Enter the spiritual kingdom

7th June 1996 at 01:00

Is the spiritual kingdom to be found in another world, in this world transformed, or within us? If Christians have found this question difficult, no wonder educationists - urged to respond to calls from Government and elsewhere for "spiritual development" to be given its due care in the curriculum - often do so with hesitation, embarrassment and ambiguity. This work contains 25 such responses, most of them originally contributions to a conference at the Froebel Institute in 1994.

Some of the difficulties are well defined by Marisa Crawford and Graham Rossiter. Too religious an approach alienates those of other religions or none; excluding a religious reference (they put this too weakly) ignores much of significance; "defining spirituality so broadly that all aspects of life are regarded as spiritual" makes for the "vague and impractical". The first option is the least in evidence here.

Most contributors are so frightened of indoctrination as to stay well away from even considering, for instance, traditional methods of fostering growth in prayer. Brenda Lealman raises hopes by quoting Thomas Traherne and Austin Farrer, and writes perceptively about myth and imagination, but moves on to new age absurdities about communities of galaxies and to routine denunciations - tribalism, literalism, paternalism, dogmatism.

The thorough-going secularists seem much less worried about imposing dogma. Whereas John White does display some of the sensitivity that he praises in the course of attempting a concordat between religious and non-religious approaches, David Lambourn bluntly denounces the spiritual.

If regarded as anything more than "personal-social", he argues, it is an empty concept: a spirituality of the gaps is no better than a God of the gaps. It is a category whose very vacuousness may be used to smuggle in suspect things.

For Mike Newby, too, spirituality simply means the development of personal identity, though he condescendingly accepts that "citizens of a liberal state must . . . be entitled to hold, and express views that constitute a criticism of the status quo provided that such views do not constitute a threat to democratic and humane principles".

He then adds, with chilling matter-of-factness, that "it has to be for the government to decide when this is, in fact, the case".

Terence McLaughlin is also sure that, while religious attempts at "holistic" schooling are unacceptable in a pluralist society, some values, such as freedom of speech and personal autonomy, are "binding on all persons". You have metaphysics: I have axioms. Still, he does warn against "edu-babble".

Louise Rowling, who can write sentences such as "optimized the potential for explicating the substantive topic of concern", should have been listening. Like Rowling's essay, much here is born out of real concern and experience, and yet is unable to conclude with anything more helpful than "some students' spiritual beliefs were challenged".

The most impressive essay in this book is Andrew Wright's. Wright is aware of the constraints of pluralism, but insists that agnostic cultivation of the self is no answer: spiritual truth is not in "the depths of my being", rather in "what is ultimately true about the nature of the reality I indwell".

Hugh Mead is chaplain emeritus, of St Paul's School, London

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