One might think that educating a child is merely a mundane and functional activity, but in fact children bear the image of God, and so do teachers (as do all humans), and education is also an act of giving back to God, therefore the education of a child is a sacred activity. This statement is difficult because it contains three mysteries. If we claim that children bear the image of God, that teachers bear the image of God, and that teaching is an act of giving back to God, then we step outside the merely functional, the merely analytical, and the merely descriptive. Rather, we step into a cosmological orientation that is both ontologically and teleologically grounded in the God of creation in whom we live and move and have our being━all of which is a mystery. In order to claim that the education of children is a sacred activity we must understand what it means to bear the image of God, what it means to give back to God, and what it means for an activity to be sacred.
What does it mean that children bear the image of God? In the Genesis account God creates and breathes life into man. This breath was not merely physical life but, more profoundly, spiritual life that set man apart within creation. Man inhabits a unique position within creation. In Genesis 1:26-27 this unique position is indicated by the counsel of God (“Let Us make”), that man was to have dominion over creation (“let them have dominion”), and that man was made in God’s image (“in the image of God He created them). But what does this divine image or “ikon” in man denote? We can infer from Scripture and our own experience three denotations: (a) A fundamental, qualitative difference between human nature and animal nature; (b) a knowledge of good and evil, that is, a moral capacity; and (c) a spiritual capacity based in an inward freedom. For a child to bear the image of God means, then, three things: (a) Every child is uniquely different than the rest of creation, with both an inherent moral and a spiritual capacity; (b) that to “bear” means both to carry and to bring forth, and therefore a child has that divine image at all times, carried and brought forth as fundamental characteristics of his nature, and those characteristics will become evident in all he does; and (c) that image is a gift from God, is therefore blessed, and thus is an inherently good goal to pursue just as we all seek to be more like our maker.
Teachers also bear the image of God. That divine image is inherent in the nature of the teacher just as it is within the child. In that sense both the teacher and the child are equals. The relationship between teacher and child is of one image bearer relating to another image bearer. However, to consider the teacher as image bearer is not the same as considering the child as image bearer. The teacher, by nature of being a teacher, has (is given, must assume) a role different than that of the child. The nature of pedagogical authority is that of service and example. Thus, to consider the teacher is to then consider Christ, the perfect “ikon” of God, who humbled himself, who washed his disciples feet, and who gave up His life (both death and resurrection) for the life of the world. Teachers then generally and specifically bear the divine image such that they both carry and bring forth the likeness of Christ (however imperfectly) in order to elicit the same likeness within the child.
Teaching is an act of giving back to God. What does it mean to give back to God who needs nothing? Teachers, as with all of humanity, have been given the image of God, including their moral capacity, their spiritual capacity, and their inherited dominion over all creation. In other words, teachers have been given the world as a gift of God’s grace. Therefore, just as Adam was called to enjoy the fruits of creation and to name the animals, teachers are called to find the same pleasure in creation, to see the world as God sees the world, to understand and reveal the essence of creation, and to know that this world is God’s gift to man. This “seeing” and “revealing” is the natural reaction of man to creation━a creation that was not only made by God and made for man, but was also blessed by God. To be educated is to take the world into one’s body, as it were, and transform the world into oneself, into the flesh and blood of one’s very being, of one’s character. This process of transformation is education’s gift to man and the educator’s blessing to God; it is giving back to God in the spirit of thanks. To react thus to what God has given is to thank God, to bless God, to give back to God. To teach is to guide the student to do likewise.
What does “sacred” mean and what does it mean in the context of teaching? Let us avoid technicalities and consider sacred, sanctity, and holiness to be essentially the same, and let us understand that the sacred is that which is worthy of respect, of devotion, and of inspiring reverence. Simple enough, and yet we must not embrace the sacred/secular split where matter, the “stuff” of creation, is merely material, merely stuff. If creation is blessed by God then all of creation is shot through with the glory of God. Some actions, some activities, some places may have a special spirit of sacredness within the context of the story God is creating, but there is no area of life, no corner of creation that can resonate with a fundamentally non-sacred essence; God is the only source of life. However, fallen man seeks another source. Man splits the creation into the sacred (the “spiritual”) and the profane (the “world”) in order to pursue a life apart from God. But God calls man back to the view that all of life, all of creation, all that is good, is sacred. Teachers are called to embrace God’s perspective and to guide their students toward that view. Education, if related to “the world”━that is, the (falsely) profane━only, merely as a process of accumulation, transmission, and communion with the “world,” is an education cut off from the source of life.
We can then see, with a cosmological orientation (to see the world as God sees the world), that educating a child is not merely a mundane and functional activity related to a merely profane world. Educating children is a sacred activity because children bear the image of God, and so do teachers, and we understand that education is also an act of giving back to God. Educating a child is to bring the blessed world to the child, and to guide the child to take that world into his soul, transform it and let it transform him, and then to give that world back to God as his thanks. The education of a child is an activity worthy of respect, devotion, and reverence. It is an activity worthy of our sacred humanity.