RE Archives – Christians in Education

feature-672x372-6789599 September 30, 2016 Admin10

Is there such a thing as a neutral space? And if there is, does creating one lead to greater social cohesion? These questions raised their heads yet again this week, as opponents to religion in general and faith schools in particular continued with their rhetoric of hate.

The question is relevant, because society is increasingly buying into the concept of neutral public space as being fair and reasonable. Some Christians, too, find the argument seductive, or at least so powerful in its presentation that they feel obliged to remain silent about their faith. So, is it possible to have a neutral worldview? The answer, of course, is no, because we all believe some things, and in doing so we necessarily reject other things. I believe in a living God. It necessarily follows that I reject atheist and agnostic worldviews. That doesn’t mean that I reject the people who hold those views. I merely cannot believe in diametrically opposed belief systems. It’s perfectly possible to reject a view, without disrespecting the person who owns it.

This becomes something of a Catch 22 discussion. If you think, as many antagonists to my faith appear to, that I disrespect people who hold views that differ from my own, then you are yourselves disrespecting me in rejecting my beliefs. Humanists and secularists might argue that theirs is the only reasonable worldview, but humanism and secularism are belief systems just like any other. Why should their moral values and codes for life dictate public conversations for everyone? The point of a pluralist society is exactly that – plurality.

If nothing else, the fact that a staggering 84% of the world’s population admits to some kind of religious or spiritual belief is proof that humanity is keen to search for meaning outside of itself. What motivates us to believe in something bigger than ourselves? On the weight of numbers alone, religion and spirituality are entitled to a significant place in the public arena. To go further, it suggests a moral imperative for its inclusion in our education provision. If it’s that important to so many people, then children and young people should be allowed to make up their own minds about what they believe. Removing religion from public spaces denies them the opportunity to do so. That is more far more akin to indoctrination into a worldview than encouraging them to explore what other people believe as part of their own path of discovery about who they are, why they’re here and how they want to live as individuals in relationship with their fellow human beings.

After his conversion, the apostle Paul lived only to talk about God. But even though he took every opportunity to debate, discuss and persuade, he also wrote: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:18). It’s a good platform from which to talk and from which to disagree well. So, instead of neutral public spaces dominated by identity politics, let’s develop free, open public spaces where we can each debate and discuss without fear of the sneering ridicule that dominates so much current rhetoric.

Faith schoolsHumanismRESecularism feature-672x372-6789599 September 16, 2016 Admin10

This blog was first published in October 2015, but following yet another call, this time from Edward Timpson, for mindfulness training to become compulsory in schools, it seems timely to publish it again.

Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above – the great panacea for the human condition. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.

So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. Some psychologists suggest that it is a technique which should not be consumed blindly or even that it can exacerbate negative feelings, including panic and depression.

The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.

So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God.

The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.

The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).

While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).

In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.

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At the NAHT conference last week, heads debated a motion to overturn the parental right of opt-out from RE. The motion was almost unanimously approved, but not surprisingly, it provoked a mini-storm of protest from both sides of the argument, so I know I’m entering the lions’ den by adding my thoughts. I write as a primary school teacher and a Christian parent.

As the latter, I have experience of parental opt-out. It was an obvious, but not easy, decision to make. We live near a Buddhist monastery, visits to which were a regular part of the RE curriculum. One year, a teacher decided to arrange for my daughter’s class to join in a Buddhist meditation service. My daughter refused to take part, so I explained this and tried to opt her out of that section of the trip. Observation was fine: participation was not.

Unfortunately, it was assumed that because we are a Christian family, I was objecting on religious grounds. Actually, I was objecting because my daughter didn’t want to take part in ritual of any sort, and it was a false assumption that because I am a Christian, my child must be, too. A deputy head finally reluctantly agreed to her request on the grounds that no child should be forced to do something which made them uncomfortable, although the school remained convinced that I was staging some sort of Christian protest.

So much for opt-out. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to use it, and by the time the situation had been resolved, it had become a major source of conflict. Sometimes parents do need the option, and I think it should remain where students are required to participate in religious activity in an RE lesson that presupposes belief, as ritual does. That should not be any part of the RE curriculum, and the opt-out needs to be there because sometimes teachers make mistakes, or even bad decisions.

What I have a problem with is opting out just because you think religion is wrong. I think lots of things are wrong in society – I also think that understanding them puts me in a stronger position to argue against them or try and put them right.

The NAHT argument relates to the need to teach religious literacy and foster a language that allows today’s young people to navigate a multi-cultural and diverse society openly and with empathy. There shouldn’t be any objection to this: sitting in an igloo doesn’t make you Inuit and the same applies to RE – watching a baptism doesn’t make you a Christian. Visiting a synagogue doesn’t make you a Jew. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, has ever converted to a religion because of an RE lesson.

As a primary school teacher, I think good quality compulsory RE teaching is vital for another reason. It’s about exploring answers to the really big questions in life, like Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? and religious belief plays a part in finding answers for billions of people around the world. Every child, whatever the faith of the parents, should have the opportunity to investigate possible answers to the big questions of life and come to their own conclusions. I say that as a Christian parent, believing that my children should be able to conduct their own search for truth, and in doing so, find their own personal belief.

The National Secular Society has rolled out the tired old argument about confessional teaching and indoctrination. I challenge anyone to make a child or young person believe something that they choose not to believe. If you think you can, then I would suggest you’ve never worked with children. The NSS objection, of course, is to the existence of faith schools and their right to teach from a distinctive faith perspective.

I’ve got mixed feelings on this one, too. I went to a church school and it’s not an experience I would ever want to repeat. I wasn’t taught anything about faith let alone indoctrinated, unless you count reciting my catechism every day for 7 years. It clearly had no effect, because to this day, I can’t remember a word of it. I learnt plenty about organised religion, but nothing about faith in God.

It was in my church that I found a relationship with a living God. And it’s because of that faith that I think it’s so vital that children and young people are allowed to examine what people believe, and what they do in their churches and temples, and how it informs the way they live their lives. Schools are uniquely positioned to do this: parents are not.

Belief is a personal decision, but understanding what people believe and why they choose to believe it is one of the most precious gifts we can give our children and our future society. Opting out removes children from the arena of debate that leads to greater understanding between us all.

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