Some miscellaneous notes on, and information from, the Religious Education Association annual conference:
The conference proceedings are online, an consist of working papers presented at the conference in Research Interest Groups and Colloquia:
One of the pleasures of attending the conference was seeing luminaries in the field of religious education like Gabriel Moran and Thomas Groome; these are people who wrote books and articles that were formative in my own development as a religious educator. I also enjoyed hearing the REA archivist’s report, in which he talked about previous REA members who had also influenced me. It was also affecting to hear about the death of Harold Burgess when recently deceased REA members were recognized before Saturday night’s banquet; Burgess’s Models of Religious Education was a very important book for me in my first five years working as a Director of Religious Education.
While I enjoyed talking with everyone I met at the conference, I did wish there were a few more congregationally-based practitioners. The REA is a unique organization that combines practitioners with scholars; and this combination is productive for both parties. But there are definitely more scholars than practitioners, and at times I felt the conference was a little heavy on the theory.
The REA could also use a few more people who are neither mainline Protestants nor Roman Catholics nor evangelical Christians. I met only a couple of Jews, and one Muslim, and even they are comfortable with the notion of a single god. Where are the Buddhists, the Hindus, the humanists, the neo-Pagans, those who participate in Orisia devotion?
I believe it would be good for the field to challenge the assumption that God and the Christian scriptures are normative in religious education; I think this assumption restricts the horizons of the field, and it also hinders inter-religious dialogue. Bringing in more religious educators with non-Christian viewpoints could, I suspect, prompt some really interesting new research, and fruitful inter-religious dialogue.
I found Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s talk on Saturday evening to be disappointing. Hagerty is the author of Fingerprints of God: In Search of the Science of Spirituality. As a journalist, she has wide knowledge of the realm of neuroscience, and is able to report intelligently and in detail about neuroscience research that relates to religion.
However, I found Hagerty’s implicit definition and understanding of religion to be Western-centric, and more specifically Christian-centric. Her use of the word “God” was confusing, for it seemed to have more than one meaning. In her usage, “God” could mean: mystical experiences; other non-mystical religious experiences; a divine being of the Christian tradition; a more generalized divine being; and sometimes she seemed to mix more than one meaning together. She also seemed unaware of the diversity of Christian theology; for example, she assumed that all Christian theologies allow the same degree of free will, that all Christian theologies treat sin in the same way, etc.
Thus while Hagerty’s reporting of neuroscience research appeared to be detailed and interesting, when she spoke about religion she seemed much less trustworthy to me. She seemed not to reflect at all on her Western and Christian bias, and therefore I did not feel she was as objective in her reporting as I would have liked. Even as a Christian, she seemed bound within a somewhat narrow subset of Christianity, and not particularly knowledgeable about the huge diversity of Christianity. Hagerty also seemed to have little exposure to, or awareness of, non-Western religious traditions, let alone religious traditions that fall outside the East-West divide (such as Orisia devotion). Since I found her unreliable on the topic of religion, I began to have doubts about her reliability on the topic of neuroscience.
To end on a positive note:
While waiting for the airport shuttle, I talked at some length with a doctoral candidate. He said that one of the things he likes best about the REA is that it is much less competitive than other similar academic organizations. I agree: the REA is characterized by a cooperative feeling: we’re all in this together.
And now I’m on my way home from the conference, full of information and ideas and new possibilities. This has been an immersive experience; now it’s time for some neural consolidation, as I try to digest all these new thoughts.