Monthly Archives: July 2006

Teaching kids how to be religious, part three

Part one: Link

In my own religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, we made a fundamental mistake in the way we teach kids how to be religious. Back in the 1930’s, the Unitarians and the Universalists hired Sophia Lyon Fahs as their curriculum editor, and over the next two decades Fahs produced a brilliant series of curriculum textbooks. Brilliant books like The Church across the Street, which introduced junior high students to other Protestant traditions, attracted well-deserved attention beyond the Unitarians and the Universalists. The Fahs curriculum books were, in their own way, works of genius.

But an earlier book co-written by Fahs reveals one of her fundamental limitations as a religious educator. Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds (1930), written by Fahs and co-author Helen Sweet Firman, tells the story of one Sunday school class over the course of a year, through a teacher’s journal and careful analysis of that journal. It, too, is a brilliant book, well worth reading even today; today’s religious educators can still learn from the progressive educational philosophy and pedagogy, the assessment techniques, the tradition of close observation of individual children.

Yet something is fundamentally wrong with the book:– the Sunday school class described in the book is a closely-graded class in a laboratory Sunday school that is not affiliated with any congregation, or even with any specific religious tradition. Fahs had completely divorced children’s religious education from the traditional multi-generational institutions of congregations and wider religious traditions. The children are influenced by each other, by their own inner thoughts and memories and inclinations, and by their teacher; it is an extreme form of individualism, which works pretty well but which leaves out big chunks of religion.

Fahs was not the only one trying to take religious education in this direction. The Universalist Angus MacLean was headed in the same direction, and in his book A New Age in Religious Education he tells churches to take the kids out of the worship service and drop them into closely graded Sunday school classrooms that look exactly like public school classrooms. That was the trend throughout liberal religion and mainline Protestantism in the mid- to late-20th C.: separate the kids from the adults, to the end that the individual development of individual children is nurtured and encouraged.

This was a brilliant idea, but it didn’t really work. Religious educators within liberal religion, and Christian educators within mainline Protestantism began to notice that once kids grew up, they didn’t stick around. “Oh well,” we said, “kids just naturally drift away when they’re in their twenties.” Liberal religion and mainline Protestantism began to decline in numbers, due in no small part to the fact that 80% or 90% of our kids drifted away and never came back.

We said this was “natural,” while turning a blind eye to the fact that other religious groups, like the Mormons, managed to hang on to a higher percentage of their kids. “Oh no,” we said, “we don’t want to be coercive like the Mormons, we don’t want to force our kids to stay in our religious tradition.” We ignored the fact that we were actively training our kids into an extreme individualism that encouraged them, even forced them, to leave us.

We also conveniently ignored the fact that our religious education was built on a deep-held assumption that we really didn’t want our kids to stick around. I had been an active youth leader in my church in my teens. When I tried to go back to my home church in my mid-20’s, I found there wasn’t a place for me. Indeed, I was subtly but actively discouraged from attending church:– many people ignored me at worship services, I was never invited to join a social group or a committee, it was made quite clear that there was no place for a single, childless young man in his early twenties in that church. The idea of closely-graded classes went beyond the Sunday school up into the adult religious community, and there was no “class” for twenty-somethings.

Fortunately for me, a few people like Hrand and Toby and Doug and Kay made sure I felt welcome; and my parents let me join their ushering team so at least I had some role in the church. Hrand, Toby, Doug, and Kay ignored the precepts of “lifespan faith development,” which seems to predict that twenty-somethings will go off and explore other religions. They, and others like them, realized that there were young adults who wanted to belong to that church. Intuitively, they also realized that some of us desperately needed the distributed cognitions built into that church, to help us deal with what was going on in our individual lives.

Contrary to the precepts of developmentalism, not everyone fits into a closely-graded religious education class. Not everyone thrives by being limited to contact solely with other persons of his or her own age. Given that we lose up to 90% of our young people, I’d hazard a guess that most people do not thrive under the precepts of “lifespan faith development.”

To be continued…


On Friday, I pulled the broccoli out of the refrigerator. Abbie had given it to us when we were up visiting in Maine. “Take this home with you,” she said. “I have plenty and I can always go get more.”

We had stopped in to visit the Four Season Farm on Cape Rosier, in Maine, just a few miles from Jack and Abbie’s house. Eliot Coleman had purchased the land from Helen and Scott Nearing for thirty-three dollars an acre in the 1970’s; that’s what the Nearings had paid for it in twenty years earlier. The farmstand wasn’t open yet, but we asked if we could look around anyway. “Sure,” said the pleasant young man with the disheveled hair and beard.

The market gardens were stunningly beautiful. The plants were larger than seem possible, they all looked incredibly healthy. We went inside a greenhouse. It was immaculate. Even the weeds looked like they were supposed to be there. Squash and eggplants and tomatoes were tied to string and grew up to the top of the greenhouse ten feet up. The pepper plants weren’t as tall, but were just as spectacular.

Eliot Coleman walked up as we walked back to Abbie’s car. Abbie and Carol knew who he was because of his pictures in his cookbooks. I knew who he was because he walked around like he owned the place. We said hello, and he responded politely.

A small apple orchard grew outside the greenhouse, perfectly cared-for trees growing in a mix of clover and grass. The farm spread out around us, green, fecund, orderly. They grow perfect vegetables all year round in coastal Maine’s unforgiving climate.

Our mother used to say that the essence of good cooking was “good goods.” If you start with good ingredients, it’s easy to wind up with good food.

I rinsed the broccoli, cut the florets off the main stalk, dropped it in the boiling water. After five minutes, I drained the water off, a light but brilliant emerald green. The broccoli tasted like green, it had a buttery after-taste, it was sweet, it tasted like broccoli but it tasted like more than broccoli. I like to read while I’m eating, but this broccoli was so good I couldn’t. Instead, I said to Carol: “It’s so good!” I looked out the window at the brilliant green trees along Rindge Avenue and thought: That’s what the broccoli tastes like, the green of things growing in the heat of summer. It really was that good.

Teaching kids how to be religious, part two

Part one: Link

Here in North America and Western Europe, we have been wholly seduced by Jean Piaget’s understanding of persons. Piaget saw children as little scientists, investigating their worlds as solitary researchers, gradually building up adequate models of how the world works. One of Piaget’s insights is that children develop their little models according to a timetable that is more or less the same for every child. Thus the role of adults is to help children work through the standard development schedule.

Piaget’s insights are extraordinarily useful in classroom settings (although it should be noted that classrooms have been set up according to Piaget’s notions, so there may be something of a tautology here). But in Eastern Europe, Lev Vygotsky came up with another possible insight into how children learn and “develop.”

Living in Russia in the early 20th C., Vygotsky was deeply affected by ideas of collective human endeavor. The West reviled Karl Marx and glorified the extreme individualism of free market capitalism; Eastern Europe and Russia reviled capitalism and glorified collectivism. Unlike Piaget, who was from Western Europe and saw human beings as disparate individuals, Vygotsky saw human beings as part of a collective.

Needless to say, Vygotsky’s research was utterly rejected by the West until the fall of Marxism in Eastern Europe. This was unfortunate, because while much of Vygotsky’s research is now outdated, he did discover one very important thing:– children can perform above their expected level of competence in certain social settings.

In my own work as a religious educator, I have found both Piaget and Vygotsky help me to understand how children learn to be religious. Children do change and develop in certain fairly predictable patterns as they grow older, just as Piaget’s model predicts. At the same time, when you put together a group of children of mixed ages, the younger children can perform above their developmental stage, due to the influence of the older children. The same is true for children who are in a multi-generational setting, such as in all-ages worship services (for example, school age children in certain unprogrammed Quaker meetings can and will sit in silence for the first twenty minutes of meeting for worship).

In the past twenty years, some psychologists in the West have gone beyond Vygotsky’s work, and developed a theory of “distributed cognition.” In this theory, cognition or thinking is distributed through out socially-created objects and institutions. A concrete example of a distributed cognition is an axe:– when you pick up an axe, you are holding the accumulated cognitive insights into how to cut down trees, accumulated by generations of human beings. Yes, someone has to teach you how to use that axe, but there’s a sense in which the axe also teaches you; there’s a sense in which as you learn to use the axe, you gain access to the accumulated wisdom of generations of thinkers.

I still use Piaget’s insights into human beings. But when it comes to teaching kids how to be religion, I also use the insights of distributed cognition. Like an axe, a congregation represents the accumulated wisdom of a certain religious tradition. This is another way of getting at what religious educator Maria Harris said:– curriculum isn’t just what’s written in the text books in the Sunday school, the whole congregation is the curriculum.

To be continued…


This summer, life is punctuated by storms. This happened yesterday.

Early in the afternoon, the sky got darker, the wind picked up, and it started to rain. I went around and closed windows. Carol and I kept working. In half an hour, the rain had stopped and the air had turned heavy and dank.

In the late afternoon, Carol went for a walk.

The sky grew dark. Suddenly it began to rain, but the wind was coming from the other side of the building so I didn’t have to close any windows then. The thunder started. A woman hurried by under an umbrella, pausing behind a tree for a moment, but then hurrying on again. The rain grew heavier, the wind grew stronger. A bicyclist rode by, completely soaked by the rain.

Carol called on her cell phone to say that she was going to sit out the storm over in the Someday Cafe.

Then the rain just poured out of the sky, and the thunder came fast: boom, boom, boom boom, boom. A bolt of lightning out the kitchen window and a huge crack of thunder came simultaneously, and I jumped. I imagined running out of the house in this pouring rain because the lightning had started a fire, but it hadn’t. The street in front of the house was completely covered in water, and the water ran an inch deep down the driveway below the kitchen window. The sirens started. A firetruck came by with red lights flashing and siren going. Another siren in the distance. An ambulance, fluorescent green and white, followed the firetruck. More thunder, more sirens. A red paramedic’s SUV, siren wailing, sped by on the street below, headed in the other direction.

The rain tapered off. A little more thunder, a car alarm went off somewhere. The wind died down. The rain stopped and I opened the windows. The sky is dark gray with brilliant white and pale blue.

A woman in a turquoise blue tank top walks by the house as if the rain had never happened.

The driveway is partly dry. The sky is growing dark again: more rain coming.

Teaching kids how to be religious

The very title of this little essay is an absurdity. You don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. At least they’re more or less religious, depending on their personalities:– some of them are already quite advanced religiously by the time they’re seven, while others (as the philosopher Richard Rorty admits of himself) are “religiously tone-deaf.”

Absurdity though it may be, I’m forced to talk about how to teach kids to be religious because my denomination, and much of institutionalized religion generally, believes that that’s what you do. My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a department called “Lifespan Faith Development.” They want to “develop” kids, just like real estate developers “develop” old farms or woodlots or deserts into housing developments and shopping malls, because houses and malls are the “highest and best use” of the land.

“Lifespan Faith Development” has another fatal flaw:– it uses the term “faith development” as an integral part of its name. “Faith development” was conjured up by James Fowler, and still has a following amongst older male psychologists who began their careers when Fowler first published his book and who still try to do research on how faith develops, psychologically speaking. Problem is, Fowler never adequately defined what he meant by “faith.” To make matters worse, his model posits a highest stage of faith development for which his research found only one representative person; hardly an adequate sample size on which to base an adequate theory.

Still worse, Fowler basically reduces “faith development” to cognitive (and maybe affective) development, ignoring such things as the transcendental experiences which burst in on you unannounced changing you forever in a discontinuous fashion that has nothing to do with his orderly linear “faith development”; ignoring such things as certain slow dragging years of no transcendence which can suck all religion out of you if you’re not careful. But if you really want to know about why faith development doesn’t work, you can read Gabriel Moran’s essays on the topic.

Worst of all, I believe the term “lifespan faith development” allows us to delegate teaching kids to someone else in our religious communities. “Lifespan faith development” implies that you have to know some arcane theories about “faith development” in order to teach kids. “Lifespan faith development” means you should rely on the experts to set up scientific programs for teaching kids. That term allows us to abdicate our responsibility to our children.

Yet it is you and I, not some expert, who teach children how to be religious. And we do teach children how to be religious, regardless of the theory we espouse. Or rather, we don’t teach them how to be religious, we teach them how to handle the religion they already have. We do that in a way that flies in the face of typical Western understandings of the psychological underpinnings of religion, and persons, and faith.

To be continued…

Another evil spam attack

I just spent half an hour cleaning up after a serious comment spam attack. Unfortunately, that means I’m going to have to leave the comments form turned off for a couple of days while I try to track down a security patch for this problem. If you have a comment, please send it to me via email and I will post it for you.

One hour later

I have now installed two spam plug-ins for my blog software, the highly-recommended “Akismet” and “Bad Behavior.” (I should have installed these months ago, but my spam volume has been so low that I just didn’t bother.) So I am going to re-open the comments, and hope these two plug-ins solve the problem.

The Case of the Amazing Attorney

The Hero has to wend his way through the snares and traps of untruthful witnesses, past clients who would throw him to the Wolves, and find the path that leads to Truth and Justice. With him is the Heroine, always calm and capable, ready to do battle beside the Hero at a moment’s notice. They are accompanied by the Sidekick, never as brave as the Hero but competent and completely honest. Cornered by the bear-like Adversary, the Hero triumphs at the last minute, finding truth and saving the Beautiful Maiden from disgrace and death.

It sounds like something Joseph Campbell might have written, but of course it’s only a description of the typical Perry Mason novel. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 85 books featuring the amazing attorney, his saucy secretary Della Street, and the dogged detective Paul Drake. The books are potboilers so devoid of literary merit that they are unlikely to ever be assigned in a high school English class. Yet millions of copies have been sold, starting with the first book in 1933 and continuing to the present day.

Two days ago, I went down to the Harvard Book Store to browse through their used book section in the basement, and I found a paperback copy of The Case of the Crooked Candle first published in 1944. At the cash register, the young woman checking me out looked like the typical bookish person who works at the Harvard Book Store. But she didn’t comment on the Daniel Pinkwater young adult novel I purchased, nor did she notice that I had the classic two-volume Sources of Indian Tradition, nor did she say anything about The Cornel West Reader.

When she got to The Case of the Crooked Candle, she looked me in the eye and smiled. “Perry Mason!” she said delightedly. “They say that they’re going to put out the entire television series on DVD!”

“You mean the original one, in black and white?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said. “I hope they do put it out on DVD, I’m going to buy it and watch them. I love Perry Mason!”

The literary snobs may turn up their noses at Perry Mason, but book store employees don’t give John Updike that many exclamation points. The literary snobs relish stories of grim truth and reality that reflect the sordid life that they believe we all live. Little do they know that most of us live partway inside the Realm of the Collective Unconscious, where they take part in the eons-old battle against Evil, and against Untruth.

I have tried reading Updike’s novels, but find them inexpressibly dreary. Indeed, I have mostly given up on reading fiction. Why should I read something someone has made up? — I’d rather read about things that really have happened. Maybe that’s why I continue to read Perry Mason novels:– they’re fiction, but Perry Mason is also the Hero, the Jungian figure who stalks through the Collective Unconscious righting wrongs and saving the day. That’s about as true as you can get.

As for The Case of the Crooked Candle, suffice it to say that the murder takes place on a yacht that is moored in shallow water. The crooked candle lead Perry Mason to unravel the true solution to the murder. And at the end of the book, after Mason reveals the solution to Della Street, Paul Drake, and his clients Roger and Carol Burbank, the phone in his office rings….

Mason nodded to Della. She picked up the receiver, listened a moment, then placed her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Chief, there’s a blonde woman out there with a black eye who says she has to see you at once. Gertie [the receptionist] says she’s terribly upset and she’s afraid she’ll have hysterics if…”

“Show her into the law library,” Mason said. “I’ll talk with her there. While I’m doing that, you can get a check from Mr. Burbank payable to Adelaide Kingman for one hundred thousand bucks. You’ll excuse me, I know. An hysterical blonde with a black eye would seem to be an emergency case, at least an interesting one — The Case of the Black Eyed Blonde.”

So the Hero ends one adventure, and immediately sets out on the next one….

The Good Life

Carol and I went up to visit Jack and Abbie — Jack is my dad’s cousin. Abbie gave us a little tour of that stretch of coastal Maine. Carol said she had seen a sign pointing to the “Good Life Center,” and asked if we could go there. Abbie said that was only a few miles from their house, and we drove over there.

We drove down the well-maintained but narrow gravel road until we saw a big mailbox that said “Nearing” on it. Back in 1954, Helen and Scott Nearing published a book called Living the Good Life: How To Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, a book which some credit with being a major impetus for the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Nearings had first homesteaded in Vermont, but later in life they had moved to Maine. The “Good Life Center” now occupies what was once their house.

We pulled into the driveway. Carol asked a hirsute young man if we could look around, and he said of course. He even gave us a plastic-laminated sheet of paper with a short walking tour, and then peddled off on his bicycle.

We admired the house the Nearings had built from stone, in a sort of Swiss-chalet style. We looked at the garden, enclosed by a wall built of stone and mortar. The vegetables looked healthy but not spectacular. The small greenhouse, also made of stone, was pleasant to walk through. We looked at the stone outhouse (according to the laminated plastic card, it was the very first structure built on the land).

At the back of the clearing in the woods, we found a round yurt-like structure built entirely of wood, with round porthole-windows, and a strange round cupola. It sort of looked like a flying saucer from a 1950’s science fiction film. The laminated plastic card noted that this structure, called “The Gathering Place,” had been built by someone else after Scott Nearing had died. Inside, it was pleasantly cool, and all the unfinished wood was soothing. We sat and talked about this and that for quite a while.

At last we left. We had spent a pleasant half hour there, but the place didn’t carry the magic of the Nearings’s books. The house was just another house, the garden just another garden. Only “The Gathering Place” had held our attention for very long, and that hadn’t even been a project of the Nearings.


Cambridge, Mass.

Our first summer heat wave of the year settled in late last week. Humid, and hot with temperatures into the nineties yesterday. When heat like this comes, for the first few days my mind just doesn’t function particularly well. I don’t like to go outdoors in the early afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Carol and I tend to stay up late and take long walks at ten o-clock when it feels a little cooler. It’s tempting to stay up all night and try to sleep through the day, but I know I wouldn’t sleep through the heat.

Within a few days, I’ll have made my seasonal adjustment. I’ll be able to think more clearly in the heat — or think less and not worry about it. I’ll get used to walking around in the heat. We’ll sink into our regular schedule. The heat waves will become normal, though we’ll still long for the arctic cold fronts coming down from Canada.