“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
I grew up in a family of four children and there were times when tempers could be frayed and we could say things we shouldn’t have. Or we picked words we shouldn’t have and started using them to describe each other. And at these points, my parents had a double pronged attack. Dad would say, ‘Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?’ as that’s what his mother had inculcated into her four boys and Mum would say, ‘Whatsoever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely….’ And we’d be suitably chastised for the time being, fall silent and try to think of something to talk about within those parameters.
A Christian headmaster I worked for encouraged staff to reflect on what was true, beautiful and lovely in our teaching. But it is not just out of the mouths of Christians that I have heard some combination of these words. Many educationalists when trying to consider values, also talk about promoting ‘truth, beauty and goodness’. Howard Gardner who is famous for his theory of multiple intelligences also talks about creating a system of education which focuses on these three things as its pillars.
But Paul qualifies what he means by ‘truth, beauty and goodness’ in these verses. He follows verse 8 with, ‘Whatever you have learned, or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice’. Paul doesn’t have a fuzzy definition of what is beautiful, he has something specific in mind about what is the epitome of beauty, truth, nobility, purity and loveliness and it is what he has spent his time talking about and living amongst the Philippians: the life and truth of the gospel.
When we have been a Christian for a time, we forget how much the gospel adjusts our lenses and enables us to see life in a whole new way. We can underestimate how much seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ enables us to value and esteem what is truly lasting and worthy rather than transient and cheap, because we have tasted and seen what true goodness feels like. We can forget that the transformation the gospel brings enables us to appreciate beauty in a new way.
Our children love the books of Patricia St John, a missionary nurse in Morocco who wrote gospel allegories woven through with beautiful stories of life. I read some of her biography one day and found a perceptive observation in this description of her first conscious response to a promise of God:
I went straight up to the room where we slept and knelt down. ‘My name is Patricia and if you are really calling me, I want to come and be yours’. I cannot remember any clear result except that next morning I ran into the garden and looked up into the hollyhocks which were much taller than me and thought how exquisitely beautiful they were. It is my first memory of consciously noticing beauty and surely this was to be expected. I had in a new way become God’s child; I had been accepted into the realm of beauty.’
Another missionary along the north coast of Africa, in Algeria, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, also reflected in his writings how the gospel brings truth, beauty and goodness into sharper focus.
Augustine argues that to know God personally, we need the gospel, and so fully appreciating everything he has made requires the gospel too. To see and know God’s world in a fuller, better and truer sense, requires the cross. Jesus says something similar when he says that the eye is the lamp of the body and that if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. We know that the gospel gives us new eyes to see the nature and the purpose of the world differently. So there is a transforming on our perception of the world that reflecting on the beauty of the cross brings. There is nothing more intelligent about Christians, but there is a depth of meaning, purpose and beauty that the gospel allows us to see in the world that is accessed through faith.
Even though the Roman empire was a brutal and inhumane regime that exploited others for its own gain, it is possible to study it and ask questions of it which exposes truths about the nature of man, the nature of justice, the nature of mercy and grace. While exploring the Romans and their values, we can explore the Bible’s vision of where glory and greatness truly come from. The gospel makes us ask these questions of the different events we engage with and enables us to explore truth, beauty and goodness as themes, even when events are murky and dark.
Augustine also speaks about how the love of God and our love for God also transform our exploration of his world. We no longer learn for learning’s sake, but for love’s sake, to know the one who loves us better. Christian parents are not immune to the desire to force feed our children learning rather than encouraging a love of learning. We can find significance and satisfaction in our children’s achievements, rather than contentment in knowing they are loved by God. We devour knowledge because of the power or status it gives us, rather than the opportunity it gives us to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. But Augustine argues that an understanding of the purpose of knowledge can re-orientate our goals for our children. If, as the Psalmist says, our deepest desire is to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” and, as Paul says, “to see [God] face to face’, then learning’s goal becomes one of knowing truth, beauty and goodness and its true source better.
Values driven education is alive and well in the UK. But what fascinates me is that there can be confusion about the nature of these values and even more about how to inculcate them into students. Meanwhile, Christian educators who have had a significant impact in their sphere, have spent time reflecting on the source of truth, beauty and goodness and allowed them to permeate their practice. If ‘education is a discipline, a life, an atmosphere’, no ‘how to’ manual can fully prescribe what a Christian syllabus must look like. Instead, as we allow the contours of the gospel to transform the roots of our practice, the medium in which we practice and the purpose for which we practice, we will be enabling ourselves and students to meditate on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.