Philosophy of Upbringing in Writings of St. John Chrysostom

Bishop Dr. Jovan (Puric)

Christian pedagogy fully reached its historic maturity and comprehensiveness in the life and words of John Chrysostom. By the epoch of Chrysostom it had experienced turbulent centuries of interaction between Christian and Antique cultural influences, although the matter of civilization frameworks of Christian pedagogy was especially acute at the time of Chrysostom as well. With his comprehensive education, which included the knowledge of both Antique Hellenistic and ecclesial, Old and New Testament paideia, Chrysostom, following great Cappadocian Fathers before him and St. Maxim the Confessor after him, confirmed the readiness of Christian pedagogy to accept and integrate, in a transforming way, the most important achievements of Antique pedagogy and thereafter use them creatively.

In this way, Chrysostom’s personal educational path was doubly relevant for modern pedagogical theory and praxis, not only as a testimony of reception of Antique humanistic heritage into Christian culture, but also as a model of reception of numerous aspects of contemporary culture and civilization as well, which are, in spite of their radical estrangement and alienation from their Christian roots, still compatible with Christian experience and world-view.

Chrysostom’s theological-religious paths, omnipresent in his writings, can be understood as an appeal to the modern pedagogy to revert from methodological matters to the existential ones, to find itstheological and philosophical roots as well as its ontological issues. In his writings Chrysostom exposes the way along which the contemporary Orthodox pedagogical theory (as well as the secular one) and praxis could return to the ancient Church pedagogy, based on experience. 

Chrysostom insists upon that way and method, observing that the total Christian pedagogical heritage preceding him, is an ordeal (ascetic endeavor) in Christ.   Pedagogy must find its ascetic dimension, which means that it must start realizing its basic task as an ascetic denial of every “selfhood”, of every egoism and self-sufficiency, which seem to the contemporary man as something self-evident and justified.

Spiritual ordeal (endeavor) in Christ is, according to Chrysostom, the true philosophy, because the ascetic way of life is the way and method of active realization of Christian ontological personality.Pedagogy is, in this sense, a common ascetic path of two persons - of a tutor and of a student; and that pedagogical path, that pedagogical common travel of theirs, that dynamic and interactive relationship of theirs demands a bilateral sacrificial love, ready for a total self-giving, self-commitment, sacrifice and patience for the sake of the Other one.

For Chrysostom, this pedagogical relationship is not merely anthropological in character, although it has some significant anthropological consequences. Pedagogy, i.e. educational process of introducing a person into the knowledge of God and deification, is, in Christian experience, an ordeal that is theologically rooted and that has as its basis and model the divine economy of salvation, i.e. the living relation with and cooperation of God as the Arch-pedagogue of our salvation, the relation that experienced its fullness in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The relation that the Living God has established with man since the very beginning, since the conversation of God and Adam in Eden, is a permanent dialogical pedagogy, where one is called upon to make a progress and grow, more precisely to make a progress in grace that the Lord grants to man on his way to salvation and perfection.

In his pedagogical works Chrysostom devoted great attention to the steadiness, but also to pedagogical gradualism of divine upbringing, building up, so-to-say, theological didactics of divine education. The centre of this pedagogical process and didactics abides in the Person of the incarnate God Jesus Christ, the Godman, i.e. in His incarnation, sufferings and resurrection. By uniting, in an unmerged way, in His unique Person the two natures – the Divine and the human, Christ, as a real and true God and a real and true Man, fulfilled Divine pedagogy of salvation and secured human deification by grace. In this way, man is able to achieve the ultimate aim of his existence and his upbringing - the salvation as liberation from sovereignty of death, sin and devil, and as the graceful communion with the Triunine God, as participation in Divine uncreated life.

However, this divine-human synergetic process of human educational growth in the knowledge of God is not simply a matter  of a man as an individual, because it is always being realized as a common ordeal (endeavor) of the total community of the faithful - of the Church as the Body of Christ. As a graceful community of upbringing for salvation, the Church is called upon to transform every society, culture, and civilization and every epoch she lives in.

Chrysostom’s magnificent vision of Christian cities that live one universal ascetic pedagogy, and in that way realize in praxis the ecclesial ethos of a “social Gospel”, is not a mere daydream vision, but rather an invitation addressed to today’s Church pedagogy to strive for a relevance of evangelic message and ideals in contemporary society, i.e. to abandon, in a creative and testimonial way, the imposed frameworks of a narrow religious pedagogy.

In the anthropological field, Chrysostom’s pedagogy is relevant even today as a witness to an enhanced dignity of a man who has been called upon to get realized as a complete person, as a divine-iconic being of community, via sacramental and ascetic life in the Church, i.e. via becoming God-like by grace, which means, not only by developing his own individual abilities, but by developing a living and creative relation with fellow-neighbors, with his tutors or students. In the world of communicational and informative global society, where estrangement and reduction of man to simple things is becoming even more distinct, Chrysostom’s pedagogy becomes more and more relevant.

In that sense, his pedagogical model is an inspirational signpost for the contemporary Serbian, ecclesial and secular pedagogy. By integrating, through the contemporary Christian synthesis, all the best elements of Antique secular and humanistic  models of education into the biblical, New Testamental pedagogical model, Chrysostom’s theological-pedagogical thought is relevant even today, perhaps more relevant than ever before. The contemporary Serbian pedagogy moves within the framework of inherited dualistic schemes of “religious” and “secular”, and that dualism is being fostered by a bad social situation and interior uprooting of our historical and social life. Chrysostom’s pedagogical theory and praxis represent an acute appeal upon a unification of “religious” and “secular” elements, which cannot function in self-isolation without being twisted out into unfruitful extremes.

Chrysostom develops not only theoretical, but also practical aspects of his pedagogical philosophy. Numerous aspects of contemporary pedagogical thought were anticipated in his works, such as: gradualism of a didactical process, a necessity for accommodating of the tutor to the student, a need for a balanced use of pedagogical means, etc. As a permanent context, even of these most practical aspects of his pedagogical-theological thoughts, the prototypic pedagogical relation between God and man is always present. Chrysostom understands it as a relation between the Teacher and the pupil. Hence, his writings are full of numerous theologically subtle observations upon the themes of Christian pedagogy and catechetical interpretations of theological concepts and problems. This can be observed best and most evident in his Homilies on Vanity and Upbringing, one of chief Chrysostom’s pedagogical works, where one ideal, typical model of ecclesial and social education of Christian youth in a family was analysed.

Family upbringing of Christians is of a special significance for John Chrysostom. Family is not only a social phenomenon, and it is not a phenomenon of a simply biological character. Family is a small Church community; it is the first existential and spiritual environment where a child grows as an ecclesial and social being of the community. For this reason, family upbringing is of special importance for Chrysostom; it should be given to the child by his parents at the earliest stage of his education.

The mutual relationship between Christian partners - parents, as well as their common pedagogical relation towards children in the earliest period of childhood, is for Chrysostom, just as for modern pedagogy, of crucial significance for the future of a child as an integral person. This inner-family pedagogical relation is not only paradigmatic for a child as an integral person, i.e. it does not only offer a child an example of harmonious inter-human relations, but presents, first of all, in its essence a sacramental relation, a metaphor of the relation of Christ and Church. Marital love is the holy sacrament of transforming the biological and human into the ecclesial and theanthropic love, so that the inner-family realization of this love is of decisive significance for a right and efficient Christian upbringing of a child.

John Chrysostom insists especially upon a sacramental context of Christian upbringing. In his Catechetical Sermons, which Chrysostom delivered as a priest in Antioch, he indicated a way of growing in the Church as a pedagogical way of climbing up towards God and deification through the holy sacraments. The holy Baptism, according to this hierarch, is not an end, but just the beginning of the ecclesial upbringing and education for the eternal life with the Holy Trinity.  Through Baptism one enters a God-saved community of those who participate in Christ’s Body and Blood at Divine Liturgy and thereby enters one permanent cosmic event of actualizing the mystery of divine pedagogy, divine economy of salvation.  Chrysostom’s continuous pastoral admonishing of the faithful that there is nothing more significant for Christians in this world than the Eucharist indicates the essential importance of Divine Liturgy for his pedagogy as a whole.

The very course of the Liturgy is developed in one unambiguously educational way: the Liturgy of the Word exposes the liturgical upbringing and preparation for the Offering of bloodless Sacrifice during the canon of Eucharist. The Liturgy itself is also an upbringing of God-like people for the Kingdom of God, which starts already here and now.  The very process, course of the Liturgy is a transition from history into Eschaton, from “existential concerns” into the light of the “eternal Day of the Kingdom of God”. The Eucharist is in that way both a way and an aim of Orthodox upbringing, a method and conclusion of the entire life of an Orthodox Christian. It is in Eucharistic pedagogy that the unity of the total historical-eschatological theanthropic process is being realized.

All these aspects of the philosophy of pedagogy of this renowned Antiochian Archpastor and pedagogue deserve great scientific attention of competent scholars in pedagogy. St. John Chrysostom is even today very up-to-date and modern, and his pedagogical enthusiasm even in our contemporary period captures and inspires the minds, not lesser than in his life-time. Chrysostom-like pedagogy is, even when we are not aware of it, living and working at the very heart of Serbian and European pedagogical thought, which may remain consistent to itself, to its Antique-Christian roots, to the extent it remains consistent to the all-embracing pedagogical thought of John Chrysostom.