What does a Christian framework bring to spirituality in education?

One common way of talking about the aspects of education where matters like faith, hope and love come to the fore is to talk about spirituality, spiritual formation, or spiritual development. What does it do to our approaches to learning if we begin with the assumption that the learners before us are not merely processors of information or future contributors to the economy, but are also spiritual beings? More succinctly put, does spirituality have anything to do with learning?

An immediate problem in this kind of discussion concerns what we might mean by spirituality. Some have hoped that talk of the ‘spiritual’ might move us out of the problems and disagreements implied by talking of ‘religion’. Could a focus on the ‘spiritual’ get us away from uncomfortable disagreements about beliefs and let us focus on feelings of awe, wonder, and belonging that everyone experiences? This line of thought has proved tempting, but a closer look at the ongoing debates concerning spirituality in education makes it very clear that the nature of spiritual experience and its relationship to beliefs is one of the very things about which people have varying convictions. Our beliefs about the spiritual will affect how we approach it in school. On this website the focus is on spirituality as understood within the Christian tradition and the contribution that it can make to education.

Christian spirituality is, of course, a vast topic. Here we will focus on a few broad implications of approaching spirituality in Christian terms. We will suggest in another article a concise framework for thinking about spirituality practically in the classroom.

Spirituality and everyday life

There's a view of spirituality enshrined in many a cartoon, often with Christian references, that sees it as the opposite of the material and the mundane. Spirituality on this view is mainly about floating around on clouds, meditating around candles, and staying away from the nitty gritty of bodily existence. In fact, Christian theology has long resisted viewing the spiritual as simply the opposite of the bodily, or as the mysterious something which is left over when all of our everyday human tasks have been given their due.

Christian faith affirms the original goodness of creation. It celebrates the incarnation of God as human flesh and blood, born in humble, earthy circumstances and dying a very real death on a Roman cross. It looks forward to the resurrection of believers not to an existence as immaterial ghosts, but to raised bodies and a restored creation. Bread and wine, basic staples of daily life, are central Christian symbols. The New Testament does not just speak to some invisible inward part of us, but calls us to honour God with out bodily actions: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness,” says Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, “but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). As Paul puts it elsewhere, “honour God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Spirituality is not, therefore, about escaping from our earthly existence. It is about the way our lives are shaped by what we love and give ourselves to. It includes a focus on the practical here and now. Spirituality in the classroom is therefore not just about the invisible and inexpressible, or about moments for eyes closed and special sensations; it includes considering all the ways in which our lives and experiences are patterned by our commitments and our relationship to or estrangement from God. It might include, for instance, exploring how faith affects people's actions in history or design and technology.

Spirituality and commitment

Since spirituality helps give shape to our lives, Christians maintain that there is no getting away from choosing what spiritual direction to pursue. Different beliefs and commitments will shape differing spiritualities and different life patterns. There will of course be overlap and some commonalities of experience, but essential to a Christian understanding of spirituality is the contention that in the end it matters what you give yourself to. As time goes on, we begin to become like that which we place at the heart of our lives.

To talk of growing spiritually in generic terms without considering the role of particular commitments is a little like thinking of learning to speak language without learning to speak any particular language. In biblical terms, Christian spirituality rests on the invitation and command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength [and] love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30). Helping students to engage with spiritual growth will include making clear that choices and commitments are involved. This could, for instance, include exploring the consequences of characters' choices in a literature lesson or considering how others' commitments shaped their lives in a foreign language lesson.

Spirituality and self-help

Christian spirituality includes a call to seek God and work at living a faithful life – but it also is rooted in the conviction that faith is not a self-help technique. Spiritual growth is about trusting and receiving before it is about striving and perfecting. A central Christian claim is that if we are to become able to live a life of love to God and neighbour, we first stand in need of grace. Grace is the unmerited acceptance and assistance that become available to us as we open ourselves to what Christ has already done for us. It involves learning to look beyond our own efforts.

This also means that spirituality is not just about making us feel more peaceful. Spiritual growth will not just involve positive experiences such as awe and wonder; it will include facing our own fears and failures and experiencing confession, forgiveness, and then thankfulness for good things not deserved. Christian spirituality will not be faithfully reflected in the classroom if it is allowed to be reduced to a series of techniques for feeling calm or exhortations to become a nicer person by trying harder. The role of grace and thankfulness can be explored both in terms of understanding and of experience during the school day.

These three emphases are drawn together in a definition of spirituality such as that offered by Philip Sheldrake, who describes Christian spirituality as “the whole of life viewed in terms of a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and within the community of believers.”1

How, then, do we make the connections with the everyday business of teaching and learning? What might it mean to teach in the light of the Christian conviction that our students have spiritual lives? The various teaching and learning examples on this site all address these questions in concrete ways. A further article offers a concise framework that can help us to know what we are looking for when we seek to take the spiritual dimension of learning seriously.

Footnotes


	

1. P. Sheldrake, ‘Spirituality as an Academic Discipline,’ in A. Thatcher (ed.), Spirituality and the Curriculum, London: Cassell, 1999, 55-78, p.57.

 

1What should we say? Should we keep on sinning, so that God's wonderful kindness will show up even better? 2No, we should not! If we are dead to sin, how can we go on sinning? 3Don't you know that all who share in Christ Jesus by being baptized also share in his death? 4When we were baptized, we died and were buried with Christ. We were baptized, so that we would live a new life, as Christ was raised to life by the glory of God the Father. 5If we shared in Jesus' death by being baptized, we will be raised to life with him. 6We know that the persons we used to be were nailed to the cross with Jesus. This was done, so that our sinful bodies would no longer be the slaves of sin. 7We know that sin doesn't have power over dead people. 8As we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. 9We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die. 10When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. 11In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God. 12Don't let sin rule your body. After all, your body is bound to die, so don't obey its desires 13or let any part of it become a slave of evil. Give yourselves to God, as people who have been raised from death to life. Make every part of your body a slave that pleases God. 14Don't let sin keep ruling your lives. You are ruled by God's kindness and not by the Law. Slaves who do what pleases God 15What does all this mean? Does it mean we are free to sin, because we are ruled by God's wonderful kindness and not by the Law? Certainly not! 16Don't you know that you are slaves of anyone you obey? You can be slaves of sin and die, or you can be obedient slaves of God and be acceptable to him. 17You used to be slaves of sin. But I thank God that with all your heart you obeyed the teaching you received from me. 18Now you are set free from sin and are slaves who please God. 19I am using these everyday examples, because in some ways you are still weak. You used to let the different parts of your body be slaves of your evil thoughts. But now you must make every part of your body serve God, so that you will belong completely to him. 20When you were slaves of sin, you didn't have to please God. 21But what good did you receive from the things you did? All you have to show for them is your shame, and they lead to death. 22Now you have been set free from sin, and you are God's slaves. This will make you holy and will lead you to eternal life. 23The reward for sin is death. But God's gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord. An example from marriage
1When one of you has a complaint against another, do you take your complaint to a court of sinners? Or do you take it to God's people? 2Don't you know that God's people will judge the world? And if you are going to judge the world, can't you settle small problems? 3Don't you know that we will judge angels? And if that is so, we can surely judge everyday matters. 4Why do you take everyday complaints to judges who are not respected by the church? 5I say this to your shame. Aren't any of you wise enough to act as a judge between one follower and another? 6Why should one of you take another to be tried by unbelievers? 7When one of you takes another to court, all of you lose. It would be better to let yourselves be cheated and robbed. 8But instead, you cheat and rob other followers. 9Don't you know that evil people won't have a share in the blessings of God's kingdom? Don't fool yourselves! No one who is immoral or worships idols or is unfaithful in marriage or is a pervert or behaves like a homosexual 10will share in God's kingdom. Neither will any thief or greedy person or drunkard or anyone who curses and cheats others. 11Some of you used to be like that. But now the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of God's Spirit have washed you and made you holy and acceptable to God. Honour God with your body 12Some of you say, We can do anything we want to. But I tell you that not everything is good for us. So I refuse to let anything have power over me. 13You also say, Food is meant for our bodies, and our bodies are meant for food. But I tell you that God will destroy them both. We are not supposed to do indecent things with our bodies. We are to use them for the Lord who is in charge of our bodies. 14God will raise us from death by the same power that he used when he raised our Lord to life. 15Don't you know that your bodies are part of the body of Christ? Is it right for me to join part of the body of Christ to a prostitute? No, it isn't! 16Don't you know that a man who does that becomes part of her body? The Scriptures say, The two of them will be like one person. 17But anyone who is joined to the Lord is one in spirit with him. 18Don't be immoral in matters of sex. That is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is. 19You know that your body is a temple where the Holy Spirit lives. The Spirit is in you and is a gift from God. You are no longer your own. 20God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honour God. Questions about marriage
1Jesus then told them this story: A farmer once planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it and dug a pit to crush the grapes in. He also built a lookout tower. Then he let his vineyard and left the country. 2When it was harvest time, he sent a servant to get his share of the grapes. 3The tenants grabbed the servant. They beat him up and sent him away without a thing. 4The owner sent another servant, but the tenants beat him on the head and insulted him terribly. 5Then the man sent another servant, and they killed him. He kept sending servant after servant. They beat some of them and killed others. 6The owner had a son he loved very much. Finally, he sent his son to the tenants because he thought they would respect him. 7But they said to themselves, Some day he will own this vineyard. Let's kill him! That way we can have it all for ourselves. 8So they grabbed the owner's son and killed him. Then they threw his body out of the vineyard. 9Jesus asked, What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do? He will come and kill those tenants and let someone else have his vineyard. 10Surely you know that the Scriptures say, The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone of all. 11This is something the Lord has done, and it is amazing to us. 12The leaders knew that Jesus was really talking about them, and they wanted to arrest him. But because they were afraid of the crowd, they let him alone and left. Paying taxes (Matthew 22.15-22; Luke 20.20-26) 13The Pharisees got together with Herod's followers. Then they sent some men to trick Jesus into saying something wrong. 14They went to him and said, Teacher, we know that you are honest. You treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. And you teach the truth about what God wants people to do. Tell us, should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not? 15Jesus knew what they were up to, and he said, Why are you trying to test me? Show me a coin! 16They brought him a silver coin, and he asked, Whose picture and name are on it? The Emperor's, they answered. 17Then Jesus told them, Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God. The men were amazed at Jesus. Life in the future world (Matthew 22.23-33; Luke 20.27-40) 18The Sadducees did not believe that people would rise to life after death. So some of them came to Jesus and said: 19Teacher, Moses wrote that if a married man dies and has no children, his brother should marry the widow. Their first son would then be thought of as the son of the dead brother. 20There were once seven brothers. The first one married, but died without having any children. 21The second brother married his brother's widow, and he also died without having children. The same thing happened to the third brother, 22and finally to all seven brothers. At last the woman died. 23When God raises people from death, whose wife will this woman be? After all, she had been married to all seven brothers. 24Jesus answered: You are completely wrong! You don't know what the Scriptures teach. And you don't know anything about the power of God. 25When God raises people to life, they won't marry. They will be like the angels in heaven. 26You know about people being raised to life. You know that in the story about Moses and the burning bush, God said, I am the God worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 27He isn't the God of the dead, but of the living. You Sadducees are all wrong. The most important commandment (Matthew 22.34-40; Luke 10.25-28) 28One of the teachers of the Law of Moses came up while Jesus and the Sadducees were arguing. When he heard Jesus give a good answer, he asked him, What is the most important commandment? 29Jesus answered, The most important one says: People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God. 30You must love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. 31The second most important commandment says: Love others as much as you love yourself. No other commandment is more important than these. 32The man replied, Teacher, you are certainly right to say there is only one God. 33It is also true that we must love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and that we must love others as much as we love ourselves. These commandments are more important than all the sacrifices and offerings that we could possibly make. 34When Jesus saw that the man had given a sensible answer, he told him, You are not far from God's kingdom. After this, no one dared ask Jesus any more questions. About David's son (Matthew 22.41-46; Luke 20.41-44) 35As Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, How can the teachers of the Law of Moses say that the Messiah will come from the family of King David? 36The Holy Spirit led David to say, The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right side until I make your enemies into a footstool for you. 37If David called the Messiah his Lord, how can the Messiah be his son? The large crowd enjoyed listening to Jesus teach. Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses (Matthew 23.1-36; Luke 20.45-47) 38As Jesus was teaching, he said: Guard against the teachers of the Law of Moses! They love to walk around in long robes and be greeted in the market. 39They like the front seats in the meeting places and the best seats at banquets. 40But they cheat widows out of their homes and pray long prayers just to show off. They will be punished most of all. A widow's offering (Luke 21.1-4) 41Jesus was sitting in the temple near the offering box and watching people put in their gifts. He noticed that many rich people were giving a lot of money. 42Finally, a poor widow came up and put in two coins that were worth only a few pennies. 43Jesus told his disciples to gather around him. Then he said: I tell you that this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 44Everyone else gave what they didn't need. But she is very poor and gave everything she had. Now she doesn't have a penny to live on. The temple will be destroyed (Matthew 24.1,2; Luke 21.5,6)