Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A 6-year-old writes a letter to God. And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers

The six-year-old's letter was very simple: “To God, How did you get invented?”

The archbishop's reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

Read the Times Report

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Saturday, April 09, 2011

We have nothing to fear… but truth itself

On a wall in our home hangs a painting which always draws comment from visitors – a striking sunset bouncing its light across the waves at the beach. It was painted by my wife at the age of 15. Her teacher’s response was curt: “I’m glad you’ve got that out of your system, now get onto some real painting,” (by which she meant abstract). It took some years for my wife to regain her confidence.

A friend who is now a university professor still vividly recalls the day he went to enrol in his first post-year 12 course. The person taking the enrolment looked at his grade and turned to a colleague, asking out loud, “Do I have to accept students with these results?” A few years later that same person sought to recruit my friend into his research lab, without success.

A young lass in her first season of basketball is told by her school coach that she’ll never amount to anything, and is left on the sidelines for whole games when there was opportunity to give her time on court without jeopardising the team’s chances. She hung on through the season and began to flourish under another coach in the ensuing years.

On my way out of school one afternoon a mother pulled me aside and informed me that her child had been told by the teacher that her parents were going to hell if they didn’t go to church.

These four events are alike in every respect bar one: no-one seriously suggests that we should refrain from teaching art or encouraging students to take on challenges in education or sport because some teachers have performed badly. But to listen to many of the complaints about religious education in schools is to encounter this type of thinking underpinning the desire to banish it from our schools.

In every educational pursuit there are two questions that need to be addressed: what is the purpose of teaching a particular field of study and what are the qualifications of those who teach? Age-appropriate instruction by qualified staff is important at every level of education, and should introduce students to various fields of learning in the hope of awakening a thirst for further knowledge, alongside the need to prepare students to live as part of the human community. There is an unfortunate arrogance amongst those who would banish religious education which mirrors the very attitude which is despised in the worst of religious education: the belief that they are right and beyond question. The arguments are not primarily about quality of teaching, nor about its purpose, but about the right to be taught at all.

There is an interesting paradox at work here: this attitude which seeks to drive religious education from schools is the same attitude which drives parents to choose an education which is entirely framed within a Christian religious cultural framework: it is a fear of the truth. If we truly are committed to the quest for truth, and are convinced that our perceptions of truth are accurate, then what is there to fear? Questions can be raised and addressed, and students better equipped to deal with an error they have explored and resolved in their own minds. Instead we find the inherent insecurities of both extremes, fearful that their particular world-view and value system might have chinks in its armour exposed by engagement with difference. When a child comes home from school and reports beliefs and truths which run counter to those of the parents, there are two responses: to sit and dialogue with the child to assist growth in understanding of difference and to firm the reasons behind the familial belief, or to rail at the school for allowing one’s child to be exposed to ‘alien’ ideas. The latter attitude is not uncommon to parents within faith communities and to those who express no faith.

Religious endeavour, at its core, is a response to the numinous: a recognition that there is still more to life than we have learned or experienced. While prone to magical thinking, the religious quest at its best seeks to address deeper questions of meaning and purpose, and inspire a sense of awe and wonder that flows from the unique life that we experience in this small corner of a vast universe. It is humbling to know that even if we were to draw on the entire fountain of human knowledge, we will still encounter mystery and unknown: huge gaps in our understanding remain, even while we are eating into those gaps. And we know that many mysteries will endure and multiply.

I recall a discussion with a geneticist not long after the completion of the human genome project and its accompanying observation that over 80% of our DNA was “junk.” I queried this classification, suggesting that perhaps it serves a purpose which was yet to be discovered. My concerns were largely dismissed at the time. I was therefore interested to read recently of a geneticist who has made it his work to undo the notion of “junk DNA” arguing that it is only “junk” because we have yet to identify the purpose it serves. All fields of human endeavour are prone to over-extend their knowledge and the certainty with which it can be held. Many truths held dear today were once thought to be impossible. And there will be scientific and other certainties we hold today which we will need to discard in the future. No one seriously suggests that we dismiss the scientific endeavour for this learning curve.

Arguments that religious instruction should be excluded on the basis of freedom of choice are also misguided. We do not offer freedom of choice by taking away the very materials upon which such choice rests. Instead we provide a safe space for exploration and discovery, guided by those who have taken the learning journey already, and who are trained and equipped to aid others in beginning that journey. That there are those who have breached guidelines for teaching is important to address, but immaterial in this discussion. A teacher who has allegedly punished his grade one and two students with physical violence does not bring cries for the removal of these grades from our schools. Rather we seek to ensure that proper standards of behaviour are enforced for all staff.

Those who suggest that religion is based on myths and fallacies deny the basic tenets of epistemology which underpin every knowledge system. The recognition of the use and abuse of power in history of religion does not validate the same use and abuse of power against religion. It is ultimately ill-befitting the secular state which values open dialogue and discovery.

And an argument for a secular education cannot be sustained on the notion of a value-free education. Such a beast does not exist. Every epistemology and world-view, including atheism and agnosticism, promulgates implicit and explicit values. Indeed, every field of human knowledge prioritises certain information and processes above others, and therefore creates its own value system. The purpose of education in such an environment should not only include the desire to equip children in the three Rs, but to teach them to evaluate and discern truth amongst competing and sometimes complementary world-views. With access to the Internet only expected to increase as they grow, the ability to discern and sift and evaluate are important skills to learn across a range of human endeavours.

Should education provide only a narrow focus on selected beliefs, how are we to prepare students to live in a world where the place of religious organisations and institutions in both society and its economy is significant: contributing the bulk of volunteers, underpinning a significant percentage of the helping professions, let alone institutions for aid, development, and social and community service. The commitment of religion to global justice itself is significant enough to warrant engagement by students with it alongside other educational and motivational paradigms.

And then we need to remind ourselves that our children will grow up as natives of the global village, where governments and societies around the world find their basis in religious beliefs and practices. To enter dialogue from a place of ignorance, or to champion change without respecting the traditions out of which such societies and cultures have emerged is to guarantee failure and risk escalating violence and conflict.

The notion of a secular state is not one where religion has no part, but a society in which no particular religion or belief – sacred or secular – is imposed upon its citizens by the government. The provision of religious education in schools – regardless of the faith taught – does not breach that notion. Well done, it can serve to strengthen its fabric. But we do need to acknowledge there are clear problems in the system which require further thought and response.

The zeal with which opponents of religious education in schools have pursued their case has a distinct flavour to it. In most cases its basic premise is self-defeating because it implies a claim to complete knowledge which is so despised in the religion they depict. An implicit claim to total knowledge which denies any truth in all religions is arrogant and unbecoming. (We would do well to remember – on both sides of this debate – that the push for a universal education has its grounds in religious movements which refused to let class and breeding be the determinant of opportunity.)

Would it not be better to explore how best to introduce such learning to students and establish the frameworks for best practice? We are all beneficiaries if we are able to respectfully dialogue about our differences from a position of understanding rather than of ignorance, or of bad experience.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Public Space and the Libyan Stalemate

In January this year Tunisia’s authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country with an iron hand for 23 years was ousted in what is now known as the Jasmine revolution. Inspired by the transformation in their regional neighbours, Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo against the rule of Hosni Mubarak, an equally dictatorial regime which exercised authority over an apparently compliant people. In just 18 days, the 30-year rule of Mubarak was at an end, and a new era dawning in Egypt. Inspired by the events of its neighbouring countries, Libyan rebels were emboldened in their desire to oust another dictatorial leader in Muammar Gaddhafi. With a reign exceeding 40 years, there was a belief that the time had come for change. Anti-government rebels launched their offensive in Benghazi, it spread to the capital Tripoli and other cities with some rapidity, feeding the belief that change was imminent. But Gaddhafi did not lie down, launching a vigorous counter-attack. When it appeared that the rebels were about to be over-run, the United Nations stepped in, authorising the imposition of a no-fly zone, which has been enforced by action which appears to exceed that mandate. At best a stale-mate has been reached, and we must ask why it is that such dramatic change in its eastern and western neighbours has failed to be replicated in Libya. What is it that has clogged the pathway to change in Libya which has seemed a highway in Tunisia, Egypt, and this week in Cote d’Ivoire?

One critical difference is the use of public space. In Tunisia and Egypt, the protests brought increasing number of citizens out into the public squares in support of change. Sometimes the consequences were nothing short of brutal and shocking – such as the self-immolation protest in Tunisia. There were at times brutal exchanges in those places, but above all there was a growing unanimity and support amongst the gathered masses that they would accept no other outcome. The use of social media has been highlighted, but its strength was demonstrated only as people were prepared to leave their private spaces and risk themselves in public. It appears that such support has been missing in Libya. There is no doubt that Gaddhafi raised the stakes significantly – clearly demonstrating his intransigence and a preparedness to exact a high toll upon his people, but he appeared to have raised the stakes to a point where many Libyans were not prepared to pay the price of change. The call upon the international community – an entirely understandable request met with a response which was founded on compassion and protection for the vulnerable – only confirmed that those who had started this movement had not counted the cost and foreseen all the possibilities. It no longer became a call for change from within. It was no longer democracy at work so much as the war machine – the power of fear and destruction – which was being employed against Gaddhafi.

And thus we have a stalemate. The moral call for change in Libya emerging from the vox populi has been replaced by the might-is-right voice. The argument cannot be advanced without significant damage to the very people whom the interventionists profess to be fighting for. Whatever the outcome, democracy will not be the winner.

The public space has proven to be the most significant space of all in regime changes around the world in recent decades. No-one can forget the collapse of the Berlin wall, the encounter in Tiananmen Square, the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Each of these events transpired because the people took their stance in the public space and found themselves accompanied by a growing number of their compatriots. Without violence and bloodshed, significant change emerged. We have seen similar impacts in our own nation, looking back to the Moratorium marches against the Vietnam war, the streets clogged with trams, the marches for reconciliation, and the GetUp events against Workchoices. The extent of their impact varies, but each has made their collective mark upon the public psyche, each has brought about a change in the public realm.

In this increasingly privatised age, we are wont to forget the power of the public space. It is more than getting a face in the media, it is an indication of the preparedness of the people to get out of their comfortable spaces and claim the public space again – a space that is too readily left in the hands of celebrities, politicians, and media personnel to take the lead. When large numbers of people take to the streets, we see the true democratic voice being exercised, even more so than at the ballot box come election time.

Of course we would be foolish to believe that every venture into the public space brings about the change we desire. Gaddhafi has demonstrated that there are those who will fight back, sometimes with alarming and disproportionate force. People are killed in such circumstances, but that does not mean the end of their cause. This past week we have commemorated the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Who can forget his “I have a dream” speech, its echo reverberating through time, its passion still stirring today? King – and many who joined him in the public space calling for change – paid the highest price for their efforts. But their call for change lived beyond their deaths, and continues to bring new life and new hope to today’s generation.

The fear is that the Libyan stalemate will be prolonged, with escalating costs in terms of human life and human well-being in Libya, and significant funds being diverted into continuing military efforts. It is a quagmire Libya – and the world – can ill-afford. But it should serve as a reminder that privatised solutions are not always the most effective or efficient, even when the alternative cost seems potentially high.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Is this a case of "None so blind..."?

"We stress the importance of calm and urge all parties to reject violence and resolve differences through dialogue..."
These words were uttered by U.S. President Obama after retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan in response to a reckless act of provocation to Muslims. One might ask what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq if it has rejected violence as a solution?!
See the full story here.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Religious Education in Schools

The question of religious education in schools is undoubtedly an emotive issue. Revelations that religious education is apparently not the optional curriculum component in Victorian schools that had been widely assumed has sparked levels of concern ranging from moderate to outrageous. The notion that Victoria’s status as a secular state automatically precludes religious education, however, is both ill-conceived and wrong-headed. There are many valid reasons to include religious education as an essential component of a good education.

Politics around the world is influenced by and the product of different faith traditions. While we in Australia imagine clear lines of definition between politics and religion, this distinction is at best illusory, and in many parts of the world non-existent. If we are to truly educate our children to understand difference and engage in the global village, some understanding of religions and their belief systems is important. One third of the world professes Christian faith in some form, and a significant percentage of those who do not identify have been impacted by Christians belief systems and values. Understanding the source of many of these beliefs may help future generations deal with their excesses and address them from a common source.

A further 22% of the world professes Muslim faith, and many of the world’s leading and emerging nations are founded on Islamic belief systems. With increased international migration, many Australian residents and citizens now base their lives on Islamic teachings. Burgeoning international trade has also brought us into closer and more regular engagement with our Islamic neighbours. Bringing down a hijab on understanding by banning religious education can only serve to heighten ignorance and further misunderstanding. It has also been highlighted in our media that many terrorist organisations claim Islamic tenets for their actions and positions. Out of ignorance we are then doomed to assuming they represent the faith accurately.

Christianity and Islam represent the belief systems of over half of the world’s population. Dare we claim to educate our children well by excluding study of these faiths from our education system? The notion of a secular education and a secular society was to create an environment where freedom of religion could abound – as distinct from freedom from religion. The claim to offer an education which does not include religion is not the same as a value-free education, nor one which does not promulgate a particular belief system. All systems prioritise values, and create structures of meaning. Better to allow our students the tools to deconstruct and analyse for themselves rather than make decisions based on ignorance and prejudice.

And without moving outside of the education system itself, we should recognise that a great deal of literature and history studied by students is better understood and engaged when the socio-religious influences are acknowledge and explored. Better understanding of much of the employed imagery and metaphor emerges when its foundations in religious imagery is acknowledged. We might also ask how one can study the Second World War without some understanding of the Jewish and Christian belief systems and how they impacted Germany? What about the influence of religion upon US politics? Shakespeare is replete with biblical imagery, along with the works of many great writers. Do we forget the religious influence upon art and architecture? Upon science? Upon adventurers and other “heroes” of history? We diminish both our children and their education if we isolate religion from their educational experience.

I find myself somewhat bemused by the protectionist approach suggested by some. Education today focuses on developing skills of critical thinking and analysis, particularly in an age where all sorts of ideas and thinking is readily accessible via the internet. Is it suggested that in religious education classes students suspend these skills, and are unable to bring what is taught there to others for information and analysis? Does the authority of a religious education teacher usurp that of a parent? I struggle to believe that one R.E. teacher in one hour a week can undo the learning and skills of the rest of the school system, let alone familial and societal values reinforced in so many different ways. My experience as a teacher tells me that students have a capacity to question and challenge what they perceive to be questionable.

There are valid questions of competency which need to be clarified. Religious Education Teachers should be subject to validation and scrutiny as befits their place in the education system. But where do we draw the line? Schools regularly invite community representatives in to inform students about their work, with either an implicit or explicit expression of the values which underpin their approach, for which we require no formal accreditation or skill set. I have sat through some such presentations where it was obvious that the speaker could not communicate effectively with the students, and others where the values expressed drew some expressions of concern from staff and students alike. Clearly more effective scrutiny of religious education teachers is required than situations such as this demand. Whether the accreditation of a non-profit organisation such as ACCESS ministries is sufficient, or the establishment of a government agency to accredit across faith lines is needed ought to be a matter of public discussion and community consensus. Two issues are important: the skills and competencies of the volunteer teachers, and the protection of children from would-be predators. Systems already exist to address the latter, and I am not suggesting that this is presently inefficient. The community needs to be comfortable with the standards of teaching across all aspects of education, including religious education, and arguably greater transparency would help.

Perhaps the real issue is not that we have religious education in schools, but that it is left to volunteers and their organisations to ensure that the education of our children is well-rounded; one where all the social, epistemological, value, and educational perspectives are considered in an environment where safe critique can be undertaken with respect. Leaders who emerge from our education system without a healthy understanding of religious perspectives and a respect for those who hold them might find themselves walking unwittingly into territory which is unknown to them, but well-charted.