"Wandering Through Life"—Introducing Philosophical Practice with Children and Adolescents in the Church of Norway

Project presentation by ōyvind Olsholt, Co-Director of Children and Youth Philosophers, Norway

Published in:

Eva Marsal, Takara Dobashi, Barbara Weber (eds.):
Children Philosophize Worldwide—Theoretical and Practical Concepts
Band 9 in Hodos—Wege bildungsbezogener Ethikforschung in Philosophie und Theologie,
published by Institut fŁr Philosophie und Theologie der Pšdagogischen Hochschule Karlsruhe
Peter Lang Verlag
Frankfurt am Main 2009
ISSN 1619-666X
ISBN 978-3-631-59329-5

p. 633-644


In 2006 Children and Youth Philosophers commenced a project in the Church of Norway named "Wandering through life". Besides Children and Youth Philosophers the project involves three church organisations: Youth Chorister's Association, The Pilgrim Priests and Liturgical Centre. Together we search for parallels as well as incongruities between philosophical and religious practice—in particular we want to look into the relationship between pilgrimage and philosophical dialogue. Also an important aim of the project is to educate and train church youth leaders enabling them to lead philosophical dialogues with children and youth in the Church of Norway. The project runs through 2008.


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5 Religious and secular humanism: different takes on (the same?) philosophical practice

Finally I would like to make a comment on the relationship between the religious and the secular stance on philosophy and philosophical practice. In Norway there is an organisation called Norwegian Humanist Association. This organisation is "for people who base their ethics on human, not religious values." Their members understand themselves as agnostics or atheists. They define humanism as "a life stance in which the understanding of reality and ethics is based on reason and experience, rational and critical thinking, feelings and human compassion." Moreover they assert that: "Humanism is devoid of religious conceptions. In humanism, the independent and responsible human being is placed in the centre." (All quotes from www.human.no) No wonder that this organisation has shown considerable interest in philosophical practice for years, regarding this practice a most pertinent alternative, indeed, a successor, to religion and religious faith—both of which they consider antiquated and irrelevant in today's secular and scientifically-oriented world.

What is perhaps more surprising (i.e. what is more in need of an explanation), is the immediate enthusiasm with which the church has embraced the very same philosophical practice. Granted, the church is an ancient institution with long-standing traditions for philosophical reflection. In Medieval times the Christian scholastics attempted to solve problems in relation to faith and reason and to create a rational foundation for a faith that was already well established, psychologically and culturally. But if it is true that philosophical practice today is an ideal tool for the dismantling of religion and religious faith, how come that the same practice—in a religious setting—is conceived of as a method to strengthen and anchor the Christian faith? Are we really talking about the same practice? How can fervent anti-religious humanists and devoted Christians wholeheartedly embrace one and the same philosophical practice?

To approach an answer, letís have a quick look at how the humanists argue when they wish to promote philosophy for children. One of the officials of the Norwegian Humanist Association published the following commentary in the associationís journal Free thought (no. 1, 2005):

One of the reasons why humanists ought to welcome [...] philosophy for children is that this practice embodies the very essence of humanist ideals in relation to the upbringing of children. The philosophical refinement of children's wonderment is completely different from the religious principles of child rearing which are all about adaptation and moulding. Whereas religion wants the child to absorb the culture's (i.e. the adult's) understanding of reality, philosophy gives the children a chance to create new conceptions of reality. This is something that the world needs.

According to this author the building blocks of philosophical enquiry with children—reflection, openness, wonderment, curiosity, self-creation etc.—are incompatible with the building blocks of Christian child rearing which is still based on old-fashioned didactics or downright indoctrination. But even if this were true, one should ask the following question before starting to draw conclusions: is it really impossible for a person who believes in God to convey to the child some understanding of her belief and at the same time stimulate openness, reflection and wonderment? If so, what makes it impossible? Could the truths of faith be transferred to the child whilst engaging in philosophical dialogue with the child, or must one do one thing at a time? (We see a similar conflict in modern schools where pedagogues are instructed to teach curriculum content to pupils and at the same time to encourage them to become reflective, creative, questioning, open-minded, prejudice-free etc.)

Besides, perhaps the church of today is less preoccupied with the old-fashioned "adaptation" and "moulding" practice than the humanists seem to believe? The following passage, taken from the pilgrim and philosophy project application (written by a leader in Youth Chorister's Association), seems indirectly to point in this direction:

Adolescents (12+) drop out of many (church) organisations. Especially boys tend to leave church activities. It is very difficult to get them back again once they have started to lose interest. Thus, we must offer more gathering points while they are still active in the choirs [...] But this is not enough. In addition we must offer different kinds of activities [...] that are found appealing over a longer period of time. [...] Many congregations have tried pilgrimage as a new type of activity. But no one has yet tried to merge pilgrimage with philosophically structured dialogue and wonderment.

Note that both authors refer to "wonderment." The ability to wonder, so often seen in small children—the open and mystic gaze into the universe or into the soul—is a human quality praised by humanists and Christians alike. According to the humanists, however, there is nothing religious in this "wonderment." It is "pure," cleansed of all religious intent and content. But is it not possible to construe the child-like wonderment as a preamble to the more mature yearning for transcendence, the yearning for a connection to "the other side," "the inner self" or "the force within"—a yearning common among spiritually oriented adults of our time (or, indeed, of any time)? If it is, is not then wonderment just as religious in its nature as faith?

Moreover, the main concern in the latter text is not how to mould children into preconfigured shapes. The main concern is how to make the boys stay in the church. One could of course argue that the reason why the boys leave in the first place is exactly the church's inclination to mould them into religious forms. But I do not think this is the reason, or at least not the whole reason. In modern church societies you are accepted whether you consider yourself a believer or not. No one forces you to believe anything. You may be an agnostic or even an atheist—and proclaim it—still you would not be denied access to the church. As an example, I would like to remind the reader that the author of these lines—a proclaimed non-believer/agnostic—has been received with open arms in this very project—a project, on top of everything, where the author is the "moulder" rather than the "moulded!" Anyway, how can one tell whether a person is a "real" believer or not?

In my view, a more likely reason for the drop-out is the church's ideological, aesthetic, moral and social alterity with the rest of society. The church actually believes in the incarnation and reincarnation of a God who lives in Heaven, congregates in medieval-looking buildings singing angelic hymns, suggesting a pious and virtuous way of life and interacting with each other in an air of humorous (never ironic) solemnity. Such an orientation deviate radically from the traits of modern society which can be described as ideologically dissolved, aesthetically fragmented, morally individualised and socially alienated. At a certain point in life the discrepancy between these two cultures simply becomes unbearable for young people who seek wholeness and identity; they can no longer exist in both worlds. So there has to be a sacrifice, and as it happens modernity usually draws the longest straw. Which should come as no surprise. After all, it is outside of church that they spend most of their lives: going to school, being with friends, partaking in leisure activities etc.—modernity is the normality. From an adolescent's point of view the church is simply not "cool" enough; it is too lenient, too good-hearted, too edifying, too holy, too feminine perhaps; it is too "warm"... Or so it may appear to a male teenager. Boys still look for challenges and dangers in an attempt to reach for an ancient ideal of manhood still widely accepted and promoted in our "advanced" culture. In comparison, there is very little danger to be found in the church, ultimately "only" a safe haven for the soul.

In order to bridge the gap between the two cultures the church looks to philosophy—a discipline nearly as old as religion itself. And in so doing, it discovers that philosophical practice is not just a modern and trendy supplement to the old adaptation-and-moulding practice, but represents a new approach to the whole religious educational ideology. The new and radical item that philosophy brings on-board is a series of 180 degree changes of directions: it shifts the focus from learning to unlearning, from adult teaches child to child teaches adult, from eternal possession of truth to never-ending quest for truth, from learning by gradual adaptation to circumstance to learning by instant adoption (i.e. understanding, recognition) of circumstance, from herd mentality to individualism, from the security of knowledge to the perils of doubt and deliberation. The question is: how can such a revolutionary practice further the church's core belief: the faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, the belief in "the way, the truth and the life?"

One possible answer is of course that a new practice attracts attention—like a new toy catches the immediate interest of a child weary of its old toys. A more sophisticated answer would be: by letting the children reflect upon their faith, by letting go of predefined answers in matters theological, by trusting and supporting the child in its search for an understanding of its identity, its culture and world-view (remember the goal of the aforementioned educational reform: to "stimulate the development of one's own identity and understanding of one's own culture and traditions [...]"), the church demonstrates that it is willing to listen. And one who is willing to listen, will be listened to in return.

A third possible answer—as mentioned above—could be that the church now sees philosophy as a genuinely new way to approach the realm of faith. Faith is no longer a state or condition to be reached once and for all, not a platform from which one enjoys a clear and unambiguous outlook on self and others "from eternity to eternity," but rather something that is subject to constant change and evolution so that the process of enquiring thinking becomes a necessary ingredient in the equally constant pursuit of "the way, the truth and the life." Faith is thereby not abandoned, but reinterpreted in order to open up to the multifarious ways of acquiring and maintaining faith making the function of faith in Christian practice approximate the function of truth in philosophical practice. In this case faith would become a regulating ideal of the life and practice of the Christian rather than a fixed idea.

I am not sure if this is the church's answer to the question, but if it is, one consequence would be that the humanist's criticism of the church becomes irrelevant. There is no more "adaptation and moulding" going on in the church, only faith-seeking practices and procedures very similar to the "philosophical refinement of children's wonderment" that the humanists themselves so emphatically endorse. The main difference between the two would be that the religious practice seeks faith whereas the humanist practice seeks truth—both, however, accepting the infiniteness of the task.

But, there is an important modification to be made here. Obviously, a Christian seeks not faith alone, but truth as well. After all, Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life." Seeking faith (in Jesus) is therefore equivalent to seeking truth (since Jesus is the truth). Then it follows that if you have faith in Jesus, if you have Jesus by your side, then you also have truth by your side. If faith is achievable—which it is, for a Christian—so is truth. Now, if this is the case one could ask what becomes of faith as a regulating ideal. Are we not then back to square one, back to the common secular accusation that the church is not really letting philosophy take over the epistemological, metaphysical and pedagogical reigns?

This accusation, however, could easily be turned against the seculars themselves. Observe how easy it is today to support the idea of truth as an open, tolerant, all-inclusive, never-ending human quest. In contemporary secular culture it is common knowledge that there exist no more universal truths, that openness and tolerance are required in an increasingly multicultural society, that human life in all its aspects is an ever-continuing process etc. Indeed, such truths are intrinsic to the modern way of life. So, should anyone raise a critical voice against this cultural predominance she is quickly and effectively labelled a heretic, an enemy of the good society. Hence, for the humanists, there is absolutely no political risk involved in promoting a philosophical practice that is based on these democratic values. It is just stating the obvious.

But imagine what would happen if a philosophical community—based on the same values—should suddenly start to oppose the tenets that are quintessential to humanists: i.e. if the community should start producing better arguments for the existence rather than for the non-existence of God, better arguments for religious faith than for human ethics, for the divine and immortal soul than for "the independent and responsible human being?" Such an outcome is conceivable, given the open-ended and truth-seeking characteristics of the dialogue. In such a case, would not the humanists respond, rather like the church, that in the end of the day there are truths that are more important—i.e. of higher value—than whatever the philosophical investigations into these truths may reveal? Would they not have to say that philosophical enquiry is all very well as long as it does not contradict their most basic beliefs? If so, it seems the humanists would be no less "believers" than the Christians. Only they believe in different things: humanists believe in an immanent, non-revelational reality, the Christians believe in the revelation of a transcendent God.

We have here a variant of the "liberal dilemma:" if you want children to become free, open and democratic in spirit and behaviour you also have to accept criticism and statements that may contradict and defy these very values. The same applies to religious contexts: if you really want children to explore their own path towards faith and truth you have to bear with the fact that not everybody will end up as believers of the Christian faith. I interpret this liberal dilemma as an indication that one does not control the outcome of a philosophical investigation. Moreover, one is not supposed to attain such control. Philosophy is not a handy-tool with which one can achieve extra-philosophical ends and purposes—secular, religious or otherwise. Philosophy lives it own life. There is always a risk with philosophy. Or to put it more bluntly, as Allan Bloom contends in his book The Closing of the American Mind: "reason accepts no authority above itself and is necessarily subversive."

Page created: 10.12.07. Page last modified: 13.08.09 01:27.