Some great news today courtesy of the Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Virginia, which has spent the past five years developing an Interfaith, non-partisan, well-researched textbook for teaching biblical literacy to high school students. The project was the result of cooperation from across denominational and religious boundaries, including "prominent evangelical, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and secular experts" (AP.) I for one can't praise such an achievement highly enough. The lack of a standarized curriculum for religious education in high schools has seriously contributed to the decline of civic values. Please do not mistake me and think that for a moment I'm arguing in favor of right-wing populist shibboleths such as the Pledge of Allegiance or prayer in schools. Such rites are merely codes for discrimination. They do nothing to enlarge student's cultural or intellectual or spiritual horizons, they communicate nothing but partisanship and jingoism. I despise the modern conservative goal of replacing public education with religiously-inspired superstition. What I'm arguing for is simply the civic corollary to my conviction that religion and science must ultimately inspire each other. It is a fact that the twin tasks of civic (cultural, practical) and religious education have historically belonged together, and with good reason. To receive from respected authorities the most precious wisdom which any civilization has to offer is, without remainder, to experience the broadening of one's spiritual horizons, which is to say that education is a deeply spiritual process, and its outcome is strikingly similar to what St. Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Without this foundation, education can only justify itself through the contradictory logic of instrumentalism, an argument which renders the liberal arts and especially the spiritual arts a backwater. If education exists only as a subsidiary of the market-state, then literacy itself is dispensable, an archaism in the greater cosmos of the profit motive. Thus, while it may seem counter-intuitive, instrumentalization is eroding the very notion of a public space which is the essence of democracy. The willingness to act for purposes greater than oneself can only result from a knowledge of what I might call "sacred truth," and many of those truths are vested in religious traditions.
It's in this context that the achievement of the Bible Literacy Project deserves to be celebrated. In an era in which popular culture has nearly prevailed over cultural literacy; in which demagoguery has outflanked democracy; and in which political horizons have shrunk to such an alarming degree that violent radicalism seems like a rational choice to many, this is a triumph of moderation, respect, and mutual collaboration. This is the hard work of cultural renewal which will yield fruit for future generations. When education truly models the values that it professes, then we can all breathe the air of a better world: less jaded, less cynical, less crude; more open, more hopeful, more just. As American Jewish Congress attorney Marc Stern, an adviser on the effort, said "this book is proof that the despair is premature, that it is possible to acknowledge and respect deep religious differences and yet still find common ground." That's good news for us all.