Spirit of the Child

Spirit of the Child

by David Hay, Rebecca Nye

Spirituality is increasingly acknowledged as an essential part of child development, but at the same time spiritual awareness is not embedded within current education systems. David Hay argues that children are capable of profound, meaningful beliefs from an early age, despite cultural pressures and the decline in institutional religion, and makes the case for…  See more details below


Spirituality is increasingly acknowledged as an essential part of child development, but at the same time spiritual awareness is not embedded within current education systems. David Hay argues that children are capable of profound, meaningful beliefs from an early age, despite cultural pressures and the decline in institutional religion, and makes the case for spirituality in education as a means of fostering morality and social inclusion. A three-year research study into children's spirituality and its survival informs Hay's view that spirituality in education needs to move beyond traditional approaches to a theory of spirituality that includes religion but is not confined to it. This thought-provoking book encourages educators, parents and others involved in teaching children to consider new approaches to nurture children's development.

About the Author:
David Hay is a zoologist and Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen

About the Author:
Rebecca Nye is a child psychologist and a member of staff in the faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University

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HarperCollins UK
Publication date:
Novel Series
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5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

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Spirit of the Child

By David Hay Rebecca Nye


Copyright © 1998 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-006-27855-8

Chapter One

What Is Spirituality and Why Is It Important?

It is surely dangerous to invoke something whose meaning is no longer reasonably clear. MARGARET CHATERJEE

Spirituality and religion

Few Westerners would have difficulty in guessing the subject matter of a book entitled The Spiritual Life, written in France and published in 1923 in Tournai, Paris, Rome and New York. The identity of its author, the Very Reverend Adolphe Tanquerey confirms the expectation that it is about religion. It is in fact a textbook of Christian theology, but theology of a highly practical kind, applied to religious devotion and advancement in the life of prayer. Tanquerey has a very clear, even rigidly organized idea of his subject, and he begins by dividing it into two parts. 'Ascetical Theology' is 'that part of spiritual doctrine whose proper object is both the theory and the practice of Christian perfection, from its very beginnings up to the threshold of infused contemplation.' 'Mystical Theology is ... the theory and practice of the contemplative life, which begins with what is called the first night of the senses, described by St John of the Cross, and the prayer of quiet, described by St Theresa.'

Tanquerey 's equation of spirituality with Christianity is hardly surprising, given the history of Europe. But closer investigation shows that even amongst religiously committed Christians there are wide differences in people's notions of what is meant by the word. Tanquerey was writing as a Roman Catholic priest well before the days of modern Catholic attitudes to ecumenism, and he emphasizes his concern for the conversion of 'infidels and heretics' .Amongst such he no doubt included members of other Christian denominations who had a theological interpretation of spirituality at variance with his own. For example, I come from the north of Scotland, where traditional Calvinist culture holds to a notion of the action of divine Grace which implies a rather different understanding of spirituality from that found in Tanquerey.

Outside the world of professional theological dispute the word 'spiritual' has extremely vague connotations, although in recent years it has come to be widely used in the context of debates about the importance of spiritual education. That is why, although this book is about children, I need to begin by spending a considerable amount of time clearing the ground. It is necessary to be aware of the hidden agenda lying behind the various meanings - otherwise discussion is liable to get lost in a cloud of mutual incomprehension. There is also a need to bring the argument down to earth. Especially in scholarly works, spirituality tends to be approached in an abstract way, isolated from the concrete differences between ordinary people in their own social and historical setting.

In the course of the book I want to argue that children's spirituality is rooted in a universal human awareness; that it is 'really there' and not just a culturally constructed illusion. Although I believe I am right, I understand very well that people emerge from childhood into adult life having been educated formally or informally within all sorts of different cultures and subcultures. In addition, each of us carries the baggage of a personal life history that is never exactly like anyone else's. These individual differences also affect the preconceptions which people have about spirituality and therefore the problem of setting limits to the term. In this first chapter I want to look more closely at meanings and also explain why I think spiritual education needs to lie at the heart of the school curriculum. In Chapter 2 I will reflect on the historical context within which today's children have to struggle to express their own spirituality.

Defining spirituality

Even amongst religious specialists we sometimes get wind of confusion over the definition of spirituality. The English educationalist Jack Priestley has a good story about this. When the wording of the British 1944 Education Act was being debated, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was trying to create a draft text for the parts of the Bill concerned with religion. He wanted to find a form of words that would be found acceptable by the Members of the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately, even the word 'religion' itself was rather troublesome. Partly this was because different kinds of Christians have different ideas about the nature of religion. It was also because he was well aware that quite a number of Members of Parliament had no time for religion at all. Temple's assistant, Canon Hall, hit on a solution:

The churches were in such a state at the time [that] we thought if we used the word 'spiritual' they might agree to that because they didn't know what it was. They all had very clear ideas about what religion was and they all knew they didn't agree with anyone else's definition of it.

The meaning of the word 'spirituality' is probably even more obscure today than it was in 1944, but most people want to distinguish it from 'religion'. It is this contrast that makes 'spirituality' such a handy portmanteau word in political discussion. Even in the 1940s there were enough people with objections to the word 'religion' to make an archbishop think twice about using it in a text intended to receive general support in Parliament. By 1988, in a still more secularized Britain, the Education Reform Act successfully passed through Parliament with a reference to the necessity for spiritual education prominently highlighted on the opening page.

How did this happen? For some years I have used a 'brainstorming' exercise to help groups of students focus on how they understand the links between religion and spirituality. First they are asked to write on a large sheet of paper as many associations with the word 'religion' as they can think of in five minutes. They then repeat this procedure on another sheet of paper with the word 'spirituality'.

A few people see very little difference between religion and spirituality. Most make a clear distinction. Religion tends to be associated with what is publicly available, such as churches, mosques, Bibles, prayer books, religious officials, weddings and funerals. It also regularly includes uncomfortable associations with boredom, narrow-mindedness and being out of date, as well as more disconcerting links with fanaticism, bigotry, cruelty and persecution. It seems that in many people's minds religion is firmly caught up in the cold brutalities of history.

Spirituality is almost always seen as much warmer, associated with love, inspiration, wholeness, depth, mystery and personal devotions like prayer and meditation. This divergence is less than flattering to the religious institutions, but it is not just a critique made by outsiders. I know this to be so, because the same contrast has appeared when I have tried out the exercise with committed lay Christians and clergy. Sometimes, when working with groups of ordained priests, I have noticed one or two of them expressing a degree of anger with religion which would not have seemed out of place coming from a member of the British Secular Society.

At first these conflicting views disconcerted me. My own memories of the religion of my childhood in a remote part of Scotland are almost entirely benevolent. I suppose I lived in a religious backwater, shielded from controversy. As I grew older and became aware of Christianity outside my immediate environment, it became clear that other people's experience could be very different, at times leading to a positive loathing of the religious institution. No one in touch with the mainstream of modern Western life can escape for long the negative attitudes and presuppositions about religion which are widespread in society.

Yet anger is not the whole story. There is a final part to the brainstorming exercise which I described a moment ago. When the groups have completed the two sheets, I ask them to examine what they have written and to produce a representation of the relation which they see between spirituality and religion. In spite of their misgivings about religion, almost everybody wishes to emphasize that there is a real link. Often the groups will express their findings metaphorically, perhaps referring to spirituality as a journey and to religion as the mode of transport, or to spirituality as the fuel which enables the vehicle of religion to operate. One metaphor that turns up repeatedly is a drawing of a tree, with the roots labelled 'spirituality' and the leaves 'religion'. The roots transmit water to the leaves and support the tree as it grows larger. In turn the leaves manufacture food which nourishes the roots. Those who create this metaphor are always quick to point out that when this interchange falters the tree stops growing and is in serious danger of dying. It is as if most people, even those who have no time for the religious institution, see the need for some vehicle for spirituality. The spiritual life, they seem to be saying, has the opportunity to flourish when there is a degree of social agreement about its cultural expression. That in turn raises a question about the role of the school and the ways in which understanding about spirituality is transmitted to children, or even whether 'transmission' is the appropriate word.

Why is it that spirituality usually evades the criticisms levelled at religion? To make sense of this we need to turn to the range of uses of the word 'spirituality'. The thesaurus on my computer offers the following synonyms: 'devotion, holiness, piety, saintliness, sanctity'. These sound very like the kinds of connotation that the word would have had for Father Tanquerey. They suggest a traditional idea of the practical means by which a person becomes 'spiritual'.

At one end of the scale, the dictionary definition is almost identical to that used by Tanquerey. It refers to human beings' awareness of their relationship with God and points towards the dramatic goal of mystical union with the Godhead. Of course, this definition is meaningless to an atheist and at least dubious to an agnostic. But the term 'spirit' is not necessarily without importance for an atheist; certainly not for the most influential of modern atheists, Karl Marx. He used it with great polemical intensity in his most famous attack on what he saw as the illusions of religion.

Religion, he wrote, is 'the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of a spiritless situation (my italics). That is to say, in Marx's view, religion offers a painkiller or opiate - in fact, a false spirituality. Here 'spirit' carries connotations of what it means to be fully aware of our indissoluble membership of the human collective or, as Marx put it, to discover oneself as a 'species-being'. Marx is implying that what the devoutly religious person experiences as intense desire for God is really a displaced expression of the human longing for a just and undivided community. So for some people terms like 'religion' and 'God' can actually get in the way of what they understand to be their spiritual life. In Chapters 2 and 3 I will explore more deeply how this view has come to seem plausible and how it affects the expression of spirituality in modern children.

Moving beyond such powerful differences of meaning, there is also a more innocuous use of the word 'spiritual', when we use it in relation to a person who demonstrates a refined aesthetic awareness of poetry, music or the other arts, or perhaps is sensitive to the needs of other people. This signification has the advantage that it gives the appearance of being politically and religiously harmless and is therefore widely acceptable in our secularized culture.

These very different senses of the word 'spiritual' mean that it can be used to conceal strong antagonisms about the validity and importance of religious belief, which is why it is useful in the drafting of parliamentary legislation. There is nevertheless an underlying degree of common ground, in spite of what appears to be a spurious linkage of meanings. The key point is that the three connotations - religious devotion; being fully aware of one's 'species-being'; being aesthetically or ethically aware - all refer to a heightening of awareness or attentiveness. Apparently widely disparate in meaning, they express a fundamental insight. Each of us has the potential to be much more deeply aware both of ourselves and of our intimate relationship with everything that is not ourselves.

This holistic notion of spirituality is probably widely acceptable in a society whose de facto norms are highly secular, yet it leaves open a religious understanding of the word. From such a perspective, raised awareness itself constitutes spirituality, as indeed is taught in Buddhist vipassana meditation. But this understanding is not confined to Buddhism. It is implied in all forms of religious meditation, including Christian contemplative prayer where one places oneself as awarely as possible in the presence of God.

Alister Hardy on the biology of spirituality

I now want to consider the nature of this awareness or attentiveness a little more closely from the perspective of biology. From one modern viewpoint, spirituality is rooted in something as concrete as breathing or eating or seeing; that is to say, it is biologically natural to the species Homo sapiens The first person to put this explicitly was the zoologist Alister Hardy. In 1965, shortly after he retired from the Chair of Zoology at Oxford, Hardy was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen. He chose to speak about the relationship between biology and religion. As a committed Darwinist he proposed the hypothesis that what he called 'religious experience' has evolved through the process of natural selection because it has survival value to the individual. An examination of his lectures shows that what he meant by religious experience is similar or identical to what I shall call 'spiritual awareness'.

Hardy's ambiguous use of language in an area where, as we have seen, most people are confused should not be allowed to conceal his fundamental assertion. What he is saying is that there is a form of awareness, different from and transcending everyday awareness, which is potentially present in all human beings and which has a positive function in enabling individuals to survive in their natural environment.

Hardy's hypothesis is revolutionary, because it shifts the ground on which scientific debates about religion and spirituality have tended to take place. Most of the currently prominent naturalistic hypotheses about religion are, at least in their original intention, attempts to interpret Western monotheism reductively.


Excerpted from Spirit of the Child by David Hay Rebecca Nye Copyright © 1998 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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