Some Bahá'í Perspectives on Spiritual and Moral EducationAssociate, 16
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1995 Summer
first written or published 1994-07
It is rare that we in education pay tribute to former oil company executives, it is even rarer that we congratulate the current Secretary of State for Education.
We have become accustomed to objecting when Caesar involves himself in education other than as paymaster, and especially so when the aspect of education under discussion centres around the things of God. With regard to the current public discussion about moral and spiritual education, however, I feel that it is far more appropriate to praise Caesar than to wish him buried. David Pascall (probably nudged along by Barbara Wintersgill)(1) and John Patten between them have over the past two years helped create an informed and vital discussion about the nature and importance of these aspects of education, and about their relevance in forestalling future social and psychological problems.
The debate is all the more intriguing because the concepts are so slippery. At one level the words "moral" and "spiritual" have entered the standard litany of all government publications. The updated Parents' Charter, to which the cynic would probably apply Castlereagh's famous words "a loud-sounding nothing", for instance, re-assures the parent that:
"Your child has a right to broad and balanced studies which promote spiritual, cultural, mental and physical development, and prepare him or her for adult life."(2)
To many an overworked teacher, these words must seem like yet further unattainable goals laid upon them. Yet this is an issue of great importance. Many of our citizens lack motivation or direction, and it is probable that a rise in normlessness raises the incidence of crime, of substance abuse and underachievement. The traditional reaction of school heads, to hand to the R[eligious] E[ducation] department anything that looks vaguely religious, is insufficient. As David Pascall made clear in his seminal speech to the RE Council on 7 May 1992, the need to approach the spiritual and moral education of the child is a whole-school issue; and indeed must encompass the parents as well.
Although the issues are not the sole preserve of RE departments, they, and the Faith communities, can play a vital part, both because Faiths compass both families and teachers, and because we deal with the transcendental questions which help to raise the human being above the level of worrying about why his or her trainers do not carry an Adidas label. In proffering assistance to the movement for moral and spiritual education, however, we must remember that it is not RE in the phenomenological sense. RE often exerts a soporific effect on school students, and if we are dealing with helping a child find some meaning to life we must ensure that we do not assume that this will be achieved by putting old content-laden wine into new bottles, brightly labelled "Moral Education the Answer to Society's Ills". What the child needs may well be religious, but he or she needs to come to this realisation in his or her own time.
We in RE have one insight which is very valuable, however, in that we regard the battle as winnable, because we believe that every human being, however little s/he may realise it, possesses an innate and God-given spiritual capacity, and that this can be awakened. We also have the spur of guilt, because we feel that if there is anomie, if there is desperation, if there is de-motivation, it is because the spiritual development of the human being has been neglected.
From this perspective all Faiths have insights which can be valuable to teachers attempting to assist pupils to grow morally or spiritually. My intention here is to identify a few of the many such insights which the Bahá'í Faith can create.
The Bahá'í view of the nature of the human being
I remember, as a callow and unconfident teenager, agonising over whether or not human beings possessed a soul. At the heart of Bahá'í teachings lies the principle that God has placed in each human being a soul which yearns for communion with Him. It is this soul which is the essential human. A person does not merely have a soul, but is a soul. This soul, moreover, yearns for its creator because it has been created to do so. To turn Voltaire's famous maxim on its head, it seems necessary to invent God because He exists. Bahá'u'lláh puts it thus:
"All that is in Heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory."(3)
To the Bahá'í therefore, spiritual education is not merely social work or training, it is the process of helping oneself, or another, discover their true self.
The distinction between spiritual and moral education
The very fact that we have for two years bracketed these two concepts together suggests that we have difficulty drawing distinct boundaries between them. To some extent this is understandable, since we sense that it is sometimes the same child who as an infant finds it hard to cope with minor setbacks who later goes on to steal cars as a teenager. Yet treating the two concepts as mere labels for the same thing entails problems, not only conceptually, but also in an operational sense.
Firstly, the bracketing together of "spiritual" and "moral" may lead the Humanist or unbelieving parent or teacher to conclude that s/he has no place in this endeavour.
They may play an invaluable role in helping the child to work through moral problems, or even to wrestle with problems which the believer would regard as spiritual ones, such as bereavement or whether or not there is a God.
Secondly, treating "moral and spiritual education" as an indivisible whole moves the concepts away from the realm of the possible. If they can be tackled separately, the task looks less daunting. Thirdly, it shifts the concept away from the needs of the child, and from a dispassionate assessment of the world's real needs, and towards a more utilitarian concept of social control, as though stopping teenagers stealing cars was the central raison d'etre of the emphasis upon these areas of education rather than a thoroughly desirable by-product of good education.
Bahá'u'lláh claims that the human being has twin roles to play, distinct but of equal value. One is to know and to worship God. One of the three alternative daily prayers for Bahá'ís reads as follows:
"I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee..."(4)
The second role laid upon human beings is to carry forth an ever-advancing civilization, and corresponds to the development of moral qualities:
"All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion, and loving kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth."(5)
While the two have considerable links between them, the first task centres around spiritual growth, and around the development of the powers in one's soul for the self, while the second task centres around moral growth, and the development of the powers in one's soul in such a way as to permit one to interact harmoniously with other people and the natural environment. This distinction may assist us in mapping out a direction for the development of programmes of moral and spiritual education.
This short paper is written from the standpoint of "light is good in whatsoever lamp it shines", and holds that the Bahá'í Faith, like any other religion, contains insights which can be valuable for those of us in the educational world who are striving to make moral and spiritual education a reality.
(1) David Pascall, Chairman of the NCC, speech to RE Council, 7 May 1992.