Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
Do you want your child to go to a "Christian" school?
Unfortunately this has become a trick question in our society. As persons of faith, all of us want our children to go to schools that respect Christian values. Yet, unfortunately, in current public discourse the label "Christian school" is often associated with educational institutions that are rigid and doctrinaire, even anti-intellectual.
The Preamble of the UCC Constitution states that "it is the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith [that is, the faith of the ancient creeds and the Protestant reformers] its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God." To that end UCC people have always put education high on their agenda, founding educational institutions that both nurture faithfulness and enable intellectual honesty.
In 1636, Massachusetts Congregationalists founded Harvard College to prepare educated leaders for New England. Like Martin Luther and John Calvin, they lived in an age seeking to escape from narrow understandings of faith that linked Christian salvation only to the institutional church.
Luther rediscovered Christian freedom in his own life and, along with the other Reformers, he insisted that only inner experience and personal knowledge could lead to salvation. Each individual Christian needed to read the scriptures to discover the promises of God. Furthermore, revelation and knowledge were ongoing.
This attitude about learning inspired Congregationalists, Christians, German Reformed and German Evangelical people in the United States to found dozens of academies and colleges, ranging from the tiny Deaconess College of Nursing in St. Louis to the huge University of California. In their institutions, both faith and reason were to be treated with respect.
Congregationalists liked to quote the words of John Robinson to the departing Mayflower Pilgrims: "The Lord hath more truth and light to break forth from [God's] holy word." For the United Church of Christ, science and reason are never the enemy of religion.
A hymn in "The New Century Hymnal" captures this legacy perfectly. Written in the 1980s to honor a university professor, "Praise the Source of Faith and Learning" (#411) recognizes that human knowledge only imparts partial truth. At the same time, it hopes that learning might "curb the error which unthinking faith can breed, lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed." The last verse of the hymn admits that faith and learning sometimes "fight each other's undertow," even as they converge to "deliver one coherent steady flow," to give praise and thanks to God, their Source.
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.