New Books: Inspiring Faith in Schools

The Ashgate series Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology is producing some good work. The latest is Inspiring Faith in Schools:

Inspiring Faith in Schools addresses the privileging of secularism that appears to affect RE in countries influenced by modern western thought. The authors argue that a more engaging form of RE would emerge if religious life were to inhabit centre stage. Currently religious faith is made to hover in the wings awaiting the call to face the inquisitorial challenge of the modern day enquirer. The consequent relationship between pupil and the Divine as the purpose of study is then already intrinsically irreligious, as indicated in the Book of Job by putting God in the dock, whereas it is the pupil who should be (cross-)examining his or her life. What are the ways of exciting and engaging the young so that they begin to entertain the possibility of religious life as a genuine option for themselves? Leading scholars in philosophy and theology from the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA come together to address these questions together with RE experts. Marius Felderhof writes an Afterword summing up the challenges faced by such a re-visioning of RE.

Secularism, schools and religious education , Brenda Watson
Understanding, belief and truth, Joe Houston
Confession and reason, Ieuan Lloyd
Religious education and committed openness, Elmer Thiessen
Religious education in Australia and New Zealand, Grant Maple.

Religious education from Spens to Swann, Penny Thompson
Religious education and the misrepresentation of religion, Philip Barnes
Religious education, atheism and deception, Marius Felderhof
Can 'skills' help religious education?, William K. Kay
Is there anything religious about religious education any more?, Joe Fleming

Dismembering and remembering religious education, John Sullivan
On the grammar of religious discourse and education, David Carr
Religious education through the language of religion, Iris Yob
Religious education and liberal nurture, Andrew Wright
Crossing the divide?, Jeff Astley

Afterword, M.C. Felderhof

Visit to a gurdwara and a lesson in hospitality

Wagin_2 Regular readers of my blog may remember that I asked a few weeks ago whether people thought it was ok for christian youth groups to visit other different religious places of worship. The reason behind the question was we were planning a visit to a local gurdwara and it had caused some discussion within my church. Tonight we took our young people to visit and we had a fantastic time. Having taught little bits about Sikhism over the last three years in RE lessons, it was great to hear and see what it means to be Sikh from a Sikh. We entered the main worship hall and were given a short talk on the basics tenets of Sikhism before a question and answer time. Our young people asked some great questions and their was a good atmosphere. We then through into the langar, where we served food and drink. The hospitality was amazing. The generosity was humbling. The langar is open 24/7 to serve the community. You can get a meal at any time. The guardwara exists for the community, to enable it to learn (the meaning of the word 'sikh' is 'learner'), to worship and to serve it. Is this not the calling of the church? I was left asking how do we serve the community and enable it to learn and worship? What would it take to have our church open as a place of hospitality to the stranger? This is something that monastries do, but most of our churches only serve the community when it suits us. It seems to me that where other religions - Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism - have better resisted the assualts of Western culture, especially its consumerism, Christianity has, in the main, crumbled and become in many places and in many ways in distinguishable from the world. The church must be open to learn from other religious faiths and how they witness to the world. The question of religions and the Christian emphasis on the particularity of Jesus Christ still taxes me. My experience this year of Buddhism and Sikhism, makes me wonder at the words of Jesus when he says 'the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes' (John 3.8).

responding to the problem of evil

9780802829979_l The problem of evil is a topic that many school students will encounter in their RE classes at school. Its a regular topic, which I've introduced to year 7 (11-12yr olds), year 9 (13-14yr olds) and GCSE classes (14-16yr olds). I know its also look at in many a-level (16-18yr olds) syllabuses. Its also one of those frequently asked questions by those who question belief in God. Yesterday I got myself a copy of Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil by John Swinton (HT to jim gordon). What makes this book different is that rather than trying to establish arguments in defence of God and attempt to explain possibles causes of evil and suffering, he instead attempts to 'present ways in which evil and suffering can be resisted and transformed by the Christian community' and so he's interested in 'how we can build communities that absorb suffering and enable faithful living even in the midst of evil' (4). The argument of the book outlines four christian practices - lament, forgiveness, thoughtfulness and friendship - which he argues 'sustain faith in a loving and powerful God and encourage hope that life has meaning and purpose, despite the way things appear' (244). Philosophical responses remain utlimately unsatisfactory to the person or persons experiencing or facing evil and suffering. It will be interesting to see how the argument of the book would work in the classroom

Tom Wright on Religious Education

But in schools it seems to me that the teaching of religion in the broadest sense is vital. We live in a world where religion of all sorts is making a comeback, even where secularism thought it had won the field.

It isn't, in other words, just a small-scale and rather odd private hobby, but something which affects the lives of millions. It is as vital to a young person growing up to understand what religion is and how it functions as it is to understand geography, electricity or biology.

Full article here from Newsweek


indoctrination, education & God

I heard Terence Copley, professor of education at the university of Exeter lecture today on indoctrination.  He began by asking would we know if we were being indoctrinated? He wants to argue, I think rightly, that the UK education system indoctrinates young people into secularism, where religion is marginalised, omitted or excluded. In contrast he argues that all good RE is the opposite to indoctrination and is about giving young people wisdom and choice. Indoctrination is teaching that God must exist or must not exist, whereas RE should be about the possibility of God. For more see his book Indoctrination, education and God (2005, SPCK)

The Story of God

On Sunday I watched the first episode in the BBC's new series called the Story of God. Presented by Robert Winston (not an immediately obvious choice) it is a 3-part look at how different religions conceive God  and where the roots in their differing theologies come from. The first programme was part introduction, part description of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. This Sunday (7pm, BBC1) will look at the three great monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the following week will look at how the rise of science has impact beliefs in and about God. I found it well made and certainly of potential use in the RE classroom. It will be interesting to look at how they present that which Jews, Christians and Muslims hold in common about God and that which they differ on.

Elusive Peace

Tonight I watched a new BBC2 series called Elusive Peace about the peace process between Israel and Palestine. It's been in the press, because in a later episode Bush tells someone (can't remember who) that he believed God told him to invade Aghastian, Iraq and everything else. Tonight's episode was about Clinton's failed attempt to broker peace between Barak and Arafat in 1999-2000. It was really interesting hearing what was going on behind scenes and how things got close and then someone got cold feet or intervened (e.g. first Sharon and then later Chirac) to ruin chances. After Christmas I'm looking at the whole question on Jerusalem with my year 8 class. So this is good preparation.

I wonder if the title 'elusive peace' will always be true about the situation or whether things will change and peace will be achieved. I'm not sure if it does whether it will be a real peace - a reconciliation between two enemies. I do wonder if everyone took their religion - whether it is Jewish, Islamic or Chrisitan - more seriously and found a way beyond buildings, peace could be made and Jerusalem could be light to the world in how to live with difference.

Should RE be scrapped?

Yesterday's Sunday Times had an article in its Review section by Chris Woodhead called Let's Banish God from the Classroom. He argued that RE is often so poorly taught that it cannot reach the aspirations of QCA and that  knowledge devoid of experience means RE is often worthless. He writes, 'It is the pusillanimity of the politicians responsible for what is taught in schools who approve the teaching of knowledge about different faiths, but who recoil nervously from the prospect of offering children any experience of that complex of doctrine, worship, ritual and prayer which is religion.'  Has an RE teacher do I think RE should be scrapped? Would the time be spent elsewhere? Does RE teach anything meaningful about religion?

RE that teaches the "facts" of the six major world religion is pointless, because its knowledge without the understanding or experience of what it means to be religious. Equally the idea that there is something which we can define as "religious" is false, different religions or worldviews (here I include postmodernism, humanism, etc) are different. Andy Wright writes that contemporary religion is

‘a set of ambiguous, competing and often overlapping narratives about the true nature of reality’ (Wright, 1996a: 173)

According to Wright, religion is concerned with claims to truth, to describing the world in certain categories.  Too often, Wright says, contemporary religious education tends to approach ‘openness to difference on a purely cultural level, requiring students to empathise with the life-styles of adherents of a range of religious traditions, but not to engage directly with the question of truth of their accounts of the ultimate order-of-things (Religion, Education and Post-modernity (2004) London, RoutledgeFalmer, p.226).  That is, RE is taught without any sense of controversy; we avoid asking the question, 'but is this or that true?'.

Good RE is needed more than ever in our present climate - our young people need to recognise the difference between a Muslim and a Muslim terrorist and even ask the question can you be a Muslim and a terrorist? Good RE puts religion in the public arena. RE, along with every subject in school, should be focused on transforming the lives of pupils, to widen their horizon and encourage them to articulate and own their worldview and also recognise that others have an alternative worldview, with which we can engage.  Good RE, Wright says, will have 3 virtues: honesty, receptivity and wisdom. With regard to receptivity, he writes,

'The virtue of receptivity requires students to become sensitive not merely to their own thoughts, feelings, narratives and meanings, but also to those of the other individuals, groups, narratives they encounter … If such receptivity is genuine then it will enable students to feel the full impact of alternative worldviews, and demand an informed and reflective response to them ... Receptivity to difference brings us face to face with a complex and ambiguous world, one that we can only hope to begin to understand by learning to become wiser persons (224)

That is a huge task for those who teach RE and recognises that we need more specialist RE teachers, who are honest about the agenda they bring to the classroom, but model receptivity and wisdom. That is, when I teach I am not out to rubbish Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other religion or worldview. In fact, the better question to ask is what can we learn from the Hindu, the Muslim or the Buddhist, but also with the willingness to ask questions of truth.

Over this last year I learnt, that perhaps more than any other subject, their is wide variety in how RE is taught, both historically and in the present - some approaches tackle it through a fact study of each religion; others go for a more (postmodern) experience-orientated approach, where the distinctives of a religion are underplayed (see the recent Spirituality Shopper for a popular version of this); others remove any religion and turn the subject into a secular ethics course; while others, like Andy Wright, approach it through questions of truth, what is known as the critical-realist approach.

RE is a subject very much still working itself out, often on the fringes of a child's education, where perhaps it should take a more central place, informing the whole of a child's education.  RE at its best should enable pupils to become wiser and more open to those ideas or people who are different from them. RE at its best reduces the 'fear' of the 'other'.  Woodhead suggests that a national drive to up the profile of RE would fail, I think, it would be a good place to start.

For more by Andy Wright see:
Religion, Education and Postmodernity (2004)
‘The Contours of Critical Religious Education: knowledge, wisdom, truth,’ British Journal of Religious Education, 2003, 25(4): 279-91