One particular influence on my life was my religious knowledge teacher at secondary school, Mr. J. My family were always churchgoers. We would attend church twice on Sunday and be fed a diet of traditional, evangelical sermons. The Gospel was always preached on a Sunday evening and I was brought up to believe that my relationship with God was all that mattered and that one day I would be rescued from this evil world.
A teacher who had very different ideas suddenly confronted me. I suppose now he would be labeled a “liberal”.
My church teachers seemed to take verses from the Bible almost randomly. They would pluck a verse from Acts for instance and use it to illustrate a particular point. Most of what I was taught was based on the letters of Paul. The teaching of Paul appeared to take priority over the words of Jesus, (though this would never be acknowledged as such).
Mr. J gave us a good overview of the Bible. His particular favourites were the Old Testament prophets such as Amos and Hosea. He taught us from the sermon on Mount and placed great emphasis on the words of Jesus. He dismissed the Epistles as “mere interpretation”.
He was very strict, but in spite of that he encouraged us to disagree, or even argue with him. I remember once arguing with him, and when he said that I had put “the cart before the horse”, I said that it was him who had put the “cart before the horse”! He was a man who, although I didn’t approve of his theology at the time, I could respect. Amazingly, he seemed to respect me too.
Many of the things he taught have stayed with me and have influenced my life. For example:
- From Isaiah: “in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength”. I remembered that verse walking to school on the way to take my first GCE examination and using it to calm my nerves.
- From Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers”. I have always been appalled by the futility of war and its devastating consequences. This verse shaped my opposition to the use of nuclear weapons and a defence policy based on revenge.
- From Amos: “ Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream”. As I write this I’m almost overcome by emotion as I realise that at that time a seed was planted in my heart which would grow into a tree of compassion and a desire for justice for underprivileged people.
Mr. J had a different view of the world we live in. Instead of thinking of “the world” as almost synonymous with evil, he believed that we should have an effect, here and now, in this world. He concentrated on the present condition of men and women rather than relying on a hope to be rescued from it all in a future age.
Although Mr. J was so obviously an influence on my life, I didn’t realise it at the time. I often disagreed, sometimes violently, with his views. I’m not saying that all the teaching I received at church was wrong, but in seeing both sides of the same coin, I was greatly enriched and my future was shaped.
If Mr. J is alive, he must be very old. But if I were to meet him now I would say to him,
“Thank you Mr. J. You opened my eyes to another way of thinking.”
If the purpose of education is to shape lives, not just to impart knowledge, then he was certainly successful!