Friday, September 20, 2013

The Relationship Equation

“It is only by a definite and even deliberate narrowing of the mind that we can keep religion out of education.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been giving a lot of thought to religious education or religious formation, including its place in a school’s curriculum. This is always a topic about which parents (and students) are either blasé, unimpressed, resigned, marginally interested, curious, concerned, or unambiguously strong-minded. Why is it that this should be the case for RE or faith topics, and the same wide range of reactions is not universally found about topics such as food, cars, exercise, children, relationships, savings plans, college studies, or the latest phone apps?

The closest equivalent might be found in the topic of politics. Hence the oft-stated advice to stay away from religion and politics in polite conversation. Religion deals with the deeply personal as related to all that is not personal, and politics deals with all that is not personal as related to the deeply personal. They are two directional perspectives of a personal stance towards the “other” – all that is not you – as if one were looking either through a microscope (politics) or a telescope (religion). Both are lived out through relationships and are based on personal history and developed attitudes, priorities, hopes and dreams. Neither topic can be easily dismissed during the course of life. At some point, or rather at all points, decisions will need to be made.

In any school, the decision currency at work revolves around relationships. The numbers involved in this currency breaks the bank in a school context. For example, the number of possible relationships in a group is determined by the formula [N x (N-1)/2] where N is the number of people in the group. For SJI International, this means that there are roughly 405,000 relationships possible in the High School and 230,000 relationships possible in the Elementary School. Counting all students and teachers on the property, there are about 1,250,000 relationships possible and “in play” on any given school day. That’s rather daunting to think about.

This simple fact and real potential may also provide some context for understanding why the two topics of religion and politics bear such careful consideration when brought to the light of public display. Every single person who has developed an appreciation of the value of relationships – and who hasn’t? – and who has begun to wonder why things are one way and not another way – and who hasn’t? – is in a position to have formed a perspective about things in their immediate world of experience. This real, daily, deeply personal world is vastly different for a 5-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 25-year-old, and so on. Decisions have to be made. Attention must be paid. And once a personal perspective emerges and takes root, you’ve landed in the world of religion and politics, where choices abound and each choice makes a difference. They lead to further or deeper relationships, further or deeper experiences, further or deeper perspectives. Decisions become rings on the trunk of personal development. Gradually, a life is shaped and directions are set, whether they be along ruts or super-highways. Every day, you also shape other lives, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually, the ship of soul drifts more towards politics or religion as one’s preferred universe of engagement, with sensitivity and excitement levels to match. People become appreciative, generally happy, hopeful, and wholesome inside, or they become critical, generally unhappy, discouraged, and unpleasant inside. We reap what we sow. We harvest from what we decide.

You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing explicitly about religious education or religious formation, including its place in a school’s curriculum. This is because polite conversation must persist as much as the religious dimension of educational pursuits.

P.S. For the whole article by Chesterton, go to