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1. Relationships between the spiritual and the religious: And the religious educational role of the church school
Understanding the contrasts and relationships between religious and secular spiritualities; and how a religiously sponsored education might enhance the spiritual development of religious pupils, and also that of pupils who are not particularly religious
1. Relationships between the spiritual and the religious: And the religious educational role of the church school
The core concern of these sections on spirituality is to help show how a church school religious education can not only help educate the spirituality of pupils who are religious, but also enhance the spirituality of those who are not religious. This is an important issue because most of the pupils in church schools are in the latter category. There is a need to acknowledge that a central part of the mission of church schools is to enhance the spirituality of the not-so-religious. In other words, how can an institution that is a centre of religious culture address also address the spiritual needs of those who are not, and who will not become practising members of a local community of faith.
Giving attention to religious traditions will always remain an important part of the religious educational process. But to focus relatively exclusively on such teaching is both too narrow and counterproductive – even if institutional maintenance were a principal purpose. It is considered that helping young people learn how to identify, interpret and evaluate contemporary spiritual/moral issues needs to become a more prominent part of religious education, especially in the senior years; and this has implications for both content and pedagogy (See Section 6). To do this is not ‘secularising' the process but it is trying to be faithful to the church school's religious mission to contemporary youth. If this is the case, then the various contemporary life issues hinted at in the powerpoint presentation in Section 3 are important for education in spirituality – they are not just secular matters.
As noted in Section 3, a useful way of understanding the relationship between the religious and the spiritual is to regard the religious as a basic human spirituality informed by, and expressed through an overlay of cultural religious meanings.
A religious spirituality is considered to be a basic human spirituality that has an overlay of cultural religious meanings. These meanings can motivate, inspire, and enhance human spirituality. But it may be difficult for individuals to discern the precise level of influence that religion has on them. Religious people can report that spirituality is the driving force in their lives; nevertheless, in some instances, one can observe individuals who maintain they are religious, but their religion appears to be relatively nominal and superficial because other human motivations seem to dominate their behaviour.
This interpretation highlights the prominence of cultural meanings in spirituality. It will be religious or not depending on what cultural meanings serve as dominant reference points. How cultural meanings can be identified and studied then becomes a central component of religious education. A healthy spirituality, whether religious or not, may depend on which cultural meanings inform people's thoughts and actions and on the extent of their influence on lifestyle and wellbeing. Hence these meanings need to be evaluated in the light of community values to get some indication of how they might enhance or harm the quality of people's lives (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 198).
One might ask: would young people make sense of this differentiation between the spiritual and the religious? If they are not formally religious, young people tend to think they have no spirituality at all; for many, the religious and the spiritual are much the same (Smith & Denton, 2005, p. 78). This view is often held by religious people who use the word unchurched to describe such youth (Fuller, 2001). This apparent identification of the spiritual and the religious remains common even though there is a growing interest in the notion of a spirituality not necessarily connected with religion (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 179; Coles, 1992; Tacey, 2003). From the analytical perspective taken here, many young people are spiritual but not religious as they retain a spiritual dimension in their values. Many young people just appear disinterested in religion. What they are interested in is feel-good experience and lifestyle.
The style and pace of life in contemporary, Westernised, industrialised societies has changed the way that many people (including youth) relate to religious meanings. For many, they get by without much reference to them. People may remain nominally identified with a denomination or religion. Nevertheless, they pay little attention to it because its meanings seem to have little connection with their everyday living. While previously obedience to God was prominent, now this is eclipsed by concerns to live one's life to the full – and little thought would be given to the potential overlap between these two ideas. Hence there has been a significant change in the locus of spirituality. It appears to have moved away from religiosity, where it was relatively easily identified in formal religious activities including prayer and liturgy. But where has it gone? Some judge that it has disappeared, and where this happens there is no spirituality. Others suggest that it has moved into the personal lives of individuals, becoming more subjective and individualistic. However, the idea of conscious movement does not seem to describe meaningfully what has happened. The decline in engagement with religious meanings simply leaves human spirituality in its raw state, de facto. It has not gone anywhere; it has just lost its cultural religious overlay – for better or for worse.
This interpretation sees spirituality as always embedded in people's thoughts and actions. But without a religious overlay, it is more implied than overt. It is therefore difficult to identify because it is rooted in the psychology of the individual which is not fully open to public scrutiny. Determining what is spirituality in people's lives is therefore naturally problematic, and this needs to be addressed in religious education. It means giving attention to the personal, subjective, psychological aspects of spirituality – and not just to the communal. Also needed is scrutiny of the cultural meanings that appear to influence people: Can they be identified? Are they healthy or harmful, depending on the extent of their influence? Hence a religious education that is beneficial to contemporary spirituality would need to include a search for the spiritual and moral dimensions in experience and events – this implies a search for spirituality followed by evaluation.
2. A portrait of contemporary spirituality built up from recent Research
What follows refers back to and builds on the table at the very end of the previous section which contrasted the different cultural meanings that informed traditional Christian spirituality and contemporary relatively secular spirituality. A quick reference to that table can be made here by clicking this link .
The material below on secular spirituality is drawn collectively from a range of research studies over the last decade. There has been a significant change in the way people construct spirituality, and this implies a different role for religion. Many young people, as well as adults, have a more individualistic, subjective, eclectic, secular spirituality. Identifying the change is an important starting point for a church school religious education that sets out to enhance and resource pupils' spirituality.
Within the last decade there have been a number of research studies of youth spirituality (for example: Francis & Robbins, 2005; Smith & Denton, 2005; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006; Hughes, 2007; Mason et al. 2007; Engebretson, 2007; Maroney, 2008). While there are young people who are religious, and whose church involvement is an important part of their lives, there is a majority who still identify to some extent with a religion or denomination, but this remains very much in the background as they tend to be preoccupied with other matters like lifestyle, looks, feeling good, new experience and generally trying to be happy. However, the research also shows that this is hardly different from the spirituality of their parents: “Young people from every corner of the culture . . echo their parents' religiosity to an astonishing degree” (Smith & Denton, 2005, Back cover). “Parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realise it” (p. 56).
Social researchers have also analysed cultural influences on thinking and behaviour, that in turn affect spirituality (e.g. Eckersley, 2005; Eckersley et al. 2006).
The following will attempt to identify some key characteristics of contemporary secular spirituality and put these into perspective. The discussion will revolve around two diagrams that together attempt to show that for many young people, and adults, there has been a radical change in the way their spirituality is constructed and how it functions, particularly with respect to the role for religion. The first diagram looks at a very traditional Christian spirituality, which still operates for some, and the second describes a contemporary, individualistic, relatively secular spirituality. In a way, it is like a follow-up, complementary picture of the material in table 2 from the previous section as noted above.
Download and look at the powerpoint summary on contemporary spirituality, together with its recorded summary. Then the following will review the main points.
As with all diagrams of this type, they are oversimplified and do not account for all the data adequately; but nevertheless they do convey some of the ‘big picture' issues that need to be taken into account in religious education. For example, to focus on cultural rather than family influence on spirituality, the figures have deliberately simplified the equation by not including a place for the family – even though research suggests that parental spirituality is the best predictor of young people's spirituality. Family can not only provide the baseline starting point for children's spirituality, but it can also modify and filter cultural influences to some extent, depending on the parents. However, for many adolescents, their friends and popular teenage culture can become the all important influences. Not all young people will fit neatly into either of the schemes in the two diagrams; but the issues identified may often be operative in their lives to a greater or lesser extent.
It is not a matter of thinking that the traditional spirituality has passed its ‘use by' date, and that the contemporary spirituality needs to be ‘baptised' and accepted in its place. Both of the pictures of spirituality have their natural problems and possibilities; both need critical evaluation. But at least the two pictures show that there has been a far reaching change in the way people acquire and construct spirituality, and how it may influence their lives; and they identify issues that need to be addressed both in the churches and in religious education.
3. Picture of a traditional Christian spirituality -- contrasted with contemporary secular spirituality (Refer again to the Figure below)
The purpose of this diagram is to identify an earlier historical marker of Christian spirituality that could be said to be traditional in the 1950s. Elements of this outlook on spirituality still remain for some people, even if their number is fewer. However, this thinking is still reflected in current religion curricula.
Traditionally, in countries with European cultural origins, spirituality was identical with being religious in a Christian format: spirituality was equivalent to religiosity. Nowadays, there is a trend in divergence between the spiritual and the religious, such that some would see themselves as ‘spiritual' but not necessarily ‘religious'.
For a traditional Christian spirituality everything began and ended with God (Top left of Figure 1). God and then the church, Bible and a comprehensive supporting religious culture constituted the overarching authority in matters spiritual. People believed with a sense of unshakeable certainty in divine revelation God's authority and the Bible; it was felt to be as true and as solid as the ground beneath their feet. The Christian view of life was a grand metanarrative that made sense of everything; the individual as a child of God had a cosmic significance and an inalienable value. Being spiritual/religious was then a matter of worshipping and obeying God. Of many images of God, the picture of God as judge, rewarder of the good and the punisher of evil was prominent. It was understandable that the Christian life was sometimes perceived as a warfare, following up images from St Paul, and that fear of becoming a sinner and the danger of ultimate damnation in hell were prominent; this was encapsulated in the notion of ‘saving your soul'.
In Figure 1, the psychological dynamics of the individual are pictured in terms of three closely interrelated constructs: meaning, spirituality and identity (explicated in detail in Crawford & Rossiter, 2006). The authoritative cultural religious meanings proposed by the church were internalised, becoming personal religious meanings, including beliefs which are also regarded as a component of religious faith. In addition, the notion of faith that seemed more important was faith as a personal relationship with God. You were committed to God and God was committed to you.
Usually the whole package of religious doctrines was accepted without question on the authority of the church and God – even if some of them were difficult to understand and hard to apply to one's life. With a strong sense of supportive religious culture from the local and wider church, it was relatively easy to identify oneself as being religious and an integral part of a community with similar faith. Those who questioned or doubted were readily marginalised and made to feel like outsiders or defectors.
The enveloping religious culture, even when a religious group may have been a minority in the larger society, supported and reinforced personal spirituality. For Christians, their spirituality centred on religious practices – especially worship, prayer, and reading the Bible. Individuals not only had a clearly identified religious reference group, they had personal access to God through prayer. Christian meaning and purpose in life also had some cultural reinforcement where Christian history in Europe and the New World left its mark on civil society, art, literature and music. Religious holidays were also some indicator of the cultural resilience of Christianity.
Individuals' experience, behaviour and moral values were informed by their personal religious meanings and sense of personal religious identity. As we know only too well, having religious beliefs and professing religious values does not always result in morally impeccable behaviour – that is the human condition. But at least the figure shows the Christian purpose for life.
Also prominent in traditional Christian spirituality was the firm belief that one's true home was with God. This present life was said to be not the ‘real' life, but just a ‘preparation' for life eternal with God. In this sense, Christian spirituality was other worldly in focus.
Figure 1. Schema highlighting aspects of a traditional Christian spirituality
4. Picture of a contemporary, individualistic, secular, subjective spirituality (Refer to Figure 2)
Just how and why things have changed, making it evident that a traditional Christian spirituality is not as prominent as it was say 50 years ago in Australia, was considered in the previous section.
A common form of contemporary spirituality is individualistic, rather than communal, eclectic in the way it pieces together various elements from different sources, often little may be drawn from the religious tradition, subjective in that it is private and personal without much communal identification, and secular in that it has little or no overlay of religious cultural meanings. Rather than accepting a given set of cultural religious meanings, this sort of spirituality is either constructed personally or selected from a range of readily available options.
But what seems to be more radical is that the basis for validating spirituality, as well as for judging about most aspects of life, has devolved from attention to pertinent authorities, like God and the church, to be embedded in individuals themselves. The individual has become his/her own ultimate touchstone for authenticity in beliefs and values. Smith & Denton (2005, p.141) considered that:
American youth, like American adults are nearly without exception profoundly individualistic, instinctively presuming autonomous, individual self-direction to be a universal human norm and life goal. Thoroughgoing individualism is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers. It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognised, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition. US teenagers' profound individualism informs a number of issues related to religion.
Schweitzer (2007) painted a similar picture for German youth. It is evident that the situation is the same with Australian youth.
Individuals themselves have become the supreme authorities for judging what is relevant to them, even what is right and true. Cultural postmodernity has questioned the previously held certainty and authority attributed to spiritual, religious knowledge and it casts doubts about the value of metanarratives (Bauman, 1997; Bridger, 2001). In this cultural atmosphere of scepticism, the truth and reliability of personal knowledge and knowledge of the spiritual seem to deteriorate. What is now certain is that there is a natural uncertainty to this type of knowledge. Hence it becomes very relative, and it is then up to the individual to decide what to believe. Spirituality now becomes personal, subjective and DIY (Do It Yourself) rather than both personal and communal as in traditional Christian spirituality.
This relatively secular spirituality is hard to identify. Formerly, it was easy to see an overt religiosity in prayer and religious practices. Now that the cultural religious overlay to personal spirituality is hardly evident, what spirituality remains is often an implied in values rather than overt in practice – it is like a basic human spirituality as discussed above and in the previous section. Rather, most of them, while not being anti-religious are just too concerned with lifestyle and related matters to have any time to consider religion – which in any case is felt to have little relevance for them.
People with this sort of secular spirituality still have personal meanings and a sense of identity; but they are not affected as much, if at all, by an overlay of cultural religious meanings as was the case in traditional Christian spirituality. This does not mean that they are not influenced by culture. Their values, hopes and aims for life are strongly coloured by prevailing cultural meanings. However, they are not willing to admit to this because they feel that they alone are authors of their own attitudes, values and behaviour – uninfluenced by any cultural meanings. For US young people, Smith & Denton (2005, p. 144) described the situation as follows:
The figure suggests that deeply embedded cultural meanings in Westernised societies are all about: lifestyle, getting ahead, being wealthy, attractive and happy, and in constant search of new ‘authentic' experience. Being free and an individual are of paramount importance. If these cultural meanings are taken-for-granted, they are relatively invisible but therefore potentially more influential precisely because they are not identified and open to critical appraisal. In particular, the complex of marketing/advertising/media constantly offer orchestrated imaginations of what life should be like that are in all likelihood effective in suggesting what people should come to expect of life (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, pp. 349-350). And hence they are potentially significant for shaping people's spirituality.
Even though the notion of personal identity can be complex while somewhat vague, it is regarded by young people as fundamentally important. ‘Be yourself' and ‘live life to the full' are popular mantras. Acquiring and maintaining some sense of authentic personal identity is an ongoing developmental task. It is as if they are born with a congenital identity deficiency and must work continuously to sustain a distinctive sense of self. Self-expression, and how you are perceived and rated by others are therefore constantly reviewed to check that your identity remains on track. At the same time, consumer industries exploit young people's identity vulnerability by proposing that they can achieve their true self by buying the right stuff, which is readily identified because it has a cool brand. Hence they may end up acquiring a retail identity with a dependence on purchasing consumer products (external identity resources) and on the status and cachet that these goods seem to convey, while neglecting an authentic identity that gives more attention to internal, spiritual, identity resources like values, principles and commitments. An important ingredient in catering to the consumer identity mentality is the necessity for constant self-affirmation and salving of apparent identity needs. Hence young people's quest for new buzz experiences, with an ever higher voltage threshold, feel-good experience, excitement and risk behaviours becomes the psychological mechanism through which consumer / entertainment / advertising industries keep their identity related spending on the boil. This material draws on a detailed discussion of Searching for identity: Finding a way through the cultural maze in Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, pp. 129-170). Richard Eckersley (2006, p. 11) identified part of the problem:
As consumerism reaches increasingly beyond the acquisition of things to the enhancement of the person, the goal of marketing becomes not only to make us dissatisfied with what we have, but also with who we are. As it seeks ever more ways to colonise our consciousness, consumerism both fosters and exploits the restless, insatiable expectation that there has got to be more to life. And in creating this hunger, consumerism offers its own remedy – more consumption
People's basic human spirituality is implicit in their lifestyle, and their identity is expressed in what they do with their time and money. But because this is not overt like a religious spirituality, the spiritual and moral dimensions need to be uncovered, identified, and most important of all subject to critical appraisal by people themselves.
The sort of meanings, spirituality and identity noted in the figure inform morality and behaviour. However, the figure, because of its simplicity, is biased in the way it identifies only potential problems without balancing this with the positive, noble and altruistic meanings and identity resources that can also be appropriated by individuals. How good an individual's moral behaviour will be according to accepted community values will then depend on the ultimate blend of meanings and values that operates in their lives.
Figure 2. Schema highlighting aspects of a contemporary, individualistic, secular spirituality
The figure suggests that few people today would seriously consider that this life is only a preparation for the next. The purpose of getting to heaven while avoiding hell is not likely to be a serious motivation for many Australian Christians today – while still believing in God and an afterlife. Hence, there is the added inclination for people to be very existential and to live for the here and now. And a consumer oriented society plays this tune well. ‘Why wait when you can have consumer heaven here and now – visit your local mall'
While problematic in their limited scope, the two figures do highlight key issues for spirituality related to fundamental changes in the basis for judgment about ultimate epistemological and truth questions, from God to the individual self, and in the changing role for religion, from dominant, authoritative source of cultural meanings about the purpose of life to an optional resource from which one can pick and choose according to perceived value. Also foregrounded in the diagrams is the change from a cultural/institutionalised religion and religiosity to a much more individualised and privatised spirituality, where there is considerable variation in the contribution that formal religion might contribute to personal meanings and identity. In addition, the role of cultural meanings in shaping the thinking and values of people is made very prominent. This has important implications for religious education where studying the origins and communication of cultural meanings becomes a central task.
It is considered that neither of the figures represents a desirable, healthy, religion-related spirituality. The difficulties they point towards need to be scrutinised when educating in spirituality.
5. Young people's understanding of God
While it is not possible to discuss this question in detail here, it is important to note that young people's images of God are like a barometer of contemporary spirituality. Just to illustrate this, have a look at the cartoons used by Michael Maroney to study how young people in Catholic schools thought about God. The powerpoint has some brief notes on the findings which were discussed in detail in Maroney's research study.
If you would like to follow up this topic, you can read the conclusions that Dr Maroney came to in the light of the results of his group interviews.
OPTIONAL EXTRA READING: History: A much earlier description of youth spirituality from 1978
Read Graham Rossiter: The Beliefs and Attitudes of young people: some implications for religious education. From Religious Education in Australian Schools (1981) and written in 1978. This is one of the earliest articles by Rossiter on fostering the spiritual development of young people written. It is interesting to see what some of the insights were then and to see how they may have been further developed since that time. Were the key issues the same for the spiritual development of young people in the late 1970s compared with what is the case today?
6. A general spiritual profile of today's young people
This section concludes with a summary of some aspects of the spirituality of young people. While these generalisations do not apply to all, they provide a useful composite picture. The search for a conspicuous spiritual dimension to life is hardly uppermost in the minds of many young people. The major part of their psychological and emotional energy is usually taken up with surviving the perils of adolescence and negotiating the tasks of school and the potential employment that, they hope, lies beyond it. They will be more concerned with what has an immediate bearing on their wellbeing: their looks and social acceptability, their friendships, entertainment, films, television, music, leisure and sport.
Nevertheless, a scheme like this highlights the various backgrounds that young people bring to their thinking about spirituality. They have complex patterns of belief and spirituality acquired through life experience and contact with religious and non-religious views of life. This scheme was originally devised 20 years ago by Marisa Crawford and published in the Religious Education Journal of Australia (Crawford & Rossiter, 1993). Its perceptive insight into the lives of young people still rings true. It was updated in 2006.
7. Conclusions: Why a perspective on contemporary spirituality is important for church school religious education
This Section has drawn on recent research studies to compile an interpretation of the secular, individualistic spirituality that characterises many of the pupils in Australian church-related schools. If religious education in these schools is concerned only with trying to acquaint pupils with Christianity, painting a favourable image of the church, and inviting them to consider ongoing church membership, then it is no wonder that religion teachers get stressed by their job – teaching religion in the secondary school is a health hazard! But on the other hand, acknowledging the spiritual starting points of young people is the best way of seeing how religious education can still be educationally valuable for enhancing and resourcing young people's spirituality no matter how secular it may be and whether or not they ever become practicing members of a local church. How to address this situation in terms of content and pedagogy needs ongoing consideration. The issues discussed here are a beginning point for such attention.
If you look at the religion curricula of most church-related schools in Australia, the content topics, in the main, cover the standard areas of Christian theology. In other words, they are framed almost exclusively within traditional Christian religious meanings concerned with the handing on of the Christian tradition. This remains the case, even though attention is given to the study of world religions, especially in senior classes, and efforts are made to include experiential and practical elements that might help make the study more relevant to life. This conservative curriculum orientation is not in itself a bad thing; it is conservative in the good sense of conserving the tradition; and this is important for giving young Christian people access to their religious cultural heritage which is a birthright. This is valid, even if many of them never become active, engaged members of a local community of faith. The same principle applies to those who are not Christian; they need educational access to their religious tradition – even if the curricula in church schools are unable to cater for this systematically. Similarly, those who are agnostic or atheist need some education about religion if they are to be informed citizens in a multicultural society.
However, if one looks at research on youth spirituality, and also at the spirituality of many adults, there have been such significant changes in recent decades, that a traditional Christian orientation to the religion curriculum is no longer adequate. Something else is needed to help address the different ways people construct meaning, purpose and value in life with little or no reference to religion.
Religion teachers need to know how young people today both do, and do not, pay attention to the spiritual and moral dimensions to life. An understanding of youth spirituality is a starting point for working out what else might be done in school religious education to enhance and resource their personal spirituality, over and above what is done to educate them in the Christian tradition and in religions generally
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