Letter from Elizabeth Ashton
from Signs of the Times No. 26 - Jul 2007

I read with much interest the short article by Mary Roe ('Faith at school', Signs of the Times, January 2007).

The lack of understanding of metaphor to which she refers is very serious indeed, and is perhaps one of the greatest impediments that exists in attempts to understand religion. My own research and publications concerning Religious Education focus on this very issue.

Firstly, I should like to comment on the problem which arises from the angle of the adult. It is a great joy to meet adults who have a mature understanding of the working of metaphor in language, and even rarer to encounter literacy regarding the religious use of metaphor. I believe this is a central reason for religion in schools being taught, in so many instances, only ineffectively. One feels compelled to add, sadly, that much the same applies to the effect of many church liturgies, which constantly fail to help the worshipper move on in understanding religious metaphor much beyond the attainment of the average seven year old.

Secondly, I have observed over many years of teaching that the usual reaction to children's statements and questions regarding God or Jesus is one of amusement. Only last week, a very highly qualified musician related to me an anecdote regarding her six year old grandson. This child asked where Jesus would sit when we have a cloudless sky? His grandmother was highly amused by this, but I am afraid it represents yet another example of how, when faced with this type of query from a young child, the adult is unable to help thought about religion move forward in ways which help it develop and deepen. The reason, of course, is because the adult occupies rather a similar position to the child!

A sensible response, of course, would be to introduce the child to the idea that 'going up' is not necessarily to rise spatially: that to 'go up' can mean to progress to something more mature, or more difficult. An example which could be intoduced is to suggest to  'go up into Miss Smith's class does not mean you have to climb stairs, but do more difficult work'.

Perhaps educators would do well to ask themselves why it is that children, even in primary schools can, for example, use sophisticated machines such as computers, whilst remaining at levels in religion where they are frequently content to - indeed are rarely given opportunities to do otherwise than - think in spatial terms of both God and Jesus, to say nothing of Heaven?

There would be an outcry, quite rightly, if the suggestion was made to stop teaching the four rules of number, for how would children learn to cope with mathematics? Yet, to find a religious education syllabus which includes work on metaphor, the 'four rules' equivalent in religious understanding, is very difficult to find indeed, and there is no outcry! Worryingly, few people seem able to define how metaphors work. Worse still, in popular opinion - and sometimes in 'informed opinion' - metaphors are regularly taken to relate to things which are not real: 'it is just a metaphor'.

Mary Roe is to be warmly congratulated on her short article which draws attention to a vital area of education which has been sorely misunderstood, or unrecognised, from the early years of education. Perhaps the time is now ripe to develop the Religious Education curriculum as she suggests?


Dr Elizabeth Ashton, formerly a primary school teacher, is a recently retired lecturer in Religious and Moral Education at the University of Durham. She is the author of many articles on metaphor in religion and books on Religious Education, some jointly with Dr Brenda Watson.