RELIGIOUS education is an integral part of all faith communities, who try to acculturate their young according to their own worldview. Since each community develops its own doctrines, history, and worldview, dialogue among faith communities becomes often a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ because their reference points become mutually exclusive.
It leads to a siege mentality. Rather than learning from one another about how each community approaches faith, they stand apart and become hostile, despite the commonalities in faith communities. This attitude has developed largely due to internecine wars and conflicts of interest between and among communities over who controls the minds and the souls of people.
Living as we are in the 21st-century global village, if these attitudes are to be replaced with a more positive outlook and mutually enriching approaches, what do we need to do?
First, the whole meaning of religious education may be revisited. Traditionally, it has been seen as a process in which the young are encouraged to accumulate and memorise a body of knowledge that is self-defensive, polemical, and rejecting the interpretations of the ‘other’. This approach promotes conflict rather than unity among faiths.
No faith community is an island unto itself.
On the other hand, new approaches have emerged that see religious education as a dynamic process to help learners engage with the phenomenon of faith as an experience of a community, and how it has been, and could be, interpreted in their own times as it relates to awe and wonder of the Divine. It helps the young to delve deeper into the depths of religious traditions, the moral dilemmas of a community, and how they have evolved over time. Learners are helped to see both the divine ‘hand’ — ie how ‘revelation/inspiration’ functions as stimulus — and the human ‘hand’, how this message has been interpreted and reinterpreted as a lived experience of a faith community vis-à-vis other communities.
From this perspective, the meaning of religious education is not limited to just memorising religious texts without much understanding. No religious education is complete unless the learners are able to grasp the interplay of complex factors as religious traditions evolve. One must move beyond imparting religious education, based only on a literalist reading. Religion always interacts with other factors, such as socio-cultural, politico-economic, local and historical traditions, in a dynamic process. This involves a deeper understanding of other faiths as an integral part of better understanding of one’s own faith. No faith community is an island unto itself.
This religious education approach involves at least three ‘h’s’ and one ‘s’. The first relates to the education of the ‘heart’, the seat of revelation and emotions in that it needs to learn how to be caring, compassionate and open to ideas. The second ‘h’ relates to the education of the ‘head’ that involves how to think about the Divine and mysteries of man and nature. The last ‘h’ relates to the education of the ‘hand’, ie, how to guide our actions (ethics), how to extend help to protect against harm.
The ‘s’ relates to the nurturing of our soul that leads to spiritual awakening, and soulful living. Such a religious education is not frozen in time, but is rather a dynamic and changing process of teaching learners the skills to interpret religious language, history, rituals, symbols,and metaphors from different perspectives.
This approach to religious education requires not just studying theology and hair-splitting debates of a particular faith, but how the spirit of faith has expressed itself through the lived experience of the faithful. A comprehensive religious education would include a whole web of subjects, such as beliefs, rituals, poetry, storytelling, mythology, art, histories, symbolism, to name a few. These have been avenues for expressing faith through the creative process of interpretation, leading to the enrichment of civilisations.
Equipping the young with intellectual, emotional, ethical and spiritual tools can enable them to become creative in their own times, and in turn, not just consume, but contribute to, the knowledge of their tradition.
This is often called a cultural approach as opposed to the theological one. The key difference between the two is that whilst in the first, only the body of beliefs and rituals are focused on, in the second, their expressions and their meanings are included as well. The first tends to promote an exclusive approach, while the second, an inclusive one, leading to pluralism of interpretations.
Those responsible for religious education must ensure a high quality of teachers with a background in educational psychology and possessing a child-friendly attitude, careful selection of the body of knowledge sensitive to our interdependent world and multifaith societies in which we live today, as well as an inspiring environment of teaching and learning.
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2017