The role of faith formation in schools has become the subject of much heated debate; here is my own personal experience of being educated in the Christian faith as a child and how that education has impacted my life.
Christian faith formation was part and parcel of my childhood education. As a toddler, I regularly heard simple Bible stories – Creation, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Plagues of Egypt, David and Goliath, Elijah at the Brook Cherith, Daniel in the Den of Lions, the Nativity, the Miracles of Christ, the Parables, the Crucifixion and Resurrection and many more. During my school days, I moved from stories to Scripture reading and analysis of religious belief and doctrine. Some of my teachers exhibited a genuine belief in God, thus impacting me through their subjects even though they were not specifically teaching religion. I grew up, relatively capable in Maths, English, languages and science, but also equipped with a confident knowledge of God and of my heritage as a citizen of a Judaeo- Christian nation. Not only did such learning increase my knowledge of Christianity, it also added a depth to my educational experience and ultimately to my understanding of life generally which has proved to be invaluable.
Boundaries brought freedom to be myself
It helped me make sense of History; Ancient Ireland, the work of Patrick, the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Ages of Exploration, Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution, the great wars, and modernisation were all easier to understand when one understood the religious factors that played a role in the conflicts behind so many historical events. Maths and Science were underpinned, subconsciously, by the knowledge that God the Creator was a God of order and structure, and that human beings, made in the image of God, were equipped with the faculty of reason. On ethical issues, such as human relationships, I was gently instructed in the facts, and in the Christian beliefs concerning marriage. There was a sense of security in such education; I was allowed to be a child, to be untrammelled by the pressure of relationships with the opposite sex. The boundaries gave me freedom to be myself.
Understanding great literature
English was my favourite subject, and without a doubt my education in Christian belief gave me a deeper understanding of the great works of literature. My Leaving Cert texts included Silas Marner (George Elliott) and Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), two texts dealing with various aspects of Judaeo-Christendom. Poets I studied included T.S Elliott, Emily Dickinson and Patrick Kavanagh, all of whom had both positive and negative interactions with Christian belief at the heart of their works. I thrived on the give and take of great literature, the challenging of belief-systems, the presentation of old truth in new light, the varied angles and perspectives on the issues of life. English was a fascinating adventure; I immersed myself in words, not just because I wished to do well in an exam, but because I loved what I was learning.
Bullying and peer pressure
It wasn’t just my education, however, which benefited from the early instruction I received in Christian faith and values. Like so many today, I was the victim of bullying and peer pressure, and in my early teens wept tears of hurt bewilderment as I tried to figure out what I was doing so wrong that my ‘friends’ wouldn’t let me be part of their group. I used to think the problem was with me; I wasn’t wearing the right clothes or I just didn’t know how to be cool. In those days, it was always comforting to simply know that God saw what was happening too; He would never leave me, even if my fickle ‘friends’ ignored me when it suited them. I learned to be content with my own company, and became strong enough to walk alone, a skill which was invaluable right through the tumultuous college years.
Fighting the darkness
When I left Ireland for a year in my early twenties, I was unprepared for the debilitating aloneness that assailed me abroad. While I was surrounded by acquaintances and people who did indeed care about me, I came face to face with a dark part of myself I hadn’t known existed. I remember one day finding myself walking across a bridge in the centre of that European city, and staring numbly, wearily, at the raging waters below. Life was pointless and empty; bright lights were just illusions. I turned from the river and in desperation, skyped a faraway friend; he had been there too and he gave me life-saving advice. ‘Don’t focus on the darkness. Don’t look into yourself. Look away. Look to God’.
I did, reaching back to those fundamental facts that had been built into my life at a tender age. It was facts I needed now, not self-help tips, or emotional quotes. God exists. God has created me. God made me for a purpose. God cares about me right now, here in this cold, friendless city. To those facts I clung, as a drowning man clings to a safety ring. And, eventually, looking away from my weary, broken self to One much greater Who understood what was beyond my fallible comprehension, I walked across that bridge and made it through the grasping, cursed darkness.
Life as a teacher
Today, in my career as a teacher, my belief in God forms the foundation of my own teaching philosophy. For the kids that are hard to love, I remember that all are made in the image of God, and are therefore invaluable and worthy of the deepest respect. I teach them to respect themselves, help them to see their immense potential, encourage them to be positive. But there are times when such platitudes are not enough. Just recently, a pupil shared with me about an extremely challenging personal circumstance. Deeply moved, I talked about being strong and brave, and looking on the bright side, when the child politely interrupted, ‘I know all that’. So I added, ‘And because I believe that God is all powerful, and can do anything, I will pray for you’. Only then did the light come to that child’s face, a spark of hope ignited by the prospect of Divine intervention.
Faith education in my formative years impacted my life immensely, and has provided me with the basis upon which I built my own personal faith. My soul now has an anchor. I feel strongly that our children will incalculably miss out if they are not provided with a knowledge of God and His Word and a strong foundation in Judaeo-Christian beliefs when they are young. To attempt to de-Christianise schools will only end in moral and social disaster for the state school system, as has happened in other countries.
Merely ‘spectators at the carnival of belief?’
Minister for Education, T.D Richard Bruton, believes that schools ought to be places of inclusion and understanding between different groups. He has referred positively to the Goodness Me Goodness You faith and belief nurturing program which ‘is based on mutual understanding of different religions and belief systems, and of people who don’t subscribe to any religion’. He proposes a worrying alternative to straightforward education in Judaeo-Christian belief, for to educate a child in all religions equally will inevitably turn that child into what journalist John Waters once called ‘a spectator at the carnival of belief’. When no belief system is preferred, a barren vacuum ensues, leaving children adrift with no anchor in a cruel world. We do our children a dire injustice if we refuse to educate them in basic truths concerning God. For my part, I know that my belief in God, the seed of which was planted when I was a little child, has been my mainstay, my life-line and has given true meaning to my existence.