Worldview and “Final Narrative”: My Philosophy of Education

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

-Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

“But we have the mind of Christ,” Paul tells the Corinthians.

Theirs was a sensual culture, and its people followed their hearts wherever their hearts should lead them. This approach earned them notoriety within the Hellenistic world: to fornicate was to “Corinthianize.”

At the same time, there were powerful religious and secular leaders who championed not the heart but the hands. For them, it was all about action, power, movement, the exertion of the will, and the demonstration of mastery.

There were also intellectuals, both genuine and spurious, who advocated for the primacy of wisdom. These peddlers of philosophy weren’t “heart people” or “hands people”; they were “head people.”

It was into this context of disputed anthropologies that Paul called the Corinthian believers to a better way, the way of Christ. His pedagogy was imitatio Christi—the imitation of Christ. He called for Christians to have the mind of Christ.


Sola Sapientia?

Unfortunately, when we read that we are to have the mind of Christ, we often assume that Paul’s antidote to our culture’s Corinthian hearts, its lust for signs of power, and its sophistry is simply to out-think our secular opponents. We imagine that if we teach our children to best their peers in the realm of the intellect, bringing the Christian worldview to bear on every aspect of our culture, we can preserve the faith and pass it along to another generation despite Christendom’s decline.

Pedagogically, then, Christian education acts as though the secular head, heart, and hands must be replaced primarily with a Christian head. We tend to privilege the head over the heart and hands, hoping that a Christian heart and a set of Christian hands will follow naturally from a mind that has been thoroughly shaped by a Christian worldview.

But are we primarily thinking beings? Do our thoughts supervene upon our emotions and volitions in such a way that they determine the kind of people we become, and ultimately how we feel and what we do?

I don’t think so.

First of all, it’s not just our hearts that are fallen–though the heart is desperately wicked, as the prophet tells us. Nor is our fallenness confined to our actions. Our minds are fallible, too. Our ability to conform our minds to the teaching of Christ in his word is fallible, even while his word itself is not. We are just as capable of being mistaken as we sketch out the components of a robust Christian worldview as we are capable of unwittingly engaging in unfaithful conduct.

Story-shaped, or Argument-shaped?

When my best friend and I were both newly married, we frequently talked about our difficulties adjusting to married life. Those were heady days for both of us, and especially for his wife and him. They were intellectual people determined to sort out their married life according to their robustly Christian worldviews. They argued. A lot.

One day, as my friend recounted a recent heated argument between him and his wife, and the philosophical stalemate that resulted, I had a rare flash of insight and brilliance. I told him: “You two are going to have to decide if you want your marriage to be shaped like an argument, or shaped like a story.” I’ve never said something so incisive and helpful again in my life.

Worldview education as a program for outthinking our secular counterparts can only get us so far. It won’t even get two thoughtful Christians who love each other on the same page all the time. Many times we are so steeped in “the Christian worldview” that we begin to generate an unsavory Christian McCarthyism that constantly suspects other Christians of being secret agents for secularity.

Even if our typical worldview program gets us to the place where we can analyze everything under the sun with heroic levels of scrutiny and sophistication, it still misses the mark. Too often, the way worldview education is pursued in schools, churches, and homes falls woefully short of helping young people begin to lives that are shaped like stories.

We may be able to fill our children’s minds with arguments with which to defeat their pagan peers. But without something more than “worldview education,” our children’s lives will be shaped more like arguments than stories. And to have “the mind of Christ,” I believe, is not simply to stack up the right arguments for Christ’s lordship in a secular world. Rather, one has the mind of Christ when one begins to live into, to believe into, the story of God’s reconciliation of all things through Christ. A disciple of Jesus doesn’t just think Christian thoughts. A disciple of Jesus grows to have one’s whole being—emotions, thoughts, actions—follow the pattern of the Jesus’ own life. Disciples begin to think, feel, and act as though his story was really true, as though the story of Jesus has the one true happy ending we all want out of a good story.

Why Read? For “Final Narrative”

In his remarkable book Why Read?, University of Virginia professor of English Mark Edmundson puts forth the concept of “final narrative”. We read literature, he says, in order to try on a character’s way of being in the world, the story that their life is trying to tell. Trying on a character’s final narrative involves attempting to think their thoughts after them, feel things like they do, and consider what it would mean to act according to their pattern of action.

The author of the story, of course, lurks in the background of the action and the characters. She choreographs the movements of the character within the story arc of the book, and in so doing, she might be holding forth the character as a model of faithful human agency in the face of the twists and turns of the plot. Or she may be creating a character for whom the plot twists prove too difficult for a morally malformed character to navigate faithfully. Or she may have a complex character who acts with a mix of integrity and moral compromise.

Whichever way the author paints the character and the world that the character inhabits, a final narrative is proposed. We, as readers, must take stock of the proposed final narrative, and ultimately we must take them or leave them. Otherwise, our reading is pure entertainment and never reaches us at the core of who we are.

Final Narrative > Worldview

I believe that, by God’s common grace, Edmundson has hit on a concept that Christian educators should appropriate—one which could supplant “worldview education” in our schools, churches, and homes.

Worldview emphasizes thinking and seeing. By contrast, a final narrative approach to education would continue to recognize the importance of thought in the development of Christian character, but would also take much more seriously our emotions and volition, which are constituent parts of our humanity.

Where a worldview approach to pedagogy might teach children how to think Christianly, a final narrative approach to pedagogy would pay just as much attention to our practices. Biblical worldview integration might produce lessons that can help us know the truth. But a final narrative approach seeks to integrate the story arc of the drama of redemption. In doing so, it will go beyond a call to know the truth and challenge students to love the truth and enact the truth. Instead of thinking our way into having the mind of Christ, a final narrative approach would challenge students by having them inhabit practices that are meant to shape and develop their loves. Ultimately, we want students to be truthers, not just people who think in orthodox manners while they continue to feel and act in a heterodox fashion.

James K A Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, insists that we are not primarily thinking beings, but loving beings. In his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, he traces this Augustinian insight throughout the history of discipleship. He makes the case that our educational practices need to stop exclusively targeting the minds and begin to target the lives of students. As Annie Dillard has perfectly said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Smith fears that our instructional habit of targeting the mind does not take account of the fact that students’ days are usually spent dutifully following secular liturgies, and that these liturgies have a formative power beyond that of our our lectures to guide students into story-shaped lives.

Thus, Smith argues, students may fill their medium-term memories with the thoroughly Christian data we teach them in the classroom; they may retain that data for long enough to regurgitate it on a test; and in so doing they might please any Christian educator and impress their classmates with their worldview knowledge. And yet, when they hand in their test and return their textbooks, their lives are still shaped by final narratives that are fundamentally secular. Students can know Christianity back and forth, but spend their days and their lives essentially adhering to the pattern of this present evil age, and having their desires shaped by those habits.

Most of our lives are not spent thinking. Rather, they are spent inhabiting practices that shape our loves, form our habits, and make it easier for us to act in certain ways. The Christian life is not the life of a detached observer, analyzing discrete phenomena on the intellectual plane. A Christian life, like any human life, is a life of thinking, feeling, acting. 

Final Narrative in the Classroom

In the classroom, a final narrative approach to Christian education will, of course, involve instruction. We cannot live our students’ lives for them or get into their emotions and conform their feelings to a Christian final narrative. We will have to use our minds to reach their minds.

However, a pedagogy built on a Christian final narrative will also challenge students to inhabit Christian practices in ways that shape, form, and order their loves—loves that are ofttimes shaped by the final narratives of advertisers, shopping malls, pop stars, sports heroes, and the like. 

Such a pedagogy will meet students at the existential level and not only the cognitive level. It will ask students to examine the lives they are living, and challenge them to give an account for the final narrative they are inhabiting, and the story their lives are telling.

We will need to ask students to examine their emotional reactions to events in the world, and not simply to rationally analyze current or historical people and events from a Christian worldview. We will have to draw students out of the classroom and into the surrounding community to interact with professionals in various fields, in order to hear people’s stories and uncover their final narratives. We will then need to challenge students to decide whether to adopt the story that such professionals are inhabiting as their own, to integrate certain twists and turns of those stories into their own unfolding story, or to reject the stories they encounter as ones which do not follow the narrative arc of a fully-lived Christian life.

Such a pedagogy would not be afraid to expose students to the final narratives of people who have no faith, or other faiths. Rather, it would welcome such engagements as opportunities to listen to the life-stories such people inhabit, comparing and contrasting them to the stories students want to tell with their own lives. In a Christian worldview-oriented approach, pedagogical gatekeepers often feel they must screen out potential speakers, artists, texts, music, and films if they deem them to be insufficiently Christian in worldview. A final narrative-oriented philosophy of education would certainly be sensitive to obscene and damaging content from outsiders. But it would not shy away from encountering alternative final narratives.

This approach recognizes that students are already having implicit dialogues with holders of competing final narratives as they go about their days. Therefore, it makes sense to bring those encounters into the classroom and to trace their story arcs. We need to help students ask good questions of others’ final narratives. What kind of story are we being told by their life? Does their story have  a happy ending? Is their supposed happy ending consonant with the happy endings that can only be reached when all things are renewed by the Lord Jesus Christ? What kinds of practices are we being encouraged to inhabit? How will these practices shape our hearts, minds, and affections if we were to enter into them?

We can’t shield our students from competing or antithetical final narratives. They’re already hearing the stories. And even if we insulate students from such spurious final narratives through an airtight Christian school, an orthodox and pious church, and tight parental controls on the home computer, students will soon be off at college or out in the workforce, where they’ll be inundated with foreign final narratives. Why not unmask inadequate final narratives in the classroom under the leadership of a wise Christian teacher instead?

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the idea of “worldview” per se. Part of having the mind of Christ is literally “to think Christ’s thoughts after him.” Educators must help students learn to love God with all their minds. 

But we mustn’t just see the world. We mustn’t merely know the world. We must live in the world, and as we do so, we must tell a story about the world and where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.

Ultimately, a final narrative approach to Christian education re-tells the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation through stories and practices that aim to shape the loves of students’ hearts in such a way that many will come to desire to live into the Christian story with more and more thorough commitment. A final narrative approach challenges students to think, feel, and act in such a way that they spend their days, and therefore their lives, seeking to live within the story-pattern of Christ rather than that of this present, passing age.

Note: I was required to write a paper setting forth my personal Christian philosophy of education as part of my certification by the Association of Christian Schools International. It turns out that this is something I’ve been meaning to articulate for a while now, and so I decided I’d post it here. As usual, I’d welcome your comments.


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