Towards the end of last year I was fortunate to have some study leave, which I spent in Oxford as a visiting fellow at Harris Manchester College. For much of its history, the college had a particular affiliation with Unitarianism and there are still some reminders of that heritage. In the college chapel there is a set of windows depicting the six days of creation. Each of the six lights shows an angel holding a globe representing what happened on that particular day. Above each of the angels is a caption – Enlargissez Dieu – a quotation from the French Enlightenment philosopher, Diderot. It means something like, ‘Broaden your concept of God.’ The point is an obvious one. How do we find out about God through the workings of the created order? And how often do we choose to ignore that?
One of the leading figures in the college a hundred years was a man called L P Jacks. I came across a passage in one of Jacks’s books, about the place of religion in schools, which I think, despite its somewhat dated language and style, is a good example of what Enlargissez Dieu might be about:
Not long ago I met one of our great schoolteachers – a veteran in that high service. “Where in your time-table do you teach religion?” I asked him. “We teach it all day long,” he answered. “We teach it in arithmetic, by accuracy. We teach it in language, by learning to say what we mean – ‘yea, yea and nay, nay!’ We teach it in history, by humanity. We teach it in geography, by breadth of mind. We teach it in handicraft by thoroughness. We teach it in astronomy, by reverence. We teach it in the playground, by fair play. We teach it by kindness to animals, by courtesy to staff, by good manners to one another, and by truthfulness in all things. We teach it by showing the children that we, their elders, are their friends and not their enemies.”
“But what,” I said, “about the different denominations? Have you no trouble with the parents?” “None at all,” he replied; “we have half a dozen denominations. But we treat the children, not as members of this church or that, but as members of the school, and we show them that, as members of the school, in work and in play, they are members of one another. We teach them to build the Church of Christ out of the actual relations in which they stand to their teachers and their schoolfriends, because we believe that unless they learn to build it where they are, they will not learn to build it afterwards anywhere else.”
“Do you talk much to them about religion”? I then asked. “Not much,” he said, “just enough to bring the whole thing to a point now and then.”
Finally, he added a remark that struck me – “I do not want religion brought into this school from outside. What we have of it we grow ourselves.”
From A Living Universe (1924)
I see in the words of Jacks’s schoolteacher the articulation of a profound theology of mission. It has been said that the starting point of a conversation or process is likely to be the finishing point, too. If we start with a narrow, diminished concept of God, we are likely to see everything within that restrictive framework. Perhaps Enlargissez Dieu would be a better watchword for our thinking about apologetic and mission.