Wednesday, December 7, 2011

teach naked

this is an essay written for a class on christian education expanding on an earlier essay defining the term.
“Now I Know Why I am an Orthodox Jew”

A recent issue of The Jewish Review of Books contains this anecdote to make clearer late neo-conservative founder Irving Kristol’s identification as a Jew “with an abiding interest in and respect for religion” first and as a political creature second.

A good clue to the answer [why he identified himself as a “neo-Orthodox Jew”] can be found in one of his later essays…Kristol there recounts an experience that his wife [Gertrude Himmelfarb] had while teaching a graduate course on British political thought in which she had spent several sessions on the writings of Edmund Burke. At the end of one class, she was approached by a “quiet and industrious” young woman. “Now,” this student said, “I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.” Needless to say, this wasn’t because Burke had supplied an incontrovertible proof that the Oral Torah had been revealed at Mt. Sinai. “What she meant was that she could now defend Orthodoxy in terms that made sense to the non-Orthodox, because she could now defend a strong deference to tradition, which is the keystone of any orthodoxy, in the language of rational secular discourse, which was the language in which Burke wrote.” (Soloveichik, 19)

This lengthy quote explains nicely, I think, what religious education ought to do: to inculcate in the educated not the dogma of the religion but a way of explaining what it is he or she believes to the non-member of the faith. As Judith Berling writes, “We not only learn through conversation, but we learn how to converse” (emphasis in original; 80). In my previous essay for this class, “We are Church when We are Gathered, We are Church when We are Dispersed,” I defined religious education as follows:

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.

To this I would now add that in addition to helping the student make sense of the world it should also help her or him to explain to others how he or she sees the world. For many students, one of the most important questions revolves around how they can affect the world (hopefully, in a positive fashion). Craig Dykstra’s retelling of Philip Haillie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, for example, provides

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)

I’ve argued that 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 expect students to ask: “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 Mary Elizabeth 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.

For the graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class, holiness resided in her ability to articulate her faith to someone outside it. To make this particular to my faith, in his pamphlet entitled Should My Child Go to Sunday School?, Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Larsen explains

We teach our children what Unitarian Universalism stands for today so that when people ask them about their faith, they can feel confident answering [their] questions. We help them understand that the inspiration of the divine is to be found not in one book but in many; that we are born not in sin but with the potential for goodness; that the doctrine of hell implies a cruel god, and salvation for members of only one religion would be unjust; and that we have a duty to cherish the earth and revere life instead of sitting back and waiting for some divinely sanctioned cataclysm to come and end it all.

I came to UUism in my 30s. While I spent time with various faiths between them, including Krishna Consciousness, Buddhism and Catholicism, I was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, a religiously and socially orthodox group for whom religious education is based

upon the philosophy that students at all levels of schooling possess individuality and should be educated to use their God-given capacities to become individuals of principle, qualified for any position of life. Education was to begin in the home where the basic values of redemptive discipline and mental and physical health were to be balanced with the importance of work…Adventists have embraced the philosophy that education should be redemptive in nature, for the purpose of restoring human beings to the image of God, our Creator. Mental, physical, social, and spiritual health, intellectual growth, and service to humanity form [its essential] core of values…(

My memories of my childhood Christian education at what we called Saturday School reflect some of this. I remember quite distinctly the emphasis on work and thrift as well as vegetarianism (for physical health) without which I would be unfit for the Kingdom of God, although I don’t recall a redemptive nature to my schooling. It may have been there and I was too young to appreciate it, although I also recognize a strong redemptive flavor to much of my current theology that may have originated there.

I locate much of my theology of religious education in articulating what is holy. To quote Mullino Moore, who cites Orthodox tradition for her definition: “[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” (emphasis in the original; 217). I would modify this otherwise excellent definition to reflect my UU perspective by substituting “reality” for “God’s creation.” I am especially influenced in this latter view by Joyce Ann Mercer’s early comment distinguishing practical theology from academic exercises.

For example, practical theologians are not content with abstract proclamations that God cares for all persons as God’s children. Practical theologians ask about the meaning of God’s parentlike care for children in contexts in which particular children experience pain and suffering. They work out visions of such children experiencing and manifesting that care in their everyday lives. They combine such visions with action strategies effecting transformation. (12)

Or, as she writes more succinctly later, “The suffering of children must be acknowledged and addressed…” (244). To paraphrase Jurgen Moltmann, a theology that doesn’t take into account the suffering and pain of children—and in religious terms, we are all God’s children—has nothing to say to us.

Doing this brings into sharp relief my earlier assertion that religious education, in addition to helping people sort out and articulate what they believe, also has to give them the opportunity to determine what the beliefs and actions a moral community of which they want to be a part should include. This attempts to answer questions put by Mark Yaconelli:

What would it mean if the goal of our ministries was simply to be prayerfully present to young people—to allow them to be fully themselves? Could we trust that our presence is enough? How would we treat youth if we weren’t trying to convince them of the importance of the faith, the worthiness of Jesus, the necessity fo the church? What would happen if we sought to minister to young people through our ears, through our presence, through silent prayer and an open heart? What would such radical acceptance evoke in young people? (122)

In her pamphlet UU Religious Education and Your Child, Gaia Brown quotes Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in response to a similar question, “How can you teach without doctrine?”

“The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds irresistibly upon the young but to stir up their own…to touch inward springs.” We have a strong faith in the inherent spirituality of children and see it as our task to nurture, not to indoctrinate. Our respect for the children teaches them respect—for themselves, for others, and for this fragile interdependent web of which we are all a part.

An emphasis on the concerns and experiences of students, supporting their abilities for recognizing the holy in existence, a trust in their abilities to come to sound conclusions, identifying themselves as individuals of principle and helping them to articulate to other people of faith what that means: I would argue that the result of such religious education will look and sound a lot like the experience of that graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class. “Now…I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.”

• (2011.) “Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Education.” The Official Site of the Seventh-Day Adventist World Church. Accessed November 30, 2011, at
• Berling, Judith. (2004.) Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books.
• Brown, Gaia. (Undated.) UU Religious Education and Your Child: Frequently Asked Questions. Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Dykstra, Craig. (2005.) Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press.
• Larsen, Tony. (1993.) Should My Child Go to Sunday School? Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Mullino Moore, Mary Elizabeth. (2004.) Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland, OH; Pilgrim Press.
• Soloveichik, Meir. (2011.) “Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke, and the Rabbis: [A Review of] The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009 by Irving Kristol.” The Jewish Review of Books. Volume 2, number 2; Summer 2011. 19-21.
• Yaconelli, Mark. (2006.) Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan.

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