Humanity and Faith Kevin O’Grady

Download 19.46 Kb.
Size19.46 Kb.
  1   2

Humanity and Faith

Kevin O’Grady
I would like to address the themes of human rights and slavery by going into their roots. What is a human being, anyway? We may speak of the rights of human beings, but what do we really mean by ‘human’? Do we use the word to distance ourselves from the rest of creation, or is the meaning of human life that we should move closer to other creatures and to one another? (If so, maybe the distance is a kind of slavery, spiritually speaking). I think that these questions are important for educators, perhaps especially religious educators, and I will try to show why.
It is well for us that we plant our roots here, in this soil.

(Words attributed to Saint Columcille, on his arrival at Iona.)

Here can be appreciated the closely linked senses of destiny and place. It is time for the travelling to cease. Equally there are metaphors in the saying of the Irish sage. For goodness’ sake, let us go deeply into what is right here. There is no need to try to look beyond the present situation. Indeed, we sin if we do so (missing the mark); we are ‘without’. Yet the consequences have been many of stopping to plant roots, whether literal or metaphorical.
The wisdom of Columcille would not have been lost on Grundtvig, the great nineteenth century Danish reformer and educator – and also like Columcille, priest. Grundtvig’s educational ideas were formed through his own stormy experiences. Sent from home to the grammar school as a teenager he was exposed to boredom. His teachers expected rote learning of dull content. Later he styled it as Education for Death. But Grundtvig was possessed, and I do not use this word unreflectively, by Life. His mature realisation, expressed in hymns and poems, was of the world before us and within us as the fully incarnate Word: The Living Word.
A plain and active joyful life on Earth,

A treasure never for power or gold to barter,

A guided life, the nobleness of birth

And equal dignity each human’s charter.

It is easy to see how Grundtvig could work with the ‘humanists’ and feel no compromise of faith. His movement was a non-violent revolution from a very broad social base. You can still see it in the life of Denmark today, though in some ways his influence has faded. In Grundtvig’s vitalist humanism, each person was understood to be a ‘unique combination of dust and spirit’. Education for Life involves the clarification of what this means, in practice, in direct historical relation to whatever is now before us. We have to grasp the spiritual truth of this physical world.
What is the real meaning of education? It is astonishing that we as teachers do not give time to this question. Admittedly there is a tragic situation in Britain presently, or perhaps it is comic, where an authoritarian discourse of ‘strategies’, ‘objectives’ and ‘targets’ has replaced philosophical discussion. (Readers who are surprised by the word ‘authoritarian’ are invited to reflect on the words ‘strategies’, ‘objectives’ and ‘targets’ – it is as if we are part of the military.) But now we must recover our tradition. In my view, this is a matter of connecting less with the bureaucrats and administrators, more with the great thinkers. I guess that some or many readers are hearing of Grundtvig for the first time but that the name of Dewey is much more familiar.
Like Grundtvig, Dewey had distaste for coercion, insisting instead that childhood must be seen intrinsically as a state where one’s immaturity is a source of great generative power, rather than comparatively where one lacks adult accomplishment. He noted the significance of humans’ prolonged infancy compared to other species; we learn for longer because we learn far more complex operations, the defining one of which is to learn to learn. In Dewey’s thought, education and life are practically synonymous. Growth and development are synonyms for both, neither has ends beyond itself, both are boundless and ongoing.
The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective in fact.
Shall we join together with Grundtvig and Dewey in a kind of humanism? Perhaps we shall. However, there are different ways to understand human nature. As well as thinking about what we are, we should also think about what we are not. But it may turn out that we are really like those who we think we are not like. Now that you are suitably confused, let me explain what I mean.
Are you an animal? Mary Midgley would like to know. She says it is a hard question to answer. When we think about it, the word is a complicated one. We use it to encompass an extraordinarily wide range of beings. Some of those (micro-organisms) are probably closer to plants than to some other animals; and though gorillas are much closer to humans than are micro-organisms, our other and main use of the word ‘animal’ is to separate ourselves from animals – whether of the micro-organic, gorilla or other varieties. Then this goes further. If we say that a person has behaved like an animal, we mean to exclude that person from the moral community. Our judgement is that their conduct is unrelated to basic decency standards. It is driven by blind primordial force. Hence our need for a separating logic; we who judge are the civilised ones, but at the same time, these forces are dangers latent in all of us. Better to place them outside our selves in the securely bounded objectified other. But how ridiculous it becomes to take our own vices and place them there (lazy pig, sly fox). Further contradictions arise through the love for pets, and still further: what does all this say about the meat industry in its various guises?
In sum, the notion of an animal is problematic. For Midgley we cannot be neutral. It will be better to overcome our horror and to feel kinship, because the differences between our species and others have been exaggerated. At the time of writing, The Guardian has recently posted two relevant and illuminating science articles: Jonathan Balcombe presents the evidence for animals to experience exhilaration, joy, love, curiosity and mischief, then he urges for our moral obligation to them. Ian Sample reports the discovery of the origin of HIV in chimpanzees in Cameroon. The original SIV virus is harmless to chimpanzees, so hunters would not have known that they were butchering infected animals, but the process was very bloody and the hunters could have been infected via any open wounds of their own. The good news is that we now stand to find out about how the virus works in chimpanzees and in humans. There are hints that this will involve experiments on chimpanzees. But will we capture people for experiments? Would we have hunted people like we hunted the chimpanzees when we caused all these problems in the first place? No, because we are not animals.
We are humans. However, for some of us, not all humans are like us either. For some of us, there are other humans who need to be subjected to a separating logic. Here again we who judge can be the civilised ones whose selves are secured apart from those of the dark ones of vice. And once again this can turn out to be a highly contradictory process. To illustrate how, I wish to draw on another example fresh in my mind as I write, having yesterday returned to Sheffield from the fascinating city of Granada in southern Spain. Granada trades ceaselessly on the Moorish architectural heritage, so effectively that the Alhambra is the world’s most visited site. Yet the construction of the new mosque in the Albaycin (traditional Arab) district, completed in 2003, took place against the background of continual protest fuelled by fears of ‘criminality’ and ‘terror’. Through immigration and through conversion of ‘Spanish’ people, Granada is beginning to become a focus for living Islam in Spain, but there are serious obstacles to intercultural understanding. These are partly to do with the majority national narrative of reconquista – the Muslims were defeated in 1492, and the mosques of the Albaycin turned into churches – but also reflect an intercultural asymmetry: from an insider perspective, Catholicism is often seen as more of an implicit national culture than a religion, but from the outsider Muslim view, it is very religious. Equally, outsiders may tend to view Islam in a simplistic fashion through stereotypes and fears, whereas from the insider perspective it is more dynamic and diverse. Finally, religious and cultural diversity are not addressed through the Spanish school curriculum.
These appear to be insuperable difficulties, or at least formidable ones. No doubt there are limits to what can be done, but as teachers we have some power and we need to think hard about what we should do with it. As for religious education, Professor Jackson has been encouraging his students to think outside the box. The issues are so complex, so increasingly international, that we may have to reach out beyond the traditional boundaries of religious education. We can learn from the experiences of those in other countries and we should be ready to draw on debates and materials from related fields such as citizenship education and intercultural education.
These remarks are fresh, sensible and needed. The invention of agriculture was a good thing but we do not need to stop, establish roots and then prepare to defend territory forever. Perhaps we can from time to time re-examine the roots to check their condition and see whether it is necessary to move. We can be radical people (it means, to go back to the roots).
Here is my examination then. The roots of religious education are the roots of education. The basic concern is the meaning of human life, so the basic question is: what does it mean to be human? We should go deeply into this subject matter again and again. We will discover that there is a unity. We need kinship with the whole world, whichever side of our human – inhuman divide we have placed others, so we need to move towards closer and closer towards careful and sympathetic understanding, especially wherever the dynamic of exclusion appears to operate. Questions of human nature and human relations are perplexing but they give substance to religious education and to all education and they should be right at the heart of our work. It is well for us that we plant our roots here, in this soil.
So much for humanity, what about faith? Just have a little.

Download 19.46 Kb.

Share with your friends:
  1   2

The database is protected by copyright © 2023
send message

    Main page