by Tim Middleton
Many cultures around the world celebrate a person’s birthday, which to others might seem strange as the person did nothing to bring about the achievement of being born! Be that as it may, it is a chance to celebrate the precious gift of life that has been given. Many others celebrate anniversaries of special events but William Barclay, a Scottish professor of Divinity, highlighted two: “There are two great days in a person’s life,” he said, “the day we are born and the day we discover why.”
The first question that we see God ask in the Bible is simple: He asks Adam, “Where are you?” In a similar way, we are all asked: where are we in relation to God? If there is one question above all that we all must face and indeed find the answer, it is the question expressed in different ways that centres on the matter of life and death. Who am I and why am I here? These are huge questions with massive implications, as we realise more and more that we are not simply physical bodies with mental and emotional capabilities. We are body, mind and soul; what is more, the body and the mind are not the most important one — the soul is the part that lives on. Therefore, if there is one area that schools should be helping their pupils above all others, it is this one, when they have their whole life ahead of them, yet it is a strange thing that the most important question to which our young people need to find the answer is often entirely ignored.
While schools should unquestionably be helping youngsters to achieve social developing (as opposed to social distancing), so schools should also be enabling children to perform spiritual discovering (as opposed to spiritual dispatching). The issue is this: why do we not help them to find the answer to these questions? If we are going to help them find just one answer from thirteen years of schooling, it should be the answer to this question, above all others: Who am I?
Schools will often jump in quickly here and declare that they do provide this in their curriculum as they conduct Religious Education lessons or Religious Studies classes, but these are actually treated simply as another academic subject for which a pass must be obtained; in truth, the spiritual aspect crosses into all academic subjects. Furthermore, we are not talking about this as a religion. Studying religion, or even following a religion, is not necessarily spiritual discovery and freedom.
We need to sow the seed of a spiritual relationship, in ground that has been well-prepared so that the seed will take root; we are to feed the seed with all that will enable the spirit to develop; we are to weed the seed to keep the faith from being strangled or choked by all sorts of other damaging aspects in their lives; we are to heed the seasons and protect the seed in different climates.
Like the rhino which is rapidly becoming an extinct species through the commercial exploitation of them, so if we are not careful we will soon witness a world where people think nothing of the spiritual dimension of their life while focussing on the material and commercial aspects of the world around them. It is we who are exploiting the young people if we only prepare them in the intellectual and physical world. Humanity will become extinct, even if humans do not.
Yet, one question from a wise teacher is at the heart of this matter: what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? So what if a child achieves straight ones or A*s, is selected for his country’s sporting teams, is made a Prefect, is awarded scholarships to renowned universities and so on, even more so if it is at the cost of his soul? This has been an age-old issue and is one that we must address. Indeed, it has been around since the beginning of time and still has relevance today, not least as it has such significance with regard to time and eternity.
It is interesting that a wise man once said, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”. We must do this at school, within a community where it can be seen to be real. If we do not do so, we are depriving our children from astonishing gifts, far better than any birthday gift we may receive. We have been given an amazing gift, the gift of life in our soul, so we must celebrate it each day by using it to the full, no matter what our body or mind is like. If the education we offer is indeed an education for life, we must ensure this matter takes centre stage in the curriculum. The soul mystery is the sole question we must help our children answer – and then declare, “Happy Purpose Day!”
l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.