Sacred History in a Secular Classroom
Someone please explain to me how our educational experts have at the same time
decided on the contradictory rules that we shall teach multi-culturalism and
that we shall avoid like the plague any teaching about religion. You want little
Janey to understand little Fatima's culture so she won't share the American
bias against Arabs? Good idea! But good luck explaining Arab culture if you
leave out Islam! Yes, multi-culturalism is what we need all right, and therefore
we also desperately need public schools to teach the world religions in a purely
impartial and descriptive way, simply as part of our cultural heritage. Don't
be afraid! Madelyn Murray O'Hare's not going to bite you! She vanished, remember,
a few years ago (along with plenty of her organization's funds) in a kind of
atheist partial rapture. It would certainly breach the cherished wall of separation
between church and state if public school teachers were to indoctrinate students
in their religion, as they did when I was a kid in Mississippi, but to teach
about religion, about religions, yours, mine, and ours, is no such violation.
To the contrary, such teaching, long overdue, will help foster the respectful
pluralism that necessitates and guarantees our separation of church and state.
The more clearly everyone sees how religiously diverse we are, the less likely
any fanatics will ever be successful in imposing their own faith on others.
So should we teach the Bible in public schools, as some have recently suggested?
You bet! But should we teach the Bible as history, as some also suggest? That's
a different story. Here's why.
Everything I have just said about increased knowledge of each other's religions
militates strongly for public instruction in the Bible as narrative, i.e., teaching
the content of Bible stories. And this is nothing new. "Bible as Literature"
is a familiar topic in many secular classrooms. I have taught courses in descriptive,
comparative theology in state-sponsored colleges, and I see no reason not to
do even this in lower grades, as they already do in Great Britain. So you could
even explain biblical (or Qur'anic, or Vedic) doctrines in a secular classroom.
The problem comes in teaching that the stories of the Bible are all historically
accurate. For example, if a public school teacher tells the kiddies that Moses
did actually part the Red Sea exactly as in the Charleton Heston movie, not
just that the text says so, then we have a problem. Why? Simply because such
claims are faith claims, not historical assertions.
If you are experiencing a sense of deja vu right about now, it is because what
seems to be brewing is a messy situation precisely parallel to the "Scientific
Creationism" debate. You know, the can of worms about whether literal,
theistic, seven-day creation should be taught instead of (or alongside of) evolution
in public schools. Creationists show a singular lack of understanding of scientific
method when they say you only believe in evolution if you arbitrarily exclude
belief in God. Isn't it a prior "naturalistic" rejection of the possibility
of miracles that forces "unbelieving" scientists to fall back on an
explanation like evolution? Not at all! Science began when Thales and other
ancient thinkers decided it just wasn't enough of an explanation to say, for
instance, that it rains when Zeus turns on the faucet. Thales and company weren't
unbelievers; they just knew there had to be traceable causes. Ever since, scientists
have made progress only by refusing, when faced with a gap in our knowledge
of how things work, to throw up their hands and say, "It's a miracle!"
To plug God in like an ace up your sleeve is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called
"the God of the gaps," and sooner or later, when scientists do manage
to figure the puzzle out, poor God gets put out of his job by automation! Many
or most scientists are believers in God. They just have enough faith in the
created order to believe it is a created order, i.e., that it makes sense within
itself like a machine or an organism.
Now it may be that God did step in and, let's say, create a platypus when nobody
was looking. One minute it wasn't there, and the next--poof! it was! But if
so, we can never know it. Science can never trace or detect that kind of thing.
If you are going to believe such a thing happened, you are going to have to
believe without evidence, since there isn't any. And that is why we call that
sort of belief faith. The same goes for history. Historical research works by
means of traceable causation, by analogy with the experience of the present
day. When we find in an ancient document a report that a single man killed a
thousand men in a battle with no more weapon than a donkey's jaw bone (what
did they do--line up?), we have to reject such a report as improbable. Why?
Not because we have epistemological certainty that wonders cannot happen, and
not because we were there and saw it not happening. Rather, just because, if
we don't use the analogy of present events as our criterion of plausibility
for evaluating ancient reports, we will have no criterion of historical plausibility
at all. If an ancient text says someone turned into a werewolf, we'll just have
to believe it, won't we?
Now what's at stake in the recent demands that public schools teach not just
Bible stories, but Bible as history? The same thing as in demands to teach "Creation
Science." We are going to hear people charge that one would only flinch
at teaching that Moses actually parted the water only if one were a nasty philosophical
naturalist with a dogmatic distaste for miracles. Only God-deniers, we will
be told, would strain at miracles in the historical documents before them. I
have just tried to show why this is an utter failure to understand historical
method, just as "Scientific Creationism" is an utter failure to grasp
And in fact the shoe is on the other foot, because, I contend, it is not a
dogmatic assumption that prevents people from taking ancient miracle reports
seriously. On the contrary, only a prior dogmatic assumption, that of biblical
inerrantism, enables any reader to take ancient miracle stories seriously. The
quickest and easiest way to see the truth of this is to ask the fundamentalist,
the miracle-believer, if he or she believes all ancient reports of miracles,
say, those attributed to Hercules or Asclepius or the Buddha or medieval alchemists
or of Circe in The Odyssey. Of course not. He doesn't even bother claiming that
they did happen but were "Satanic counterfeits." All these the fundamentalist
dismisses with the scorn of a Strauss or a Hume. It is only the miracle stories
of the Bible that the fundamentalist believes, and that because the Bible tells
And what this means is that to teach the biblical narrative as history, i.e.,
as actually having taken place, the flood of Noah just as literally as the conquest
of Nebuchadnezzar, is not to teach descriptive history, but rather to teach
inerrantist dogma. Public school classrooms will become catechism halls. That
we do not need. Imagine the reaction of the fundamentalist if someone started
demanding that the Hindu Ramayana be taught as history and you'll see how the
rest of us would feel.
So here's what I would like to see. "Boys and girls, the Bible says Moses
parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites escape their enemies. Yes, Suzie? Did
it really happen that way? Some people believe so; others don't. It's a matter
of faith. Why don't you ask your rabbi (or minister or priest or parent)? Next
time we'll be talking about the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his ascent
So says Zarathustra.