Tag Archives: Maria Harris

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

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…

Remembering Maria Harris

In the past fifty years, which North American has had the most radical ideas on church life? My vote is for Maria Harris, feminist scholar and teacher. She’s best known as a religious education sholar, but I think of her as the expert on practical ecclesiology.

Harris is best known for her radical ideas about what churches really teach, as opposed to what classes they offer. Throw out that old notion that religious education is confined to Sunday school classrooms. Harris told us that we start learning about religion the moment we walk into a church building — or as she put it, the whole church is curriculum.

Think about going to a worship service at a congregation you haven’t visited yet. If someone welcomes you at the door, however shyly and awkwardly, you learn that this congregation welcomes the stranger, those who aren’t yet a part of the community. If people give money freely and gladly during the offertory, you learn that this is a generous people. And so on. It works the other way, too. If you want to teach people about generosity, it’s not enough to teach a stewardship class, which Harris would call “explicit curriculum.” We also teach each other about generosity through our actions, which Harris terms “implicit curriculum.” Andf the implicit and explicit curriculums teach different things, everyone’s just going to get confused.

She also talked about the “null curriculum,” what we teach by its absence — a very useful concept to anyone who’s trying to do anti-racism work in a local congregation.

That’s just the beginning of what this quietly radical scholar said. Over the past ten years, her books have been changing my entire approach to religion. Sadly, I just learned she died in February, 2005, after a long illness. You can read a wonderful tribute to her life and work by her former colleagues at Andover Newton Theological School [update: Feb, 2006, tribute removed from Andover Newton Web site], where she began her teaching career.

If you want to get radicalized, try reading these books of hers:

  • Fashion Me a People: Curriculum and the Church, Presbyterian Publishing, 1989;
  • Jubilee Time: Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age, Bantam, 1996
  • Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice, with Gabriel Moran, Presbyterian Publishing, 1998.

Go on. Read one of her books. Radicalize your congregation. I dare you….