Saturday, October 22, 2011

teach naked

below is an essay defining my concept of religious education that I've worked on the past week. if it seems to follow a pattern, that's because it does. the idea is that we define religious--specifically xian--education in the 1st part, expand on that definition in the 2nd, and then give implications of it in the 3rd. that wasn't really very hard but it took me several days longer than it should have because of a cold that knocked me flat on my back all day tuesday, necessitating not only the length of time it took to finish the essay but also, as tuesday is a 6-hour day for me at my CPE site, requiring me to pull extra hours the rest of the week to make them up.


Part I: Based on my experience and on the books we’ve read for this class, I’d offer the following as my current definition for the way I see religious education. It’s a way of teaching children and adults how best to affect their world in order to make it more reflective of the type of world where they would want to be citizens. It reflects how they think a world of justice and equality ought to be (in Christian terms, bringing about the realm of God). Religious education determines the communities children and adults want to be a part of, discerns what is holy and how to talk about it, and most importantly, what the ethics, morals, and behaviors the members of such communities should participate in.

Part II: The church, any church (or synagogue or mosque or temple or coven or any spiritual gathering, and for simplicity’s sake I’m going to mean all of these groups when I say “church”), is a community, an ecclesia in church terminology. It’s a community made up of individuals but of individuals who, unlike a geographical community or a working or public school community, choose to associate with one another. Their connections with one another are outside place or livelihood. There are some geographical considerations that might complicate that—while an individual living in the rural Midwest might have several Lutheran congregations in a 20 or 30 mile radius to choose from, including choices between which ELCA or WELS congregation to attend, whereas a Unitarian Universalist or a Muslim or Jew might have only one choice, while the options might be the reverse in urban areas or on the coast—for the most part one chooses which church to attend out of consideration of the congregation more than anything else. Craig Dykstra notes

[Faith] communities have formative power in the lives of people, nurturing faith and giving shape to the quality and character of their spirits. Spirituality deepens in community, rather than in individualistic isolation. The beliefs, values, attitudes, stories, rituals, and moral practices of a faith community are the human forces most powerful in shaping a person’s spiritual journey. (83)

More than one researcher has noted that, all other elements being equal, what determines which church a person chooses to attend is his or her fellow congregants.

Once we’ve determined the ecclesia we must determine the message the ecclesia intends to spread. Dykstra writes:

The life of Christian faith is life in such intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that, as Paul says, we may live ‘in Christ” and that Christ is ‘in you’…Similarly, we are now free to live ‘according to the Spirit,’ so that ‘the Spirit of God dwells in you’…This is contrasted by Paul with life ‘according to the flesh’…The contrast is not one between life after death and our life on earth. Both life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh are forms of present, daily, bodily, human living. But life according to the flesh is life aimed at and directed by things that have no ultimate lasting value and power. ‘Life in Christ,’ ‘life according to the Spirit,’ is life-oriented, empowered, undergirded, and sustained by the Source of life itself. (23)

Modifying Dykstra’s message, it’s in the gratitude for what is bigger than ourselves, bigger than mere individual “birth-school-work-marriage-children-death” life itself, that we find a purpose that can bind us together. For Unitarian Universalists it is in the recognition that two people together are somehow greater than the sum of their parts. For Muslims it is in the adoration of the gift of life Allah bestows on each of us. For pagans it is in the interstices of the web of life of which people are themselves only one part.

This is being in community that acknowledges all of what one is rather than simply a part of what one is. It is looking for a community of challenge over a community of comfort. As Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore points out, “Truth-telling is not easy to hear, and it demands a response, whether by individual action or social policy.” Her example of one such hard-to-hear truth-telling comes from historian Vine Deloria, Jr., who charges in “Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches in America” that his addressees have “forced ‘opinions, myths, and superstitions on us…You have never chosen to know us. You have only come to us to confront and conquer us.’” Mullino Moore further notes that this “echoes the cries of South Africa and elsewhere, where generations of people have been denied basic human rights” (all quotes, 82).
Religious education should prepare people in the ecclesia to hear such questions, whether from Native Americans, the descendants of African slaves, undocumented workers and their children, the homeless and underemployed, and any of dozens of potential other aggrieved groups. It may not prepare them to answer those questions—it may be that the best answer is that they don’t have an answer—but it must give them the basics of what the aggrieved parties are referring to and that they have a right to be sore. It is in recognizing the legitimacy of these questions that religious education helps prepare citizens for the world of justice and equality they are trying to bring about.

How do we determine what is holy? And once we’ve determined what it is, how do we talk about it? It’s generally assumed that holiness differs according to the beliefs of individual faiths and to some extent that’s true. But while some of the particulars might differ—an icon is venerated by an Eastern Orthodox Church member while it is unconscionable to a conservative Muslim—the point is to find an agreed-upon perspective for all the members of the faith community without lapsing into lowest-common-denominatorness. Mullino Moore cites Orthodox tradition for her determination of what holy is (emphasis in the original): “[That] all of life is sacramental, that the church’s sacraments make visible the sacramentality of God’s creation, and that the human calling is to participate in the sacrament of life…[The] power of sacramentality and its interrelated movements…reveal holy presence in the rhythms of life” (217). My only modification to this otherwise excellent definition would be a change from “God’s creation” to “reality.”

Religious education, in order to make plain the opportunity for learners to hear the questions that should be demanded of them, must emphasize the holiness of life and experience. Everyone’s life and everyone’s experience. Dykstra notes exactly the sorts of questions that we ought to be prepared for: “Of what value are human beings, and how is that value secured? What is worth dying for? What is worth staying alive for? How should our lives be spent?” (7). If, as Mullino Moore points out, holiness is found in the very “rhythms of life,” the stuffness of daily, average life—and I think it is—then it’s in that very experience of everyone’s daily life, its celebrations and atonements, that learners begin to articulate what holiness is.

Finally, it’s in putting together these elements that religious education teaches learners what it is that their communities of justice and equality ought to look like and how they ought to behave. Dykstra’s retelling of Philip Haillie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed provides an excellent and realistic example of the way these elements can be melded and the use to which that melding can be put. It is, he writes,

a story of how the gospel can be taught when the church comes alive to face both the dangers that beset it and the concrete needs and hungers of the specific world in which they live. It is a story of youth groups and schoolchildren, of classroom teachers and adult Bible study groups. It is a story of how worship and preaching and studying and acting all come together to make a community into a people of God. It is a story of how people read the Scriptures, lived their life with one another, and opened their doors to strangers as essential elements in their being the church in the world. But most of all it is the story of what happened to and in these people and in the world in the midst of what they themselves did. (57)

Part III: We can never be certain how our best intentions are going to be received—rather than flowers in the streets we may be greeted with looting and an endless war—and there’s no certainty that religious education delivered in this way will have the results we want. But there’s something to be said for trying and here are my hoped-for implications for this type of religious education.

Teaching religion this way, focusing on the ways, for instance, displaced people are treated by society and religion in order to provide context to understand the complaints of the aggrieved and, hopefully, a way to change it, can lead to greater participation by oppressed people in that church. Churches, especially in the US, have a long history of complicity in the way minority peoples have been treated as subjects rather than as persons by the majority. Being a place where such a history is addressed opens the church, and thus people, to healing. “People do not come to church in a vacuum; they come out of the totality of their lives. They bring the forces and experiences and needs of those lives to church” (Crain 1997, in Seymour, 101). When visitors feel addressed by church, that the church has something at stake regarding them, they become congregants.

The question of what’s holy is, for many churches, a matter of tradition rather than a matter of experience. We venerate the Bible not because of what it says to us but because our ancestors did. We venerate God in prayer not because of what God does in our lives but because we have been taught to punctuate services that way. Locating holiness in the everyday experiences of people lends those experiences not only familiarity but a sense of purpose outside routine. As Elizabeth Caldwell writes, in Christian terms, “Religious education seeks primarily to educate Christians for faithful living, for finding a balance between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary, between the sacraments in liturgy and the ways we live in response to our baptisms as we move out from the table where Jesus Christ is the host” (in Seymour, 80). Her example points up the benefit to be realized when the link between a duty and a sacrament (for instance) is bridged: “[learners] frame their lives in terms of a new way of seeing, hearing, sensing, being, and finally doing…” (80).

Ultimately, what may happen may be the actual discovery by adult and child learners that the world of justice and equality may actually be within their grasp, that it may be something they can actually bring about. Jack Seymour and Donald Miller articulate this hope:

While the problems of the world we address are complex and immense, we must address them through coalitions of people who are often very different from ourselves… Education empowers us to move from conversation to faithful living…[Religious] education fosters a movement theologically informed by the witnesses from the past to address the crucial personal and social issues of our day with faithful current analysis and a vision that is informed by the long-term history of God emerging in a people. [Religious] education provides open spaces to practice God’s presence and to share our lives and vulnerabilities in hospitality and love. (in Seymour, 120)

There is, of course, no guarantee that defining religious education in this way, as a means by which a church teaches its adult and child members how to make a world that’s more reflective of the just and equal world they want to be citizens of through determining the content of their communities, locating the holiness in those communities, and deciding on the appropriate behaviors and morals of its members, will lead to heaven on earth. But it’s certainly worth the attempt.

• Caldwell, Elizabeth. (1997.) “Religious Instruction: Homemaking.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.
• Crain, Margaret Ann. (1997.) “Listening to Churches: Christian Education in Congregational Life.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.
• Dykstra, Craig. (2005.) Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press.
• Mullino Moore, Mary Elizabeth. (2004.) Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland, OH; Pilgrim Press.
• Seymour, Jack and Donald Miller. (1997.) “Agenda for the Future.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.

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