According to Hodgson, who is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School, there is a religious dimension in all education, whether we recognize it or not. All education is essentially religious because it aims at the transformation of human beings. Properly understood, education is the movement, in Hodgson’s words, “from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness.”
After tracking the understandings of God as teacher in both ancient Greek philosophy and the biblical writings, Hodgson points to the confluence of these traditions in the patristic theologians. For Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Origen, the way of redemption is the way of God’s paideia. The divine instruction, decisively manifest in Christ, is marked by benevolence, friendship and persuasion rather than by threat and coercion. Hodgson finds numerous variations on this theme of God’s pedagogical activity in the world in thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Lessing, Kierkegaard and Hegel.
While crediting Christian faith for helping to radicalize the meaning of education, Hodgson argues that modern and postmodern theories of pedagogy also see education as far more than mere recollection of rote learning. They emphasize instead that the education experience involves radical reorientation and transformation. Modern education theorists speak of the importance of interactive learning, critical reflection, moral formation and the cultivation of the practice of freedom.
Hodgson’s major contention is that the possibility of truly transformative education rests on a goodness, power and wisdom at work in us, but which is also greater than ourselves. For Christians the divine wisdom that evokes and empowers the education of the human spirit is paradigmatically, though not exclusively, incarnated in the teaching, life and death of Jesus. In brief, as teachers and learners, we are not solitary and autonomous seekers of truth, but are invited to participate in the universal activity of the divine wisdom.
According to Hodgson, the distinguishing marks of the pedagogy of wisdom and all transformative education are critical thinking, heightened imagination and liberative practice. Far from displacing these essential elements of the educational process, divine wisdom serves to deepen and radicalize them. Unfortunately, the author does not discuss the conditions or dynamics of this radicalization.
While Hodgson draws from many wells, among his favorites are Hegel, Whitehead and Rahner. These thinkers provide the philosophical framework for his theology of education and give it an all-embracing character.
Naturally, a proposal as comprehensive as Hodgson’s will encounter many tough questions. I will mention only three.
First, does Hodgson’s theology of education underplay some important aspects of the witness of Scripture, such as the radicality of sin and evil and their ever-present threat to the educational process?
Second, does Hodgson soften the particularities of the Christian message and other religious traditions by an overly generalized description of the nature, dynamics and goal of education?
Finally, how might the understanding of education as essentially religious in nature be significantly informed by other constitutive practices of communities of faith, such as prayer and worship?
Hodgson’s book is the vintage product of a distinguished theologian, and it provokes important questions. It deserves a wide reading among all who are interested in probing the theological dimensions of the educational process.