Educator’s Guide to Catholic Curriculum: Learning for ‘Fullness of Life’ Supplement 1

Re-contextualising Culture: Catholic Curriculum for a New Era

Three public worldviews play important roles in Catholic education: the worldview of culture, the worldview of the age, which stand behind the public curriculum and the worldview of faith. We look at each in turn.

Curriculum and the Worldview of Culture 

The worldview of culture, as a public worldview, is shaped by the human experiences of people living together within a particular physical, social and ideational environment.

For instance, Australian culture is shaped by the unique features of the country’s physical environment, vast, dry, and rugged, and a mythology and values sourced in often futile attempts to tame it. The Australian social environment is constructed on values whose provenance lies initially in the narrative of the colonial period, federation and Australian participation in World War I. These values, forged in often difficult circumstances, help us make sense of new and challenging experiences. The country’s ideational environment is Western and subject to the developments in Western thinking. The combination of these three factors determines most features of Australian culture. 

As the possession of a people, cultural worldviews are constantly being re-shaped as the experience of the community changes, as new meanings arise, and as the collective awareness shifts.  The internet is an all-pervasive influence globally, shaping contemporary cultures worldview, and the media now play a major role in shaping public awareness. The school curriculum, by providing students with a systematic and critical presentation of the worldview of culture, seeks to counter-balance the social media’s selective presentation of contentious issues.

Tension Points and Boundary Questions

Every culture has tension points and boundary questions that remain contested. Tension points are areas of common life where important values pull in different directions. For example, in Australia the struggle between the rights of individuals and the common good is a tension point. The way in which  “terrorism” is interpreted often raises boundary questions. Boundary questions relate to identity issues that lie on the dividing line between “us” and “not us”.

Cultures differ in the way in which they deal with tension points and boundary questions. The dynamism of a culture is determined by a people’s collective capacity to address these issues.

Curriculum and the Challenge of Re-contextualising Culture

The process by which a public worldview is modified in response to changes in the lived experience of a people is called re-contextualization. An example of this is seen in multicultural nature of Australia, which has replaced the previous White Australia Policy that so influenced public life of the past in the early twentieth century.

In dealing with the public curriculum, teachers play a pivotal role in cultural re-contextualisation. The public curriculum translates the worldview of culture into meaningful “chunks” for students to understand, question and appropriate at different stages in their development.  The public curriculum reflects a consensus about what is worth knowing in a culture; it is not always good at addressing tension points and boundary questions as these are what divides people. Teachers have little option but to address tension points and boundary questions in class since these are the stuff of everyday life, the media ensuring that this is the case. Since these exist largely outside the consensus that defines the public curriculum, the way a teacher addresses them in class becomes the way the culture is re-contextualised for the student. The teacher in a Catholic school is supported in this by the tradition of meaning that flows from the faith of the Catholic community that has developed over time. How a teacher goes about this work depends on the personal worldview that he or she brings to the task and his or her skill in leading discussions that centre on values, since boundary questions and tension points raise values issues.
The point here is that teachers are major players in the re-contextualisation of culture. How effective they are in this role depends on what they understand to be the strengths and limits of the cultural and faith worldviews they are asked to help transmit and the adequacy of the value system inherent in this worldview. It is obvious then that there is an ongoing need for teacher formation in understanding and applying the Catholic tradition of meaning. 

Worldview of the Age

The worldview of culture is shaped by the worldview of the age in which people live. We live in a liminal age in which the worldview of modernity is rapidly losing its cultural influence, but as yet nothing has replaced it. This development has created a crisis of meaning in all Western societies.

The modern worldview that developed in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries reflected new human aspirations for equality, greater personal freedom, and a new conception of human flourishing.  Within its frame of reference the human person became the only source of meaning in the universe. Knowledge was created empirically through the methods of science which made it possible, in principle at least, to solve all problems. Science dealt with facts, which were not to be confused with values that were said to be expressions of personal opinion and so open to manipulation by those with the power to shape them. The hope of the era was that that the rise of science and technology would usher in a new age of human progress.

As this worldview took hold in the cultures of Europe, so too did the view that  religion was seen as subjective and not having a rational basis.  Christianity was regarded as a cultural relic, a leftover from an earlier stage of human evolution, and the expectation was that it would soon fade away. God no longer provided the source of truth, goodness or authority. With the “death of God” as Nietzsche pointed out prophetically, there is no objective way of making moral judgements. Morality, truth and authority would henceforth be determined by those with the power to impose their will on others. His foresight was vindicated as the horrors of the twentieth century unfolded.

Rather than engage with the legitimate aspirations of modernity, Catholic leaders worldwide continued to live and teach within the assumptions of a worldview shaped in an earlier era. This resulted in a disjunct between culture and faith. Catholic schools had to deal with this split as they grappled with modern subject disciplines that were developed within a secular culture, and faith development remained confined to formal Religious Education.

The Quiet Revolution: Transition from Modernity to Postmodernity

Two quiet revolutions, one in the Catholic Church and one in European society, have helped move this situation in the direction of resolution.  The first was the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) that we will consider later in this chapter. The second was the emergence of the “postmodern” critique of modernity beginning in the late 1970s. Both revolutions operated at the ideational level and have resulted in changes in the worldview of all Westerns cultures. They have also impacted on the worldview of Christian communities in the West including obviously the Catholic Church.

Three important postmodern thinkers were instrumental in setting in place thinking that undermined confidence in the modern worldview. They clarified the nature of knowledge, the use of power in creating knowledge, and the limits language imposes on meaning.

Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that all knowledge is provisional in character and was therefore critical of the modern claim that only science generates real knowledge. Scientists themselves bring human interpretation and bias to their work, so science is not privileged in the search for truth. Michael Foucault argued that those in power legitimize what constitutes knowledge and by doing so shape the cultural worldview. He asked: who benefits from the different ways in which knowledge it legitimized? Jacques Derrida pointed out that in order to make sense of experience we have to put the experience into language so there is always a subjective interpretation that can influence meaning.

The post-modern critique has a wider impact. It has undermined confidence in all public worldviews by multiplying tension points and boundary questions within cultures. Cultures are successful because they are comprehensive and so enable large chunks of life to be taken for granted. As less and less can be taken for granted, and as people have to think through more and more issues, meaning becomes increasingly problematic, anxieties multiply, as does the task young people face in “putting life together” (Philip Hughes, Putting Life Together, 2007). Current research makes it clear that this is the context in which Catholic schools now have to formulate their mission.

Curriculum and the Postmodern Turn 

The post-modern critique has had limited impact on the public curriculum. However, as the consensus on which the public worldview underpinning the curriculum contracts, new questions will arise.  How do curriculum designers respond?  How do they deal with an expanding array of tension points and boundary questions? Do they address this task in a partisan and selective way or do they undertake it in a comprehensive and critical way? Do they ignore some issues at the expense of others?  Do they ignore this critique and simply continue to promote the worldview of modernity?

Such questions have significance in Catholic schools where teachers seek to re-contextualise the culture for students in the course of critically and systematically transmitting it. The danger is that students come away from school with disjointed fragments of a once coherent but now discredited worldview, that fails to make sense of things because fragments cannot address in a coherent way the every increasing array of tension issues and boundary questions arising within Australian culture.

Re-contextualising the Public Curriculum 

A democratic society needs a public curriculum and education systems to promote it.  For most of the 20th century the modern worldview provided cohesion to the public curriculum and to the work of teachers in dealing with secular disciplines. However, the slow demise of modernity since the 1970s has created a meaning vacuum that students now have to negotiate. How do teachers help them do this? This is the particular challenge facing the present generation of teachers.

If they are to respond constructively to the new context teachers need to understand the strengths limits, biases and blind spots in the public curriculum, the questions it asks and the ones it fails to ask. This is the task of analysis.

At another level teachers in Catholic schools need to look at the worldview of faith and ask, what potential it has to complement the eroding worldview of culture, and so add some much-needed coherence to the worldview of culture as a dependable source of meaning. This is a task of synthesis

Both tasks are now important in developing a Catholic curriculum. However, to undertake this task it is necessary to understand the worldview of faith and the impact of the other quiet revolution on its development in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including the “Francis effect”.

Re-contextualising Faith and Culture

Faith is a primal human experience. It is the conviction that life has meaning and so I, as an individual, have worth. Possessed of this primal faith we grasp that the game of life is worth playing.  Faith understood in this way underpins both our sense of self-worth and our need as humans to constantly ask the question “why?” to validate this faith. This primal faith provides the natural base on which other forms of faith are built. When people lose this faith they become anxious and depressed.

“Faith” is a concept encompassing many significant values, embracing the spiritual experience that religions seek to understand, and giving expression through faith communities.  The wisdom these communities generate sometimes encompasses centuries of human experience. The experience of faith, of standing safely in the presence of what Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan calls “Holy Mystery”, and sensing an invitation to live, is central to all forms of spirituality. This experience provides “the common ground” among religions that otherwise have developed widely differing belief systems to make sense of life. This experience of faith can be either personal or communal.

Faith as a Worldview

To express, describe and make shared meaning of spiritual or faith experience, requires the resources of a culture. The public expression of faith invites a person into the world of religion. Religious conversion involves responding to the invitation to “live in a new way” which is implicit in the faith experience. Each faith has a content that has cognitive, moral, and communal components. Religions originate in different historical periods and cultures. Over time each has developed a worldview that functions as a tradition of meaning that people call on to make sense of life. This worldview is what we mean by the worldview of faith. It is an amalgam of beliefs, values, and ways of feeling passed on from generation to generation as a narrative that is celebrated in communal rituals giving meaning and worth to the community’s mission. Religion underpins many cultures by conferring the aura of the sacred on the depth dimensions of the culture.

Giving Faith a Context in Schools

While it is logically possible to distinguish between the content of faith and the experience of faith, both go together in religious experience. Knowing the content of faith independent of the experience of faith reduces such knowledge to information.

Across human history the worldview of faith as a framework for making sense of life continues to have a variety of relationships with the worldview of culture. In some cultures these correlate closely. However in Western cultures they stand apart. People living in cultures that do not share in the European narrative find it hard to understand the relationship between faith and culture that exists in the West, whereas we take the relationship as a given. As global migration mixes peoples from different cultures together in Western cultures these differences in understanding give rise to new tension points and boundary questions.  They raise questions about how best to maintain social cohesion as cultural and religious diversity increases.

At a simple level “contextualising the worldview of faith” involves helping students from different cultural and religious backgrounds understand the ways in which people view the relationship between faith and culture and the consequences this has for how they live. It means challenging the unconsciously held assumption of the dominant culture that “West is best”, and that religion is a private matter with no place in public life.  Contextualising the worldview of faith helps create space for faith in its many manifestations in our shared social life.

Schools that accept religious experience as real and meaningful have a unique contribution to make in this new social environment, particularly given the public curriculum’s ideology which relegates religion largely to the status of an historical phenomenon.

Religion constitutes a tension point in contemporary Australian culture that sits uneasily in our design for living (our culture). In the context of growing religious plurality, creating a space for faith is a valuable contribution to enriching our culture.

Worldview of Jesus: The Emergence of Christian Faith

Christians have a particular way of interpreting the experience of faith and this centres on their beliefs about the person, life, teaching and mission of Jesus and his unique significance in human history.

As an historical person Jesus lived in a particular culture with its own narrative, religious tradition, language and history. His religious outlook was shaped by this culture. It was an oral rather than a literate culture but one in which religion had a central role, determining most aspects of life, personal and social. When Jesus spoke to people he used the local languages, Hebrew the language of prayer, and Aramaic, the language of daily life.

Jesus’ disciples understood his experience of faith, not just as encountering “the ineffable”, but as encountering a person whom he related to as “Abba” – “Father”. Jesus articulated an understanding of God that went well beyond the worldview of faith then current within Judaism. He invited his followers to share in his faith experience and the worldview this introduced. 

Central to this worldview was Jesus’ understanding of the “Kingdom of God”. Here he pushed the horizon of thinking of his own tradition to new limits. In Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God is not about power and domination, but about love and service beginning in the concern and care for the marginalized, but expanding into a quest of for justice and peace within history. 

The Kingdom of God is never complete in history, however, and marginalisation will always occur and need to be resisted.  Jesus’ entreaty to his followers was not take this as a human given, but to do something about it by identifying with the people we seek to help, sharing their experiences and listening to their voices.  For Jesus, building the Kingdom of God defines the mission of his followers in human history. Within history it will always be an ongoing struggle.  We will always need to pray for God’s kingdom to come, ‘on earth as in heaven’.

The Gospels recount what a difficult time Jesus’ early followers had in making sense of his invitation to share his faith experience, to understand his message and to see the significance of his mission.  Jesus’ death came as a shock to disciples who thought of him as the Messiah. In the Jewish tradition the Messiah does not die.  

The faith experience of Jesus’ disciples took an important turn when they found themselves in his mysterious presence after his death. Most Christians are so used to the resurrection story that they simply fail to comprehend what that experience must have felt like for Jesus’ followers, and what its effect had on them. The experience changed the frame of reference within which they viewed the world and so they came to re-interpret their religious tradition. The early Christian worldview of faith took shape subsequently, based on a new understanding of who Jesus is and what he called them to be and to do. The writing down of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the New Testament books was itself already an expression of a ‘re-contextualised faith’. 

Re-Contextualizing Faith: Paul

By virtue of his gifts and education, Paul was the intellectual among his fellow disciples and was able to re-interpret the significance of Jesus’ life, message and mission in a manner that re-appropriated the symbols of Judaism. In doing so, Paul cast the relationship between God and humankind in a new light. God was present to the community not only in the communal “breaking of bread”, but also through the Spirit empowering the Christian community to proclaim Jesus’ message and live out its consequence in their daily lives. This was all new territory for them and mistakes abounded in how they responded, but through the experiences of success and failure the notion of authentic discipleship was clarified.

Paul’s writings record much of this struggle and they provide a background against which the Gospels and Acts emerged. Together these key New Testament texts trace the trajectory of the developing worldview of Christian faith and provide the foundations on which a new religious tradition was built. The irony is that these documents were all written in Greek, a language that, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, Jesus himself most probably did not speak!

The worldview of faith that Jesus initiated was first articulated in Aramaic and in an oral culture. Paul had re-contextualised it for a Greek literate culture within two generations of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The re-contextualisation of Christian belief was an important element in Paul’s mission within the early Christian communities. His approach to different communities reflected his understanding of the culture of those communities. For Paul, faith did not exist above culture, rather culture provided the gateway through which faith had to pass if it was to be received and lived authentically by any people. Paul sees no problem with cultural features of his time such as slavery or exclusion of women from civic roles as is to be expected as he believed the end times were near and his critique of culture centred on religious practices and moral understandings. Paul’s theology was influenced by the mistaken notion that Jesus would return in glory within a relatively short time. Like all people of genius, his insights, valuable as they are, were limited, and conditioned by culture and history.

The various cultures receiving the Good News over the centuries introduced biases into the worldview of Christian faith, as well as new and more relevant understandings.  Only some of the biases have been adequately addressed. Faith understandings are always evolving to bring the Gospel message more clearly to people in their own cultural setting. The ‘Francis Effect’, is an example of a Pope wanting to open up the Gospel in a way that speaks to the needs of the diverse cultures in which we live.

Re-contextualising Faith and Culture

We have seen that re-contextualization is an important concept in dealing with cultural and religious plurality. It involves re-imagining and re-expressing the message within the cultural context as the context changes.  This was an important element in Paul’s pedagogical approach and his missionary strategy.  He could do this because he understood the contexts in which he worked – Hebrew, Greek and Roman – and he understood the message he wished to bring. Re-contextualisation for him was a matter of re-interpreting “the Good News” for audiences in terms that made sense to them. He did not always succeed in this endeavour but that was his aim. Paul serves as a model for Catholic teachers operating in the context of increased cultural and religious plurality.

Re-contextualisation is concerned with aligning our ways of understanding life, the frameworks (faith and culture) that we use in making sense of life, with the cultural and religious contexts in which we live as those contexts change. Change generates tension points and boundary questions in cultural communities and in faith communities. Communities that resolve those tensions and address those questions survive and thrive; those who do not fade away. Some key questions and tension points the contemporary Catholic Church needs address in the light of Christ’s life and teaching include: How do we resolve child sexual abuse by Church officials? How do we respect and include people of sexual orientation other than heterosexual? How are people who have been divorced welcomed into the Catholic community? These questions demand a re-contextualisation of the Catholic faith.

To re-contextualise a meaning system involves understanding the dynamics of the community and the dynamics driving change, and being able to communicate these to others in a meaningful way. There is no simple grace here. It requires knowledge, the capacity to analyse, the capacity to communicate and the capacity to engage people in the dialogue needed for them to make sense of what is happening and respond constructively. The end product of re-contextualisation is new meaning. This was the task Jesus and Paul set themselves and largely achieved. It is a task facing all teachers as the focus on education shifts from the transmission of knowledge to the construction of meaning.  

Dr Therese D’Orsa, 2016