Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is Waldorf Education Christian?


By William Ward

Waldorf schools seek to cultivate positive human values of
compassion, reverence for life, respect, cooperation, love of nature,
interest in the world, and social conscience, as well as to develop
cognitive, artistic and practical skills. The soul life of the child is
affirmed and nourished as the ground for healthy, active thinking.
Because of this,
 Waldorf schools sometimes are mistakenly
perceived as religious, or, in particular, as Christian schools.
Nevertheless, parents of various religious views and ethical
philosophies-Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Protestants, Sufis,
Muslims, eclectic seekers, and agnostics-choose Waldorf Education
for their children. They do so knowing that Waldorf schools are
based on a spiritual view of the human being and of the world.
However, no religion, including Christianity, is promulgated in a
Waldorf school.

The inspiration for Waldorf Education arises from a worldview or
philosophy called Anthroposophy. This broad body of research,
knowledge, and experience holds a spiritual view of human nature
and development. It sees the human being as more than a culturally
conditioned, genetically determined, biological organism. Instead,
Anthroposophy maintains that each individual human being has a
spiritual core, or "I," and that this I is in a continuous process of
becoming, of evolving in freedom through spiritual activity toward
ever greater self-knowledge. With the gradual awakening of the I, a
corresponding awareness of the spiritual wisdom within the created
universe arises in the soul. The anthroposophical worldview
understands the historical evolution of consciousness in many
cultures as the background for each individual's path of selfdiscovery.
The fundamental tone of this worldview-which is not a religion-is in
harmony with many world religions and philosophies. It stands in
opposition, however, to the powerful, contemporary cultural
currents based on materialism. In our culture a form of
psychological conditioning occurs on an unprecedented scale
through the cumulative impact of the 20,000 commercials that the
average American child sees each year. Unchallenged assumptions
about human nature convey reductionist views of the human being.
These strongly influence how children form their fundamental
"image of Self," their view of the essential nature of the human
being. This is distinct from the individualized self-image each child
also forms.

Various one-sided theories of human development are projected
through the popular media-the idea, for example, that the human
being is merely an advanced ape or a biological organism that has
arisen accidentally from the primordial ooze and whose ideals are
epiphenomena of secretions of the brain. Other common images
are of the human being as historically/culturally conditioned and
behaviorally programmed; fundamentally egoistic and controlled by
unconscious drives; genetically determined; a consumer to be
manipulated; a unit of economic production in global competition;
and a mechanism whose heart is merely a pump, whose brain is a
computer. The human being is a couch potato, an action hero, a
Barbie doll.
Faced with this persistent tide of subconscious indoctrination,
concerned parents look for an education that offers a more uplifting
view of human potential. And in the curriculum, methods, and
festivals of the Waldorf schools such an alternative image of the
human being is offered.
Many parents are content to see their children thrive in a Waldorf
school, sensing that dedicated teachers deeply care about their
children and work with effective educational insights and methods.
A few parents wonder further about Anthroposophy, the philosophy
that inspires the education. Some inquire out of genuine interest,
others to make sure that their children are not exposed to
something sectarian, parochial, or dogmatic. Parents can rest
assured that Anthroposophy is not taught, inculcated, or
subliminally communicated in the school. That would be counter to
the purpose of Waldorf Education as "education toward freedom."
The Waldorf method is so successful in helping young people think
for themselves that they develop strong independent judgment that
is a defense against hidden agendas of all kinds.
The respect for individual freedom, fundamental to the
anthroposophical roots of Waldorf Education, affirms that the
search for wisdom, spirit, and religious connection with the divine,
however variously these may be named, is a matter of individual
conscience and effort. The cultivation of religious values is a choice
that belongs to the family. We parents and educators may well
ponder together how to fulfill our responsibility to cultivate values
that open the possibility in our children to freely seek their own
spiritual path when they become self-directed adults. But it is not
the role of the school or its teachers to proffer a religion to the
children and their parents.
In the free search for those spiritual and cultural values that give
one meaning and purpose in life, many, if not most, teachers in
Waldorf schools discover in Anthroposophy a remarkably insightful
conception of human development and spiritual wisdom, one that is
as practical as it is profound. It is important, though, that
Anthroposophy does not remain ideas in books on a shelf, but
becomes a work to be undertaken. For the Waldorf teacher, insight
into the depth of human potential, reverence for the growing child,
respect for the freedom of the individuality, enthusiasm for the
curriculum, and renewing meditative work enrich the daily practice
of teaching from the wellsprings of Anthroposophy. This source of
inspiration is as essential to Waldorf Education as sunlight, water,
air, and earth to a growing plant. If it is absent, the teacher,
supported only by his or her own experience and insight, will find
the challenging task of Waldorf Education overwhelming or
impossible.
It is counter to the function of Waldorf schools to promote
Anthroposophy to parents or students involved with the school.
Some parents may wish to learn about it, though, and do so out of
individual initiative. They soon discover that Anthroposophy at its
root is deeply Christian in outlook. To the student of
Anthroposophy, Christ's deeds, example, and teachings offer
spiritual resources and guidance toward the fulfillment of our
human nature. This Christian orientation, however, is not narrow or
sectarian. It perceives, despite the many religious conflicts history
records, an overarching harmony among the world's inspired
religions, with each serving the spiritual guidance of humanity.
The name Christ and the word Christianity can have strong
connotations, positive and negative. In the context of
Anthroposophy, however, the Christ impulse is a universally
available matrix of human aspirations, transformative ideals, and
deeds. It does not involve theological speculation, sectarian dogma,
blind faith, institutionalized ritual, or a missionary agenda. In this
view-as surely as the Sun shines on each of us regardless of our
religious affiliation, non-affiliation, or ethical philosophyfundamental,
human-spiritual realities, such as love, compassion,
reverence for the divine, peace, healing, and freedom are essential
goals of our true humanity. Such universal aspirations comprise the
spirit of humanity and find expression in the multiplicity of
languages, cultures, and religions. It is a tragic anomaly that
atrocities, motivated by intolerance and self-righteousness, are
committed in the name of religion.
While a Waldorf teacher, as a student of Anthroposophy, may find
strength and insight in a worldview that sees profound significance
in Christ, to particular parents the name Christ may carry negative
connotations that arise from the tragedies of history. These may
include religious wars of aggression such as the Crusades,
persecution of other religious groups as is seen in anti-Semitism,
fundamentalist dogmatism, contemporary sectarian warfare as in
the former Yugoslavia, violence in the name of brotherly love, or
even just a ruler-wielding nun.
In such a situation parents and teachers should communicate
openly and frankly. Parents have legitimate concerns: "How does
your personal spiritual search as a teacher affect what you teach my
children? You profess freedom as a value, but you may hold your
values and views superior to what we hold most dear. Perhaps you
intentionally or unintentionally promote your view at the expense of
ours."
The question-Is Waldorf Education Christian?-may surface at key
moments in the festival life of the school. While traditions vary from
school to school, an Advent Garden is commonly held; Saint
Nicholas may visit; there may be a Saint Martin's festival;
Michaelmas (the festival for Saint Michael) will likely be celebrated;
and, along with animal fables, stories of saints will be told in
second grade. At many schools there is a performance of a
Christmas nativity play. With these events marking the course of the
year, the obvious answer to the question seems to be: Yes, Waldorf
Education is Christian.
Well, it is not so simple. We Waldorf teachers also teach the
Eightfold Path of the Buddha; the Old Testament and Judaism;
Islam; the teachings of Confucius; the teachings of Zarathustra; and
Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology. Although limited by our own
personal backgrounds, we enter into diverse world cultures with as
much reverence and depth as possible. While there are important
differences between the world religions, a remarkable common
ground-what has been referred to above as the spirit of humanityis
evident. As a school movement, we celebrate festivals of many
religious traditions.
A more relevant and revealing approach is to ask: What image of
the human being do the Waldorf schools seek to bring to the
children as a model and inspiration? Here the answer is
unequivocal. It is an image of the human being as loving,
compassionate, reverent, respectful, engaged, tolerant, peaceful,
joyful, patient, good, upright, wise, balanced, in harmony with the
cosmos, nature, and humanity. No religion or code of ethics can
arrogate these fundamental and universal values as its unique
possession.
For an education that is of the heart and the will as well as the
head, there is the practical question of how to help children develop
these qualities. Much of what goes on in a Waldorf school that is
perceived as religious and Christian-the festivals, the stories and
legends of the saints, the Old Testament stories, and so on-has this
intention.
In the school where I teach, there is an annual production of "The
Shepherds' Play," a medieval nativity play put on by the teachers.
This play is a tradition deeply woven into the fabric of many Waldorf
schools. The story revolves around the journey of Mary and Joseph
to Bethlehem, and the birth of the child attended by an angel.
Uncaring innkeepers reject the family; another finds them simple
shelter. Three shepherds-common folk, called by the angelreverently
offer simple gifts to the Holy Child.
The play is about Christmas. But more broadly it is about the
renewal of light in the depth of winter, the light of the world, and
the spiritual light within. In the context of the universal spirit of
humanity, the play presents the cosmic truth that the newborn
child, each newborn child, is a Holy Child and comes into the world
trailing clouds of glory. In each human birth occurs the rebirth of
spirit in the world, and each calls for reverence and love.
For grade school children "The Shepherds' Play" is primarily
pictorial, speaking more through tableau, gesture, and archetypal
character than through the rhymed, and somewhat archaic,
dialogue. But the play gives them an experience of the renewal of
the light, of the miracle of the spirit coming into the world, and also
of their identity with that spirit. The play also offers an atmosphere
comprised of reverence, humility, peace, and love, as well as of the
boisterous good spirits of the shepherds, an atmosphere that for a
brief moment shines as a candle in the hectic, commercial miasma
of the holiday season.
This play need not be seen as an expression of a narrow, exclusive
sectarianism. When I speak to the children, preparing them to see
the play, I give them the following context:
This is how Christians of long ago and also of today retell the birth
of the Holy Child. For those of us of the Jewish faith, the Messiah
spoken of by the prophets will be born in the future, and a time of
peace will at last come to Earth. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet who
taught and followed God's will. He was in the line of prophets that
led to Mohammed, who has taught us to obey Allah in the holy
Koran. Buddhists understand that, as the Buddha taught infinite
compassion for all beings, Christ preached love and forgiveness
toward all. And for Sufis who hold that "where the heart opens to
love, God speaks," Christ's message of love may be heard. Every
child, every human being, bears the gift of light and love within. We
celebrate this miracle at this the darkest time of year.
The play offers these same gifts to parents and other adult friends
of the school, who are also invited. It also offers something beyond
this. There is a "living in the spirit," evident in the newborn child-an
openness to creation, a joy in the light, a love of life and of the
world. This ideal state of being is affirmed in each of the world's
religions as the highest goal of human striving. It is expressed in
various ways: as liberating submission to the will of Allah in Islam,
attainment of the pure Buddha mind, the ecstatic love of the Sufi,
atonement and songs of praise to Yaweh, as Christ consciousness,
and so on. In each religion is an inspired expression of the human
spirit seeking the divine.
What is true of the nativity play is also true of Saint Michael's battle
with the dragon. Saint Michael, an archangel recognized by
traditional Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, overcomes the dragon
symbolizing evil in the world and the evil within-the lower nature of
the human being. The archetypal image of subduing the dragon is a
powerful imagination, more true and valuable than the empty
pictures that children find in Saturday morning cartoon shows,
comics, and video games. The aim of the festivals is to provide
imaginations of archetypal truths about human nature, life, and
experience, not to promote Christian dogma or to convert anyone.
Waldorf Education consciously nourishes the inner life of children in
order to start them on a lifelong process of self-discovery. It places
before them eminent persons-some of them great religious figures,
some of them not-but all of them persons who overcame weakness,
transformed themselves, expanded the horizons of the human
heart, and inspired social change. It does this in the hope that a
seed image of human aspiration will grow within each awakening I
as the light within, as conscience, as the spirit of truth. Whatever
may be achieved in this regard is within the context of an excellent
academic education that equips young people for contemporary life
with clarity of thought, wisdom of the heart, and practical skill for
work.
William Ward is a native of Michigan. He majored in English
literature as an undergraduate at Columbia University and then
studied elementary education at the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi
University, receiving a master's degree there. For the past twentyfive
years, he has been a class teacher at the Hawthorne Valley
School in Harlemville, New York. Describing his situation this year,
William says, "I am now finishing my third eighth grade, or maybe
they are finishing me. In any case, we have a finishing school here."
A lover of the theatre, William has written many class plays and
festival presentations and collaborated in all-school musical
productions. He will take a four-month mini-sabbatical next year
and then be involved in raising money for the Hawthorne Valley
School's building campaign.
From Renewal: Spring Summer 2001, Volume 10, Number 1