The loss of relational consciousness has had disastrous consequences for human societies, according to Hay. Those who lose relational consciousness lose a sense of their own value and purpose, and they lose respect for other creatures. They cease to respect or believe in God. Children grow up alienated from nature and society. Such losses can lead to narcissism, rampant consumerism, aggression, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and despair. Hay links the loss of relational consciousness to widespread social disintegration, violence, and degradation of the natural environment.
Hay developed a set of categories for three different aspects of relational consciousness: awareness sensing, mystery sensing, and value sensing. These categories provide a framework for cultivating children's innate spirituality. Hay and his colleagues would like to see these different kinds of awareness integrated into school curricula so that children can develop fully as spiritual beings (see Spiritual Formation and Mystagogy). These aspects of relational consciousness are briefly described below.
Awareness sensing refers to alternative ways of knowing or modes of perceiving the spiritual world. For example "here and now" awareness (also called point awareness) involves focusing attention on the present moment, as in Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Another example is "flow," the experience of being caught up in an all-absorbing experience. Activities such as meditation, prayer, silence, and periodic withdrawal are ways to cultivate awareness. Mystery sensing concerns ultimate questions about reality and the purpose of the universe. It includes emotions such as wonder, awe, delight, and amazement. It also suggests an awareness of human limitations and the danger of arrogance. A strong sense of mystery leads to self-forgetfulness and union with God (or the spiritual world). It can also lead to a sense of purpose and right livelihood. Activities such as worship, ritual, and "philosophizing" (asking questions with children, listening to them, discussing what is unknown) can enhance a sense of mystery. The arts also play a part. Value sensing refers the ability to discern good from evil, hopefully in order to cultivate the good. What is worthy? What is enduring? What is true? What is the best way to treat others? These are the questions addressed as one develops a sense of value. Perhaps this category is the one most developed in American religious life, with a strong emphasis on character development and the cultivation of personal virtue.
Hay believes that people in the Western world lack an adequate language and discourse for relational consciousness. They are blinded by their rational, secular, individualist worldview and thus see human beings primarily as isolated individualists. Educators can provide language and discourse for relational consciousness through the use of various kinds of stories. In the past, shared religious stories fostered relational consciousness and prosocial values. Handed down from one generation to the next, religious stories included Creation stories, biblical narratives (parting of the Red Sea, Jesus' birth), and lives of the saints and other religious heroes (Moses, David, Martin Luther King, or Mary Baker Eddy). In the West, religious stories no longer dominate the imagination the way they once did. Hay argues that other kinds of stories can be used in school to foster relational consciousness. He mentions specifically autobiography, fiction, the language of play and games, and the language of science and technology. For example, many children have embraced science fiction, the language of technology, and fantasy to talk about moral and spiritual issues. For many, this has become an accepted way to speak of other worlds. Children's reading (or listening to stories) can help them imagine traveling through time and space, encountering parallel universes, morphing into other states or being, and fighting battles with cosmic significance. Hay suggests that such narratives are a spiritually important alternative to the overemphasis on empirical science as the only source of truth.
Hay's work is significant for the way he enables educators from many traditions to work together to preserve and promote children's spirituality. By emphasizing a discourse of experience, they allow children themselves to put their spirituality into words. Shared terminology (such as Hay provides) and shared stories help adults to provide children with scaffolding for spiritual experiences. Because religious discourse is not useful for all people, children can benefit from access to other kinds of discourse and stories. There is also the potential for other discourses to enrich religious discourse.
Relational consciousness is especially useful for those concerned about the natural environment because of the way it links relating to the earth with relating to God. It is also of great value for those who want to promote dialogue among adherents of various faiths and between the religious and secular realms. Several criticisms have been leveled against Hay's work. He has been criticized for not adequately addressing evil and sin. Hay focuses upon the positive aspects of spiritual awareness; for him, what James calls "the more" is always positive. Adherents of particular religions may object to Hay's efforts to find a common ground and a common language to be shared by all humans. Hay leaves it to others to take into account gender and ethnicity as important factors in relational consciousness.
Despite these possible objections, the concept of relational consciousness provides a way to explore spiritual development that is both pragmatic and innovative.