Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture. — Richard John Neuhaus
Classrooms are a lot like dinner parties, without the food or alcohol.
Or music. Or comfortable chairs. Or agreeable hosts.
Okay, classrooms aren’t like dinner parties at all except for one thing: Don’t talk politics or religion.
In the classroom, talking about God can get you fired, especially in a public school. (Though a kind of opposite occurs even in religious schools, because there you can talk about A God, but no others.) Firing doesn’t happen as often as we might believe, but talking about God is such an awkward minefield of a subject that few teachers dare walk their classes in that direction. We can allude to God in the classroom, but we really don’t talk about God. We can speak clinically about religions, but we can’t speak emotionally about what drives all of them.
We’ll talk about Love. About Death. About Money and Culture. Biology and Physics. Tradition and Race. About Hate and Prejudice, even Faith and Belief. But we don’t talk about the one thing lurking behind so much of it: God.
Let’s be clear. Nobody knows who or what God is, or if such a creature exists at all. Talking about God does not mean we are certain. But this is true of much of what we study in school. It’s not always ‘facts’. Often, in fact, it’s fiction. We talk about Love, or History, or Philosophy, not because we know with certainty what those things are, but because we don’t. We only know that they have power and effect and we need to try to understand and maybe control.
The people who usually want God in school, or anywhere else for that matter, sadly have a pretty singular idea of who that God might be. Usually, their idea of God is so absolute it becomes a Religion. And most religions, especially the troublesome ones you’re not supposed to discuss at dinner parties, are so intimately married to their Gods that nobody else can talk about God either.
It’s tricky when the thing that so many share is also the thing that everyone has an oh-so-slightly different (or oh-so-very-different) view about. If there is a God that we need to talk about in school, it’s this One, the One (or Ones) so many share, the One (or Ones) so many care about (even the atheists, especially the atheists). The One (or Ones) nobody quite agrees upon.
Even though we can declare that magic doesn’t exist, or spirits, or ghosts, or life after death, or any other mystery rooted outside the physical universe, the fact remains that we live lives inseparably bound to the incorporeal. And in that world, fictional or not, exists something that touches most (arguably all) people’s lives, something best understood as God.
Traditionally, Gods have been anything with god-like powers, that is to say, anything with authority beyond the physical realm. Insistence on a single Omnipotent God casts a shadow within the shadow of all that isn’t physical. It’s a shadow that hides the fact that anything with power and no physical form is God-like. But just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t Real. Love may be a product of molecules and electricity in the cells of the brain (or lower), but the Love celebrated by people (and so often married to God) isn’t physical at all. It’s something else.
We need to get God back in school, because God, real or not, is very much a concern of all of ours. And school is (now) where we grapple with all those concerns.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
We cannot really know our own history without involving God. Not because God has a hand in it, but because people do, and people are motivated by their Gods. Nearly all human event involves a God to some degree, and especially our conflicts. Maybe over whose is real, or on a command from One, or a motivation inspired by One, or a profound truth about the human condition that involves the Deity (or Deities). You cannot understand history — either the past or the present — without calling out God. You cannot understand the Middle East, or The American South, or present-day India, without introducing some deity’s role in people’s ideas.
To avoid the influence of God upon history is like studying the Holocaust and skimming anytime Judaism comes up. Which is generally how we approach God when discussing history, skipping through the moments that directly examine the God’s ‘presence’ — not as an actual thing, but through whatever idea It is representing. We might note that men held certain beliefs that drove them to action, but rarely do we genuinely take those ideas seriously.
We sideline the whole God part of our conflicts, emphasizing instead the political or economic or nationalistic roots, and it leaves much of our history curiously blind to the manner in which Gods define and sanctify belief. This is not to say that all conflict is bound to religion; there is no single cause except perhaps one man’s capacity for violence against another, but Gods certainly have a hand.
“The aim and final end of all music, should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
Johann Sebastian Bach
#2. Art and Beauty
If our Gods are threaded through conflicts, they are also completely embedded in Art. All literature — from ancient mythology to contemporary music — concerns God. But not the omnipotent Father figure of most Western religions. (Although it’s worth noting, and discussing in school, that many omnipotent Fathers forbid Art from being about anything but Them.) The God in literature is the thing behind sublime truths. When Jay Gatsby, in pursuit of True Love, recreates himself as a man of Wealth, he’s choosing one Truth over another, to disastrous consequences. Every novel by Charles Dickens has at core the Hand of God driving his characters into moral choices. Odysseus’s entire journey is shoved here and there by the concerns of Greek Deities, ending ultimately in the sacred Hearth of his home. None of these great works concern the literal directives or demands of a single God upon mankind, yet all seek to reveal the mysterious Truths that define our existence.
There is no physical formula for Beauty, no algorithm for Love or Hate. People can break apart the natural world to its smallest parts and never discover, much less measure or quantify, what we sometimes know as sublime truth. Science and math cannot reveal God, because God by definition can never be fully understood by formula or numbers.
Which is not to say that many or most scientists and mathematicians are not motivated by God either. You couldn’t swing a cat in a room full of history’s greatest scientific minds without most of them bringing God up. The mathematicians are the worst. The great Mathematicians don’t shut up about God. They talk about It All. The. Time. Leibniz, Descartes, Einstein, Newton, Russell. None of them can shut up about God, and most evoke the name when speaking in the grandest terms of their work.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
The third reason God matters enough to be a part of school concerns Purpose. Purpose with a capital P. Life’s Purpose. The Reason we are on the planet, the Meaning of Life and all that.
School is not a place to tell every child what their Purpose is. (We can leave that to church, I suppose, or Disney.) But school is a place to tell every person that they have a Purpose and that they should seek it out. To find it, they need skills. Not merely language, but science and math and history and music and everything else. To honor their Purpose they need to respect it enough to seek mastery.
We get it, we teachers really do. Some of you people out there (and some of us too) have pretty black and white ideas about God and what is expected of us regarding the creature and what happens to those who differ. But because those people have such strong opinions, and the history is so often dark, and the whole thing is just one big messy complication, we’ve simply pretended it doesn’t exist at all. We’ve taken the lesson that no one should have the power to force anyone else to kneel before a single Purpose, and hammered it into an attempt to ignore the whole matter altogether.
Which is not just crazy, it’s destructive. Real or not, fundamental to every human being’s happiness and sense of self is a relationship with the intangible. It’s not enough to merely know how to read and write, to understand a little math, and be sent on one’s way into the world. It is simply not enough to have a job or a skill or money. Life is a whole lot more than that. People are a whole lot more than their production and purchasing value. It’s impossible to have an education in history or literature or science or math without bumping into God, yet such is our insistence that we pretend It isn’t there and that It isn’t standing beside the very things we are learning. We’re like adults pretending to play hide and seek with the children whose bodies are visible behind the curtain and whose heads stick out behind the couch and who crouch under the glass table.
None of these concerns — History, Art, Purpose — demand fealty to any one God either. None demand judgement, and none demand absolute commitment. In fact, if your God demands absolute obedience and fealty, then you probably shouldn’t be studying any of those things in the first place. That’s the irony: a God who demands unquestioning obedience is not the kind of God who would have anyone in school at all, and yet here we are, with schools so terrified to address the issue of God that we veer from the very stuff
And #4 We Can’t Escape It
There’s a fourth reason we need to feel comfortable talking about God in the classroom, and that’s because God’s going to be there anyway. Not in the Voice From Above miracle sense, but the ‘human beings are going to make things into God no matter what’ sense. It doesn’t matter that we don’t actually admit the Godlike aspects of our ideologies, people will put them there anyway. But if we don’t recognize this tendency, it becomes, like buried rage, more powerful and less understood and less under control.
There’s no supernatural being lurking behind every war, much less proof of One in victory or defeat. Any more than a Superbowl champion owes its achievement to the prayers of its players and fans. Fiction, in the end, is a product of imagination, not, as the Greeks might have said, the voice of a Muse speaking through the man. Math unlocks the physical universe, not the spiritual one. But people genuinely and enthusiastically and faithfully imbue their Purposes and cares with their Gods, and those Gods are themselves very real representations of human ideals and values and principles. Every human institution is a church.
I suspect we ignore this at our peril.
Today, we treat the profoundly spiritual reasons behind persecution and injustice as mere excuses that disguise physical or economic or tribal motivations. The truth is as much the opposite. Without realizing it, many become as zealous as those they hate, silencing, as the most fervent often do, the sinners and heretics and apostates, casting them out. We just call it Cancel Culture and pretend it’s Real.
We pretend Capitalism or Communism or Fascism have nothing to do with Gods at all. But American Individuality is as spiritual a concept as Christ on the Cross or the Muslim call to prayer. Resistance to GMO is as thoroughly embedded in a sanctified Natural world as the Catholic church’s condemnation of Galileo’s heresy.
Money itself is supernatural, an idea, an invention. It has no physical form at all (less today than ever before, with most traded ‘currency’ being virtual). And it has more Godlike powers over other men than any sword or bullet ever did. Do we really believe that a person who finds themselves a billion dollars wealthier in less than a year has actually ‘earned’ that power through physical effort? Or do we somehow apply some unacknowledged Deity’s favor upon their fortune and move on?
And because Death is God’s territory, we are often in the modern world left groping towards our own inevitable end, denying perhaps just through sheer confusion and willful blindness, the all-too often prolonged suffering of so many elderly.
In the past, society and church were as inseparably wedded as the most ironclad marriage, but that is no longer the case. In the modern world, the union is between society and school. We don’t need Religion in school, but we should treat school as a church.
This year America recorded the lowest church membership in its history, falling below 50%, a drop fueled by those saying they have ‘no religious preference’ at all. As an atheist, one might predict I’d celebrate such a moment. Hardly. I mourn for us. Because even this non-believer spends his life in the classroom guiding his students through Literature and poetry. Even this faithless apostate believes the most profound Meaning abides in what we cannot see or touch, in the worlds of the Gods.
He’s just not allowed to say it.