Only a faith that moves can re-energise the cultural vitality of Christianity in a post-Christian climate. Fluffy values with a sprinkling of Bible stories inoculate children against adult curiosity about Christ.
While Ken Boston and Kevin Donnelly duke it out over postcode envy, Principal Joe Kelly and the parents of Cranbourne South Primary School have been stirring a different kind of buzz. Alongside a number of other education professionals, Kelly refuses to have mandatory religion lessons taught by a proselytising Protestant group. His claim: it's inane.
A defensive response by Christian leaders might be to stand on law and tradition. It's not the competence of the principal to be vetting religious material in the school. I imagine words will be had minister to Minister, Special Religious Instruction (SRI) will be reaffirmed, and the decline of the West will return to a more comfortable rate of disintegration.
That's simply not good enough. Only a faith that moves, be it mountains or mulberry trees, can re-energise the cultural vitality of Christianity in a post-Christian climate. Fluffy values with a sprinkling of Gospel stories is not a faith that moves. If anything, SRI imparts just enough background knowledge to make The God Delusion readable. Thousands of children are thereby being vaccinated against any kind of adult curiosity about Jesus Christ. And so I think Kelly is right to protest, though perhaps for reasons completely different to his own.
At the heart of disputes about the school curriculum and religion lie two questions: "What is formation?" and "What is the relationship between truth and tolerance?" For Meredith Doig and other rationalists, religious truth is found somewhere within - or more probably above - the kaleidoscope of different religious traditions. It almost certainly will not lie in rote learning Catechism or Scripture - in other words, in indoctrination to a particular creed. My beef with the comparative study of religion, though, is that benevolent scepticism fails to pass on the living force of faith.
Joseph Ratzinger put the problem thus in Truth and Tolerance:
"Living in beautiful fictions may be something that people who hold theories about religion can do; for the person who is asking himself how he can live and die, and for what, they are not enough."
If the true, and relatedly the good, are not seen as ideals to strive for, are not embodied in the witness educators give to students, we only succeed in passing on a fragile relativism. In many cases, secular ethics is too subtle a substitute for the clearly identifiable commitments signalled by religious belief.
Let me illustrate the pitfalls of simply teaching "there are many views." Greens Senator Penny Wright has called for a non-partisan approach to the National Curriculum Review. The appeal seems obvious. And yet. Why should the Liberal Party not play political games and cause curriculum chaos on the approach to the Gonski bridge? You can tell a politician his or her power play is not "nice," you can relate it to any number of infringements of the Golden Rule across any number of ethical positions, but you can only stand up to it on the basis of a lived commitment. Postmodernism can tear down but it can't build up. Even Heidegger recognised that "nobody dies for mere values."
Formation means treating issues of transcendence seriously. It means appreciating the rationality of religion and not just its sociological existence. It means taking other people's ideas seriously enough to even be able to critique those ideas in respectful dialogue: Why maintain a caste system? Should the rejection of idolatry entail violence? Religious instruction sins when it is the cause of indifference. With the consent of their guardians, students should be challenged to adopt a view and defend it, cognisant of why others might decide differently. And there are programmes that offer this experience.
Since 2007 some religious schools have been taking part in the Philosothons organised by the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Association (FAPSA). The guided sessions are a tremendous help to brighter students in the articulation of their beliefs. Moreover, midway through this year, the University of Notre Dame will be extending its LOGOS programme to Year 11 students. Here is a curriculum that marries critical thinking with a commitment to Christian Revelation.
What more could be done? Year 12 should allow for government recognised courses in Catholic Studies. Ditto for Anglicans, Muslims and Jews. Other courses may also be relevant. Although a comparative study of other religions would be included in the syllabus, it would always maintain a particular confession in keeping with how faith is lived. The path there begins in primary school and that means the allocation of money, resources and teachers - on a par with other subjects - to ensure a "world class" pedagogy in a dimension of human existence as important as religion. The cross-over with art, music, history and geography calls for an expert involvement that should not be left to the mercy of volunteers.
So this whole critique has simply been a plug for cash? Yawn. Nevertheless, when teachers and students can see the carrot of official recognition in Year 12 assessment, religion classes from Year 2 onwards will command a newfound respect. Neither a DIY ethics kit led by children nor Humphrey B. Bear catechists will solve Principal Kelly's woes. He needs religion teachers who have been trained in guided philosophical inquiry.
Author: Father Richard Umbers is the Managing Editor of Solidarity, a journal of the University of Notre Dame dedicated to Catholic social thought and social justice.