The need for spiritual education5 min read

In this age, more importance is attached to education than ever before. It is agreed by all parties in the state that everyone should receive the highest degree of education of which he is capable. One might think that now at last we were on the way to becoming a really educated nation. And yet perhaps there never was a time when spiritual education was so much neglected. Most people do not see the need of it. They would admit no doubt that a purely intellectual education was too narrow ; they would agree that moral and aesthetic education are needed as well. But they do not see that there can be any such thing as spiritual education at all : unless it consists in imparting certain old-fashioned religious dogmas in which no one any longer seriously believes. And that, they would say, is not education. It is merely the implanting of prejudices which are at best harmless and at worst pernicious— pernicious, because they raise false hopes of happiness in some other world, and distract us from our duties to the state and our fellow-men.

The problem of the true aim of education raises the most profound of all issues namely:

What is man ?
What is the nature of human personality ?
And what is its place in the universe ?

Differing educational principles arise from different philosophies or world-outlooks.

The prevalent world-outlook to-day is a materialistic or at best an agnostic one. It is assumed that the human self, with all its powers —not only the senses, but also the intellect, the emotions, and the will—is wholly dependent on the physical body, and ceases to exist when the physical body is destroyed.

The notion that some other sort of existence is possible to it, and still more the notion that the essential human self is something eternal and divine—all this is assumed to be either a pathetic delusion, or at best a mere speculation about which no knowledge can be had. It naturally follows that the aim of education is simply to fit us for life in this world, if that is the only life there is.
A secularistic and this-worldly view of education is just the logical consequence of a materialistic view of human personality.

In fact the fundamental aim of all education was formulated long ago in the inspired words of the Delphic Oracle : ‘Know thyself’. As different men and different ages have different conceptions of the self which is to be known, so will their educational principles differ. And if the materialistic conception of human personality is radically mistaken, if it is a delusion to suppose that the self is wholly dependent upon the body, then a conception of education which is founded upon and encourages that delusion is radically mistaken too.
If man is essentially a spiritual being, his most important aim in this life, or indeed in any other, is to recognise this fact about himself; and spiritual education, far from being a needless luxury or a pernicious one, is the most important thing of all.

But it is also a very difficult thing. To know oneself, not merely one’s superficial self but one’s fundamental self, is not easy. It is particularly difficult in a materialistic and agnostic age, when all the current opinions and practices are based on a narrow and distorted conception of human selfhood. It is difficult in any age, because there is something in our own nature which fights against this selfknowledge, and tends to perpetuate the very delusions from which we are trying to free ourselves.

Moreover one cannot get this knowledge merely by receiving information from without. Much knowledge of science or history, or even of theology, may be acquired in that way, but self-knowledge must be first-hand. One must see for oneself, by direct experience, and there is no substitute for that direct experience. That is where our traditional Western methods of spiritual education seem to have been mistaken. It was supposed that if a man could be induced to believe certain doctrines about God and the Soul, no more was needed. In practice, no doubt, this was often effective. The belief did lead to direct self-knowledge, first-hand spiritual experience.

But dogmatic teaching is not enough. And when it is effective, it is not so much because we believe what we are told. One may give an intellectual assent to all sorts of dogmas—true and excellent ones too—and yet one may be as far as ever from that direct knowledge which is needed. What is important is not what we intellectually assent to, but what we habitually attend to, what our thoughts dwell upon, what we “realise to ourselves ”—in short, what we meditate upon.

For it is the meditation, not the intellectual assent, which will lead in time to the awakening of our own dormant spiritual faculties, and will enable us to see and know for ourselves. Right meditation, then, is the true method of spiritual education. And in our contemporary world it is the only one which has any prospect of success. People will no longer believe things on authority. They demand first-hand verification.

But say to them : “ Meditate upon these things and in the end you will see for yourselves ” and they will begin to listen. The distrust of dogma and authority, the demand for first-hand verification has led in the short run to the most perilous results. The direct consequence of it is the materialism and scepticism of our age, which threaten to destroy our entire civilisation. But in the long run it is a healthy attitude, however disastrous its immediate results may be.

For there are other means of direct verification besides the senses and the sense-bound intellect. The true method of spiritual education is not to persuade people to believe what they are reluctant to believe, but to provide them with well-chosen themes for meditation, so that their own powers of direct spiritual apprehension may be set free. In that way and in no other the good precept “

Know thyself ” may be fulfilled.