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?

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I’m an independent Religious Education Consultant. I work mainly in the Eastern Region for the Diocese of Norwich, and also for Culham St Gabriel’s Trust managing their TeachRE course. The views here are my own, and do not represent any of the organisations I work for.

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