- Miami University
- Indiana Audubon Society



Critical Spirituality

The concept of “critical spirituality” is based on the individual ability to know oneself and act in accordance with what defines the self. I will first examine a historical analysis of critical spirituality’s necessity. Secondly, I will position critical spirituality in today’s educational setting. Lastly, I will conceptualize critical spirituality and its potential for assisting in the generation a progressive educational agenda. By addressing these three aspects of critical spirituality, I will support the establishment of conscious ethical practices, and hence power, in the lives of classroom teachers and their students.

Girl Praying Image

Karl Marx proposed that the basic desire that creates humanness is the desire to produce tangible goods that possess the essence of the creator. Marx noted that this ability to produce meaningful products was being eroded by the capitalization of society. This creates disharmony and dehumanization. Eventually this discord would lead to a revolution of the proletariat according to Marx, as the workers would fight to regain their human dignity and self-worth as capitalists attempted to maximize the exploitation of the workers. The revolution would occur as the workers fought to retain or reclaim their essential spiritual humanness. (Dodd, 1999)

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Max Weber described the western society as being more complex than being guided by Marxian production concerns alone. He expanded the discussion to include power elements of economic, social and political forces as these cultural aspects appeared to compete as guiding forces within society. Weber claimed that these forces in an industrial society would lead to a dispirited humanity as the power of individuality was sacrificed to social pressures. (Dodd, 1999)

These two theorists were active immediately following what is considered the age of “Enlightenment.” (West, 1999) The role that science played in the construction of society was being felt by both Marx and Weber. Science was being viewed as the tool of understanding and technological salvation. As the quantitative aspects of science grew, the impersonality of knowledge did the same. Industrialization required more quantification of production and therefore the quantification of the people who bore the labor of production. The industrial revolution was a time of tremendous technological growth and scientific understanding. It also served as a time of incredible suffering of the human spirit. The wars that were waged, and the growing disparity among the wealthy and poor, gave evidence to the worst aspects of the positivist thought that rose at the expense of the unquantified human spirit.

With the growth of modern media and consumer practices, the manipulation of the human spirit has been aggressively attacked by providing “ideals” of what a person, specifically women, are to become (Barlow et. al. 2005). These manipulations transgress geopolitical borders exacerbating diasporic conditions in the lives of young women locating themselves within their culture and society (Braziel & Mannur, 2003). These pressures further complicate the already complex positions of identity formation within the individual. This balancing of the self with the ideal images presented by global marketing lure youth to further doubt their own values in order to subscribe to an image marketed to them by business and pop culture. Finding value within personal constructs is increasingly challenging as external pressures abound. The intrinsic personal value that I perceive as having a significant relevance to personal development is the value individuals place on their intellectual capacities.

With the growth of science in society, there has been growth in a new product of human production that I believe corresponds with Marx’s concept of human production. This is the product of the human intellect. Many producers today are rewarded with their thought processes as their Marxian products. The essence of their humanness is in their sense of who they are, what they think, and how they articulate this in their daily lives. du Gay (1997) represents the complex interaction of people within society in what he calls the “circuit of culture” which is a tool for investigating cultural studies. The circuit represents the articulation of many different aspects of a culture’s or personal essence, in a web of interdependent elements. (For further discussion see Cultural Studies link.) A person’s identity is their concept of self in relation to the other components of their culture. These elements of educational culture have been bathed in the hegemonic tradition influenced by Taylorism and standardized test scores. These influences strongly effect the formation of personal and cultural identity. Given the rise in quantification in the educational field today, the formation of a person’s identity has been biased with a materialistic scientific approach to management and learning. This materialistic approach has eroded students’ and teachers’ abilities to “produce” using their intellect and as a result has generated a dearth of spirituality.

Dantley (2005) refers to spirituality as the method with which we make meaning for our lives. Spirituality is how we make human connections. It provides us with a sense of ontology and teleology. He states that “the spiritual includes a search for meaning that becomes a primary motivation in our lives. It is when that search for meaning is thwarted or compromised that our lives begin to feel shallow and empty.” (Dantley, 2005, p.504) It is this concept of spirituality that I see connecting with Marx’s notion of production. It is the production of meaning in our lives through the intellectual enterprise that is in addition to, and yet different from the Marxian production of material goods, that generates humanness. A current issue in education is the materialistic positivism that is being applied to stakeholders through standardization thus denying both teachers and students manufacturing of material and intellectual goods. It also is directly involved in the challenges to identify through the diasporic (Braziel & Mannur, 2005) and the marketing of ideals images to youth (Barlow et. al. 2005).

The critical spiritualist is a person who embraces their personal position within their culture and the battle of articulation that ensues as they grapple with the placement of themselves in their world. They are constantly “coming to grips with their own identity and juxtaposing it against the identity of the learning community” (Dantley p. 503) This juxtaposition is reminiscent of Freire’s dialogue where Freire advocates the teacher can only teach when they are simultaneously learning as a student and being able to embrace the changes that may occur within themselves. This process is what Dantley calls the critical self reflection. It is where the individual is continually positions themselves in their personal and cultural space in order to regulate these frequently conflicting arenas. Youth of today require assistance in this effort in order to challenge the counter-representations they encounter.

Additionally, locating oneself between two moral positions can place a person in a state of precariousness and/or moral ambiguity. Upon critical self reflection, a person may find that they are participating in a system of oppression that they are unwilling to maintain either as oppressors or as the oppressed. Assuming that critical self reflection is engaged, the process will generate an awareness of this personal imbalance in life. This will then require Dantley’s (2005) “deconstructive interpretation” to come to grips with the structuring of the concept being articulated. Again, Dantley’s Freirian approach is one that benefits from intra- and interpersonal dialogue. Both social and intrapersonal discourses are necessary to engage personal beliefs that may be difficult to otherwise deconstruct in juxtaposition to society and cultural norms. This dialogue may result in conflict with personal and social identities. An example of this discourse as praxis is when Dantley quotes Giroux in overcoming hegemony. Giroux asks, “how we can make schooling meaningful in order to make it critical and how we can make it critical in order to make it emanicipatory.” (Giroux in Dantley, 2005, p. 510) It is the process of addressing this personal positioning that the morally ambiguous dilemma may arise.

In the process of deconstruction, people may be confronted with the fact that they are in conflict with the status quo and the method of correction is not clear. In the analysis of moral ambiguity, Welsh seems to propose that most people (the German population in the grips of Nazism were his example) appear to let their moral guide be the current of society or their submission to a feeling of personal moral ambiguity. This moral ambiguity is generated by a feeling of folly and/or a belief that their actions would be ineffective or at a great personal cost. A danger lies in this tenuous position providing a “self-justifying” rationale that allows the oppressive system to continue unabated.

While Welsh utilizes the dramatic example of the spread of Nazism in the 1930’s, more subtle examples are present today when current society is analyzed through a feminist and cultural studies lenses. Brown (2003) describes how young girls turn to “horizontal violence” due to their inability to identify the oppressive culprits. Some additional explanation behind this disability is provided by Barbazon (2005) when she explains that young women are denied opportunity to perform this analytical operation. She writes,

The main question to ask is with regard to consciousness: how does such popular culture provide knowledge about the self? Music, film and television do not offer moments of resistance: they frequently reinforce disempowerment or discouragement.” (p. 23)

Coming to a point of understanding the conflicts between self and culture/society, is a prerequisite for utilizing performative creativity. What are the alternative courses of action to be taken when confronted with the moral dilemma? Dantley states that this is when “the development of pedagogical practices…move from maintaining the status quo to envisioning a more democratic culture…” (Dantley 2005, p. 512-513) This challenges the morally ambiguous person to rise to action. Welch encourages this planning to act by recognizing that people must “accept ambiguity” as part of the human condition. (Welch, 1999 p. 123) Welch also attacks the religious and positivist notion of knowing that the choices made are the right ones. Welch cites Flax saying that, “We need to learn ways of making claims about and acting upon injustice without transcendental guarantees or illusion of innocence.” (Welch, p. 124) This manner of thought challenges people to act as adults and accept responsibility for their action or inaction. The notion of cultural relativity is not seen as an option for inaction.

The discussion of the magnitude of ambiguity increases when the plethora of the constructed obstacles placed before youth is studied. Sacrificing the self in order to comply with real or perceived norms, is commonly encouraged in the construction of personal and group identity (Barlow et. al. 2005; Bordo, 1997; Brown, 2003; Gaten, 1997; hooks, 1997; Yon, 2000). Once oppressive practices are identified, consciously engaging their intentions provides an educational opportunity that is rarely addressed in No Child Left Behind mandated standards. This interrogation is to be discussed in the next level of Dantley’s analysis of spirituality.

The final analytic stage of Dantley’s critical spirituality is the process of transformative action (Dantley, 2005). What is done to “radically” restructure education in the process of overcoming hegemonic discourses that oppress? Whatever the action that is taken, even if it is inaction, Welch stresses that the repositioning process is never ending. She states,

“we become ready to clean up after ourselves, to reevaluate actions, all with the style of humor and openness to failure. The key here is not being paralyzed by either moral failure or by political actions that are ineffective. We can accept that we can only do our best, with a style of not expecting perfection or saintliness from ourselves and others. It is easier to act in ambiguous situation, not being defeated or paralyzed by the mere fact of ambiguity.” (Welch , p.123)

The process of being critically spiritual is a mechanism with which to address the moral ambiguity that manifest itself in generous forms. All people confront this ambiguity in their lives. It is my contention that educational practices utilizing inquiry affirms the individual. Inquiry instruction encourages the participants to trust in their observations and the subsequent analyses. Students are encouraged to have the confidence to present their interpretations in a forum that may challenge hegemonic platforms and validate their personal conclusions. This skill of being able to trust oneself enough to enter into discourses is essential for a progressive and democratic citizenry and is therefore integral to a nation’s educational agenda. Grounded in the theoretical observations and claims of social and cultural theorists such as Marx, Weber and du Gay, critical spirituality allows us to prepare ourselves and future generations in the struggle for emancipation. Critical self reflection allows us to ground ourselves in our personal and social space. Deconstruction provides an essential tool for attempting to grasp the implications of that positioning. The creative design of successive action plans and the manifestations of those plans by teachers and educational leaders, are not to be seen as a game plan for attaining the promised land…just the praxis of taking hope and applying it with the intention engaging a pedagogy of freedom by reinserting ethical practices and power into the classroom and the lives of children.