Chapter 32. Catholic Spirituality

Recently my colleagues Charlene Tan and Wong Yew-Leong in “Promoting spiritual ideals through design thinking in public schools”, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, (2012) Vol. 17:1, 25-37,  argue that design thinking is or can be employed to promote spiritual education in public schools in Singapore. They point out that, through the empathetic appreciation (as part of design’s fact finding/research) of other persons’ meaningful religious lifeworlds, the appreciation of the spiritual in students is enriched.

Like them, I am enthusiastic about the potential of design thinking to service the “vertical dimension” viz., the education in or formation of spiritual ideals, and what I have here and there in The Manual, can easily be pieced together towards similar conclusions.

Thus for instance, I have argued how (rangefinder) photography’s exercise of evaluation opens up the practical viewpoint, and the deliverances of the insights of natural law in turn entail the belief in the existence of God, [see chapter 3 here and chapter 16 here]. Also I have made the case that, just as photographers surface signs that help us stand aright in relation to the achievement of premises for transcendent and transcendental truths [see chapter 27 here], so also metaphysician photographers, and by that I mean thomist metaphysical poets who develop thomistic signs of Being (esse) to complement their image-sign production (poesis) lead to a host of important spiritual truths [see chapter 26 here]. All these questions and their spiritual trajectories answer the question of what the camera and photography can be “Designed” into.  I.e., if we are to design photography and the camera [see chapter 11 here], one of the things a camera can be designed into is to become signs of the spiritual – of God, and of his presence.  (Also see elsewhere, my working paper “Designers: Thinking Meta’s Through, Shaping Signs that Comfort”, here)

So their piece, which paralleled some of these ideas, excited me greatly.  But having considered their paper, I have arrived at some important distinctions between their ideas and mine.

First, unlike theirs, my own interpretation of the “spiritual” will not be so loose as to include any and every non-material or transcendent aspiration, but rather be logically connected or “tethered” (to borrow their use of the term, taken from Alexander and McLaughlin (2003), see Tan & Wong, 2012: 29) to a rigorous, coherent and defensible philosophical – thomistic – tradition, even if untethered to any religious faith in virtue of the fact that these spiritual ideals and the associated philosophical tradition which warrants them are be catholic, i.e, universal.

In other words, (the) design (of photography) promotes a kind of catholic spirituality that should be morally and intellectually normative, obligatory and binding for reasonable and thoughtful designerly persons who, following this Manual, do photography, reflect on one’s photography (also included in the meaning of photography) and so design photography and cameras.

Also,  my understanding of any spiritual education or formation that can occur through design thinking or designing (of the camera) would not be the mere empathetic acquaintance with such spiritual ideals, without any necessary commitment to assent to the truth of these ideals which then ends with the mere knowing about such spiritual ideals in others (ibid: 33), and that therefore, quite ironically, accepts a kind of impersonal, detached indifference to the truth value of these ideals and their normative and epistemic demands on the person himself or herself, even if one is ‘empathetic’ about their existence and meaning for others.

Rather, given that spiritual ideals that can be serviced through design thinking have a basis in defensible philosophical warrants, their achievement through design thinking is therefore, normatively binding on the designer or design thinker and hence ought ultimately to become one’s designerly knowing (c.f. Cross, 2007, Designerly Ways of Knowing), i.e., part of one’s own design epistemology, and not a mere piece of fact in the world one knows about.

In other words, “education in spiritual ideals (through design thinking)” can mean, equivocally, a weaker sense and a stronger sense.  The weaker sense endorses as spiritual education the mere acquaintance with these ideals, significant for others but not necessarily for oneself, whereas a stronger sense requires that, over and above mere acquaintance, there must be the acknowledgment of their significance for oneself.  Of course under the weaker sense of spiritual education, the assimilation of those ideals is not ruled out.  Nevertheless, the point remains that mere acquaintance is also a legitimate aim, which for spiritual education under the stronger sense would be considered quite unsatisfactory. Tan and Wong’s account argues for the weaker sense of spiritual education, whereas my case is on behalf of the stronger sense. Yet promoting nothing less than this stronger sense seems to me important, lest “education in spiritual ideals” becomes no more than an invitation to treat, a kind of post-modern spiritual tourism of exotic meanings, whereas spiritual education should be a serious initiation in defensible spiritual values and epistemic trajectories, binding on one’s normative identity.

Even though there are these differences, (and this also begs the question whose ideas are more defensible) the exploration of the vertical in design thinking in their work is very helpful, and certainly worth a read.