|Shap Journal 2004/2005
Shaping the Future
Shaping the Future: Visions in religion … visions for Religious Education
Visions of the future are central to religion but only rarely the substance of Religious Education. In our Learning about religions, we are so frequently preoccupied with specific beliefs, festivals, rituals and stories that there is little time left to look through a longer lens to consider utopian visions about this world, and even the next.
The Open University adopted a model of studying religions focused on three questions: From what? To what? and By what?, with an interpretation of the present human condition, a statement on the perceived purpose of human existence and an analysis of the lifestyle required to fulfil that purpose. The model is a simple one yet it is also complex for it demands an understanding of the concept of vision, and aspirations towards a future goal, whether it be a transformation of life in this world or, for some religions, a future existence after death. The model applies to individuals and to corporate bodies of believers, but equally it could also be applied to life stances such as Humanism.
From the time that a Pharaoh came to the throne, building began on the pyramid which would encase his body in death. Death was not something to be feared, for the Pharaohs believed that through ritual they could transcend death and secure immortality in an afterlife which closely resembled life in this world, so the Pharaoh would need his preserved body, his wealth and his servants. However, before such immortality could be achieved, Anubis, the jackal-headed god would weigh the deceased Pharaoh’s heart against the weight of a feather representing truth. A favourable balance would mean immortality, while a heavy heart would be gobbled up by an awaiting monster. So, a question which naturally arises for the classroom is what kind of life would have to be lived to ensure the lightness of ‘truth’? Despite not being a ‘living religious tradition’ and therefore not part of an Agreed Syllabus, the Ancient Egyptian vision of a future existence after death, accompanied by its moral imperative, can prove a challenge to students’ powers of reflection .
Not all visions are bound to the afterlife. Judaism proclaims a vision for the individual and community in this present world. In the ‘Gates of Repentance’, the prayer book used in Liberal and Progressive Synagogues for the High Holyday services, the Rosh Hashanah service includes a reading which begins:
‘To affirm God is to affirm that history has a purpose. Man is to perfect himself …
to learn to live with his fellow-men in peace and harmony; to build a society of liberty and justice, brotherhood and love, which shall acknowledge God’s sovereignty in word and deed…’, and adds ‘That goal is still very distant, and sometimes it seems to recede instead of drawing nearer.’ Gates of Repentance, p.105
At Yom Kippur the community collectively recite the Al Chet, an acknowledgement of sins committed and prayer for forgiveness for those actions which have impeded the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth:
The sin which we have committed against you by groundless hatred
And the sin which we have committed against hurting our fellow men in anyway ibid p.222
So here we might ask, both of Jews and of ourselves as teachers and pupils, what would it take for individuals and communities to alive a life devoid of groundless hatred or hurt to fellow women and men? If the establishing of God’s Kingdom on earth is indeed a key belief or vision within Judaism, then this is a study for the secondary classroom, with units of work on Shabbat and Pesach serving to set the context rather than provide the main thrust of learning.
What are the visions within other religions? In Sikhism, for example, there is the concept of transformation of the individual from a state of ‘manmukh’, self-centredness, or, as W. Owen Cole describes ‘holding a materialistic view of the universe and basing one’s conduct upon it, of behaving like intelligent animals,’ (W. Owen Cole 1994, p128) to a state of ‘gurmukh’, of being God orientated. In Hinduism, there is a vision of ‘moksha’ or release from the effects of karma and the need for perpetual rebirth either by developing wisdom and knowledge, the path set out by the Upanishads, or by following the path of dharma and devotion, the path of the Bhagavad Gita. All visions accompanied by a moral imperative.
Perhaps the most profound yet easily accessible vision of the future is found in the allegorical tale of the Man who Planted Trees. In the tale, the author, walking through the French countryside, finds himself in ‘a landscape of unparalleled desolation’, with skeletons of deserted villages and an atmosphere of ‘unrelenting contention and rivalry’. He meets a shepherd who, living alone in this desolate place, daily sorts and plants a hundred perfect acorns. The author, who is young and thinks of the future in terms of himself, is baffled by the shepherd’s contented solitude and unremitting activity. Returning to the same area eight years later, he sees the area completely transformed: the ‘whole region has grown healthy and prosperous’, with rebuilt villages and settlers who bring ‘youth and movement and the spirit of adventure’. From what? To what? By what? The author acknowledges that ‘one man, with only his simple physical and moral resources, was able to bring forth out of the desert this land of Canaan, I can’t help feeling that the human condition in general is admirable, in spite of everything.’
So, are visions of the future an appropriate starting point for teaching and learning, particularly at Key Stages 3 and 4, and what might that mean for Religious Education? Essentially, our current approaches are firmly bound within a phenomenological framework and while this has served Religious Education well in the primary phase, it might be time to consider broader canvases to sit alongside the ethical enquiries in the secondary school. A study of visions, both this worldly and other worldly, should be integral to the study of religious belief and secular life stances. It would strengthen the possibility of encounters with texts, questions of authority and of values. It would offer opportunities for students to engage with, and critically evaluate religious and secular responses to life at individual, community and global levels – syllabuses refer to those elusive questions of truth, of meaning and purpose, well, here they are! And a debate on moral imperatives which develops skills of reflection, analysis and synthesis may even enable students to achieve higher levels on any eight level scale!
But a fear … Visions are dynamic, they are about imagination and creation! They have life, and depth, they are about the human spirit. Yet sandwiched securely between worthy learning intentions and specified outcomes, and promoted through government approved units of work, even visions can lose their spark!
Giorno, Jean (1985) The Man Who Planted Trees, Chelsea Green Publishing Company
Owen Cole, W. (1994) Teach Yourself Sikhism, Hodder & Stoughton, London
Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, (1973) Gates of Repentance