In search of the one truth

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Spirituality gets everywhere, but what is it and how does it fit into our lives? William K Kay finds some enlightenment

SPIRITUALITY, PHILOSOPHY AND EDUCATION. Edited by David Carr and John Haldane. RoutledgeFalmer pound;75 (hardback).

Any airport bookshop is likely to have a section on spirituality or human potential, somewhere near the shelves on self-improvement. The topic has become, like gardening and celebrity biographies, part of the age in which we live, and linked to our leisure activities. Yet in England and Wales, at any rate, reference to spirituality is a legal requirement of the educational system. Spirituality is inspected by Ofsted, linked across the curriculum to religious education, collective worship, music, art, literature and drama, or all of these. As John Keast of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority shows in his contribution to this collection of papers, spirituality may also surface in PSHE and citizenship. It gets everywhere.

This book started life as a conference at the University of Edinburgh. The 15 scholars who attended were philosophers and educationists in the main.

Most came from the UK, though contributors from Canada and the United States as well as from the Republic of Ireland added an international dimension.

If they had a common purpose, it was to analyse and define spirituality by philosophical methods and to see what result would follow if various conceptions of spirituality were to be included within common schools - those funded by the taxpayer. The difficult of the task was increased by the nature of philosophy.

In one form, philosophy is a second-order activity, concerned with analysis, coherence and logic, that turns its attention to other activities to see whether they make sense or what their underlying intellectual structure might be. In another form, philosophy might be seen as the pursuit of wisdom, a response to the anxieties generated by our finite human lives, a way of developing virtue and seeking knowledge or truth.

Consequently, to quote another contributor, Kevin Mott-Thornton of Sydenham high school in the London borough of Lewisham, "a spiritually neutral philosophy is as unrealistic isI as a philosophically neutral spirituality". So philosophy is a player as well as a referee.

Discussion, even argument, about the nature of spirituality is central to this book. Should we see it as an emphasis on the non-material side of living? Or - as argued by Mark Halstead of the University of Plymouth - might it solely be expressed by our physical being and therefore be deeply rooted in the body? Can it be an aspect of religious traditions only, or should it be seen as belonging to the nature of humanity as a whole? And if so, should spirituality to be removed from its religious cradle and allowed to flourish freely in a secular world? Or can there be religious and non-religious spirituality? Is the whole notion merely a confusion or does it speak, as Jeff Astley of the North of England Institute for Christian Education contends, of a vital part of our personal relationships? And if spirituality is a realm of its own, how does it relate to morality?

None of the contributors believes spirituality should be put in the dustbin. They all accept its contribution to the flourishing of human beings, but they are divided on its relationship with religion. Canadian contributor Daniel Vokey from the University of British Columbia advances the ingenious argument that spirituality is part of our natural human development and that, just as we learn language from the culture around us, so we express our spirituality through existing religious traditions within the cultures in which we live. Others make reference to the disciplines of spirituality expressed by Catholic mystics as well as to the sham consumerist versions based upon a version of self-expression.

Historically, as John Cottingham of the University of Reading shows, it appears that spirituality is the cost, whether intellectual, physical or material, of a search for truth. However, once truth becomes the unerring product of a rigid scientific method, spirituality is devalued. So spirituality's prominence in discourse and practice must be related to prevailing beliefs about access to truth.

Hence the discussion about how spirituality should be implemented in schools is complicated by the disjointed nature of society. Two practical solutions are put forward. The first offers a fourfold classification system using "religiously tethered" and "religiously untethered" spirituality, taught from the "inside" or from the "outside", a distinction made by Terry McLaughlin of Cambridge. So it would be possible to teach religious or non-religious spirituality from the outside in any type of school, but there might be problems in teaching the untethered version from the inside. The prospect of teaching the religious version from inside might be justified in the same way as religious education is justified at the moment.

Another solution boosts the role of parents and their relationship with schools, on the grounds that parents are the primary teachers of spirituality to their children. This is because, even if we accept that the ideal of personal autonomy is fundamental to education, we must recognise that autonomy is personally, socially and culturally situated. As it is impossible to be initiated into all value systems, it is best if the parental value system is given priority.

In searching for a conclusion, David Carr posits three conceptions of spirituality. The conventional is religious and accepts that most religions have promoted specific pedagogies of spiritual instruction. The second, or postmodern, account focuses attention on the experiential dimensions of spiritual life, especially on the wondrous and indescribable moments that curb the ego and give us a sense of unity with all things. This account suffers from lack of coherence. The mysterious is not obviously connected with the sublime and there is nothing distinctive about the moments of transcendence, nothing that easily links to a distinctive spiritual programme of instruction in the classroom.

A third, or constructivist, approach tries to build a generalised model of spiritual development similar to the psychological models of moral development advanced by Jean Piaget or Lawrence Kohlberg. Yet weighing the options, Carr plumps for the traditional approach because it offers scope for coherent educational enquiry that is separate from religion.

This book will not find its way to the airport bookshop, but it ought to grace college libraries if spirituality is to become more securely based in schools.

William K Kay is a senior lecturer in religious education at King's College London

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