believe. Don’t we all know people who respond to the nagging sense that there must be something more out there by defining themselves as “spiritual but not religious”?

Although many Christians are troubled by this pattern, Smith believes it might also serve as a potential prelude to authentic Christian faith.

If our culture’s gravitation towards spirituality really testifies to a longing for something “more” , we have good reason to join with Smith in thinking seriously about what how that “more” finds expression in our school communities.

If Christian school communities desire meaningful engagement within our culture, they may need to rethink the way they relate to the “spiritual but not religious” people who come knocking. Rather than offering them a set of ideas or fixated arguments, Christian schools will need to invite students to participate in a way of life, says Smith—a covenantal and communal following of Jesus that is embodied, practiced and liturgical. He’d like to see schools nurture a faith that speaks to the physicality of a human persons, and shapes the rhythms of a school’s culture. His vision springs from his deep conviction that God meets us through concrete rituals and in material things: bread, wine, water.

Once again, Smith leaves his listeners with a number of intriguing points to mull over—at the centre of his lecture is this question: Can Christian schools revisit their notion of the secular, and cultivate communities of patience, where the “spiritual but not religious” realize who it is they are in fact longing for?

To listen to the full audio files of Smith’s Christian Schooling in a Secular Age presentation, click here.