As Christian educators, what is our participation in the recognition, creation, and encouragement of beauty in our students? Let’s look at our students, ourselves, and the creation of beauty in God’s world.
How do we see our students?
Seeing the beauty of Christ in others is where the gospel begins. I must approach others in ways that acknowledge the image of Christ in them. For this reason, they are worthy of my time and attention.
In Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Educgoodwillation, author Stratford Caldecott reminds us that seeing our students as image-bearers is central to our work:
How decisive for the Christian educator, or for any educator of good will, is the revelation that man is made in the image and likeness of the three-Personed God? That is like asking what difference it will make to us if we keep in mind that a human being is made not for the processing of data, but for wisdom; not for the utilitarian satisfaction of appetite, but for love; not for the domination of nature, but for participation in it; not for the autonomy of an isolated self, but for communion.
What a difference! Our students are made for wisdom, love, participation in nature, and community with others! I cannot see them as a number, an obstacle, a nuisance, or a problem to be managed. As author Jean Vanier states, “To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness.”
I wonder if we pause each day to consider how others bear God’s image? Here is a poem I wrote a few years ago entitled, “If We Saw God in Each Face” – a poem written to remind myself of the imago dei in every person I encounter:
Do we see God in each face we encounter as we walk through our days?
If we saw God in each face, would we take more time to understand the pain we see in the face of another?
If we saw God in each face, would we pass by needs so quickly?
If we saw God in each face, would we do a better job of listening?
If we saw God in each face, would we see past race? Age? Deformity?
If we saw God in each face, would we speak of kids as problems to be managed, as just names and grades?
If we saw God in each face, would we verbally shred any student in the faculty lounge?
If we saw God in each face, would we accept the bullying or destruction of any person?
If we saw God in each face, would we find a way to bless those we meet instead of rushing to our next task?
If we saw God in each face, would we help them understand who their Father is?
If we saw God in each face, would we want each one to understand how this world belongs to God?
If we saw God in each face, would we desire to help all students understand why they are on this earth?
If we saw God in each face, would we desire to help all students identify and use their gifts to worship?
If we truly saw image-bearers, how would it change us?
What goes wrong?
Sometimes I have to talk myself into seeing the beauty in others (seeing God in their faces) because my own faulty lenses are obscuring my view of the image of God in them. I too quickly let biases, superficial appearance, and quickly formed opinions block my view. At some point, I realize that I cannot see correctly in my own power: I need to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to give me a heart of love to see them as Christ sees them.
Acceptance of our own beauty or lack of beauty is part of our journey to see others through a Christlike lens. Our own wounds, shame, and experiences of brokenness that we have brought on ourselves or that others have inflicted on us inhibit us from fully accepting the love of Jesus Christ – from recognizing our worthiness to be loved. Because of our lack of self-acceptance, we may be judgmental and critical of ourselves and others. Fredrick Beuchner reminds us that this was the problem of the Beast (in Beauty and the Beast): [I]t is only when the Beast discovers that Beauty really loves him in all his ugliness that he himself becomes beautiful. . . . In the experience of Saint Paul, it is only when we discover that God really loves us in all our unloveliness that we ourselves start to become godlike. . . .
But little by little—less by taking pains than by taking it easy—the forgiven person starts to become a forgiving person, the healed person to become a healing person, the loved person to become a loving person. God does most of it. The end of the process, Paul says, is eternal life.
We used to use a word called sanctification to describe this process in the life of a believer. It referred to God’s work of love, correction, refinement shaping us into people who are becoming more like Christ–people who demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit.
Applying this idea to education, Caldecott believes that there is a two-part process that is at the center of all educational activity: first, recognizing in every person “the truth that is Jesus,” and secondly, helping to set them free through the beauty of Christ’s work:
Here again is the core, the incandescent center of all educational activity: co-operating in the discovery of the true image which God’s love has impressed indelibly upon every person and which is preserved in the mystery of his own love. Educating means recognizing in every person and speaking about every person the truth that is Jesus, so that every person may be set free. Free from the slavery forced upon him, free from the slavery, even more rigorous and terrible, which he imposes on himself.
In our educational settings, sanctification is about helping kids attend to what matters – to care and feed their souls by helping them to pay attention, to develop an otherworldly orientation, and to envision what the kingdom might look like now and in the future.
Can we teach our students to reflect the beauty of Christ in them?
I believe that we can. Here are some of my ideas:
When our words and behavior as educators communicate that our students are God’s image-bearers, they will see God in our faces and recognize the divine love that is theirs.
If shared carefully and with the Spirit’s leading, our journey of sanctification may be instructive to our students. We can encourage them on their spiritual journey and on the path to true beauty of spirit.
Part of our joyful work as educators is to help students pay attention to God’s created order and to respond with awe, wonder, and gratitude.
We can remind students that their neighbor is the person right in front of them, starting with their classmates.
We can encourage students to reflect on their heroes, the most truly beautiful people they know. What do they see that is attractive, that is beautiful in their lives? How did their hero come to this place? What do they feel when they are in their presence? What do they see in them that they would like to emulate?
Any guidance should be gifted in spirit of grace, not heavy-handed persuasion. In his book Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity, Brian Zahnd states this caution:
Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ. . . .
The task of the church is to creatively and faithfully sing the songs of the Lamb in the midst of a world founded upon the beastly principles of greed, decadence, and violence. What is needed is not an ugly protest, but a beautiful song; not a pragmatic system, but a transcendent symphony. Why? Because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like a composer of symphonies than a clerk keeping ledgers. . . .
Jesus specifically told us that we are not to emulate the ugly ways of Caesar in grasping for power and dominance. Instead, we are to choose the counterintuitive way of humility, service, and sacrificial love. These things are inherently beautiful. But we have a hard time learning this lesson.
He makes the following suggestions for how to live our lives in beautiful ways:
An aesthetic Christianity expressing the beauty that saves the world will excel in these eight things:
• Welcoming the poor in spirit
• Comforting those who mourn
• Esteeming the meek
• Hungering for justice
• Extending mercy
• Having a pure heart
• Being peacemakers
• Enduring persecution
Is your personal mission and the mission of your school focused on seeing the beauty in others, a place where students do beautiful work that saves the world?
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the CACE Blog on February 5, 2020.