Part one: Link
I began this essay by saying that the very title of this little essay is an absurdity, because you don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. Yet at the same time we all know that we do indeed have to teach kids how to be religious. They may be inherently religious, but we know that we also have to teach them how to be religious. I think I can be a little more precise in that statement: Children, all persons, are inherently religious; but children, and all persons, can only be fully religious within community.
To say this flies in the face of common beliefs in the West, particularly in the United States. Here in the United States, we trumpet our idea that each human being is an individual unto himself or herself; we proclaim that like the cowboy gunslingers of our national mythos we can only rely on ourselves; we say that like the free-market economics which motivate us that individuals, not families or communities, are the primary unit of our society.
Here in the United States, religious education has been reduced to developmental psychology; it has been reduced to “lifespan faith development.” In this reductionist model, we have one primary method for teaching children how to be religious: we separate them by age, and teach them from a curriculum based on their “developmental stage.” We have become extreme followers of Jean Piaget, assuming that children are like little scientists who figure everything out on their own; and if they fail to live up to our expectations, we label them “developmentally delayed” and imply they are somehow less than fully human.
I find it sadly ironic that religious liberals bemoan the evils of development — housing developments that drive out family farms, economic development overseas that kills off local economies, etc. — while in our own congregations we “develop” our children. No wonder our children do not return to our congregations when they get older:– the contradiction is too much to stomach.
Years ago, John Westerhoff asked the question, “will our children have faith?” in his book by that name. Today, we have not yet learned how to teach our kids to be religious, and we are still asking that same question. If we are going to answer that question, we have to get beyond our limited, reductionistic models and methods for teaching kids to be religious.
And when I say “we,” I mean you and me:– not denominational officials, not ministers or professional religious educators, not parents, but everyone who considers herself or himself a person of faith. We have to abandon our overly individualistic notions of what it means to be religious, acknowledging that religion has to take place in a community that includes human beings and the transcendent (and probably other living beings too, but that’s a topic for another essay). When you say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual, and that’s why I don’t go to church [or to temple, or whatever]”, you are being overly individualistic, you are maintaining an attitude that will diminish the human community that nurtures individuals into faith, and therefore you are indirectly but in a very real sense preventing children from learning how to be religious — to be blunt, you are being selfish and you are killing religion. You and I cannot delegate the teaching of religion to someone else, hiding behind the insights of psychology in order to do so:– “Children learn best in Sunday school classes, taught by paid teachers, so I don’t need to get involved.” The very fact that you and I are religious (or spiritual, if you prefer that term) means that we are teachers of religion, and we had better shoulder that responsibility.
Teaching kids to be religious is a complex task, one that cannot be reduced to one sentence. Yet when we look at how and why we are failing our children, maybe we can sum that up in one sentence: We are not taking responsibility, as a whole community, for our children. Fortunately, you can change that situation: show up, take responsibility, learn how to teach our kids to be religious.
End of series