Ethics, Comparative Religion and ‘The Problem of Evil’ at Bede’s School

An old friend of mine who I studied alongside at college called Savvas Costi is now the head of the Religious Studies department at Bede’s School, which is a large private school in East Sussex. He invited me and Sharon Dirckx, who often works with us at Solas, to join him for three days in the school.

We did a series of Religious Studies lessons, and lunchtime events – including an especially interesting open Q&A. Sharon did some work on God and Science with the students, as well as helping them to think through the question of God and suffering especially around natural disasters. These, of course, have been the themes of her last three books. Then I did a lunchtime event about human rights and where they are grounded, as well as an evening one entitled, “Does Religion Poison Everything?”. I also had the opportunity to lead a series of comparative religion classes.

As most folks around Solas know, I have been studying and comparing Christianity and Islam for years, especially the Bible and the Qur’an. So we did a session comparing the ways in which the two faiths explain the question of origins – how everything began. Then another one comparing what Christianity and Islam have to say about the problem of evil. We examined the contrasting ways that the faiths explain the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Obviously I can draw extensively on my background in Islamic Studies in those sessions and students are often struck by just how different the two worldviews are when you look in detail at how they apply to specific issues.

I was really impressed with something that one of the students (who wasn’t a Christian) wrote about the human rights session, for the school magazine too. He’d obviously enjoyed the meeting, and had really engaged deeply with the topic and wrote about it really well, so that was great.

Working in a school context is obviously very different from working in a church or a university Christian Union, in terms of what you can and can’t say – and the appropriate ways of presenting things. For example, in a school context you say, “As a Christian I believe that….. “ and there is a reasonable amount of freedom to explain the Christian perspective. What you can’t do is to simply state that something is true. So for example in the talk I gave on human rights, my big idea is that the concept of human rights doesn’t make much sense without God. In a church event, I might push that idea a bit further, but in a a school I might conclude by saying “what you believe about God is crucial because it affects things like human rights – because if you believe in God it is much easier to understand what we mean by ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ than if you believe that we are just a random collocation of atoms”. And then let the students decide what they think. We also use a lot more interaction when working in schools than we would perhaps in a sermon.

The Bede’s students were really great when it came to interaction, discussion times and Q&A. In the classroom setting we’d speak for a few minutes and then ask the students to discuss and debate the ideas – and they were really interested and articulate. In the Q&A event, there were loads of really good questions from the 15-18 year olds who came along. Suffering, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and ‘why do you believe in God?”, all came up.

It was also interesting to observe what happens to a society which is losing its Christian worldview though. I asked one class, “Who here thinks that what Putin has done to Ukraine is wrong?” Every hand went up, So I asked them “why is it wrong?” And no one really knew. So I asked if some things are definitely right and other things definitely wrong – or are these things really just preferences? All but two students said that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just personal preferences! Two lads had the courage to disagree and say that they thought that there might be more to it than that. The problem was that they all wanted to condemn Putin, but almost all of them had no basis other than preference for that stance.

It reminded me of a famous article by a secular philosopher in the magazine of the Ontario Teachers Association. He had done similar conversations about the basis of morality with High School students and wrote: “I fear we are raising a generation of moral paralytics, they know what they should believe but have absolutely no idea why they should believe it.” “What is going to happen when this lot grow up and have to face difficult decisions?” he asked.

Sharon Dirckx also really enjoyed the week at Bede’s School, and said,

“We had a really blessed time at St Bede’s school. I had the opportunity to take lessons on Am I Just My Brain? with sixth formers. In one lesson, a student began to see during the lesson that there was a lot more to human identity that he’d initially realized. This student then proceeded to come to many of the lunchtime/evening talks. St Bede’s is quite a secular environment but also one where several students were asking the big questions of life. It was a privilege and joy to be there.”