The Centrality of Morality, Obedience, and Worship in Christian Education

[composed as an address to Christian educators]

The label “Christ-centered” is often applied to faith-based and para-church organizations, especially Christian schools. But I have yet to hear the theology of this compound phrase unpacked thoughtfully. Before we can answer the question “what does it mean to be Christ-centered,” we must ask a more fundamental question: “Who is Christ?” This second question is what Christ himself asks of us. The first question poses some dangers if unmoored from the second; it poses a danger, since it might unintentionally imply that Christ is at a certain distance from us, and thus could use a little ‘centering,’ a bit of a rearrangement or relocation on our own terms, in order to fit an agenda, an enterprise, an ideology, or some private judgment about him. Rather, we should insist that Christ is already centered somewhere—bodily ascended into heaven, he intercedes for us at the right hand of God the Father, and is made available to us on earth through the Holy Spirit in his Body, the Church. He is the “cornerstone” of the Church, which is built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets,” which grows into a “household,” a “holy temple,” a “whole building” into which individuals are incorporated by baptism and thus are “built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22). Scripture is unambiguous: Christ is centered in heaven with God, and he is centered as the cornerstone of his Church, which is an objective and visible reality on earth.

We must center our lives around these realities, not re-center Christ into our own formulas and plans. The danger is that we compartmentalize Christ, picking and choosing the aspect of him that we prefer, leaving out those that are not as savvy, culturally relevant, or aligned with the sensibilities of the time. Rather, in St. Augustine’s phrase, we must come to grips with the totus Christus, the total or whole Christ,  comprising who he always is eternally as the Son, who he is revealed to be through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and who he continues to be in his Body, the Church. And, Christ himself teaches us much about who he is. In his own words, he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:16) He says elsewhere, “narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life; and few there are that find it! (Matthew 7:13-14). Christ has clarified that he is this same life that we seek – therefore, we can say with some certainty, “narrow is the gate and strait the way that leadeth to Christ, and few there are who find it!” So, it appears that answering the question “Who is Christ?” with any precision turns out to be a project fraught with peril and error, a fact evident from the briefest of surveys of Church history, especially the historical cycles of christological heresies. And yet, of course, we know that Christ has not left us to doom, but has established for us means by which we may come to know and answer with certainty, as did St. Peter, the question Christ asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Through the witness of the Holy Scriptures, and through the Holy Spirit-inspired teaching of Christ’s body, the Church, we can say confidently with St. Peter, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).

But our quest is not yet satisfied. What is a Christ? What is a Son of a Living God? These questions are our perennial starting point in all pursuits of knowledge, since the Incarnation of the Son of God, the God-Man, is the supreme way in which God, the supreme reality, has revealed himself. I’d like to, then, look at three images from Scripture that provide us with rich food for thought about who this God-Man is, and what it means to center on Him, as well as some thoughts about the relevance of these images for Christian educators. I will risk preaching to the choir for the sake of stimulating our public dialogue about how to communicate these ideas to students, how we reveal what it means to love, worship, and obey Christ, the Son of Living God, and center every aspect of our lives on Him as he is. So, let’s look at how Scripture shows us that Christ is Savior, Christ is King, and Christ is High-Priest.

Christ is savior. For Christ to be savior means that someone is in need of being saved. Since all inheritors of Original Sin have “fallen short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) this means all of us. For Christ to be savior means that we are in need of being saved. In his writings, St. Paul does not use this term to refer to the result of having prayed a prayer once. Rather, he uses it to refer to the totality of a believer’s experience in the past, present, and future, and often uses it to refer to what will happen to the faithful once they pass through the Day of Judgment. The life of the Christian is one of constant moral struggle, of discernment between good and evil and action in either direction. One is always free to reject the faith they have been given—to go from being faithful to being unfaithful. There are no guarantees except for our own willed reliance on the grace of God. Therefore, we are bound to always see ourselves in need of a savior. We are bound to be penitents our entire life, to be constantly repentant, to always be converting. The protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, provides an excellent model of this, which just happens to be an excellent model of true intellectual honesty and openness. Elizabeth begins to revise her unfounded prejudices against the wealthy and reserved Mr. Darcy, especially upon visiting his home while he is not there. She receives a tour of the grounds from Darcy’s housekeeper; as she hears the housekeeper’s report of what a wonderful and virtuous man Darcy is, Elizabeth’s aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, turns to Elizabeth and asks if this could possibly be the same Darcy who they know to be bigoted and mean-spirited. Elizabeth wryly turns back to her aunt and says, “Perhaps we have been deceived.” Perhaps I have been deceived. This is the motto of the true intellectual, the true learner, the true seeker for truth, the true seeker of Christ as savior. Openness to the possibility of deception and self-deception, no matter how superficially benign, is to undergo a constant and rigorous self-analysis in light of new information, to turn all external criticisms inward and wonder if one as been deceived, either intentionally or unintentionally. It is also to wonder if one has been deceived by human authorities whose word is too easily taken for granted: workplaces, politicians, professionals, social media, news outlets, or even family, intentionally or unintentionally. We cannot take any of these for granted—all of our conscientious action must be submitted to the authority of Christ, who ordains and uses human authorities for just ends, but whose sole authority in matters of faith and morals remains eternal and inviolable. To be centered on Christ is to live a life of constant repentance, which looks like examining oneself regularly and, by the grace of God, amending one’s ways, always aware of one’s need for an authoritative savior.

At the heart of questions about deception is a question about authority—it naturally inclines us to look outside ourselves for a secure basis for knowledge and authority that transcends the potentially deceptive nature of human institutions, culture, communication, and story-telling. Scripture is unambiguous about the authoritative role of Christ in all matters on heaven and earth. Many theologians see Christ in the opening lines of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” Christ is the final authority in all things; he does not force or coerce humans or cultures to love him and obey him, but he does invite them by providing means in every generation for mankind to hear his authoritative call. In addition, Christ will arbitrate in the coming judgment, in which, according to his words in Matthew 25, all nations will be before him, and he will separate the sheep from the goats according to deeds done or not done for the “least of these,” in whom Christ is mysteriously present as the recipient of the deed. Furthermore, Christ does not leave us in the dark about what performing these deeds looks like: he mediates his authority by providing us knowledge of his will through our God-given reason and through what he has revealed. Christ is the authoritative Word of God through whom the words and teachings of Scripture have meaning. He also imparted his teaching authority to his disciples, granting them authority to preach, cast out demons, and spread the Gospel during his earthly ministry. In addition, he gave his Apostles authority to propagate the Gospel and rule the Church after his Resurrection. He commanded his Apostles to make disciples, to baptize in the name of the Trinity, and to “teach [the nations] to obey all that [he commanded]” them (Matt. 28:20). Making disciples includes authoritatively teaching what Christ has commanded about faith and morals; St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians of this when he says “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). St. Paul’s reminder is that he and his associates have been agents in extending the teachings of Christ to the Thessalonians, and that this authoritative teaching was extended both verbally—in person—and in writing. In John 17 Christ promises the Holy Spirit, who will teach them “all things” (17:25). He gives to St. Peter the keys of the kingdom. And he gives his Apostles a special gift of the Holy Spirit, breathing on them and granting them the authority to forgive or retain sins (John 20:23). Just before predicting St. Peter’s betrayal and repentance in Luke 22, Christ describes how the Apostles will play an authoritative role in his new kingdom that is not based on brute power like the kingdoms of the world, but on spiritual power. He says: “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29-30). Christ appoints the Apostles to twelve thrones of judgment in the new spiritual economy of the Church, the New Israel. Decades before a single word of the New Testament was written, Christ began exerting his Kingship through spoken, oral instructions to his Apostles and disciples who, having been given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, spread His Church like wildfire around the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Christ is King, and he exerts his authority through the Church. To be centered on Christ is thus to be centered on where he definitively exerts his authority: in the Church, whose teaching authority has given rise to the inspired authority of Scripture.

The book of Hebrews attests that, while he is ascended into heaven and has appointed humans to exert his rule through the Church, he still Christ remains mysteriously and substantially present in his Church as the High Priest. Here we see a distinctly Jewish image of Christ as priest, who was also Victim and Lamb, whose blood allows entry into the Blessed Life of the Trinity. Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to the Father for our sake by his own will and power, as priest, and invites us to offer ourselves as sacrifices in Him. As High Priest of the New and eternal covenant – not like the old and passing covenant – Christ did not do away with the rituals of the Jewish Temple, but transfigured them into signs and symbols of the New Covenant, of spiritual communion with the Father. Where there had been circumcision, Christ instituted Baptism. And where there had been the slaughtering of sheep and other animals, Christ instituted his own Body and Blood, given to us as Bread and Wine, of which he says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” and of which he elsewhere says, “Unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, you have no life in you.” It is intriguing that the only place in the Gospels where Christ uses the word for “covenant,” diatheke, is at the Last Supper when he calls the chalice of wine the cup of the “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). As high priest, Christ has a very specific will for our worship that he has revealed to us in Scripture and in His Church. Worship is not something that we invent out of our own emotions, judgments, or experience, but something that Christ himself has instituted for us and asks us to conform to. This connection between covenant, sacrifice, and worship is a sensibility much more native to ancient minds than to modern. Indeed, whenever Scripture focuses on worship, the connotation is always that of sacrifice. And that worshipful sacrifice is one in which the worshiper conforms to the god’s desires for worship, for sacrifice. In Greek culture, the phrase “Know thyself,” nosce te ipsum, was emblazoned on the stone of the entryway to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi not as an important life tip, but as a caution to enter into worship having revised one’s life to conform with the god’s will. To have Christ as our High Priest means that we must know ourselves, and discern whether or not we really believe Christ is the one who presides over all of our worship, or if we are presuming to preside over our own worship. To be centered on Christ is to be centered on the kind of worship that Christ institutes and commands, and the Scriptures and Traditions of the Church clearly reveal this to be communion with our Lord in the Bread and the Cup, the Body and the Blood.

So centering on Christ means submitting to Christ as Savior, King, and High Priest. But what does this practically mean for educators? Although difficult to inculcate given our current culture, these images of Christ flow into three priorities for the Christian educator: 1) the priority of morality, 2) the priority of obedience, and 2) the priority of attention.

First, the priority of morality. The Christian vision of a universe with a moral order that is just as real as the physical environment is radically at odds with what many today are calling the “dictatorship of moral relativism.” In the 1992 Supreme Court Case “Planned Parenthood vs. Casey,” which “reaffirmed the essential holding” of Roe vs. Wade and by extension Doe vs. Bolton, which radically liberalized “abortion on demand without apology,” which has resulted in the death of over 1 million preborn human children annually, the justices wrote this troubling philosophical statement: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Enshrined as interpretation of the law of the land, the dictatorship of moral relativism locates the individual subject as the sole source of ethical, religious, and metaphysical authority; this idea is radically opposed to the authority of Christ, and is actively creating a culture, especially in our youth, which is unreceptive to the Gospel. However, Scripture makes clear, especially the writings of St. Paul in Romans 1, for example, that morality is an objective reality in a universe created by God, and that immoral behavior is the root of a failure to perceive truth. Colossians 1:21 is an intriguing example. After the memorable discourse on Christ as the “image” or “icon” of the invisible God who reconciles all things in himself and makes peace by the blood of his cross, St. Paul says, “And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled…” The Greek, some scholars thinks, creates a closer connection between the hostility of mind and the doing of evil deeds than most translations suggests: “Kai humas pote ontas apellotriomenous kai exthous te dianoia en tois ponerois.” A more faithful translation that teases out this connotation and phrasing would sound something like this: “And you, whereas you were some time alienated and enemies in mind in evil works …” Or, to clarify for our modern ears: “You once being alienated and enemies in mind because of your evil works…” The wisdom here is simple and profound. Evil and immoral acts tend to disrupt one’s ability to see truth, because that person’s reason will then be engaged in justifying the evil already committed, not in carefully and prudently assessing truth and acting accordingly. As teachers, then, who are tasked with bringing students to the knowledge of the truth, it is our duty to not only to find teachable moments, but also to make the moral order of the universe a concrete part of our curriculum. What good will our student’s learning be if their moral lives are in shambles? What good is their academic success if they don’t believe that all life, especially the smallest and most vulnerable, is sacred and worth protecting? That God created man male and female? That one’s sexuality is a biological gift to us, and that the act of sex is not merely for pleasure, but is a sacred part of the vocation of marriage in terms of procreation and spousal union? That the foreigner and the immigrant should be protected and welcomed? That they should avoid tarot cards and fortune tellers, and that God’s good Providence and prayer are all they could possibly desire and more? That addiction to substances and to devices is damaging and mind-altering? That they have a soul, and that one day they will face judgment? It is my contention that lovingly and winsomely making a moral education a concrete facet of one’s pedagogy is not merely conservative or Christian or traditionalist, but is in fact a necessary component of learning anything true in light of the anthropological reality of who human beings are.

Furthermore, as we are reminded when considering Christ as King, human beings are creatures who by design must submit and obey. This is especially difficult in a culture that has taught us to only obey when it is personally convenient, and that has taught us that the only valid reasons for obedience are one’s feelings. For a variety of historic reasons, we’ve been taught that emotions and feelings are the sole sign authentic religious experience, right action, and performance of duty. A quick glimpse at our human nature easily shows that feelings and emotions alone are a paltry and flimsy ground for obedience, experience, and faith. The book of Romans begins and ends with a wonderful phrase that, for St. Paul, summarizes the life of those called out of Sin by Christ into the New Covenant of the Church: the “obedience of faith” (1:16, 22:20). Faith implies obedience, a total conformance of reason, emotions, and will to the truth. The word faith already suggests this—the word suggests not a mental act, but active fidelity, or faithfulness. To have faith is to obey Christ. The word obedience literally means “to listen.” Thus, in order to learn, our students must learn to “sit and listen” in order to one day form their own “voice and choice.” They must be taught to recognize valid authority – the teacher, for instance – to trust them, and to listen to what they have to say. If they are not taught to do this at home or in the classroom, how will they ever learn to do so at church or with God?

And this necessity animates my final point: that students must be taught to pay attention. This is especially difficult, close as we are to Silicon Valley, in a culture that has been called by many a rapidly growing technocracy. Computational technologies are taking over minds, hearts, and souls, and destroying families. They increase the rapidity of conveying information, but tend to decrease the sustained growth of true knowledge and wisdom. They can be useful and good in moderation and specific circumstances, but are too often used excessively, and this excess tends to create habits that use it merely to exert abusive power or instant gratification. Making children addicted to devices is particularly lucrative for big tech businesses; however, children possess native sensibilities to learn and pay attention that are often corrupted, not encouraged, by our culture and modern school system. An environment that encourages focus, attention, and learning is actually their native habitat. I have been very inspired in my work as an educator by a short essay by the Catholic philosopher Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” It may be found online. It opens thus: “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.” She goes on to show how school assignments – balancing equations, working out grammatical constructions, interpreting a poem, dissecting a pig, rehearsing scales, etc., are none of them greater or worse, since all of them cultivate a lower form of attention that inculcates the discipline of attentiveness to reality, of pursuit of truth and knowledge, that prepares the child to, one day, be fully attentive to God in prayer. So, all school studies, no matter how mundane or simple, have a miraculous function—over the course of years and years, they give students the natural discipline, self-control, and virtue with which to relate to God. But she goes further. Cultivating attention is also the one thing necessary for cultivating in students an awareness of others, teaching them to love others, to see Christ in their neighbor, and to be attentive to the needs of the world around them. She teases this out through a summary narration of the story of Perceval from the grail legends. She writes,

In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous stone vessel which satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated host, [believed in medieval French and British lore to be the chalice used by Christ in the Last Supper]) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound: “What are you going through?” The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensible, to know how to look at him in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

The end or goal of education is helping students discover truth. And one discovers truth through being equipped to pay attention. Only thus may we be true worshippers of God in spirit and truth, and true lovers of our neighbors. There is much work to do in our challenging culture to cultivate this attention, but it is a challenge full of possibility. And, it is encouraging when things are not going as planned. The simplest of assignments or tasks, insofar as they cultivate attention, as we have seen, can play a divine role in the life of the child. It may one day develop in them the eyes to see the reality of Christ as savior, king, and high priest. May we ourselves, first, develop this kind of attentive care to our subjects and to each student, that they may be drawn into a life of attention to God, to truth, to others, and to reality.

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