Ask parents what is deeply important for their children to learn in life and they will often say things like being a decent human being, having meaningful relationships, leaving the world a better place, and being freed from personal hang-ups. How can children be helped to form their own personal and spiritual goals? Religious education is seen as an opportunity to provoke challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, beliefs about God, the self and the nature of reality, issues of right and wrong, and what it means to be human.
The rise of prejudice, discrimination and violence associated with religious fundamentalism has led more people to question the certainties of any religion, and there is growing doubt concerning even the need for any kind of system of spiritual belief. Given the decline in belief of the traditional Christian version of God — particularly in north-west Europe — there is a tendency for thinking adults not to see ultimate reality as fixed into any certainty: it being likely to change with different experiences. Thus religious education tends to be sidelined.
The question is sometimes asked about the individual who knows love and does good works that grow out of that love and is content with the richness of the life that love brings. What need have they of any sacred writings or of any belief system?
Religious education and history of spiritual ideas
Clearly, some humanists and agnostics live a better life than some of those who are affiliated with a religion. Nevertheless, I would claim that religious education can reflect the historical source of spiritual concepts: not just concepts that can help one to see through the illusions of the natural world to a deeper reality within, but also that are essential to bring about the good life for all.
These days, the aim of teachers in religious education is to provide information about a range of faith traditions — especially now in multicultural Britain where pupils in one classroom often come from a range of ethnic backgrounds. In its latest report into religious education in British schools, the Government agency Offsted concludes
“There is uncertainty among many teachers of RE (religious education) about what they are trying to achieve in the subject.”
Need for religious education despite non-religious language
In our increasing secular society, there is a growing trend to use non-religious language. We use such terms as getting in touch with one’s higher self, becoming calm through meditation, gaining a better understanding of one’s attachments and cravings, recognising the life force all around. In other words spiritual ideas are seen as potentially useful and important even if they are usually not explicitly linked to traditional religious teachings.
I would say what we appreciate as the ‘Good’ in life is difficult to get a handle on and communicate without ideas taught in religious education. Don’t you need an awareness of ethical ideas and spiritual teachings to guide your actions? For example the golden rule ‘Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you’ is an idea in the mind about the `Truth’. This is something which puts into words your appreciation of the importance of where other people are coming from when you are dealing with them i.e. what can be ‘Good’ about your relationship with other people. Knowledge about what is ‘True’ tying in with awareness of what is ‘Good’.
Here are a few other spiritual ideas:
- We should take care of the earth and protect the environment.
- Rules defining right and wrong should not be based on enlightened self-interest but on the needs of all.
- Learn from your mistakes and move on.
- Something must have started the universe.
- Your life does not cease at bodily death.
Don’t you need such worthy ideas to guide your thoughts and intentions? From such ideas come systems of belief that can give you hope especially when you get discouraged by the set-backs in life. In other words I feel it does matter what you think, as your understanding about things guides your actions — what you do, how you do it and how confident you can be you are on the right track.
According to Emanuel Swedenborg an awareness of deeper ideas concerning what is ‘Good’ and ‘True’ is essential. Without a religious education and thus knowledge about such things, how could there be a channel for deeper understanding: arguably without understanding, you cannot find a system of spiritual belief that will give you hope and confidence in the good life.
I would say unless they first learn about deeper ideas children are not protected from the illusions of life. Teachers in religious education however can only go so far in helping the young. They can impart information, but isn’t it up to the learner what to do with it?
Limits of religious education
According to Swedenborg’s theory, religious education has its limits: an awareness of ethical and spiritual ideas by itself is merely something in the head: personal choice and heart-felt desire are also important. So he asserts that an inner thirst for what is really ‘True’ and ‘Good’, based on a memory of ethical and spiritual ideas, when put into practice will result in enlightened understanding. In other words a heart of good intent coupled with a head full of good ideas will lead to an inspired system of belief that not only provides meaning, but can lead to the hope and confidence needed for personal transformation and commitment to some worthy goal in life.
“It’s what you choose to believe that makes you the person you are.” (Karen Marie Moning, Darkfever)
What should religious education teach
So what should religious education teach children?
Government has identified a difficulty in structuring and defining a clear process of learning in religious education. I believe this difficulty reflects an emphasis on religious diversity in practice and belief across different faith traditions, at the expense of offering clarity regarding beliefs that different faiths have in common. Are pupils being expected to work all this out for themselves without being offered spiritual ideas about what is universally “Good” and “True”?
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems