Christian Education: 

Sufficient or Necessary?




  1. The Necessity of Christian Education

In the first of these lectures it was suggested that in response to the pluralism and multi-faith character of modern Europe, and in faithfulness to its own nature and mission, Christian education should proceed upon the assumption that Christian faith is sufficient for salvation but is not necessary. This will lead to a widening of Christian identity, more inclusive attitudes, and possibilities of cooperation between religious traditions in pursuance of common objectives of peace and reconciliation. This approach is particularly relevant for faith as it emerges from the period of Christianity which has been characteristic of modernity and enters into the greater pluralism of the post-modern period.

The argument about the sufficiency of Christian faith and Christian education was directed towards the multi-faith character of modern Europe. Christian faith is to see itself as sufficient rather than as necessary vis à vis the other religions. In the present discussion we shall turn our attention away from the pluralism of the religions towards the character of European culture itself. It is in this context that I will suggest the necessity of Christian education rather than its sufficiency. In other words, Christian faith and its educational potential is a necessary resource for enabling European spirituality to meet the challenge of the present age.

Money and Spirituality

A number of authors have emphasised the significance of money in the development of European culture. George Thompson in his studies of ancient Greek society traced the impact of money upon the development of Greek philosophy (1) and Alfred Sohn-Rethel developed the work of Thompson into a more ambitious critique of the impact of money upon the structure of knowledge from the ancient world through into modern European industrial society.(2) It is, however, nearly a century since the German sociologist George Simmel analysed the concept of money and showed its impact upon the psychology of the individual and the network of relationships which make up human society.(3) Simmel developed the concept of the spirituality of money, and in more recent times Nancy Hartsock has developed this by showing the impact of money upon human sexuality and the organisation of power.(4) A number of theologians are exploring the relationship between Christian faith and the growing power of money.(5)

Although there is some realisation in this literature of the parallelism between money and spirituality, much of it is confined to historical or biblical exegesis, (6) to ethical questions (7) or to metaphor.(8) In the latter work, an amusing and sometimes ironic comparison is developed between the structure and functions of the Christian church and its theology, and the attitudes and ideology of the World Bank. Christian spirituality, however, as an expression of the superstructure of the economic policy of the World Bank is seldom alluded to, and in the literature as a whole the consequences for Christian education of the .I growing power of the money-culture are almost entirely ignored, apart from what is called education for Christian stewardship. From the social and political points of view, the links between capital and right wing Christian organisations have been fully documented by Sara Diamond and David Stoll, (9) but the task of disentangling Christian faith from the money-culture is barely touched upon. Going back to the classical sources of European self-criticism, Karl Marx certainly penetrated the mists with which Christian theology surrounds the money-culture, but because he thought that this exhausted the functions of religion, and did not admit that it possessed any intrinsic potential for liberation, he did not try to purge religious faith from this monetary corruption.

Contemporary observers of the transition from merchant capital to industrial capital were well aware of the implications of this transformation for human personality and spirituality, (10) although they differed widely in their responses.(11) On the one hand, the rise of merchant and later industrial capital was regarded as liberating men and women from the rigidity of feudal social and economic relationships. Simmel has pointed out how, when the lord of the manor demanded payment in honey, the peasant farmers had no choice but to keep beehives. When payment in money was acceptable, the farmers were free to experiment much more widely with a variety of crops.

The objectivity and rationality of money was also welcomed as offering an alternative to the passionate quest for glory and honour which had taken such destructive military directions in the early period.(12) The enlightenment philosophers expected that the superstition engendered by religion and the uncontrollable power of human passions would be enlightened and civilised by the character of money. The need for long term planning and careful calculation, the demand for deferred gratification in the interests of later profits, and the professionalisation of human relationships around exchange values all encouraged a more controlled and organised type of personality. Max Weber explored these links in his study of the relationships between religion and capitalism, (13) but contemporary observers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were already aware of these socialising aspects of capitalism.(14) For some, the increased prestige of wealth created a crisis of conscience for Christian spirituality, a crisis of which St. Francis of Assisi offers the most dramatic example of protest.(15) Yet, the period from about 1660 to 1776 is one of almost unchallenged capitalist expansion, and John Wesley’s sermon on ‘The Use of Money’ (1760) although urging ethical constraint upon the market shows little awareness of the structural aspects of the dawning money culture. ‘England from 1660 to the 1770s strikes me as presenting a unique case of a spontaneous union of theologians, philosophers, economists and intellectuals in general maintained without serious breach of continuity for over a century and without a single outstanding heretic or dissenter and dedicated to the justification of an existing social structure and especially of its social and economic inequality.’ (16)

In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (first published in 1759) Adam Smith describes how we naturally despise and fear poverty while we respect and admire the wealthy and the powerful. We want to be like the rich people, and so we naturally adopt their manners and attitudes, and we fear to become like poor people, therefore we defend ourselves against them by separating ourselves from them and by regarding poverty as disgraceful. Adam Smith was not an atheist like Karl Marx and tended to see a providential ordering of society in the competition for self-advancement which the money-culture encouraged. Not only is there a desire to better ourselves, but there is an ‘invisible hand’ which providentially arranges it so that when we pursue the desire to better ourselves in a selfish and competitive manner, it all turns out for the greater good of society as a whole.(17) So the values of the market and the very structure of the market in society were thought of as part of the divine ordering of the world, and thus began the Christian theological justification of capitalism which continues vigorously today. The fact is, however, that the kind of personality which admires wealth and emulates the wealthy while despising the weak and the poor is inimical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and hostile to the mission of God in Christ, who promises to fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich empty away (Lk 1 :53).

Perhaps we should not blame Adam Smith and other eighteenth century writers for failing to see the profound antipathy between Christian faith and society which the money-culture was engendering, because they were also justified in regarding it as potentially liberating. From our vantage point, after two hundred years, we have seen the maturation of the money-culture and can be less sanguine than Adam Smith. Already in the late eighteenth century there was a mystery about where the poor came from.(18) It was a cause of wonder to be observers of the newly born unregulated market economy that it seemed to generate unimagined wealth as well as unprecedented poverty. That double capacity of the market has now been demonstrated on a global scale, (19) as we see how the huge investments arranged by the institutions of the World Bank have been accompanied by massive increases in the numbers of poor people.(20) It becomes evident that the aim of the World Bank to create a worldwide unregulated market is not compatible with its other aim of reducing world poverty. If there is a mysterious hand which so providentially arranges things that the greed and selfishness of the many are harmonised for the welfare of all, there is an even more mysterious invisible hand which seems to ensure that the greed and selfishness of the wealthy few work to the benefit of a decreasing number of greedy and wealthy people, but to the detriment of the mass of the people.

The Enigma of Christian Faith and Money

Now the prosperity gospel which is good news for the rich and the gospel which announces a preferential option for the poor confront each other as the two faces of the one Christian tradition. We find an enigma, a bit like the duck and rabbit puzzle. You look at Christian faith - it announces a God who will reward with his silver and gold those who faithfully call upon him, a God who is naturally surrounded by many who worship him as the rewarder of those who trust in him. You look again, and. the picture flickers and changes. God is now casting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble, announcing woes upon the rich and. a blessing upon the poor. The question of true Christianity is no longer a question of doctrinal orthodoxy, as It was under the conditions of both Christendom and Christianity, but has become a question of the commitment of the God of all the earth to the ambiguous and dialectical relationship between the rich and the poor.

Another aspect of this ambiguous relationship between the Christianity of the rich and that of the poor is that we are living through a time of profound spiritual corruption. Jesus said that if anyone tries to serve both God and mammon, he or she will love the one and hate the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other (Lk 16:13). This is the language of commitment and challenge.

If we are to speak the language of actual psychological experience, we would recognise that there is another alternative: if you try to serve both God and mammon, you become confused about which of them you are trying to serve, and the two objects of your devotion become mysteriously entangled. By a process of displacement, or a kind of mixing of metaphors, the God-language becomes the carrier for the money-spirituality.(21) God becomes the very personification of money, and the adoration which is offered to God is in fact offered to money.

This displacement, or exchange of metaphorical language leading to a confusion of devotion, is explicable not only in terms of the psychological confusion created by the assimilation of one desire (‘as the hart pants after the water. ..’ Psalm 42:1) by another (‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ Matt 6:21) but by certain structural affinities between the very idea of I money and the idea of a divine being. To tell the truth, money functions both ontologically and psychologically as the God of our culture. This displacement has become more thorough-going in the United States of America, where the money God is worshipped with greater devotion, and the feedback into the corruption of the spiritual life is perhaps more profound than in Europe. On the other hand, European secularisation has made the displacement of the idea of God by the idea of money less psychologically available, since people do not believe in God anyway, and the result is a certain nakedness of the money-culture, which cannot be veiled or cloaked by religious dissimulation, softened only by the traditions of European humanism and democracy. The Christian education question in the United States is therefore how religion can be redeemed from total absorption into capitalism, while the question for Europe is how the European traditions of humanism, democracy and socialism, rather deeply secularised, can be strengthened and inspired so as to redeem European people from an increasing sense of greedy futility. It is in this context that we must place the claim about the necessity of Christian education.

Secularism and Materialism

It is important that we get the educational problem in correct focus. Many Christian educators speak as if the European problem was secularisation or materialism. In the light of the foregoing analysis, this is probably a mistake. If secularism means the continuing decline in the institutional influence of the churches, then we are speaking simply of the tail end of Christendom, and this is not a problem for faith. If by secularisation we mean the tendency on the part of European people to think in scientific rather than religious terms, this is simply an aspect of the rationality of the enlightenment, and something with which a critical faith can cope. If by secularisation we mean that religion has become meaningless for many people, then we must see that the reason why religion has become meaningless is not that the secular has ousted it but that religion itself has become displaced from its prophetic role and has become assimilated (whether actively in the United States or passively as in much of Europe) to the money-culture. ‘When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen’ (Is 1:15). If God is relatively silent in Europe, it is because Europe is relatively silent towards the suffering and the poverty of most of the world. The meaninglessness is a perfectly natural and indeed an inevitable residual response to the false consciousness with which Christian faith has clouded itself.

As for materialism, the problem is not that European people want many things but that they want the one thing, the one unique thing that represents all things, the supreme embodiment of will that fascinates because it encompasses all specific determinations of the will, namely, money. That which is the great means to all ends has become the great end to all means. This is the spiritual sickness of the money-culture, and to describe it as materialism is to fail to grasp its essentially spiritual character.(22) The problem is not that people have become distracted away from spiritual things to what we call material things, but that the spiritual things for which they seek are the deceptive displacements of money.

The Spirituality of Words

This can be illustrated by referring to one of the most prevalent defences used by Christian religionism against the awakening of Christian-ness. Far from concentrating upon the material, the material is avoided by being projected into the spirituality of words. Christian faith becomes almost entirely linguistic. Divorced from the practice of justice and reconciliation, cut off from solidarity with the poor and the marginalised, Christian faith becomes concentrated upon its linguistic expression. Now saying the name of Jesus becomes all important, while discipleship of Jesus loses its reality. This is how what Ruben Alves calls ‘right doctrine Protestantism’ has its origin.(23) All the intensity of discipleship is focused upon certain sentences which are supposed to express what Christians believe, or what the gospel is.

It is well known in the psychoanalytic literature that a fetish becomes an object of fascination.(24) When the part is mistaken for the whole, or when the whole is rejected in favour of the part or is mistaken for the part, a curious concentration of emotional energy occurs. Just because the part is so tiny, little room for flexibility and adaptability is left. There is a fixed quality of attention, which becomes hypnotic. This is why reified violence or reified pornography, violence to the human body disassociated from the human person and objectified in print or some other symbolic form, becomes so dangerously fascinating. The fetish acquires numinous power.

This happens when a verbalised Christian faith is cut off from authentic discipleship. The reified fetish, itself a specific projection of the more general false consciousness, is subjectively apprehended as religious experience, and is identified with the presence of God. The Christian person is the by-product of this process of self-deception. This explains the semi-inarticulate sense of meaninglessness which many Christian people experience in Europe and North America, and also accounts for the false persona which other people detect in them. Indeed, the life which they live is no longer lived in themselves, but in the numinous power of the verbalised Christ fetish which has possessed them.

In What Sense is Christian Education Necessary?

The necessity of Christian education has now become clear. First, it is necessary in order to disentangle and critique the ambiguity of spirituality under the conditions of the money-culture. In that sense, it is a necessary step towards Christian authenticity. It is necessary in order to make the cost of discipleship, and thus its reality and relevance, available once again.

Second, it is necessary because it must be doubted whether humanism and socialism in Europe are strong enough to combat the money-culture without the resource of the European spiritual traditions. Judaism and Islam are to be included amongst these, as indeed are all the world's spiritual traditions insofar as these are present within Europe. However, a special necessity for the Christian contribution can be claimed not in principle or on some metaphysical or soteriological ground but simply in geographical and historical terms. Europe is the ancient home of Christendom and the culture from which the idea of Christianity was generated. It is hard to see how the European varieties of capitalism, nationalism and tribalism can be successfully fought without invoking Christian faith as it moves from Christianity to Christian-ness. This is one of the reasons why religious education is so important in European schools: not that it nurtures the Christian communities but that it makes available to alienated young people the resources and models which offer possible alternatives to the money-culture and can thus be the seed bed for the growth of resistance. The contribution of religious education to the spirituality of young people can now be understood, together with the ambiguity and conflict which surround this enterprise.

How Can Christian Education Realise These Intentions?

1. By interpreting Christian education within the context of the life-cycle it is possible to avoid the artificiality of disassociation and thus to prevent the formation of a fetishised faith.(25) This is why theories of faith development, which are closely related to the rise of capitalism and to the general problems of modernity and post-modernity, also have significance in resisting the false consciousness created by such things. Faith development theories not only contribute to the enhancement of understanding, ie. have a cognitive role to play, but should be interpreted in the economic context. Under capitalism, human beings are modelled upon coins. They become separate units, one-dimensional and replaceable, subject to the total invasion of exchange values. Faith development theory, by interpreting materials from the Christian tradition within the rich context of life itself, acknowledges the psycho-social unity of the person in society and can help to nurture a Christian faith which will in time offer resistance to the money-culture.

2. Christian curriculum development should include materials especially selected with regard to the money-culture. It is in this light that the biographies of Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Archbishop Romero should be studied and the contribution of Buddhism should not be forgotten. Children may encounter in the lives of Buddhist monks the possibility of living outside the market. The idea of someone who never goes shopping because he or she has no need of possessions and, in any case, no money to buy anything with, is quite a startling thought for many young people.

3. Although the Bible comes from a pre-capitalist society, it also represents a world in which wealth and poverty, riches and money were of great importance. Many passages of the Bible indicate a high degree of awareness of the contrast between exchange-values and use-values, and the different understandings of human life offered by concepts of grace and those of works. It is important that young people and adults should realise the degree to which the Bible stands as a protest against the ascendancy of the money-culture and offers alternative perspectives on life. Jesus taught more about money than he did about prayer, and this emphasis should be reflected in the Christian education literature for children. Such studies should not place the Bible in isolation but should relate biblical material to contemporary developments in the money-culture and the money-spirituality. This can often be done through newspaper cuttings, video clips and other resources in which the nature of money is dramatically revealed. The collapse of the Baring Bank due to the financial adventures of their representative in Singapore, and the crisis in the integrity of sport due to the fixing of matches in response to bribery are cases in point. New incidents of this kind are unfolded in press and media nearly every week.

4. By way of contrast with the wealth and power of the European Christian culture, young people and adults should be made aware of Christian story and theology coming from cultures where Christian faith has been experienced as suffering and powerlessness.(26) This is one of the gifts which the Asian theologies have to offer European Christian education.(27) Resources are available in the posters, wall hangings and artefacts from so-called third world countries made available in Europe by agencies such as CAFOD and Christian Aid.

5. At the opposite end of the spectrum, resources for Christian education should include materials taken from capitalist Christianity. Young people and adults can be alerted to the dangers of the money-spirituality by studying examples of the prosperity gospel and other forms of numinous, fetishised faith. The thank you letters which appear in some of the prosperity gospel newspapers are particularly illuminating. Here one sees the return of the repressed, in that a Christian faith which began by giving all to Christ reaches its climax by being rewarded in financial terms. The end was suppressed so that the means to the end might look like the end. When this deception has served its purpose, the repressed end emerges as being the real object all the time.

6. In tackling the problem discussed in this paper, Christian education should carefully confine itself to details. It is not our responsibility to redeem Europe from the abuses of the money-culture. It is our job to ask if there is some immediate step close to hand which we can take. Tell a story, watch a video, join a relief agency, many things will do as a first step. Other steps will follow.


In these two lectures I have tried to show that insofar as it prepares Christians for life in a pluralist and multi-faith Europe, Christian education like the Christian faith itself is a sufficient means of grace but not a necessary one, and that even the sufficiency should be enriched by materials drawn from God’s other saving projects. When we consider how Christians are to engage with the great issues of modern European culture (the Second Lecture), of which the power of money is the most striking example, we see that the reverse is the case. The energy and imagery drawn from the Christian tradition is a necessary but not a sufficient means of grace. Christian faith needs now to be supplemented by social studies, economics, politics and other disciplines so that together Europe may be challenged to its worldwide responsibility to the mission of God.

Enriched by a sense of its own sufficiency, humbled by a readiness for further enrichment from the other religions, and renouncing the authority and supremacy implied in the claim to necessity, Christian education will be able to play an active part in moving Christian faith forward from Christianity to Christian-ness in the context of a multi-faith Europe. Made bold by the realisation of its own necessity in the formation of European spirituality and in partnership with the social sciences, Christian education will be able to help Christians and others out of the false consciousness and corruption of the money mad society. These two spheres define the two principal contexts for Christian education in Europe today. Put together, they offer not only a philosophy and theology of Christian education but a wealth of suggestions for both curriculum and method.