The Global Gifts of Protestant Scotland and the Challenge for the Future

IMG_20170620_165956723“Much of what we take for granted in Scotland today, such as the free national education system, the National Health Service, human rights and modern democracy, came about from Christian movements of the past.”

– Paul Griffiths, Famous Lives in Edinburgh, 16.


 This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, most dramatically captured in the radical, spiritually infused sociopolitical act of my namesake, Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517. As a Lutheran teacher headed for a spiritual retreat, this is a good time for me to pause and remember my heritage. Certainly HKIS as a school established by the Lutheran church is an outgrowth of the Reformation impulse to improve society through education. Enroute to a week with my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault on a small island in western Scotland, I was given the unexpected opportunity yesterday to join a tour in Edinburgh by Paul Griffiths, Reformation scholar and church leader, on the gifts that the Scottish Reformation has given not only Scotland but the world. I certainly leave Edinburgh this morning with a deeper respect for my own spiritual heritage.

The Gifts of the Scottish Reformation

 Edinburgh’s Royal Mile features two statues of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Adam IMG_20170620_165331664.jpgSmith and David Hume, whose ideas changed the world. Smith’s capitalism and Hume’s secular skepticism have become indelible marks of the modern project.

In contrast to these widely recognized heralds of contemporary thought, Paul’s tour revealed example after example of how Scottish men, guided by a Christian worldview, brought manifold gifts to not only their home country, but introduced concepts and social reforms that have been widely accepted as ideals in many societies around the world. Yet it seems that their very success has undermined the memory of their spiritually inspired countercultural innovations.

These achievements, it needs to be remembered, came at the price of the lives of many martyrs; more than 110 Edinburghers were hung at the location below for their reforms that empowered the poor and disenfranchised at the expense of the ruling elite.


More generally, over 18,000 Scottish Covenanters (those who supported freedom of conscience) were murdered by the Royal Crown from 1670 until the Glorious Revolution of 1688. If nothing else, I realized that the social conscience work that I do in Hong Kong was pioneered by these reformers at a cost that I simply cannot imagine.

Let me share some of the gifts that Scottish reformers brought to the world, which Paul generously shared with me in my private two-hour tour of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

  1. Care for the Poor and Free Education: These two core Protestant beliefs were radical at a time when the world was divided between rulers and ruled. Taking the Bible’s plain truth seriously, the reformers passionately exercised care for the poor. In addition, Scottish reformers believed that all citizens had the right to learn freely, including instruction in the Christian faith. Combined with the desire to care for the poor, then, the concept of free education for all was introduced and implemented. As Paul writes about leading reformer Thomas Guthrie (1792-1873), “In Dr. Guthrie’s time Edinburgh, particularly around the Royal Mile, was filled with vice, drunkenness, disease, and illiteracy. He set up ‘Ragged Schools’ for the sake of the poorest children.” Inspired by these twin Protestant imperatives, Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) – about whom the famous Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce declared “all the world is wild about” – were educational leaders in 19th century Scotland. According to Paul, Chalmers established what became the state education system; “by using the churches in those parishes he ensured that most of children in Edinburgh had an education.”In a related impulse, Christian scholar George Buchanan tutored King James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England. One of his reign’s achievements was commissioning the Authorized King James Bible translation, a landmark for literacy and moral development. Paul comments, “Everywhere in Scotland this book became the authority for belief and behavior, so much so that centuries later Scotland was called ‘the land of the book.’ The Bible therefore became foundational for Scottish civilization and for reforms in education and social conditions.”
  2. Human Rights and Democratic Governance: The theologian Alexander Henderson (1583-1646) was the first person in world history, according to Paul, to publish a petition and solicit citizens to sign. In contrast to the famed Magna Carta, which was a conservative move to protect the rights of English barons, Henderson’s grass roots petition gave birth in time to a global march for human rights, which came to greater fruition in the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, and in the universal declaration of human rights in the 20th century. When I sign a petition of the online advocacy group Avaaz, I should remember that this concept was birthed in Edinburgh during the Scottish Reformation.


  3. Medical Care: Inspired by Jesus’ own healing ministry, Scottish reformers believed that everyone should be given access to medical care. Edinburgh was a world center for medicine, which is one of the reasons Charles Darwin came here to study in the mid-19th century. The “workshop” of this health care reform was the Magdelen Chapel in Edinburgh, which in time gave birth to a system that in 1952 became the UK’s National Health Services, the first free health care system in the world. Paul cited numerous examples of leaders in the field of medicine whose advances reduced suffering, such as the work of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who pioneered the work of developing and bringing antiseptics into medical practice in the 19th century. Paul writes, “His antiseptics methods spread like wildfire throughout Europe; for example, in Munich the death rate of patients after surgery dropped dramatically from 80% to almost zero. Queen Victoria was so grateful to him that he was made the first Lord in medical history.”The church’s role in health outreach is evidenced by the many medical doctors who were trained and dispatched by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society to locations around the world.
  4. Scientific Discoveries: The church founded the famed center of learning, Edinburgh University, and many churchmen were leaders in fields of scientific inquiry. Paul highlights the role of influential Christian scientists in advancing understanding of the physical world: the mathematician and astronomer John Napier (1550-1617); the physicist, professor of medicine and investigator of the Rosetta Stone, Thomas Young (1773-1829); the pioneer of what would later become laser technology, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868); and James Clerk Maxwell, Scotland’s greatest scientist who is known today for his ground-breaking work on electromagnetism, paving the way for Einstein’s breakthrough in the theory of relativity. For these leading scientists, faith and reason supported each other in the quest for a better life in society.

Given my debt to Paul for the content of this blog, I leave it to him to summarize the contributions of Scottish Protestant to society: “Jesus Christ told his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves. Over the centuries Christians have been at the forefront of education and social reform all over the world, seeking to care for their fellow human beings in many practical ways. Here in Scotland the Church led the way in education and social reform and established a model for many other nations to copy. Edinburgh was especially at the forefront of this kind of work.”


My own journey as a Christian Lutheran teacher has been profoundly shaped by the Protestant Reformation. In listening to Paul speak so eloquently in his tour about many Reformation ideals that I too highly value – intellectual inquiry; God’s preferential option for the poor; application of knowledge for the public good; dialogue between faith and science for holistic understanding; finding inner peace in one’s relations with God and fellow humans – I realize that I have been relatively unconscious of how the values given to me in my heritage have informed my teaching in Hong Kong. In the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation and our own 50th anniversary of HKIS as a school, I am grateful for Paul’s bringing to my awareness the great social benefits that exploded into Scottish society and onto the world scene by the Reformation movement that began in the 16th century.

Paul’s tour ended for me, however, on a sobering, provocative note. A century ago 75% of the citizens in Edinburgh went to church, but today that number has fallen to a mere 3%. I am challenged as an educator to consider what has happened to cause a vibrant heritage that fused faith, science, and social good to be unable to hold the attention of 21st century citizens. As much as I realize the empowerment that my own Christian worldview has given me in my teaching in Hong Kong, I am equally aware that this belief system does not speak to the vast majority of my students.

While Paul’s great gift to me has been a greater appreciation of my own heritage, I have to ask what needs to be done to bring about a cosmovisionary story that stirs contemporary culture to advance civilization and support a flourishing life in all its manifold facets.


And with that, then, I am off today to spend the next 6 days with my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault as we study the life and work of Jesuit priest and French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Only now in the 21st century, suggests Cynthia, are we coming to understand that his science-spirituality vision offers the world a new story of the cosmos, and a corollary understanding of our dynamic place in it. Leaving Edinburgh this morning, I take with me a greater appreciation for my Reformation roots as well as a desire to make sense of science, faith, and social development for 21st century students as I travel to our retreat location, Holy Isle on the west coast of Scotland.

Additional Information

I highly recommend Paul Griffith’s tours for anyone interested in this topic. He is highly knowledge, responds to questions with both a scholar’s breadth and a heart for Christian ministry to all. You can find out more on his website – or visit these comments on TripAdvisor about his tours.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching Teilhardian Hope in Hong Kong: A Response to Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Teilhard for Troubled Times”

Image result for heart of christ stained glassMore than two years ago Episcopalian priest andImage result for teilhard de chardin spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault named 2015 the “Year of Teilhard,” encouraging study of the work of 20th century French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Over the last month Cynthia has written three blog entries for the Omega Center entitled “Teilhard for Troubled Times,” which can be read below my reflections. The Center requested a response to the three blogs, which I have posted below.  

I write as a high school humanities teacher who for more than 25 years has been on a quest to find what power in education really means in the international setting of Hong Kong. My starting point, then, in response to Cynthia’s reflections on Teilhard, is that her comments address arguably the biggest cosmological question of all: where do we find hope?  Continue reading

Posted in inner awakening, social conscience education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Realism, Idealism, and the New Universe Story

Image result for thomas berry new story old story

The Modern Story of Realism

Dear Students,

If I ask are you a realist or an idealist, you will probably consider your basic approach to life. The realists live more cautiously or even pessimistically, while the idealists see the bright side, spotting silver linings in every cloud.

Philosophically, however, I’m trying to get at a bigger question: Image result for dean radinwhat is the fundamental nature of reality? Put most simply, what came first, God or the atom? Dean Radin, chief scientist of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, addresses this question by contrasting two philosophical positions taken throughout Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 4.37.27 PMhistory, realism and idealism. The realists believe that the basic building blocks of reality are physical bits that we call atoms and molecules. Billions of years of random mixing of material elements resulted in the lucky strike of not only a habitable planet, but an increasingly complex evolutionary ladder that has culminated in the miracle of human personality and reflectivity that we call mind, awareness or consciousness. This certainly is the current cosmological story underpinning modern civilization. Continue reading

Posted in inner awakening | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Collective Human Purpose on a Bumper Sticker

IMG_20170326_134730146.jpgI was sitting at an outdoor table on the 7th floor of our high school grounds – the Penthouse suite view, I mentioned to a passing colleague. After a dismally dark and rainy Sunday, I was cheered by the sun, as it began breaking through the fog on this first day of the new week. Grey began to give way to a swirling promise of greens and blues and whites. I was taken by the view.

It was an inspiring setting to consider tomorrow’s lesson plan for Image result for ishmaelmy Humanities I in Action class. We were beginning our study of the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, asking the question, “What is the guiding story of human civilization?” Overlooking the campus, a question came to mind for the students’ homework, “What in your opinion is the collective purpose of humankind?” To make it memorable, the assignment went on, reduce this message to a bumper sticker slogan like, “I have a dream”, “Just do it!” or “Make America Great Again.” Continue reading

Posted in inner awakening, social conscience education | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Did We Make A Difference? Action Research of a Teaching for Empowerment Program in South India


For the last seven years HKIS students have come to our two sister schools, Concordia-Ambur and Concordia-Pernambut, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to implement a “Teaching for Empowerment” curriculum developed by our students. Once again we returned to Ambur in March to facilitate this week-long program, but this time Image result for caroline scownan HKIS alum, Caroline Scown, who participated for three years here as a high school student and co-wrote the empowerment curriculum, returned during her university’s spring break to do action research on the program. Her surveys and interviews of the program participants aimed to respond to the nagging question that is always present in school service learning events: did we actually make a difference? In this context, can HKIS students honestly say that the “Teaching for Empowerment” program truly empowered the Indian students? Continue reading

Posted in social conscience education | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Well-Being and Wisdom: Considerations for a Wellness Curriculum

Maddy Lab begin

As students enter high school, they are asked to begin to navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood, a daunting task. A new wellness block is being offered for all incoming HKIS freshmen next year employing an interdisciplinary approach combining PE, Counseling, and Religion departmental perspectives to offer students a much-needed orientation towards well-being and wisdom.  Continue reading

Posted in inner awakening | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“We Can Make Difference:” SCMP Article on 10th Annual Service Summit

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-8-47-35-pmWe Can Make a Difference by Kay Ross, February 14, 2017

Students from HKIS and its sister schools Concordia-Shanghai and Concordia-Hanoi gathered at HKIS on January 14, 2017, for the 10th annual High School Service Summit. It was also the culmination of the Middle School’s fourth annual Student Leadership Program.

“The Service Summit is the kick-off day of our Humanities 1 in Action course for 9th-graders at HKIS High School,” said Humanities teacher Mr. Marty Schmidt. “We think the two most important things in our school’s curriculum are the future of the planet, and the mental health of our students. So we want our students to find a way to connect their hearts to the world’s issues, and feel empowered to act.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.34.59 PM

Each year, that action comes in the form of semester-long “Elixir” projects, designed and implemented by the students themselves, in which they tackle an environmental or social issue on campus, in Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia. For many students, their projects blossom into successful post-school careers, businesses or non-profit organizations.

Leading up to the Service Summit, a small group of Middle School students from HKIS, Concordia-Shanghai and Concordia-Hanoi were immersed in a three-day Student Leadership Program. “The students get to examine critical issues facing the world, ponder what it really means to be a leader, and forge international friendships. They also start to think about their own possible future Elixir projects. All of that leads to all sorts of outcomes that are not necessarily predictable or measurable,” explained Mr. Greg Ladner, Associate Principal of HKIS Middle School.

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 9.52.06 PM.png

The program included workshops with Ms. Jessica Giang and Ms. Laurence Couture, two Beijing-based facilitators from Me to We, a Canadian social enterprise that empowers people to change the world with their everyday consumer choices. “The aim was to get the students to understand their privileged position in society, and to think about how they can use that privilege for good,” said Jessica.

On January 13, the students visited the Crossroads Foundation, a Hong Kong charity that connects those with resources and those who need help. They did volunteer work, sorting and cleaning donated items, and participated in simulations designed to give them an experience of the challenges faced by blind people and people with AIDS.

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 9.35.42 PM.png

HKIS Middle School student Felix Leung shared his impressions of the program: “It showed me that there are many ways I can serve the community. And I learned that even small actions can have huge positive consequences.”

On January 14, the Middle School students joined the High School students for the Service Summit, where Jessica and Laurence gave a keynote address, and HKIS alumni Mr. Amar Bhardwaj and Mr. Yashvardhan (“Yash”) Bardoloi spoke compellingly about what happened for them after attending previous Service Summits – Amar became passionate about the issue of glass recycling, while Yash founded VolunteerConnect, an online platform that matches volunteers with organizations that need their skills.

Finally, participants had the opportunity to hear from older HKIS students and alumni about previous successful Elixir projects. Examples included empowering impoverished children in Cambodia; producing and selling eco-friendly jute bags in India; reading to and playing with children in a Lutheran nursery in Heng Fa Chuen; gathering donated stationery, clothing, and hygiene supplies to send to people living in extreme poverty in the Philippines; undertaking environmental projects to make Hong Kong more sustainable; and raising funds for two orphanages in Delhi, India.

HKIS High School student Alexandra Debow, who will soon be deciding about her own Elixir project, commented, “It’s not just about completing a project at school; it’s about starting something that will make a positive difference.”


Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 9.33.12 PM.png

 Overview of the Service Summit

On Saturday, January 14, HKIS hosted the 10th annual Service Summit, the goal of which is to launch Humanities I in Action grade 9 students’ semester-long, community-based Elixir Projects. Our 75 students heard presentations from our “Me to We” speakers who kicked-off the event with a keynote address. Then they selected five break-out sessions, most conducted by older HKIS students who had done their own successful projects when they were in the class. For the 4th year, the Service Summit was also the culmination of a 3-day service leadership retreat for 30 middle school students from Concordia-Shanghai, Concordia-Hanoi, and HKIS. We look forward to the fruits that will surely emerge from this event.


Posted in social conscience education | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment