Religiosity in education?

By Stefan Grosse, February 2019

Religious matters have for a considerable period of time been treated as private matters because they are reduced to the content of the confession and belief of the individual person. Religious matters are thus relocated into the private sphere like our taste in music or culinary preferences and they are thus increasingly denied any culturally relevant meaning in society. Such a reduction reflects an understanding of religiosity which is much too narrow in its frame of reference.

Photo: © Gelpi

What we are going to look at here could also be called the development of free and ethical action. Quite deliberately we will remove this from the confessional context and yet nevertheless describe it as religious. Let us take an episode in Albert Schweitzer’s biography to describe what is meant. Albert Schweitzer, a doctor of theology at 24 and professor in Strasbourg at 27, compiled a survey of the research into the life of Christ and found that it had lost sight of the object of its research. He did indeed see that there had been some success in freeing the figure of Jesus from its burden of dogma and mythology and in giving it renewed life to some extent. But it also became clear to him that in total nothing more had been discovered than what could be learned about any random inhabitant of Palestine at the time of Christ.

The researchers, Schweitzer said, “released the bonds with which he had been tied to the rock of Church doctrine and were happy that his figure had been imbued again with life and movement and that the historical person of Jesus was walking towards them. But he did not stop there and continued on past our time, returning to his own one. It dismayed and startled the theology of recent decades that for all its quibbling over details and trying to hold fast to him it could not keep him in our time but had to let him go.” In other words, this kind of theology did not lead to an experience of the Christ’s working in the present.

For Schweitzer the ways parted in that he no longer saw the encounter with the living Christ in the present as lying in theology but that it had to be sought in free and ethical action as a doctor in Lambarene.

In a subsequent revision of his work he added: “Ultimately our relationship with Jesus is mythical in nature. No personality of the past can be placed in the present in a living way through historical reflections or consideration of their authoritative meaning. We do not obtain a relationship with them until we are brought together in the recognition of a joint volition. … He comes to us as someone who is unknown and nameless, just as he approached those men on the seashore who were unaware of who he was. He says the same words: follow me!, and shows us the tasks which have to be solved in our time. ... And he will reveal himself to those, both wise and foolish, who obey him in what they are privileged to experience in his company as peace, action, battles and suffering, and they will experience who he is as an ineffable mystery.” Here it becomes completely clear that Schweitzer was referring to action which is religiously motivated but no longer tied to a confession.

The feeling basis of religion – devotion and trust

The development of such free action is what this is about, and let us call it religious even if the choice of word may appear unexpected. For education, the question arises how and under what circumstances the ability for free and ethical action develops. Religiosity is primarily a deep-seated feeling which is strongly associated with the sense of our existence and the mind. In the development of the child and adolescent it goes through alternating phases of appearance and latency.

Religiosity is the feeling of certainty that higher forces than the natural ones and wiser ones than human beings are at work in the world, and it is the wish to unite with them. It is the certainty that the world is to a considerable extent shaped by these forces and the assumption that through them a development towards the good is possible. This feeling gives security in life and comfort. It removes fear and doubt. It is the basic feeling of the mentally healthy small child, and still of the school child as well. The small child imitates other people out of this feeling of trust and devotion.

Trust and devotion are at heart religious feelings. In imitating, the child is open to the world with all their senses in the basic assumption that it is good. The child lives piety through its senses. In the devotion to the world there lives an unspoken and profound gesture of gratitude which with little effort can be guided by the educator into an articulated giving of thanks, something that is of great importance for the child because they learn thereby to give appropriate expression to their feelings.

There is, however a second force in early childhood working contrary to devotion. Other than the attitude towards life described above, which tends to unfold as it evenly flows along, this force appears as an impact. The force of the personality referred to here starts at the moment that the child says “I” to themselves. From this moment onwards the capacity for memory arises which from then on forms a constantly growing enclosed interior space in the soul. Here, too, giving thanks helps in that it repeatedly enables the exit from this interior space into the world.

The great disenchantment – Rubicon

The religious feeling of devotion to the world wanes as the child develops, the inner emotional space and the life of ideas grow, leading finally to the readiness to start school. During this time the religious part enters a certain latency but reappears in the middle of childhood with transformed questions.

As previously in the third year of life, when a personal impulse strikes in the form of referring to ourselves as “I”, something similar happens at around the age of ten: there is a quiet moment in the soul of the child in which they feel for the first time, and thereafter ever more clearly, that the I and the world are not one, that our own soul life is quite different from nature and also from the soul life of other people. This event really represents the end of the fairy tale world of childhood. It is as irreversible as it was once for Caesar and the Roman republic when he crossed the border river Rubicon with armed troops, which is why we like to refer to irreversible events as crossing the Rubicon – a description which Rudolf Steiner introduced into education for this moment in childhood.

Now the urgent question arises for the child: “How do I participate in the world, in communal life and in nature?” Once again a “religious” question arises: to whom can I entrust myself to introduce me into the world, show me the right path? And: “Do the forces that live in my soul also live in the world?” For these eminently important questions the child chooses their personal companion; no longer just anyone but someone of whom they sense that this person is grounded in life in a sovereign way, and not least also for the reason that this person has found their guiding star to which they look up, just as the child looks up to their companion. Let us use two contrasting anecdotes to illustrate what is at stake here for the child.

The Irish writer Frank McCourt relates in his autobiography Angela’s Ashes how when in the time before his tenth year of life he could no longer bear the misery at home resulting from poverty, the alcoholism of his father and his constantly ill mother, he went out into the stinking, rundown staircase  and sat down on the seventh step. He did not see his miserable surroundings because on the seventh step the angel came and spoke to him, comforted him and brought him light. That always helped. When he turned ten, that changed at a stroke. A situation had arisen again at home that drove him on to the stairs. As usual, he sat on the seventh step – but the angel did not come! In contrast to previously, he now noticed the stink and saw how dilapidated the house was. The Rubicon had been crossed but there was no one who could give him the feeling of security in life and trust in the world.

The following anecdote is told about the composer Jean Sibelius: Sibelius liked to compose in the evening and smoked a cigar while he was doing so. His daughters could not get to sleep because they were driven by questions about “God and the world”. They kept going to their father and dragged him away from his creative work with their questions.

Still patient at the beginning, he answered their questions as best he could. When they disturbed him once again and asked: “What is there after the end of the world?”, Sibelius answered kindly but with slight irritation: “Your father is there smoking a cigar.” That was the vital answer! It provided the desired security and the children could go to sleep reassured.

Remo Largo once succinctly summarised successful educational activity in the words: “Education starts with a relationship”. This truth is accurately reflected in the Sibelius anecdote. If by a happy stroke of fate unclouded affection can develop between the child and the adult, then this bears within it the strongest forces to allow the soul to unfold. No ambition, no jealousy, no violence, no fear can manage to achieve anything comparable. In language which might meanwhile sound a bit antiquated, we might call this force pure love free of all conceivable connotations. The child must experience it at the Rubicon in order to develop security in life. This feeling, too, can be called religious.

The second Rubicon – the twelfth year of age

At the age of 12 there is now a strong reference back to the time of the Rubicon, but in the other direction, we might say: the experience and awareness that the laws of nature extend into me and my sense of being to a not inconsiderable extent. Outer physical and chemical processes occur in me and determine my experience of strength (principle of leverage in the limbs), or my wellbeing (metabolism of the liver, the blood), or my orientation (accommodation of the eye, vestibular organ in the inner ear). As a rule, a healthy twelve-year-old will enthusiastically take up this new view of nature.

But very latently and very gradually a question begins to develop which is barely articulated and very difficult to articulate at this age: nature is subject to the laws of nature. No moral forces can be at work there. The laws of nature are also at work in human beings. Do these laws of nature also determine my soul? Is the soul a metabolic product, the result of chemical reactions? Do I as an individual exist at all or is the “I” a fairy tale, a delusion, produced by metabolic processes in the brain?

This moment contains a possible biographical caesura with regard to religiosity: our whole sense of being can at this moment experience a change of direction towards an existential reductionism. Existential here in the sense not of an argument-based but a lived worldview: everything started with the Big Bang and everything will end with the heat death; human beings are intelligent animals which have become what they are through the survival of the fittest and random selection.

At 12 years of age this worldview is of course not conceptually explicated but the change of direction can occur at this point. Why? Because in the Rubicon period an experience was missing and could not therefore become a certainty: the experience that human beings can give one another security and support, that there is an emotional force which has greater meaning for human beings than any force of nature – love.

Return of the religious stream in upper school

In the upper school period another latency phase of the religious stream begins. Maturity of judgement is developed. The wealth of images in lower school from fairy tales, myths, sagas and history is revived again. Now the images are understood, interpreted and ideas and ideals developed out of them. But the greater the precision with which reason penetrates the world, the greater the urgency with which the mature upper school pupil becomes aware of the question: what is the significance of the tiny human being on the grain of sand that is the earth in the immensity of the cosmos, whose centrifugal forces are pulling it ever further apart?

Here the third impulse in the consolidation of the personality takes place. This event contains the danger of the dissociation of the I and the world. Two main lessons were therefore originally scheduled in the curriculum of class 11 – I mention it here to illustrate pars pro toto the way in which the curriculum takes up the questions relating to the development of the individual – which pick up on these latent questions about life: astronomy and Parzival; the magnificent order of the cosmos  in astronomy and the meaningful, wisely guided unfolding of biography in Parzival, leading to the understanding that human life can be meaningfully integrated into the cosmic whole. The search for our own biographical impulses then does not end in the experience of the nullity of human life but leads to the question: what do I want to achieve in the world?

Instead of the dissociation of the I and the world, the resolve arises at this moment in the biography of the young person to realise their ideals in the world, acting in freedom. This is ethical action. It arises not from commandments and moral norms but from the free individuality. Such action is not egotistical but has its eye on the progress of the whole. In all of its intent it is committed to a higher goal – in a word: religious. The confession or the organisation which provide the framework for it are unimportant, as is whether an institution is required for it at all. The culturally creative significance of this kind of “religious” action cannot, however, be doubted. Be it a 24-year-old Boyan Slat with his Ocean Cleanup project, a Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, or a Stella Deetjen with the street clinic for people suffering from leprosy – there are numerous examples in which young people, acting from out of their ideals, have sustainably made the world a better place.

The religious element in child development manifests itself as sensory piety in the devotion to the world of the small child; as a gesture of sympathy in the relationship with the loved and respected adult in the younger school child; and as free ethical action based on understanding and the ideals developed therefrom in the mature young person.

About the author: Stefan Grosse has been a class teacher and has taught free religion lessons at the Esslingen Free Waldorf School since 1984. Member of the international and German grouping of religion teachers. Since 2014 board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.