Is it time for religious education to recognise religion is a bit quantum? An irreverent bit of Friday morning writing

These days, if you are a secondary RE teacher doing GCSE, your language of learning will be filled with notions like ‘logical chains of reason” and a lot of stuff about what good evaluation looks like. This is a product of nudges from specifications and exam boards that contain this kind of language in relation to scoring higher marks in the long answer questions, which have become more important, attracting higher point scores and therefore key to high grade success.

However, logical chains of reasoning is a phrase that seems quite, well reasonable at first glance but starts to come unstuck when you put it under a microscope and apply it to bits of religion which are, well a touch unreasonable. I’m not making a critical judgement when I say unreasonable so I had better explain.

I am trying to recognise that there is something about religion which is a bit like physics. At one end of physics, we have this Newtonian stuff which seems all quite reasonable. It helps us explain things we encounter, like dropping a brick on our toe, or seeing two balls hitting each other and bouncing back. Physics is really useful. Why do some orders stay in enclosed places whilst others go out on the road? What do Catholics do when they go to Mass? Can you name that religion by the garb of its devotees?

But at the other end of physics there is Quantum. Quantum is exploring stuff which we can’t quite deal with in Newtonium terms. In Physics Quantum talks about things appearing simultaneously in two places at the same today and recently I have head about trials involving Quantum computers. So Quantum is not fanciful make-believe. But connecting Quantum to that Newtonium stuff is really hard.

I want to suggest the language around ‘logical chains of reasoning’ is a bit Newtonian (a bit like it). I think there is a case for that sort of language to try to unpick different approaches to moral questions, for example, or different approaches to styles of liturgy/worship. It It might do well at some things but struggles elsewhere.

I think RE has some quantum elements which really don’t get well served by this language. This operates at the end that deals with more mysterious stuff than the number of pillars, Ks, Beatitudes or Commandments. We could call this Quantum end ‘theoretical’ but like Quantum, it does make imprints on the world.  Incarnation, Trinity, Karma, etc are all examples of things from the Quantum end of religion. This is the stuff that engages with paradoxes and mystery. Just as Physicists have concluded that at present most of the stuff in the universe is something they can’t yet understand, see, be sure about – Dark Energy (We know less about dark energy than dark matter BTW), this mysterious stuff is significant.

(I hear that referee flag going up right away from our friends in the “theology allergy” corner. That’s ok folks it’s nice to know you’ve read this far in my blog and I just appreciate you being here. I’m afraid you guys are really not going to be happy with all this so sharpen your pitch forks and wheel out your usual refrains and polish them off. We love your chorus thing, … though maybe you could have a look at changing that tune? It’s starting to sound a bit …. old.) 

Aspects of theology are pretty Quantum because they operate at a theoretical level and seek to provide macro answers to ‘ultimate meaning’ questions and in ultimate meaning explanations. They are not answers that work in the same kind of way as some answers operate in RE. They explicitly operate in ‘inexplicable space’ where our ability to use reason struggles or breaks down or has no place. These spaces touch on our lives. What ‘use’ is a calm account of the free will defence when chatting with a recently bereaved friend. A good RE student, I would hope, would instead be concerned to show compassion and be with that person in their bereavement, rather than try foolishly to give a macro explanation that tidies everything up. I wouldn’t use any GCSE revision guides or exemplar long answer questions to help here. Human life is commonly inexplicable (in my experience) and really challenges our ability to hold on to senses of identity, purpose, or meaning. The things we love, often cause the greatest pain, etc etc.

(A quick wave to the ‘life is meaningless corner’. Yep I appreciate you guys being here too but remember, meaninglessness isn’t necessarily going to help with  those mental wellbeing issues, our hope for moral ideas that transcend self-interest or pragmatism, or help with persuading this generation of kids parents to raise money for the next generation’s school playing field –  you know peace, love, justice, hope, etc. Meaninglessness can have a bit of the curriculum and it does matter, and for some represents a reasonable response,  but this is the classroom where we look at those who do try to find meaning or conciliation with things without recourse to abandoning reason altogether.)[Thanks to Dave Aldridge for his Twitter critique of my first attempt at this aside. He rightfully suggested an approach to life as something that has no meaning need not be a catalyst for mental wellbeing deterioration]

Back to Quantum and theology. The question I am leading to is whether we are frame questions about Quantum – theology in the right kind of way? Can we evaluate Trinity in the way we might evaluate a particular moral response? I mean can we use the same sort of long answer question structure? I worry that perhaps we have gone down a quite narrow line when it comes to logical chains of reason that is simply not well adapted to engage with mystery and paradox, let alone the embodied responses and attempts to express understanding that happens in the art and music side of religion, rather than the ‘who’s right? there’s only one way to decide’ games we love to play.

Maybe we need to add another question structure to our approach to deal with these sorts of questions?



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