Exploring the Vertical Dimension: Creating a Wisdom Path for 21st Century Students

lilmisxedhunny riplles Several years ago one of my art students, Sam, felt stuck in her creativity, and as evidence of her malaise, she showed me recent pieces that were awkward, angular, and angry. Two weeks later after doing a regular meditation practice, she began quite unconsciously to produce works like the one above. This is a tangible example of what a Wisdom path for 21st century students might produce. 

Introduction

As a religion teacher committed to the transformation of students, the key question for Spiritual Explorations (SPEX) teachers always involves the outcomes we observe: has our teaching enabled students to become better versions of themselves? Have they changed personally? Is some form of self-transcendence apparent? This, SPEX teachers believe, is the sine qua non of a spiritual curriculum.

And when transformation occurs, can we explain what are the essential ingredients that fostered such growth? We asked students at the end of our grade 9 SPEX class this year to respond to a survey regarding their end-of-year worldview conclusions about spiritual reality. This entry addresses these questions using data from our grade 9 Spiritual Explorations (SPEX) to better understand student engagement in spirituality.

Student Beliefs about the Vertical Dimension

One of the key course concepts in SPEX 9 is the contrast between what we call the horizonal and vertical dimensions of reality. The horizontal refers to the visible, life-in-time aspect of our experience, while the vertical specifies the “spiritual” domain. (To see the activity we use in class to help students determine their beliefs regarding the vertical dimension, see this footnote [1])

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-8-32-29-pm

Determining students’ viewpoints on this horizontal-vertical mapping is in its essence responding to three fundamental questions:

  1. Does some intrinsic purpose in the universe exist or is reality essentially random?

  2. Borrowing from Einstein, is the Universe (e.g., God) “on our side” or is It indifferent to our existence?

  3. What happens after we die? Do we return to the ground or is there some spiritual reality that enables us to live on after death?

Albert Einstein Quote: “The most important decision we make is ...

The following figure displays our student responses to their beliefs with regard to the horizontal-vertical dimensions in the last weeks of the course. (The definitions of the key terms are explicated below.)

Screenshot 2020-06-16 at 12.18.23 AM

The most germane point regarding the data is that this question of an existence of a vertical dimension is highly debatable. Removing the students who were unsure of their opinion (7.1%), the following observations can be made:

  1. 51% of students are committed or agnostic horizontalists. This group assumes that there probably isn’t any grand purpose to the universe, no higher power is guiding the universe towards some positive end, and no life after death exists.
  2. 49% of students consider themselves to be traditional verticals (accepting of the traditional religious worldview), fading verticals (they used to believe in traditional religion, but are now beset by doubts), or progressive verticals (those who believe in the vertical dimension in ways that go beyond most traditional teachings). This means that, despite doubts among some, about half of all students believe there is an Invisible Reality that governs or influences the universe and its inhabitants.

My spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault asserts that this is the foundational question of life: does a spiritual domain or energy exist? Personally, I can certainly say that this “big question” emerged in my consciousness when I was very young – around five-years old – and remained a pressing concern until my mid-40’s. It was at that time that I met Cynthia and began a regular practice of Centering Prayer, which helped me “live into” a new belief that affirmed spiritual responses to these three cosmological questions.

We as SPEX teachers believe that Spiritual Explorations class should allow students to genuinely and non-coercively encounter many perspectives on this question, encouraging them both cognitively and experientially to explore this huge philosophical issue for themselves.

CuriosityStream - Why Are We Here?

View of Traditional Religion

The survey also suggests what engages – and fails to engage – students’ spiritual curiosity:

  1. Only 10% of students find the answers provided by traditional religions to be supportive of their spiritual growth, while 16% are “losing” their trust in these teachings.
  2. Encouragingly, 19% of students have jumped from a traditional worldview to what we call a “progressive” perspective.

These results make the case that employing traditional beliefs and approaches offers little to 90% of students. If we insist on repeating the ways of the past, religion and spirituality will increasingly become irrelevant to students. New and engaging approaches are needed.

What Engages Students

The impressive statistic of 19% of students who self-identify as “progressive verticals” suggests a way forward. So what do these students find engaging? Here is the list of statements from our diagnostic survey that describes the progressive vertical worldview:

  1. Jesus may be the “way” for some people, but I don’t think he’s the only way. I think Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists can also go to heaven or be accepted by God.
  2. Whether Jesus was really born of a virgin or whether he really walked on water doesn’t matter to me as much as the meaning of the stories.
  3. I’ve become more interested in religion. There’s so much mystery that science can’t explain, and religion gives me a chance to explore that mystery. 
  4. I think NDEs (near-death experiences) are authentic experiences.  Could so many people all be crazy or seeking fame or trying to get on Oprah? Don’t think so.
  5. I do believe that there is life after death, and some people even experience the vertical dimension in the here and now. Eternity begins now, not only when you die. 
  6. I think of myself as spiritual, but different than traditional religious people. God in my view is more like Star Wars: “Luke, use the force.” God is not a man up in the sky, but a force in the universe.  
  7. God isn’t up there, and certainly isn’t male or female! God is everywhere, and my morality is inspired by the idea that God is in everyone and everything. 
  8. So many world religions show that every culture has a spiritual side. I think it’s natural for every culture and every person to search for the infinite. 

These statements provide important clues to what 21st century students are looking for in an engaging spiritual worldview:

  1. Interspiritual (Question #1): Certainly World-Religions-Symbols-300x292 - Shoreline Unitarian Universalist ...students in an international setting like Hong Kong see the benefits of cultural interaction and fusion as a matter of course, so it’s not surprising that they want to see the essential similarities between religions emphasized rather than their more surface-level differences. Privileging one faith system above others is highly suspect to progressive vertical students. The attractiveness of spirituality for these students, I presume, is that they see that every pre-modern culture includes elevating and energizing religious beliefs matched by spiritual practices. We find that many, if not most, students want to find a robust inner life that anchors and guides them in the midst of their stress-inducing academic workload (Question #8).
  2. Meaning-filled Symbolism (Question #2): Kintsukuroi, or “To Repair With Gold” – Scribblines
    Rather than the literalism that is often a mark of conservative religious institutions (e.g., since Jesus had no females among the original 12 apostles, we cannot have female pastors/priests), progressive vertical students want depth regardless of whether the factual veracity of events can be verified or not. Literalism is too simple and mind-based; these students recognize the multi-layered nature of reality and want a spiritual life that responds to such complexity with a spacious, creative, and vitalizing heart.
  3. Mystery (Question #3): Again, rather than providing literal, mind-centric “proof” of religious truths, progressive vertical students would rather experience awe and beauty, and want religion to take them to these “heart spaces.” Whether it’s Image result for burning bushMoses at the burning bush, the Buddha’s struggle with Mara under the Bodhi tree, Paul’s Damascus Road experience, or Mohammed’s visions of Gabriel, scriptures from around the world are filled with overwhelming accounts of followers meeting that which is Other. In this respect, many students find well-documented cases of Near-Death Experiences to be quite provocative in opening them to the possibility of a vertical dimension (Question #4).
  4. Divine Immanence and Transcendence (Question #5, #6, #7): Progressive vertical students find the “Old Man in the sky” image that one will only meet in death to be quite unengaging and unverifiable. By contrast, they are attracted to spiritual experiences in the here and now, which then may well extend into some form of an afterlife. When students regularly hear about the miraculous nature of reality from quantum physics research or periodic reports of new findings involving black holes, galaxies and even multiverses, the traditional view of heaven seems dated and sedentary. If science is discovering a dynamic, evolutionary universe, then the spiritual dimension should be all the more mind-bending, awe-inspiring, and humility-inducing.

Thus, we can say that a spirit-filled religion class today should be marked by the following characteristics: mystery, creativity, meaning, awe, beauty, and depth from an interspiritual perspective. Put into more traditional theological language, we as religious educators need to unveil how divine immanence and divine transcendence are experienced, not only in the past, but how such moments, even in their most nascent form, can be cultivated in daily life. This is why we include a spiritual practice in nearly every class period. Perhaps not surprisingly, our two-week spiritual practice project that we do at all four levels of our SPEX program is the most highly valued assignment every year.

Screenshot 2020-06-16 at 12.29.51 AMThe Wisdom path revels in symbolism. One of the universal symbols of East and West is the bridal canopy (yellow at top of picture), which regally frames the abbot’s seat at Tango University above Thimphu, Bhutan. The canopy suggests that the divine interrelationship of love and connectedness that flows among sangha followers along the spiritual path.

The Wisdom Path

As we move towards our conclusion, allow mAmazon.com: The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential ...e a relevant aside that continues to resonate with me. Several years ago a colleague and I were sauntering towards the school bus in deep discussion. As we talked, I shared that I had just perused a book by Catholic monk Bruno Barnhardt who asserts early on in The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity that Christianity is in dire need of a wisdom path. Drawing from the Hindu tradition, Barnhardt writes that Christianity in the last 100 years has had a rebirth in three of the four traditional spiritual paths:

  • The Path of Devotion (bhakti yoga) – Pentecostal Movement
  • The Path of Service (karma yoga) – Liberation Theology
  • The Path  of Contemplation (raja yoga) – Centering Prayer.

Even in that moment, I remember a sense of calling: Christianity has had distinctive movements in the devotional, social justice, and contemplative arenas over the past century. However, the fourth path, the wisdom path (jnana yoga), has not manifested itself as a full-fledged movement. Barnhardt’s work is a call for such an initiative.

I believe that SPEX is a pioneering effort in bringing the path of wisdom to contemporary secular-minded and success-oriented students. The essential elements of such a path are now apparent: we need interspiritual approaches that combine inspiring and even soaring ideals that are matched by an array of spiritual practices that students choose for the purpose of self-cultivation. This path needs to be psychospiritual, which means that it aims to benefit students’ mental health, while asking them to keep in mind the three major cosmological questions concerning the vertical dimension outlined above.

Conclusion

The winds of modernity and scientific materialism have battered traditional religion for several centuries now. We as SPEX teachers are well aware how religiosity is on the decline generation by generation in our classes. Yet what this entry demonstrates is that despite this erosion of traditional beliefs, the question of whether a “spiritual world” exists remains highly debatable. Rather than trying to imitate the epistemological instincts of modern science by “proving” that religion is rational — a case that can be employed using insights from, say, positive psychology — SPEX has found that what is more attractive to progressive vertical students are the particular strengths demonstrated by spiritual geniuses from across the cultural spectrum down through the centuries. Spirituality should be an experiential immersion into depth, beauty, and meaning in pursuit of a life well-lived. Endless examples exist in all the world’s cultural traditions to substantiate such claims. Let us dive deep into our interspiritual heritage to find these gems – and begin to offer the wisdom path as a viable conduit of spiritual growth for 21st century students.

IMG_20170626_065937563

I spent a week on Holy Isle, Scotland in June, 2017 on retreat with Cynthia.

[1] Early on in SPEX 9 we ask students to answer the 40 questions below in small groups to help them uncover their worldview assumptions about the nature of reality. The discussions are rich, and we consider this to be one of the most effective and important lessons in the SPEX 9 course.

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 3.27.39 PM

My Worldview: Do I believe in a Vertical Dimension?

Directions: Before the break, we began discussing the difference between a horizontal view of our experience of the world (material, finite, measurable, competitive, dualistic…) and a vertical view (metaphysical, infinite, timeless, non-dualistic, paradoxical…). Where might you be in the spectrum of a horizontal and/or vertical view of the world?

Read over the statements in each of the categories below. Decide which statements you agree with (whether strongly or somewhat) and which statements you disagree with. If you are viewing an electronic version of this, make note of how many statements in each category you agree with. If you’ve made a printout, you might consider highlighting or circling the statements you agree with and putting an “X” next to the ones you disagree with. In any case, keep track of your totals for each category.

Committed Horizontal

  1. I only believe in what I experience with my five senses; I don’t believe that any kind of invisible world exists.
  2. Nobody in my family is very religious, so for me to become religious would seem rather odd. It’s just not what our family takes an interest in.
  3. As people modernize, they became less religious. Eventually, I think religion will fade away.
  4. When I die, I’ll just decompose like everything else. Game over.
  5. God up in sky? Obviously, that’s a very unscientific idea. Australians are pointing one way and Chinese the other!
  6. To be a good person today does not require being religious. I think religious people cause as much harm, and maybe more, than non-religious people.
  7. People who say they have had an NDE (near-death experience) had hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen. Science can explain these things.
  8. I have no problem with all the different religions. I respect them, even if I don’t think they have a true picture of reality.

Agnostic Horizontal

  1. While I generally trust in only my five senses, there may be an invisible world. No one can say for sure.
  2. It’s not that our family doesn’t care at all about religion; it just seems that it’s far down our list of priorities. We focus on the practical.
  3. Religion seems to be what you’re born with. I didn’t have much religion growing up and we seem to get along fine without it.
  4. Who knows what will happen when I die? I guess I’ll find out when I get there.
  5. God seems to have left us alone. I like the God as Watchmaker concept – wound up the world like a clock and let it go.
  6. Religion is mostly about teaching good values. In the past, religion was the best way to teach these values, but now as modern people, we can be good without God.
  7. I’m not sure what to make of NDEs (near-death experiences), but I don’t know anyone who has ever experienced anything like that, so it’s hard to believe.
  8. While I’m not religious, it does make me wonder that every traditional culture had religion until modern times. Are we missing something? Maybe . . .

Traditional Vertical

  1. My family believes that the Bible/other religious texts are true and I haven’t really had any reason to question this belief up until this point.
  2. Religion is part of my family heritage; it would be odd for me to object to my family’s beliefs. Besides, it helps keep us together as a family.
  3. Being religious is part of my family and my culture, and if it were removed, we would lose something pretty fundamental to who we are.
  4. I believe that there is another world, like a heaven or maybe reincarnation. I’m not so sure about hell, but I definitely think we live on.
  5. When I pray, I think of God in heaven. I don’t know if he’s really up or not, but he’s above and beyond the here and now.
  6. God stands for what is good and right in the world. Of course, people are more moral when they believe in God rather than when they don’t.
  7. People had all kinds of experiences with God in the Bible, so while NDEs (near-death experiences) sound a bit ‘out there,’ I’m certainly open to learn more.
  8. I wouldn’t say this out loud very often, but while I respect other religions, deep down (sh!!) I really do think my religion is truer than other faiths.

Fading Vertical

  1. I used to believe in a religion when I was a kid, but now as I’ve grown up science just raises too many questions for me to believe in religion.
  2. We used to go to religious services when I was young and it seems part of our family values, but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve just gotten too busy.
  3. My grandparents were quite religious and my parents lost some of that. Since attending HKIS, I’ve become even less religious.
  4. When I was young I was concerned about life after death, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost my fear and questioning. What comes will just come.
  5. I prayed as a kid, but I just never felt anything happened, so I eventually stopped believing there was anything up there.
  6. I used to be “good” because I was afraid as a kid what God would do. But obeying out of fear isn’t a good motivator. God is playing less of a role in my moral values.
  7. NDEs (near-death experiences) are hard to prove scientifically, so I think they only speak to people who have had them or believe in that kind of thing.
  8. I used to believe in the religion I was raised with, but when I got exposed to how many different faiths there are, it made me doubt that any of them are true.

Progressive Vertical

  1. Jesus may be the “way” for some people, but I don’t think he’s the only way. I think Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists can also go to heaven or be accepted by God.
  2. Whether Jesus was really born of a virgin or whether he really walked on water doesn’t matter to me as much as the meaning of the stories.
  3. I’ve become more interested in religion. There’s so much mystery that science can’t explain, and religion gives me a chance to explore that mystery.
  4. I do believe that there is life after death, and some people even experience the vertical dimension in the here and now. Eternity begins now, not only when you die.
  5. I think NDEs (near-death experiences) are authentic experiences.  Could so many people all be crazy or seeking fame or trying to get on Oprah? Don’t think so.
  6. I think of myself as spiritual, but different than traditional religious people. God in my view is more like Star Wars: “Luke, use the force.” God is not a man up in the sky, but a force in the universe.
  7. God isn’t up there, and certainly isn’t male or female! God is everywhere, and my morality is inspired by the idea that God is in everyone and everything.
  8. So many world religions show that every culture has a spiritual side. I think it’s natural for every culture and every person to search for the infinite.

Chi.Lin.Nunnery0

Screenshot 2020-06-16 at 12.10.17 AM

In May, 2012 I traveled to Assisi, Italy to participate in my first spiritual retreat with Cynthia, contemplating what it means to be an “instrument of Thy peace.”

 

 

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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1 Response to Exploring the Vertical Dimension: Creating a Wisdom Path for 21st Century Students

  1. Pingback: Considering a Living Universe: Teaching about the Biggest Cosmic Questions | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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