Asking fundamental questions

24th March 1995 at 00:00
The Archbishop of York, the Rt Rev John Habgood, argues the case for a critical study of RE in a crowded school curriculum

Last month I spent a morning in a junior school in East Berlin. It was during half-term, but even so there were children and teachers there for the sake of pupils whose parents were at work. I was particularly struck by one young RE teacher with a theology degree.

RE throughout Germany is confessional, and those of different faiths have a right to be taught by someone who professes that faith. This has disadvantages, as we know, for the cohesion of society, and the principle of religious division is deeply rooted in German history. But what I found most impressive was the seriousness with which RE was treated, and the amount of professional resources allocated to it.

If you ask, "Are the German people notably more religious as a result of such huge effort?" the answer, I suspect, is no more clear than it is here. But at least there is not the dreadful ignorance about the content of religious faith. And there was a strong sense that adults owed it to their children to give them a solid grounding in religious teaching. Maybe it is easier to feel strongly about such matters if you have lived for 45 years in the German Democratic Republic, and your school has had to be carved out of a half-derelict building pitted with shrapnel scars.

Are we serious about RE? I quote from the summary (of the recent OFSTED annual report): "The vast majority of secondary schools did not provide enough time to teach the agreed syllabus in key stage 4, and few provided a basic RE course for post-16 students." Even at primary level, OFSTED found that "20 per cent of the schools did not teach RE and that in 50 per cent of the schools the RE syllabus was inadequate".

This was before the new model syllabuses, but these are not going to change the endemic problems of not enough specialist staff, not enough time for teaching, and not enough resources. Nor, unless something drastic happens, is OFSTED's overall verdict likely to be reversed: "Much RE teaching is confined to a rather dull exposition of basic Christian beliefs, with little attempt to examine Christianity as a major world faith or as a belief system affecting people's daily lives."

Furthermore, things are likely to get worse if LEAs can no longer afford RE advisers or resource centres, if the contribution of colleges to teacher training is diminished, and if schools find themselves more and more subject to market pressures. If the downward trend is to be reversed, those concerned about RE must press the case for it as a central, essential part of education. This has to be done without falling into the opposite error of attempting to define too precisely what must be taught.

It has always been a temptation within Christianity to define what cannot be completely formulated, and to regulate what must depend finally on individual response. Indeed, one can go further and say that there is a necessary element of open-endedness in any living faith if it is to be a genuine exploration of the boundaries of experience. The principle of local interest in RE is much too valuable to abandon, but a subject seen as merely local can easily become idiosyncratic, or unduly influenced by powerful individuals, or relegated to secondary importance. By contrast, an accepted national syllabus could attract the best writers, publishers and resource providers, and should enormously assist in training RE teachers.

But how would one justify it, when all subject areas are struggling for time and resources, and where RE still bears the stigma of supposedly not being a proper academic subject? How do we answer the charge that in a modern society schools should not be expected to tackle subjects which belong more properly to the faith communities themselves, especially when overt religious practice involves such a small percentage of the population?

Let me start with some pragmatic arguments, the first of which I do not particularly like, but which needs to be stated. It is the "learning about right and wrong" argument, and has been given a new twist by a recent European study of the inverse relationship between religious adherence and crime. In very broad terms, the rise and fall of Protestant church adherence in Britain over the last 150 years closely parallels the fall and rise in the number of indictable crimes. There are numerous objections one can raise to that sort of correlation. But could anybody write today what Geoffrey Gorer wrote in 1955: "In public life today, the English are certainly among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen . . . the control of aggression which has gone to such remarkable lengths that you hardly ever see a fight in a bar, when football crowds are as orderly as church meetings . . . the orderliness and gentleness, this absence of overt aggression calls for an explanation . . ."?

And the answer given was that this social orderliness corresponded with a high degree of internal and external social restraint through Protestant morality. It had its downside, and it would be foolish to wish it back without radical transformation. Stated crudely, the idea that firm moral teaching rooted in a religious and conformist culture, cuts crime, is not an attractive reason for raising the status of RE.

But those who press this argument in more subtle ways have some evidence. We are in danger of producing a morally bewildered generation, and while there is no educationally valid way back to a heavy-handed moralism, there is a responsibility on the educational world to help in building some moral foundations. In doing this, RE is only one resource among many. By far the most important factor is usually the general ethos of the school and the quality of relationships. But where RE is taken seriously it can act as a focus for interpreting and criticising that ethos as part of the ordinary educational process.

A second pragmatic reason for justifying a major role for RE lies in the growth of irrationalism. A remarkably high proportion (in Britain) profess some religious principles and some residual belief. But especially among the young there are increasingly weird and wonderful religious ideas. It would be foolish to over-emphasise the importance of New Age religion, but the fact that most bookshops have sections on astrology and the occult, and various kinds of healing, and keys to self-knowledge, offset by a small row of presentation Bibles and Books of Common Prayer in a dingy corner, is surely a straw in the wind. Religious movements which actually undermine rationality are dangerous. But the antidote to irrationalism is not irreligion, but rational religion.

A third pragmatic reason for stressing the educational importance of RE is that in the last 20 years or so religion has become one of the main forces in international politics. Look at almost any part of the world where there is serious trouble, and the chances are that the root problems will either be religious or will involve issues of ethnic or national identity. To be religiously literate is an essential part of growing up as a responsible, informed citizen. Religion is not an adjunct of the heritage industry. It is a living force in the world and a primary motivation for many people. To be ignorant about it is to be just as disabling as to be ignorant of science or mathematics.

Other pragmatic reasons for giving RE a proper share of the timetable are frequently cited. Though I would not give it the central place some people do, the cultural heritage argument remains a strong one. So does the argument that some basic religious knowledge is needed to illuminate other subjects.

But I turn now to the claim that religion is intrinsically important in education, and that RE therefore needs to be studied, and properly resourced, for its own sake. The claim is that religion is an essential part of knowledge and of human experience, and that it is uniquely capable of relating all other subjects to some vision of the whole, and drawing out their practical implications for human life and community.

This is not a fashionable point of view, and it seems immediately to be questioned by the sheer difficulty of defining the subject, agreeing its content, justifying its claims, and accounting for religious diversity. Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which the charges against the intrinsic value of RE might be met: 1. Confessionalism: Teachers have no problems about expounding a religious tradition to those who already belong to that tradition. Confessional teaching is, or should be, possible in our own church schools. This need not imply narrowness, or lack of intellectual integrity, or failure to give due weight to other religious traditions. To teach from a point of view, and to combine this with critical insight, is no less legitimate in RE than in any other subject, where to aim at complete objective detachment falsifies the nature of the subject.

As we all know, there are strong pressures from outside the educational world to push RE in a more confessional direction. These have understandably created alarm both in different faith communities and among teachers, and I am glad to say that the Church of England has on the whole sympathised. I do not think that in our present cultural diversity, confessional teaching in schools is possible or desirable, outside the rather special circumstances of independent or aided schools, and even there it needs to be handled with care. There is a proper fear of over-zealous dogmatism.

2. Essentialism: This is the search for common elements in different religious traditions in such a way as to mitigate their distinctiveness. The exact opposite of confessionalism, it tackles the problems of definition and diversity by concentrating on some generalised "essence" of religion. All faiths and none can be studied because there are phenomena in human experience to which they all in their different ways relate. This approach acquired a bad reputation as a result of the 1944 Education Act.

Essentialism can result in a bland mixture of nothing-in-particular. But there are intellectually respectable ways in which an essentialist approach can be explored, and these are not to be seen as any less worthwhile because of the risk of being confused with the widespread belief that all religions are essentially going the same way.

The study of spiritually as an alternative to religion assumes essentialism. It has the advantage of directing attention towards actual feelings and experiences, and the means by which these are developed and explored, rather than towards divisive doctrines and traditions. But is is precisely the particularity of religious claims which gives them their power and we falsify them if we try to homogenise them. Furthermore, it is not possible to understand the religious struggles of our day unless this high degree of specificity is appreciated. People do not die for religion in general, but for a concrete faith. Nor do people live in the light of some generalised ultimate concern, but usually in the light of a faith in which some quite distinct symbols and stories and rules of thumb have for them become centrally important.

All the major religions have something to say about the meaning and purpose of human life, human identity both personal and social, human destiny, our human restlessness and our capacity for self-transcendence, and our ways of coping with failure.

In making the point that these are common religious themes, generalised descriptions of religion can be helpful. But a religious education which justified itself by sticking to such generalities would in my view have failed in its task. I believe there is a tougher task to be done, more educationally demanding, and one which more clearly justifies RE's place at the centre of the curriculum.

3. Critical solidarity: Theology, we are told, is not a proper academic subject because it is based on faith, or - worse still - on mere opinion. This is indeed true of many of the ways in which religion is taught. What this understanding of religion ignores, though, is that one of its primary tasks has been to witness to the essential mystery at the heart of things and from this perspective to ask critical questions about everything else. Are there limits to what scientists may do in the pursuit of knowledge, for instance? By holding open a door to that which surpasses knowledge, critical religion has the effect of relativising all claims to absolute certainty.

Confessionalism, as I have tried to indicate, has great strengths, but it can also become narrow and exclusive, and is by definition dependent in the last resort on a particular commitment. Essentialism solves the problem of diversity, but in doing so assumes likenesses which may be misleading; it reduces the sharpness of religious insight by removing its distinctiveness. What I have called "critical solidarity" does justice to the distinctiveness of faith while at the same time encouraging the search for religious reality in terms of questions rather than answers. It seems to be peculiarly well suited to an age suspicious of answers and overcrowded with contradictory and evanescent ideas.

Critical solidarity, of the kind I am attempting very briefly to describe, asks questions not only about religious knowledge, but about all knowledge. It is the enemy of self-sufficiency and dogmatism, of those who unwilling to ask fundamental questions about their discipline, their values, their aims, and their purpose in teaching. In this sense I would claim a central place for it in education, not because it can aspire to knowledge other disciplines do not possess, but because it is concerned about the nature of the ultimately real, and knows that this is a problem which will not go away.

This article is based on the address given by the Archbishop at the recent conference organised by St Gabriel's Trust and Culham College Institute on National Collaboration in Religious Education.

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