Role and Relevance of Christian Education in a Multi-Religious, Secular Asia

Role and Relevance of Christian Education in a Multi-Religious, Secular Asia

By: Betty Cernol-McCann
| President

Betty Cernol McCann, PhD
Silliman University

[Paper presented at the consultation workshop on the “Role and Relevance of Christian Education in a Multi-Religious, Secular Asia” hosted by Chang Jung Christian University, Tainan, Taiwan, on 16-17 October 2018]

Asia is no stranger to ecological disasters, extreme poverty conditions, and health outbreaks. Just last month several countries in Asia were swept by typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunami. Typhoon Mangkhut, in mid-September 2018, is the strongest typhoon to take landfall in the Philippines since Typhoon Haiyan in Nov 2013, and the same typhoon is Hong Kong’s most intense storm ever recorded. In both places the disaster caused significant damage. The initiatives taken by the survivors, their concerted responses, highlighted the value of community spirit in tackling natural disasters. In Palu, in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, five days in late September brought five earthquakes and a resultant tsunami. At least 2000 people have been killed and thousands more were buried beneath the soil along with their homes and belongings. As I speak, a group of faculty and students from my university under our Calamity Response Program travels to Naga, Cebu where several houses and about 100 people were buried in a landslide due to heavy rainfall. The team of volunteers is to carry out various tasks – physical health assessment, psychological first aid and psychosocial intervention activities, and assistance to rescue and relief operations. Why should university people be there? Why transport staff, faculty, and students to a place that is in itself a health and security risk? What is in it for a Christian university like ours?

News and media reports, scientific journals, conferences, and summits around the globe have escalated their focus on ecological disaster, increasing poverty, and health crisis as major plagues attacking the world today. Evidence and scientific data about these threats abound. But targeted and collective responses to these issues are wanting. How can Christian universities address these issues and chart ways to act on these urgent concerns?

Higher-education institutions that profess their Christian mission need to demonstrate and set good practices of battling the war against ecological destruction, rising poverty, and health crisis. Each college or university rooted in the tenets of Christian faith must be steadfast in its vision and mission in these changing times. But, certainly the teaching-learning contexts have changed. The ways of thinking about and carrying out the mission of Christian education must adapt strategies consistent with the needs of the current conditions. Now more than ever the threats of ecological disaster, increasing poverty, and health crisis not only have escalated, but also have revealed themselves to be interrelated. In facing these challenges, Christian colleges and universities must re-examine their understanding of the faith and mission in the ministry of teaching. What are the moral imperatives? What is the nature and scope of our sociocultural and moral response? How can we best respond to these identified challenges?

Moral Imperatives

Can Christian institutions turn a blind eye on these issues? Obviously, not.  Christian commitment is inspired by a vision of the earth as our common home.  This is the telling phrase used by Pope Francis, for example, in his recent encyclical letter, “Laudato si’” which, while meditating on the witness of St. Francis of Assisi, spells out the meaning of the Bible’s claim, not only that we are made to the image and likeness of God, but also that we have been given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26, KJV).  Biblical scholars insist that the “dominion” entrusted to us—otherwise known as “stewardship”—does not mean that we are free to do anything we want with the earth and our fellow creatures.  We are not free to exploit resources—human, animal, or mineral—exclusively for our own comfort and security. Caring for our common home means cultivating the earth so that all creatures can fulfill their role in pursuing our common destiny.  “Dominion” must not be confused with domination, at least not if we are to be faithful in our stewardship.

Because we are gifted to bear in ourselves the image and likeness of God, our stewardship means first of all the cultivation of intelligence.  Education consistent with Christian commitment means pursuing the learning that will enable us to understand our common home, its capacities and its constraints, so that we can respond more effectively, not only to our own needs, but also to the needs of all our fellow creatures.  In light of what we now know about the impact of human activity in exacerbating the interrelated threats of ecological disaster, rising poverty, and the health crisis, we must re-examine our values and institutional practices, our teaching methods and curricula, to determine whether in fact we are effective in responding to the vision we profess as Christians.

The image and likeness of God animating each of us, first of all, demands that education be not about indoctrination—or other strategies designed to enforce compliance with previously established traditions.  Education, responsive to the image and likeness of God in us, is about pursuing the truth wherever it may lead, and cultivating the courage to act upon the truth, however much it may run contrary to received wisdom.  For over a generation now, scientists have been documenting the growing effects of climate change and its role in increasing both the frequency and the depth of ecological disasters.  With so many horrible examples to learn from—and we are confronted even now with the need to understand the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi—now we find ourselves confronted with another inconvenient truth, namely, the interrelationship of rising poverty and multiple crises in health care—including the likelihood of pandemics beyond anything our immediate forebears had to deal with. These are the initial stages of an ecological crisis of global dimensions.

What we ought to be learning from this new intelligence is that we can no longer address our stewardship obligations in piecemeal fashion.  We cannot accept a “trade-off” in which we address the looming global temperature rise, while either ignoring the cries of the poor and the sick, or addressing them on a business-as-usual basis.  If, as appears to be the case, they are interrelated problems, then we cannot solve any one of them while ignoring the others.  Awareness of the ecological crisis must not be used as a pretext for constructing safe havens for the rich, while excluding the poor and the sick.  While this is clearly a global problem, easily lending itself to perpetuating the blame games of North vs. South, First World vs. Third World, and the like, we must also recognize that in each of our countries we see elites acting to save themselves at the expense of everyone else.  If we learn anything at all from our Bible, we should learn that such stratagems for saving “the best and the brightest” while consigning their neighbors to perdition simply will not work.  By anyone’s standards, they are mean-spirited and ultimately counterproductive.  God is just, as well as loving and merciful.  As Jesus reminded us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do unto Me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Developing the intelligence required of us to carry out our stewardship responsibilities means embracing an ecological awareness as a habit of mind and heart, in light of which we come “to live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  Were such an awareness become to us as natural as breathing, we would have no difficulty in identifying the least of our brothers and sisters commended to us by Jesus.  We would know that the least not only include our poor neighbors, starting with the street urchins in my country desperately trying to shake us down for a few pesos by helping us park our cars, but also the living creatures of the sea—starting with, perhaps, the coral reefs and all the fish who live among them, as well as the sea turtles, and all our watery “brothers and sisters” now put at risk because of the pandemic of plastic pollution that begins with straws and single-use plastic bags—as well as the birds of the air, and the animals who, like us, roam the earth.  We would know that stewardship includes all of these, and we would make a priority of focusing our educational effort on how to cultivate a world in which they, too, can flourish.

A Christian commitment to education for stewardship demands no less of us.  But as Pope Francis—whose message is not just for Catholics, but for all of us—has pointed out, embracing an ecological awareness requires more than accumulating information, and advancing sound policies, however important these may be.  A change of heart is what is required of us, for this awareness to become as natural as breathing.  But, one would hope, this is an insight that has always inspired new learning in Christian colleges and universities.  What, then, can we do to make it come alive in response to the interrelated threats of ecological destruction, rising poverty, and the health crisis?

Sociocultural and Moral Response

I come from a country with profound experiences of ecological disaster, gnawing poverty, and health crisis. Each ecological disaster that comes our way— natural ones such as typhoon, earthquake, volcanic eruption or those caused by human activities such as wanton destruction of a forest, destructive mining activity—breeds more poverty and spawns more health risks among the people. The physical evidence of such conditions in our country is staggering.

Filipinos as a people are known to be generally happy, matiisin (long suffering), resilient, adaptable, hardworking and flexible. Above all, Filipinos have a strong faith in God—the One who is Ilaw, Kasama, at Tagapagligtas  (Light, Companion, and Protector) in our life journey. These strengths of the Filipino character are good elements to build on as we face challenges at work (especially when facing difficult working conditions far from home), school, or play. In relating with others, Filipinos exude pakikipagkapwa-tao (literally, being one with others), a trait that is a natural spark for collaboration and cooperation in group efforts toward alleviating poor community conditions. How can colleges and universities harness these strengths in times of trouble and difficulties? On the other hand, how do we deal with outbursts of grief or anger that question where God is in the midst of all these devastations?

Our University is 117 years old. Our Presbyterian forebears had introduced a type of education that subscribes to a three-fold ministry: teaching, healing, and spreading the gospel. Applied to the identified crises at hand, our response to our moral obligation as a Christian institution must be shown in the teaching dimension of our mission (curriculum content and process), in the gospel ministry (preaching, spreading, and living the Word), and in the healing ministry (restoring nature, restoring physical and mental health, promoting peace and harmony).

Some Strategies and Practical Approaches

The vision of Silliman University states: “A quality Christian education committed to total human development for the well-being of the society and environment.” The university has a number of curricular programs, research agenda, and community extension projects that tie in well with the call for Christian higher-education institutions to be more vigorous in their response to the issues of ecological disaster, rising poverty, and health issues. Given all these available avenues for our Christian mission, the present and future track should not be simply to add more, but more importantly, to do better.

In the university are various environmental courses offered as degree programs (Biology, Zoology, Chemistry, Physics, Environmental Science and Management, Environmental Engineering and Planning, Environment and Law, Environmental Education, etc.). As well, there are environmental courses integrated into the general education curriculum such as Environmental Science, Climate Change and Environmental Awareness, and Science, Technology, and Society.

There are existing environmental programs that also respond to poverty issues. We have the Marina Clinic that addresses the health needs of subsistence fisherfolk and farmers in nearby communities.  There is the Center for Tropical Studies that engages in reforestation projects utilizing tree species indigenous to the place and a program for captive breeding of animals endemic to the island such as the spotted deer and warty pigs aimed at maintaining the diversity and sustainability of forest ecosystems. By doing these activities, we ensure that remaining forests can continue to generate resources for the benefit of forest dwellers and those who depend on forest products.

In the spirit of melding theory and practice, universities need to break down the silos of teaching, research, and community service. We need to adopt learning models that integrate the avowed trifocal functions of higher education. Let me share the lesson learned from the Apo Island marine conservation program which is facilitated by the university’s marine biology department. Research outputs of an interdisciplinary group composed of faculty in the social and natural sciences, law, engineering and the humanities guided decisions toward marine protection and poverty alleviation in this island community. This initiative relied heavily on community participation. Fishing households were organized to serve as their own Bantay Dagat (seawatch) to protect marine biodiversity, enforce off-fishing grounds during closed season, build artificial reefs, regulate diving and tourism activities that harm the marine environment, promote direct selling of fish harvest to cut down pricing dictates from middle buyers, and enforce several other measures that redound to the residents’ better control over the local economy. This approach caught the attention of government agencies as well as people’s organizations. A number of local and visiting scientists documented several aspects of this Apo Island program that inspired students, faculty and community to engage in a holistic approach to education and development. There is a permanent exhibit on display at the Schedd Museum in Chicago that serves as a learning tool for universities and agencies that aim to get involved in similar endeavors as to process and development goals.

Just in July 2018, Silliman University engaged in a vigorous campaign for zero waste management on campus. Recognizing our calling to be stewards of God’s creation, we at Silliman University are committed to the prevention of environmental pollution, the conservation and enhancement of our natural resources, and sustainability.

In keeping with our perspective of total human development for the well-being of society and environment, Silliman University’s environmental commitment suffuses all aspects of the Sillimanian experience (classroom, Church, culture, athletic court, and community). Students entering Silliman should leave the university with a deeper commitment to sustainability and with the competence to protect our environment wherever their lives may take them.

Silliman University as an institution shows the way by being a model of a sustainable campus demonstrating the principles of Zero Waste, the waste management hierarchy, energy conservation and renewable energy utilization, biodiversity conservation, and a reduced carbon footprint. Silliman University’s commitment is reflected in our internal management processes (administration, operations, planning, and infrastructure development). Silliman University strives to meet and where practicable, exceed, our environmental obligations under the law. We believe that everyone is a stakeholder and has a role to play in sustainability, thus our environmental commitment engages the whole Silliman community, the city we live in, and beyond.

Silliman University’s commitment to the environment encompasses nine component activities:

  1. Teaching: Environmental sustainability and stewardship integrated into the curriculum and the educational experience of all students, and in knowledge sharing among staff and faculty
  2. Research: Research on environmental issues and solutions within and among multiple disciplines, and knowledge transfer
  3. Service: Environmental restoration and preservation incorporated in service learning, volunteerism, and other efforts in the service of the community
  4. Worship and Fellowship: Reflection, discernment, and recommitment to the Christian vocation of responsible stewardship of God’s creation
  5. Culture and Sports: Changes in lifestyle towards a small ecological footprint promoted through sports, arts and the humanities, and forms of cultural expression
  6. Outreach: Information sharing, collaboration, and partnerships in environmental protection with other educational institutions, civil society organizations, government, businesses, international organizations, and the community as a whole
  7. Planning and Development: Waste minimization, green building design and construction, renewable energy use and low utility consumption, material resource efficiency, water conservation, reduced environmental impact, eco-friendly mobility and transportation options, enhanced biodiversity, and preservation of green spaces all considered in planning and budgeting
  8. Administration: Monitoring and periodic evaluation of performance indicators, and continuous improvement of the university’s environmental performance
  9. Operations: Internal practices aligned with the principles of environmental sustainability.

Based on these general principles, policies have been formulated specific to five areas: waste prevention and waste management, green procurement, food and food waste, events and festivals, and greening of the campus. From policies, implementation guidelines and best practices were drafted for use in ten University operations: buildings and grounds, academic departments, administrative and support service units, student affairs, student government, student and faculty housing and residences, food services, college of agriculture, elementary and high school departments, and information and dissemination.

Concluding Remarks

What we do, we need to do better and in a more purposive, consistent and integrated way.

“One-and-done” model of higher education should give way to an integrative approach that is responsive to the needs of the times. Christian universities have a special charge: we train the next generation of leaders who must care for the earth and the creatures on it.  There are a number of strategies within the confines of higher education that can be adopted and done better. We can be the agency to put into action the mandates bestowed on Christian institutions. In effect, through our programs and services characterized by whole-person education, service-learning, and education that aim to prosper all human beings and God’s creations, we can become the eyes, hands, feet that constitute, as it were, the body of Christ.

The poem Christ Has No Body is widely attributed to Sr. Teresa of Ávila. The poem captures how indeed Christ is in us as we commit to a ministry of service in the field of higher education. Through the functions of instruction, research, community service, and productivity, Christian higher education institutions can be the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ…

“Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”


Let us all in the teaching ministry, invoking the continuing presence of God, despite or because of the discontinuities and disconnectedness in this modern world, be the hands, eyes, and feet of Christ the Teacher.