Listening for wisdom?

This is a transcript of my contribution to a keynote at #REwords16 Conference 8-9 October 2016. The notion put forward here is one small part of my PhD Thesis which I am still working on.

Later in a workshop ( at #REwords16) I will be exploring with some of you the notion of religious literacy in terms of creating a balance between the theological, the philosophical and social/human sciences in our RE classrooms. Some of you will have read the paper which I wrote with some colleagues about this, and hopefully are coming along to our session to critique it, challenge it and perhaps agree with some of it! However, for the next few minutes I am going to indulge myself and take a different approach which I want to suggest lies beneath the paper which myself and colleagues wrote. I want to put forward the idea that religious literacy is about listening for wisdom.

Why wisdom?

Learning requires a response. Education is not something passive where young people are vessels to be filled, but something where change can take place in the one being educated. The word ‘educate’ means to draw out or lead out. There is a sense of journey, of discovery in learning.

Religion and belief, and even the term religious literacy, have I believe become an object which different stakeholders seek to control. Some see it in terms of promoting community cohesion, some see it in terms of the prevent strategy, some see it in terms of spirituality, some see it in political terms… has the term religious literacy now become a word we can’t use anymore because people are using it for their own ends?

However, wisdom is more than an object. It is more than objective knowledge. Although it has its roots in the word ‘to know’ wisdom is about both knowledge and understanding, but also about gaining insight and responding to what one has learned. To be able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religions and beliefs, once needs to be wise. Thus being religiously literate is about being. It is therefore not just about an object- something that I learn, it is about being changed. It is about responding with wisdom.

Why listening?

Listening is key to understanding others. Listening creates space for wisdom to be found. If we are to find wisdom, then we need to be intellectually open and not have filled our minds already with stuff. Listening allows the subject ( a text, belief, practice, artefact…) to speak to us. Listening enables us to do this, as we take in what others say or do. Listening is more than hearing, listening requires our attention, actively processing what we have heard, even acting upon it. A dictionary definition says ‘to attend closely for the purpose of hearing’, the root of the word implies a sense of obedience. So to be religiously literate means to attend closely to others, to allow people ( after all we all have beliefs of one kind or another) to have a voice and for us to listen.

How to listen for wisdom?

So what does it mean to listen for wisdom? I believe there there possibly three elements to this…

Listening for wisdom through narratives – of religions and beliefs, members of faith and belief communities as well as the pupils own narratives. We need to allow these narratives to speak to us… so allowing space, slowing down the learning, interpreting, testing, and critically engaging with sources including people!

Listening for wisdom through enquiry into theological concepts – genuine enquiry into the theological which allows for communal discovery and a focus on dialogue, developing a collective wisdom, not filling our curriculum too much so that the links with philosophy and social/human sciences can also be made..

Listening for wisdom through relationships – communal interaction so that everyone is ‘part of the play’ rather than an audience on the side, experiencing religion and belief in our diverse world by actually meeting and engaging with people, not being ‘tourists’ where religion and belief are seen as something ‘exotic’ to look at, but where we come alongside others… I don’t like the ‘window’ mirror analogy of learning about and learning from…I think it is really unhelpful, I don’t like Learning about religion  and Learning from religion full stop… but if we are going to use analogies what I would propose is going through the window… like Playschool used to for those of you who can remember that!

For me, the theological, philosophical and social/human science aspects of being religiously literate are all part of listening for wisdom, and are one way of expressing it which may helpful to teachers. BUT at the heart of this for me lies something deeper; at the heart lies wisdom. A knowledge that involves response… and enables them to continue on their journey of discovery.

I have become more convinced of this as I have reflected on the process of actually writing our paper on religious literacy! In this process as a group of advisers I believe we put into practice the process of listening for wisdom… we explored the different narratives about the purpose and nature of RE, we delved deeper to try and understand what we meant by theology and we talked to people about their views. But above all we listened. This was hard. Many people disagreed with us… but as a result I believe that the second version of the paper, the midrash, is a much wiser piece of work than the first… and I hope after listening to more of you later in our workshop we can collectively seek further wisdom together.
For me religious literacy at its heart has wisdom. So for me in our classrooms we need to allow wisdom to be found.

As TS Elliott asks:

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
(TS Elliott 1888-1965)
Is wisdom a helpful term in understanding what it means to be religiously literate?

To what extent is active listening an important element of developing religious literacy in children and young people?

REfocusing RE?

Two days ago I struggled to read the powerpoint slides at the Words Beyond Words conference #REwords16…. I confess that I had wondered if my eyesight was deteriorating for a while… but when I asked colleagues if they could read the screen and found they could, I knew that I had to do something about it. By chance I had already booked an appointment at the opticians today, so I will soon be in possession of new glasses…

My colleague Jane Chipperton (@JChipperton) remarked to me this afternoon that perhaps this was ‘symbolic’ of the weekend… that perhaps we ‘all need new glasses’ for refocusing….

If Bob Bowie (@BobBowie) can use gloves as an analogy over the #REwords16 weekend, then I will use glasses…

The need for dialogue

I only realised that I needed new glasses when I had dialogue with my colleagues (thanks Gillian @RECofELincoln and Olivia @Ollyseymour for pointing this out!). I realised that I was not seeing as clearly as I should be; things were blurred. During the weekend it was great to engage in dialogue with colleagues to try and clarify what we mean by religious literacy. Many different perspectives were put forward, I won’t go into them all here. Many views presented a partial view, some I felt were even ‘blurred’. The dialogue showed me that engaging with others clarifies our own ideas and helps us to be clearer about our own positions. Dialogue, and most importantly the listening that takes place as part of this, sharpens our view. For me, what became clear was that the term religious literacy itself is complex and has many weaknesses.

We need to act

During the conference Dawn Cox (@MissDCox) tweeted:

I’m convinced that discussing it (religious literacy) is getting tiresome without doing something about it…

I agree.

Now I could have decided that I’d like to continue being unable to read powerpoint slides at conferences; this would not have been a wise decision. The wise decision was to go to the opticians and get my eyes tested!

Last year, I spent time with colleagues working through what we understood by the purpose of RE and a balanced RE curriculum. You can read our latest version of the paper here (, but in light of the weekend we will revise this! However, even with a revision, we are clear (I think, but don’t want to speak for my colleagues) that what we have come up with works with teachers, and it is teachers and the children/young people in our schools that really matter. We have already ‘tested’ out our ideas, and it is the refocusing of RE in terms of ‘balance’ that is now impacting on the effectiveness of RE in schools. So our revised paper will most likely be about clarifying language, not the principles themselves. Dawn is right, we need to do something. Myself and my colleagues are doing something!

So with our new glasses… we can then move forward… clearly….and with focus.
For those of you who are interested, I will post my part of the joint keynote from #REwords16 here as a blog later in the week.