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Is it really taboo? Why including theology in public education makes sense

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AFP via Getty Images/Ina Fassbender

In The Idea of a University, the late Catholic theologian, John Henry Newman argues, “the systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether, and that, in proportion to its importance.”

If we are willing to (a) accept Newman’s caution against omitting a given science from education and (b) recognize theology — understood as the branch of knowledge considering the nature and activity of deity — as a valid science, the religious community may find new ways to approach the challenge of public school education. Specifically, we will come to see that without theology, public school education will always be at greater risk of having a “particular craft usurp and occupy the universe.” Some other branch of knowledge will always overreach its limits to occupy the space created by theology’s absence.

As theological thought is displaced, it is also disparaged as less essential, thus playing into the assumption that “the divine” is “something non-rational and arbitrary, almost absurd” resulting in “a gnawing sense that everything — including the self — was ephemeral, strange, and something other than we thought it to be.”

For instance, as I listen to the alarm raised by Christian leaders and parents regarding the influx of Marxist and postmodern thought in public schools, I am sympathetic and skeptical. Like other parents, I don’t want my children’s imagination to be taken over by an ideology that claims to be more complete than it is. Still, I am skeptical that fending off this round of overreaching claims will fix the deeper problem of theology’s omission. The presenting issue will always be some new ideology, whether it be Marxism, Christian nationalism (which is not Christian), liberalism, or conservatism. The deeper problem concerns the absence of theology and the functional denial of the transcendent within public school education.

While religious history or the Bible as literature may be taught in public schools, they cannot replace theology because they belong to the domains of history and literature. They fail to replace theology because they don’t encourage contemplation beyond the human realm in the way theology does. As such, they cannot provide the frameworks for thought theology provides. Without such frameworks, we are left without important resources to interrogate political systems, ethics, or philosophies that have claimed theological ground they are unfit to occupy. 

Decisions such as Abington School District v. Schempp, which precluded authorities from requiring that biblical passages or the Lord’s prayer be recited in public schools, or Engel v. Vitale, which banned school-sponsored prayer, are correct to uphold the Establishment Clause. However, such cases have not prompted discussion about what was lost with the exclusion of Bible reading and prayer. Instead, we seem to have assumed that any hint of school-sponsored divinity is anathema rather than recognizing that the problem in these cases was not with theology but with the privileging of one particular religion.

The exclusion of prayer and Bible reading did not fix the problem of government establishment. Instead, these decisions meant that the government would de facto endorse an atheistic view of the world. The neutrality is exposed as preference when we recognize that atheistic theologies map patterns in the world that say something about deity by denying deity.

The omission of theology is a problem because theology, whether or not one develops specific religious convictions, reminds us of the limits of other disciplines. When theology is not present, there is a tendency for the other sciences to take on theology’s burden despite being ill-equipped to carry it. Considered from this angle, the danger in public schooling is not so much in the specific subjects or ideologies advanced, but in its basic structure that allows such subjects to seep beyond their appropriate realm to provide “competing interpretations of what the facts might mean.” Without theology, one of the “competing interpretations” is absent within education even if it is available in and through the religious sector. As such, we run the risk of educating our children toward a “bare” life without transcendence in which “nothing promises duration or substance.” 

I am not suggesting that we go back to reading the Bible in public school or having school-sponsored prayers. Rather, I am suggesting that public education include a branch of knowledge it has been ignoring. We need to incorporate theology into public education. We need to point our children beyond the imminent and toward the transcendent by giving them theological frameworks and questions that will allow them to think about the other branches of knowledge from new angles. By reinfusing our children’s education with theology, we will empower them to “hold on to the things that make us human in the face of the various forces that seek, if not to destroy them, at least to bury them.”

Ultimately, Newman’s argument for the inclusion of theology at the university level may be extended to public school education. While I believe religious institutions need to play a strong role in teaching their respective traditions within the sphere of their religious practice, it is impractical to think theology may be sufficiently introduced through a voluntary structure. We wouldn’t, for instance, eliminate history in the hopes that museums and their curators would be able to educate the public about that field of study. If we are to avoid “the perversion of other sciences” about which Newman was concerned, there is a need to include theology in public school curricula so that children are exposed to this knowledge domain, develop convictions about it, and allow it to cultivate a sense of wonder that will empower them “to seek deeper patterns in the universe.”

Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and challenging God’s follow Jesus. His book titled Useful to God: Nine Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody was released in March 2022. He previously published Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, as well as co-authoring Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.

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