"Wandering Through Life"—Introducing Philosophical Practice with Children and Adolescents in the Church of Norway

Project presentation by Øyvind Olsholt, Co-Director of Children and Youth Philosophers, Norway

Published in:

Eva Marsal, Takara Dobashi, Barbara Weber (eds.):
Children Philosophize Worldwide—Theoretical and Practical Concepts
Band 9 in Hodos—Wege bildungsbezogener Ethikforschung in Philosophie und Theologie,
published by Institut für Philosophie und Theologie der Pädagogischen Hochschule Karlsruhe
Peter Lang Verlag
Frankfurt am Main 2009
ISSN 1619-666X
ISBN 978-3-631-59329-5

p. 633-644


In 2006 Children and Youth Philosophers commenced a project in the Church of Norway named "Wandering through life". Besides Children and Youth Philosophers the project involves three church organisations: Youth Chorister's Association, The Pilgrim Priests and Liturgical Centre. Together we search for parallels as well as incongruities between philosophical and religious practice—in particular we want to look into the relationship between pilgrimage and philosophical dialogue. Also an important aim of the project is to educate and train church youth leaders enabling them to lead philosophical dialogues with children and youth in the Church of Norway. The project runs through 2008.


Downloads and discussion

3 Philosophical training course

January 2007 we arranged our first philosophy and pilgrimage weekend seminar in Lillehammer (which is where the XVII Olympic Winter Games were arranged in 1994). Participants were recruited from Youth Chorister's Association. Most of them (30 in total) conductors of local church choirs for children, a few were church musicians. A majority were teenagers or young adults. The main purpose of the course was to empower the participants so that they would be able to start leading philosophical dialogues with the children in their choirs back home.

To prepare the participants for the facilitation of philosophical enquiry, we used two types of activities: participation in philosophical dialogues using biblical texts (one of which were held in connection with a one hour pilgrim walk to a nearby church), and exercises/group work to train specific dialogical/thinking skills.

In the dialogues we split the participants into two groups. We started the first dialogue by reading aloud Exodus 17:1-6 (the people rebelled against Yahweh when they thirsted, claiming that Moses had brought them out into the wilderness to kill them by thirst, Moses then brings water from the rock with his staff). The second dialogue started with the reading of John 5:1-15 (Jesus heals a paralytic at the pool of Bethesda). On both occasions we agreed that it was sensible to read the texts twice before entering into dialogue in order to grasp as many details and as much of the structure of the narrative as possible. After this, we invited the participants to put forward questions related to the texts. We wrote each question down and dealt with one at a time.

Two questions forwarded to the latter text: "Were there more miracles when Jesus lived than there are today?" and "Was it wrong of Jesus to ask the man to break the Sabbath?" Two very different questions, one dealing with supernatural events and epochal consciousness, the other with ethical considerations and divine omnipotence. Before trying to answer the questions we took time to "dissect" them as it were, making clear in what way the participants interpreted the questions and the words therein.

It was important for us to create an understanding among the participants that philosophical enquiry has a lot to do with tearing loose ("breaking-up") from commonly accepted opinion in order to open up to what the project group had termed "clear and unprejudiced thought." Therefore, the exercises presented to the group were of the "technical" kind, training specific facilitation skills. Also, they were meant to de-contextualise the participants from their familiar "congregational" thinking modes and vernacular. Before being able to learn new things, we must unlearn what we already know and (think that we) "possess."

We did two exercises in small groups consisting of 4-5 participants. The first exercise was about formulating questions and follow-up questions:

The idea was to make the participants familiar with the distinction between clarifying and problematising questions. The former type of questions tries to identify the issue at hand by asking for an elucidation of the statement, e.g. by asking for reformulation, pointing out premises, logical flaws etc. Such questioning represents an internal critic: the statement is analysed "as is", considering nothing that is not integral to the statement itself. The latter type of question aims to expose weaknesses in the statements by using an external critic, e.g. by introducing counter-examples. For instance, a clarifying and problematising question to the statement "Humans are animals" could be: "Does this imply also that animals are human?" This is a clarifying question because it examines the logical relationship between the two concepts in the statement. No new concepts are introduced. However, the question "Is there a quality pertaining to humans that does not pertain to other animals?" is a problematising question because it calls for a new concept (a property or a characteristic of humans) that is not native to the original formulation.

In the second exercise we sought to train the skill to produce and evaluate arguments for sample statements. In order to make the exercise more demanding we had chosen statements usually considered arguable or politically incorrect:

The initial feedback from the participants was that the exercises seemed a little strange and artificial, especially the last one since they were asked to argue for views that they found dubious or objectionable. Nevertheless, most of them soon grasped the point of the exercise, and once they managed to detach themselves from the viewpoints in question they found the exercise thought-provoking and rewarding. They discovered that they were able to evaluate an argument on its own grounds, without having to filter it through the sieves of "generally accepted views in the Church" or "common cultural understanding" or "the morally good"—without forcing the argument to comply with what Heidegger called "das Man" before rendering it worthy of closer inspection.

This was a new experience to everybody—as well as to the non-philosophers of the project administration group—perhaps not quite what they had expected from philosophical coaches. I think what may have surprised the participants was the formality of the activities. Where were the metaphysical depths and fragile religious sentiments? I think they, consciously or unconsciously, expected us to trigger wonder and marvel in the young audiences, like a gifted story-teller or magician would do—which is, by the way, a perfectly common expectation to philosophical practitioners from adult leaders working with children and adolescents. And indeed, would we not all hail a sage who promises to create a magnificent philosophical meta-world into which we could throw ourselves and become healed and whole? But, as Socrates taught us, such creation (illusionism) is the task of the artist, not of the philosopher. The philosopher's task is to make the participants conscious of themselves in the austere and not so magic light of reason. And as I said, after an initial phase of hesitation and resistance the participants took the point of the exercises and contributed with energy and joy.


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