Christian Theology and Educational Theory:

can there be connections?


John M Hull

British Journal of Educational Studies vol.xxiv, June 1976, pp. 127-143. Reprinted in John M Hull Studies in Religion and Education Lewis, Sussex, Falmer Press, 1984, pp.229-247.

Reprinted again in Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis (eds) Critical Perspectives on Christian Education: a Reader on the Aims, Principles and Philosophy of Christian Education Leominster, Fowler Wright Books, 1994, pp. 314-330


This article is not concerned with religious education in the curriculum but with the nature of the relation between theology and educational theory. All sophisticated religious belief systems have histories of such relations, the literature of Christianity, Judaism and Islam being particularly rich. Theology of education at the present time is an active field of interdisciplinary study. Recent dissertation abstracts indicate the sort of work taking place (1) in an effort to criticise, clarify and give new directions to education in the light of contemporary religious ideas.

It has now been denied that this activity is a legitimate one.


In his book Moral Education in a Secular Society (University of London Press, 1974) Professor Paul Hirst claims that there can be no useful and coherent relations between theology and educational theory. Hirst argues that ‘there has now emerged in our society a concept of education which makes the whole idea of Christian education a kind of nonsense’ (p. 77). Just as mathematics, engineering and farming are characterised by intrinsic and autonomous norms, so is education. There can no more be a ‘characteristically or distinctively Christian form of education’ than there can be a distinctively Christian form of mathematics’ (p. 77). The process of secularisation, which has already brought about autonomy in these fields, is now according ‘an exactly similar status’ to education (p. 68).

Hirst describes two ways in which one might attempt to create a Christian philosophy of education. First, one might start with ‘very general moral principles’ and seek to draw educational conclusions. But, Hirst remarks, even although these moral principles might be supported from Christian sources, they are ‘usually not in any sense significantly Christian’ (p. 78). Second, one might begin with what is said in the bible about education and try to apply this to teaching today. Problems such as the cultural remoteness of the

Hirst then distinguishes two concepts of education. The first is ‘primitive’ education, which is the view a ‘primitive tribe’ might have of education as the uncritical passing on of customs and beliefs.(2) There may be distinctively Christian, humanist or Buddhist concepts of this sort of education ‘according to which Christians seek that the next generation shall think likewise’ (p. 80). The second concept of education is marked by a concern for objective knowledge, for truth and for reasons, and it will set out for pupils the methods and procedures of the various disciplines according to public criteria. But religious and humanist beliefs, continues the argument, must themselves be assessed by such criteria and so the principles of education are ‘logically more fundamental’ than those of the particular religious communities. Consequently, ‘the character of education is not settled by any appeal to Christian, humanist or Buddhist beliefs’ (p. 81).

The autonomy of education is then compared with various other pursuits, such as morality and history; it is concluded that although education may certainly promote an understanding of a faith it may not seek to develop ‘a disposition to worship in that faith’ (p. 84).

I have no quarrel with this account of the sort of religious education proper to an educational curriculum. It may be worth pointing out that from his 1965 article on religious education (3) through his 1973 article in Learning for Living (4) right up to the present book, Hirst has consistently defended the existence of a critical, open study of religion in the schools. Reviewers of Moral Education in a Secular Society, confusing a denial that theology of education is proper with a denial that teaching religion is proper, are mistakenly claiming that Hirst is now against any teaching of religion in schools.(5) But Hirst is wrong, in my view, in thinking that in order to protect the independence of secular education against proselytising groups such as Christians it is necessary to deny the possibility of constructing a useful relation between Christian faith and this concept of critical, open education.

Before we consider his discussion in detail, it may be helpful to distinguish five kinds of possible relations between Christian theology and education.

1. Christian theology might be both necessary and sufficient for an understanding of education.

2. Christian theology might provide a necessary but not a sufficient understanding. of education. Theology might, in this case, need assistance from philosophy or psychology.

3. Christian theology might provide a sufficient but not a necessary understanding of education. Other belief systems, including non-religious ones, might also be able to offer sufficient accounts of education.

4. Christian theology might provide a possible and legitimate understanding of education, but one which is neither sufficient nor necessary.

5. Christian theology might be impossible and illegitimate as a way of understanding education. It would have no contribution to offer.

It is the last of these positions which Hirst adopts: ‘the search for a Christian approach to, or philosophy of, education (is) a huge mistake’; (6) ‘judging what is good or bad

in education is nothing to do with whether one is a Christian, a humanist or a Buddhist.’ (7) This, for Hirst, is a matter of principle. ‘But if I once thought. . . the pursuit of a distinctively Christian form of education in prin- ciple satisfactory, I have now come to the conclusion that even that is not so.’(8) Moreover, having relentlessly pressed the attack by showing the insufficiency of the bible for an understanding of education, he will not allow the poor Christian to make a last stand in a tiny corner of the field. ‘If one cannot get everything necessary for educational practice from Christian teaching, surely one can get something distinctive’ (p. 79). Hirst’s reply is that any relation between Christian theology and education will be only with the ‘primitive notion of education. With this area, in which the ‘tribe... seeks to pass on to the next generation its rituals’ (p. 80), Christians must be content, and here ‘there will be as many concepts of education as there are systems of beliefs and values’ (p. 80). This is small comfort indeed, since Hirst goes on to ask whether in this tribal sense the word ‘education’ should be used at all. ‘Indeed I suggest that this pursuit is in fact now increasingly considered immoral.’(9) When it comes to rational, sophisticated education ‘dominated by a concern for knowledge, for truth, for reasons’ (p. 80) then 'there can be no such thing as Christian education.’(10)

Hirst seems to be reacting against the sort of relations I have set out above as numbers one, two and three. He sometimes uses forensic terminology to describe the improper relations between theology and education. Nothing in education can be ‘decided properly by appeal’ to Christian sources; ‘the issues must be settled independently of any questions of religious belief’ (pp. 77f.). He not only undertakes to attack the first three positions and to defend the final one but he seeks to commend this fifth relation to the Christian. He agrees that not all Christians will find his approach acceptable, especially those ‘who are convinced of the total sufficiency of biblical revelation for the conduct of all human affairs’, (11) but there is no ‘necessary contradiction between Christian beliefs and education in this (sophisticated) sense, provided Christian beliefs form a rationally coherent system.’(12) Considerable attention is given to the ‘secular Christian’, to whom Hirst thinks the fifth position should be acceptable.

Hirst does not appear to envisage the modest modus vivendi between theology and education suggested in my fourth kind of relation. Hirst and I are in agreement in rejecting the first three models. In what follows, the various arguments used to support the ‘impossible and illegitimate’ relation will be examined. We will then estimate Hirst’s success in commending this position to the ‘secular Christian’ .


The sociological arguments

The central concept in this opening group of arguments is ‘secularisation’. This is described in the opening chapter, applied to morals in following chapters and to the relation between theology and education in chapter five. Secularisation is regarded as ‘a decay in the use of religious concepts and beliefs’ (p. 1). This means that ‘supernatural interpretations of experience have been progressively replaced by others’ (p. 2). The status of science, morals, aesthetics and other modes of thought is now such that ‘religious considerations can be ignored.’ This does not mean that ‘all religious beliefs can be shown to be unintelligible or false. It is rather that (they) come to be seen as of no consequence, having nothing to contribute in our efforts to understand ourselves and our world and to determine how we are to live’ (p. 2).

It is difficult to ascertain whether Hirst is merely offering a description of certain historical and social processes, or whether he thinks the processes are significant for the logical relations between religion and other modes of thought. Frequently, the former is the impression given, although conclusions tend to be drawn as if the latter had been established. Thus the decay is in the ‘use’ of religious concepts: ‘There was a time when more people were. . . involved’ in religion, and religious views are now but ‘rarely voiced’. So ‘religious understanding has. . . come to look more and more redundant’ and religious beliefs ‘come to be seen as of no consequence’. This is the language of mere description. No doubt such a situation exists, and is quite properly bringing about important changes in the relations between the churches and the schools and the way religion is now taught as a subject in schools.(13) But this has little to do with the logical possibility or the intellectual legitimacy of attempting to formulate conceptual links between theology and theories of education.

Basic distinctions about the secularisation processes are ignored. One can usefully distinguish between ‘secularisation’ as the historical process whereby social and intellectual life has been freed from dominance by theological concepts, and ‘secularism’, the stronger claim that this has the (logical or psychological) consequence of rendering religious belief (actually or

apparently) meaningless and irrelevant. One can also distinguish between ecclesiastical secularisation, which has to do with the relations between institutionalised religion and the rest of society, and theological or conceptual secularisation, which has to do with the coherence and vitality of theology in relations with the secular world. These distinctions between the sociology of religion and the logical relations which theology has with other fields are blurred in general descriptions of ‘religion’ or ‘religious belief’. It could be pointed out, for example, that ecclesiastical secularisation has been followed by the secularisation of theology itself which now exists in a state of secular autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the other intellectual disciplines. Hirst concludes that the autonomy of the secular spheres (he does not reckon theology to be one of them) means that religious considerations ‘can be ignored’. Of course they can. Theology is no longer, as it was in the world of the Thomistic Summa, both necessary and sufficient for all systematic thought. But must it be ignored? Is the alleged irrelevancy of religious thought a possibility or a necessity? No evidence is offered for believing that the latter is the case, and so Hirst jumps from the first of the five relations between theology and the world of thought to the fourth (or something like it) when considering theology and morals and straight on to the fifth when considering theology and education, without pausing to offer reasons for being required to adopt these later forms of relation.

The second part of Hirst’s discussion of secularisation has to do with the ‘privatisation’ of religion. In interpreting this discussion, it may be helpful to consider an earlier account of privatisation, in which Hirst had suggested that the values upon which the common school must be based should be ‘acceptable to all irrespective of any particular religious or non-religious claims’.(14) ‘Public values’ must be distinguished from these latter ‘private values’. The domain of scientific knowledge seems part of the public world but religious beliefs ‘which have no generally acceptable public tests of validity’ (15) are probably in the private area. Values which ‘necessarily rest on particular religious beliefs’ are also private, although a citizen may have an education consistent with his or her private .religion. In order not to create the impression that the public school is non-religious or anti-religious, it should be understood that the education it offers can be but partial.

Hirst seems to have held that what the private communities of faith do in their schools is genuinely educational, in that it deals with areas of private values with which the public school cannot deal, and in the way such private education is a necessary or at least a legitimate complement to public education. In the later writings we are considering, the distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘sophisticated’ education seems to take the place of the earlier distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ value education, and the idea of the

religious community offering a legitimate complement to public education, a complement arising directly from its own values yet still being educational, becomes less important, if not immoral.

In the public schools, Hirst continues, methods of teaching must also be in terms of public values. ‘Are there Christian methods of teaching Boyle’s law which differ from atheistic methods?’(16) Hirst however does not deny that a teacher’s private values may affect his teaching, only that it can never be claimed that his private values must affect his teaching. Hirst seems then at this stage to have had in mind something rather like the fourth of our relations between theology and education, in which religious beliefs could provide a possible but not a necessary or sufficient contribution.

The criteria of knowledge, Hirst continues, are public, and the public school can offer education in at least ‘established areas of knowledge’. (17) The idea of the ‘autonomy’ of a ‘domain of knowledge’ is now introduced in this 1967 essay. Some agreement, Hirst remarks, is mere consensus but some is ‘rationally compelled’ on the basis of public criteria.(18) At present, we only have consensus agreement in the moral area. But if moral agreement could be won on the basis of public, rational criteria, then we would have an autonomous basis for the common school. In his 1965 article ‘Liberal education and the nature of knowledge’ the idea of the ‘autonomy’ of the various forms of knowledge does not appear, but in another article from the same year, ‘Morals, religion and the maintained school’, (19) the idea of ‘autonomy’ does emerge when discussing the extent to, which morals may be regarded as independent of theology. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘privatisation’ both become key concepts in the 1974 book under discussion. The germs of the 1967 article on ‘privatisation’ are now mature. Morals may at last be justified on independent, rational grounds. Religion however is now severely privatised and the conclusion is drawn that ‘When the domain of religious beliefs is so manifestly one in which there are at present no clearly recognisable objective grounds for judging claims, to base education on any such claims would be to forsake the pursuit of objectivity’ (p. 81).

So, in a society in which religion has become privatised, ‘the widest range of attitudes to religious beliefs is acceptable, provided they are never allowed to determine public issues’, and ‘it is a mark of the secular society that it is religiously plural, tolerating all forms of religious belief and practice that do not contravene agreed public principles’ (p. 3).

One notices the strangely conservative social attitude implied by this approach. Nothing must contravene the public order. We also observe that in discussing society in this way, Hirst is not speaking of the logic or the epistemology of the forms of knowledge, but of convention.

The significant 1967 distinction between consensus agreement and rational agreement does not appear. No logical conclusions can be drawn therefore one way or the other about the possibility of relating the conceptual worlds of theology and education on the basis of such an undifferentiated concept of ‘privatisation’. We observe finally the stringency of Hirst’s conditions. Religion must not be allowed to ‘determine’ public issues. It must not ‘contravene’ public principles. But may it not even influence them? (Cf. p. 55.) May it not be allowed to have some legitimate effect? Why, on this argument, must it be thought of as having nothing to contribute? How can a claim (of whatever strength) that religion must not be allowed to determine public issues such as education lead to the conclusion that there can be no legitimate attempt to construct a Christian philosophy of education in which Christian theology would be but one (influencing but not determining) factor amongst others? What has happened to the private religious values of 1967? A citizen could express these through education provided they did not contravene public values. Must theology now necessarily contravene them? Can Christian faith then never be an ally of the open society?

The logical arguments

Hirst claims that the emerging, secular concept of education makes the possibility of a relation between Christianity and education ‘a kind of nonsense’ (p. 77).

First argument

Education, like mathematics, engineering and farming, is governed by its own intrinsic principles. What is good of its kind in each of these areas is determined by those inner principles and not by reference to theological factors. Bridges stay or fall down for Christians and atheists alike. God, we may add, sends his rain upon the just and the unjust.

But is there really a parallel of this sort between education and mathematics? Does what appertains in the latter, abstract, self-sufficient form of knowledge in which inescapable conclusions are drawn also apply to a value-laden, practical enterprise like education? Education, it must be remembered, is not one of the forms of knowledge. It does not have a unique and distinctive mode of thought nor a characteristic epistemology, but is, like medicine, an applied field in which various other disciplines, some of which are true forms of knowledge, impinge in order to enable the activity to take place. In the cases of medicine and education, these other disciplines are things like anatomy, chemistry, immunology, philosophy and psychology. Medicine and education do not however lack coherence.

They derive it not from the structure of their epistemology but from their concentration upon healing or educating people. Their coherence is such as is demanded by a practical enterprise; it is not the coherence of internally self-sufficient principles and it should not therefore be compared with the logical ‘autonomy’ of mathematics.

In his 1965 article on ‘Liberal education’ Hirst described political, legal and educational theory as ‘fields where moral knowledge of a developed kind is to be found’ .(20) Engineering, in the same article, is described as a 'field' and no doubt this would be true of farming as well. We are thus comparing:

a. an indisputable form of knowledge in which moral knowledge of a developed kind is not found (mathematics);

b. two fields in which moral knowledge is similarly not well developed (engineering and farming);

c. a field in which moral knowledge is well developed (education); and

d. a disputable form of knowledge in which moral knowledge is well developed (religion).

It is obvious that (a), (b) and (c) do not exhibit ‘exactly similar status’ (p. 78) in the kinds and degrees of the autonomy they possess. Their relations both with the moral sphere and the religious sphere will be different in each case. Farming, for example, does not have the self-sufficient logic of mathematics. What is good farming may quite properly be determined by political principles in China, by religious principles in India, and by environmentalist considerations in western Europe. There will be no clash between the principles of good farming and any of these contexts, because the context has a significant part to play in determining what the principles of good farming actually are. There is, of course, a level of unchangeable circumstances, usually based upon cause and effect sequence in the natural world, at which the techniques of farming and education will be autonomous. Even the devil, if he wants tares, has to sow tares. Wheat produces wheat for angels and devils alike. But whether you pluck the tares up or leave them both to grow together until the harvest is a matter of value judgments and long-term considerations involving questions of religion and philosophy which goes far beyond the simple technical level. The objective psychological test will yield the same result for both the Christian and the atheist educational psychologist, and the techniques for the early diagnosis of speech defects are just whatever they are, since speech is just what it is, and defects are defined accordingly. Christians and atheists sharing the same speech conventions will not differ at this level. But to whom the objective test is to be administered, and what use is to be made of the results and why - these problems introduce evaluative questions as well as a wider factual context and at this point the techniques themselves are no longer autonomous. They need the help of sociology, ethics and so on. Secularisation has had considerable effect even at this technical level, since the sensible Christian and the sensible atheist agree in using terms like 'emotional disorder' rather than ones like ‘demonic possession’, and they agree to use the techniques of medical therapy not those of exorcism. There are other Christians who resist this sort of secularisation, but neither Hirst nor I are concerned with them. The impact of the secularisation process must not be denied, but it must be carefully qualified. Technical autonomy does not bring self-sufficiency to education.

Pedagogy may be described as a conglomerate of technical skills applied in the education of children. Education offers the ideals, the purposes and the values which guide this application. Pedagogy is thus applied education, education is applied philosophical anthropology and it certainly cannot be claimed that philosophical anthropology is determined by principles which are ‘neither for nor against’ theological anthropology. Even although philosophical anthropology cannot perhaps be ‘settled’ by ‘appeal’ to theological anthropology, or to anything else, theology has a legitimate and perhaps a significant contribution to make to its elucidation. When it comes to the question ‘What is humanity?’ theologians are also human, and if, like philosophers, they are sensible and rational humans, their theological reflections need not be silenced.

Second argument

On this second view (the sophisticated one), the character of education is not settled by any appeal to Christian, humanist or Buddhist beliefs. Such an appeal is illegitimate, for the basis is logically more fundamental, being found in the canons of objectivity and reasons, canons against which Christian, humanist and Buddhist beliefs must, in their turn and in the appropriate way, be assessed’ (p. 81). This may be paraphrased as follows. The sophisticated concept of education is governed by rational, objective principles. But these very principles must be used to assess the religious and non-religious belief systems. No such belief system can therefore generate an understanding of such a critical concept of education, because the principles upon which the latter rests are more fundamental than the belief systems themselves.

There are three objections to this.

1. If this is so, education cannot be appraised by anything, since psychology, sociology, and all the rest of the scrutinising disciplines are also, in their turn and in the appropriate way, to be assessed by rational criteria more fundamental than their particular and distinctive techniques of assessment. Even particular moral criticism is subject to more basic rational

moral principles which are used to assess the status of the moral claims being made. This is transcendental autonomy for education with a vengeance.

2. It may be that Hirst is influenced by the thought that theology is in some way a supernatural activity, pretending immunity from rational criticism. If this is in his mind, then it is rather a restricted and perhaps an old-fashioned view of theology. Theology is concerned with the concepts of religion, with their adequacy as expressive of religious experience and with the problems of constructing them into coherent belief systems. It claims validity according to distinctive but not supernatural norms.(21)

3. It may be objected that Hirst does not say ‘cannot generate an understanding of’ but ‘is not settled by any appeal to’. But firstly, Hirst does not distinguish between the adjudicating function of a discipline and its illuminating function. This is a major criticism of his approach. The paraphrase, expressing the milder, illuminatory function, does no injustice to his discernible intentions. Secondly, if however the stronger interpretation is insisted upon, then point (1) above not only still holds good but is strengthened. Disciplines which cannot even illuminate certainly cannot adjudicate.

Third argument

‘When the domain of religious belief is so manifestly one in which there are at present no clearly recognisable objective grounds for judging claims, to base education on any such claims would be to forsake the pursuit of objectivity’ (p. 81).

1. Such a strongly worded, negative conclusion about the possibility of recognising objective tests of truth in religion appears to be new in Hirst’s writings. As recently as 1973, discussing whether religion is a unique form of knowledge in his important article, ‘The forms of knowledge revisited’, Hirst concluded, ‘On the answer to that question few would dare to pronounce categorically. My own view, as in the case of the arts, is that in the present state of affairs we must at least take the claim to knowledge seriously. . . Equally, it seems to me unclear that one can coherently claim that there is a logically unique domain of religious beliefs such that none of them can be known to be true, all being matters of faith.’(22) It would be interesting to know, since we are not told, what further reflections have enabled Hirst to move from the earlier position where the claim to religious knowledge had at least to be taken seriously to the position in the present book where it is ‘so manifest’ that religion lacks this status. It is difficult to avoid the impression that in order to break the links

between theology and education Hirst is slightly exaggerating the clarity and the unanimity of the alleged negative verdict upon the logical status of religious claims.

2. But even if we move with Hirst, although he gives us no reason to do so, to the new, severe position, would it follow that there could be no proper or useful relation between theology and education? Although in the 1973 article just mentioned, religion was still being seriously considered for 'form of knowledge' status, history and the social sciences had already been abandoned. 'I now think it best not to refer to history or the social sciences in any statement of the forms of knowledge as such. These pursuits. .. may well be concerned with truths of several different logical kinds.’(23) (There is, by the way, a parallel here with religion, since 'Christian theology' is regarded by Hirst as a discipline within religion, and religious studies is cross-disciplinary in several senses.(24) Indeed, the result of Hirst’s 1973 revision of the forms of knowledge argument, which is now cast in more strictly propositional shape, is, as Hirst emphasises, to reduce the forms of the categories of true propositions to only two: ‘truths of the physical world’ and 'truths of a mental or personal kind’.(25)

It would appear then that either not being a domain of knowledge does not vitiate the capacity of an area of enquiry to relate itself meaningfully to the practical field of education or if only domains of knowledge may appraise education, then not only can there be no theology of education, but also no historical appraisal of education, only a dubious aesthetic scrutiny and no psychology or sociology of education.

3. Hirst remarks that the application of the whole theory of the domains of knowledge to education is strictly limited. It may be then that one contribution of theology (if it were to fail to secure ‘domain of knowledge’ status) might lie in those areas with which the formal epistemological categories do not so easily deal. Hirst mentions several of these.(26)

4. In this argument Hirst again employs the device we find so frequently in the pages we are considering. He sets the most severe conditions, and then allows no place at all in education to a discipline which cannot meet them. So we are required to contemplate the possibility of basing education on theology. What does this mean? Does Hirst really anticipate a situation in which Christians would argue that only theists could be educators? This is certainly not what contemporary theology of education seeks to show. Far from insisting that all educators must be theologians, it is only asked that some theologians be allowed to remain educators. Hirst’s argument appears then as an unconvincing attempt to establish an excluded middle.


Fourth argument

Hirst claims that ‘an education based on a concern for objectivity and reason, far from allying itself with any specific religious claims, must involve teaching the radically controversial character of all such claims. An understanding of religious claims it can perfectly well aim at, but commitment to anyone set, in the interests of objectivity, it cannot either assume or pursue’ (p. 81).

This claim about the relationship between the 'basis' of education and the need for a critical curriculum raises two questions. First, by what characteristic can a theology generate an understanding of the critical, sophisticated concept of education? Second, what is the relation between the aims of theology of education and the aims of teaching religion as a school subject?

As regards the first question, not all theological systems can avoid the difficulty Hirst mentions. There certainly are forms of theology which can lead only to the ‘primitive’ concept of education in which, for example, the task would be to ensure that subsequent generations of Christians all thought alike. But just as not all theologies avoid the danger, so also not all of them succumb to it. There are forms of Christian theology in which critical enquiry and controversial examination flow directly and necessarily from the values and beliefs, to which the theology is committed. It then exhibits these intellectual characteristics not in spite of its commitment but because of it. An alliance (which does not mean an exclusive, unique or necessary derivation of education from this theology) between such theology and such education, far from hindering the critical freedom of education, might do a little to enhance and support it. It is apparent therefore that Hirst does not sufficiently discriminate between the degrees to which different religious belief systems have built into their structures necessary elements of on-going self-criticism.

As for the second question, Hirst and I do not disagree about the aims and limits of religious education as a classroom subject. But whereas he thinks the commitment of the theologian in education inhibits him or her in the carrying out of this critical task, I think it may be of help. I agree too that public educational institutions in a pluralist, secular society ought not to be committed to one religion, and consequently that compulsory, unanimous or official school worship is wrong in principle. Again, the question is whether a Christian philosophy or theology of education precludes or advances that view of religious education and of the stance to be adopted by such institutions.

The methodological arguments

Hirst claims that even if it were a legitimate enterprise, the methodological difficulties are such that no worthwhile work can be done in this area. His discussion has been summarised in the section ‘Exposition’ above.

Naturally, there are difficulties of method in any interdisciplinary study, and the various fields of practical or applied theology are not exempt. Theology receives no special supernatural aid. There is an extensive modern literature dealing with the relations between Christian theology and, for example, culture, the arts, politics, science and medicine. Many of these studies include detailed consideration of problems of method.(27) In theology of education, the two methods discussed by Hirst are by no means the only ones; indeed, they are, as he points out, rather naive and inadequate. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of how it might be undertaken, it being sufficient for our present purposes to remark that it is not appropriate to contrast sophisticated educational thinking with a sample of simple and even crude theological methods.

The 'secular Christian

Hirst suggests that the position he outlines between Christian faith and education is one which ought to commend itself to certain Christians: ‘it seems to me it is precisely the concept of education an intelligent Christian must accept’ (p. 85).

But this Christian presumably accepts this view of education in so far as he is intelligent and not in so far as he is a Christian per se. For if the latter were the case, the secular Christian would have been able to understand the critical concept of education from within the resources of his or her faith and we would then have a Christian theology of secular education which is what Hirst says we cannot have. Nevertheless, Hirst takes some pains to show that the general position in the book is not hostile to Christian faith, and at several points there are quite extended discussions of this matter. It seems to me that in this respect he has failed, and if he had not failed, then the position he advocates regarding the impossibility of a Christian understanding of education would have had to undergo revision. In other words, chapters one to four are inconsistent with chapter five, since if Hirst is right in presenting a satisfactory relation between the secular Christian and the secular society with its secularised morals, there remains no reason why he could not also assert a positive relationship between the secularised Christian and secularised education. As it is, he affirms the one and denies the other.

The problems begin in the opening pages. Secular Christians are those ‘who seek to go along with the total secularist to the full in all non-religious areas’ but continue to maintain that religious beliefs are meaningful. These beliefs ‘combine with’ or ‘complement these other forms of belief in some way’ (pp. 2f .). But, we observe, before he can go along with the total secularist to the full, the Christian must come to see that his or her faith has ‘nothing to contribute in our efforts to understand ourselves, and our world and to determine how we are to live’. Moreover, if religious beliefs are logically and existentially irrelevant, how can they be intelligibly combined with relevant and re intelligible secular concepts? If religious beliefs, on the other hand, are not after all irrelevant, then total secularism is unnecessary. On n Hirst’s account therefore secular Christians are in an unintelligible position since in seeking to combine intelligible with unintelligible beliefs they are behaving irrationally, or, in insisting that religious e belief does have something to contribute, they are refusing to go along with the total secularist.

The discussion of privatisation has serious consequences for the Christian unless, as argued above, it may be thought of as simply a sociological phenomenon. If it is thought to be significant in determining the logical relations between religious beliefs and secular ones, then the privatisation of religion separates the Christian, no matter how secular, from rationality, from the secular reality in and around him or her, from science and (to use the theological word) from creation. No Christian seeking wholeness and truth can accept this I account of privatisation. But if only the sociological sense is intended, I then there is no logical reason why we should not try to construct I relations between theology and secular education. Hirst hopes that his argument will be of interest to those who remain convinced ‘even perhaps of the truth of certain central tenets of Christianity’ (p. 6). How can one be rationally convinced of the truth of private claims? For ‘truth is correspondence with reality’ (p. 22).

Hirst outlines two traditional Christian approaches towards morals. The first (pp. 18-21) takes the will of God as ultimate in morals. The second (pp. 21- 3) sees mora1ity as based on natural law and therefore supposes a degree of natural autonomy for the moral life. This natural, rational morality is based on God's creation of humanity as free, rational and moral. On this second view the autonomy of science and morals is ‘seen as built into Christianity rightly understood’ (p. 23). The reader is bound to ask why this argument is not applied to education as well. And then if the autonomy, rationality and secularity of education are similarly built into the structure of Christian faith and can be so elucidated, then the Christian faith does produce a view of education, namely, that it is secular and (in important respects) autonomous. I am not concerned with whether this is a good or bad way to approach the problem; I am merely pointing out a failure in consistency in the argument. Hirst does not seem to see that just as secular Christians like Harvey Cox, whom he quotes, can become advocates of the secular city (an advocacy of which Hirst approves), so they can become advocates of secular education within the secular city, (28) which advocacy Hirst disallows in principle, although it could flow from the very arguments used by him to justify secular morals to the Christian. Whatever secularisation may mean to the secular Christian, it cannot mean that the secular and the autonomous fall outside the scope of Christian appraisal.

This inconsistency can be seen clearly when it is understood that what Hirst proposes in his discussion of the Christian and secular morality is in fact a Christian theological rationale for secular morality; ‘a coherent Christian view of morality positively requires it’ (p. 52). The teaching of the bible supports this view of natural, rational morals. So the relation between Christian faith and secular morals is that the former leads to the latter, although it is not the only path to it, and the secular morals would still be there even if that particular path to it did not happen to exist. Nevertheless, it remains the case that this is the special kind of morality to which Christian faith actually does lead, and it can be called both the Christian form of ethics and the secular form of ethics. Why then can there not be a Christian form of education which will also be the secular form of education? Hirst thinks that some of ‘the most powerful intellectual seeds of secularisation’ (p. 23) lie within Christian theology, and are so integral to it that the forging of a theology of the secular is necessary to preserve the rationale integrity of Christian theology itself. ‘Christian teaching can never hope to be coherent if it denies the legitimacy of living in secular terms’ (p. 27). Why not admit then that some of the seeds of the secularisation of education lie within Christian faith and that the elaboration and further justification of these may constitute a Christian theology of education for today? ‘If this emphasises yet again that certain roots of secularisation are to be found in Christianity, let that be recognised’ (pp. 26f.).

But even in his justification of secular morals to the Christian, Hirst is less ready to grant the full impact of theological ethics than he should be on his own argument. Moral principles have an ‘ultimate status’ (pp. 46, 50) and morals have to be ‘argued back to the most fundamental principles of all’ (p. 27). Religion is often described by Hirst as depending upon appeal to authority (for example, pp. 5, 18f., 53). But Christianity sees morality as having ‘its place in some ultimate transcendent scheme of things’ (p. 55) and as dealing with ‘the ultimate principles of human existence’ (p. 55). ‘It is in the additional emphasis that religion brings to the development of appropriate moral aspects of the personal life, by seeing them within beliefs, dispositions, and emotions of a wider and metaphysically more ultimate nature, that the religious impact upon morality is centred’ (p. 75). Religion thus appears to offer a wider and more coherent pattern of justification for morals. Surely one is morally obliged to accept the most coherent frame of reference provided that frame is not irrational? Although he writes as if privatisation has the effect of isolating religion and depriving theology of applicability, Hirst also speaks of theology as coherent, rational, a systematic whole from which conclusions can be drawn and impetus discovered for other forms of life. Religious morality is concerned with life’s ‘ultimate metaphysical understanding, its ultimate source and character’ (p. 73). Enquiry into theological ethics would appear then to be morally obligatory since it must be a principle of rational morals to seek the widest possible framework and the most ultimate basis. The insistence that what theology contributes to morals is its metaphysical belief system (that is, its religious doctrines) and the repeated denial that religion has anything other than the purely rational (that is not religious doctrines) to offer cannot be easily reconciled in Hirst’s discussion. His thought about the relation between theology and secular ethics is ambivalent rather than ambiguous.


I have tried to show that the arguments which Hirst uses to disallow the possibility of connections between Christian theology and educational theory are unconvincing in themselves and inconsistent with his arguments elsewhere in the book about the relation between Christian theology and other spheres such as ethics. I have also tried to show that he does not succeed in commending this approach to the secular Christian, let along the more traditional Christian, because the notion of a secular Christian is, in his account, not intelligible, and because the consequences from that part of his argument which is intelligible would be unacceptable to any Christian in pursuit of rational wholeness. It remains to ask why Hirst should make such genuine efforts to commend his view of ethics to the Christian but remain so adamant about the impossibility of a relation between Christianity and education. I can only assume that an educational philosopher in Britain today, being well aware of the rather unhappy history of some attempts by some churches and of some aspects of theology to control education and to retain it at a 'primitive' level, is particularly sensitive in this area. This is an understandable attitude, but not a philosophical one.