REA 2013 conference: video on religious diversity

Hannah Markus, a doctoral candidate based at the Protestant Theological Univeristy in Amsterdam, and the Driestar Educatief in Gouda, Netherlands, was moderator for the showing of a four-part Dutch documentary that touches on the topics of pluralism and religion. Markus showed us the first two in the series, and I was particularly interested in the second one:

Living in the cultural and economic behemoth that is the United States, it can be difficult to find non-U.S. perspectives. For that reason, I found it very useful to see a Dutch perspective on globalization and diversity; it gives me some new insight into these trans-national issues.

REA 2013 conference: Dianne Moore

Dianne L. Moore, Senior Lecturer on Religious Studies and Education at Harvard Divinity School, was the speaker for the second plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) 2013 conference. She spoke on the topic “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach.” Moore chaired the Task Force on Religion in the Schools for the American Academy of Religion, which looked at teaching religion to grades K-12 in the public schools in the U.S. She is the author of Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Moore told us that in large part she was going to present the material that is in her book.

It quickly became clear to me that she was interested in teaching religious literacy in the schoolroom and in academia, not in the congregation. Her approach draws from religious studies, which tends to bracket the truth claims or other claims that religions make. As she puts it, she wants to distinguish between her approach and a devotional approach. However, in my own work as a religious educator working in a congregation, I can’t do that; e.g., my tradition has integrated feminist theology to a very large degree, and when I am teaching about another religious tradition that I feel denigrates women, I am going to say something critical about the sexism of that other religious tradition.

Nevertheless, in my own work, I do draw on the insights of religious studies and cultural studies, and I found Moore’s talk to be enlightening and useful. She reminded us that religious studies makes it clear that theological voices do not represent the tradition itself (i.e., James Luther Adams does not represent Unitarian Universalism any more than Charles Hartshorne does). Further, religions are internally diverse (thus Transylvanian Unitarians are very different from North American Unitarian Universalists), and indeed local religious communities can be internally diverse (e.g., my congregation contains both theists and atheists). Another key insight from religious studies is that religions change and evolve.

As an example of how not to teach religious literacy, Moore pointed to the common practice of teaching about Buddhism by referring to the Four Noble Truths — which practice ignores how Buddhism has evolved and is evolving, and how Buddhists may have internal differences.

Moore also gave some great examples of how religious illiteracy manifests itself. The following are examples of religious illiteracy:
— representing religions as static and unchanging rather than as diverse and evolving
— representing religious traditions as either wholly positive or wholly negative
— assuming that individual practitioners of a religious tradition are experts in their traditions (“Oh, let’s bring in an imam to tell us what Muslims believe”)
— assuming that religion is a private matter that can be kept out of the public sphere

I found this last point to be extremely important. Moore said that the notion that religion is solely a private matter, and that it can be kept out of public life, is “a legacy of the Enlightenment” that has become “very problematic.” By contrast, Moore asserts that religions do not reside in some separate sphere; they are “embedded in all dimensions of human experience.”

Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: Dianne Moore”

REA 2013 conference: Project Interfaith & RavelUnravel

During this afternoon’s breakout sessions, I went to a workshop led by Beth Katz, founder and executive director of Project Interfaith, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the growth of understanding and respect between people of different religious traditions.

In the workshop, Beth Katz introduced us to RavelUnravel, Project Interfaith’s online video project. This project has people of many different faiths responding to three basic questions: (1) What is your religious or spiritual identity? (2) What is a stereotype that impacts you based on your religious or spiritual identity? (3) How welcoming do you find our community [i.e., the place in which you live] to be? There are close to a thousand videos on their Web site, and Katz showed us this video as an example:

Project Interfaith has developed curriculum guides to go with the online videos, and during the workshop Katz asked us to review sections of the curriculum guide for college students.

It’s an impressive and well-designed curriculum, and some of the other workshop participants who work in academia were able to give some intelligent feedback. The most I was able to say was that I don’t think the curriculum would work particularly well in my setting, that is, in a local congregation. Nevertheless, I am excited by Project Interfaith’s online video resources, and am thinking these videos could be a resource for our congregation’s “Neighboring Faiths” curriculum.

REA 2013 conference: Marshall Ganz

Marshall Ganz was the main speaker at the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association annual conference. Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Ganz dropped out of college in 1964 to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Mississippi Summer project; following his time with SNCC he worked with Cesar Chavez for 18 years.

In order to talk about leadership and organizing, Ganz began by quoting Rabbi Hillel, from the Pirkei Avot: “Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14)

Ganz pointed out that the first of these questions is not about being selfish, but about caring for oneself. Hillel’s second question forces us to realize that we are inevitably wrapped up with others. And the third question prompts us to find a middle way between “jumping off a cliff” on the one hand, and getting ensnared by endless preparation on the other hand. Ganz said that these are questions, not answers — so Hillel was not urging us to assert control in order to avoid uncertainty, but rather to find purpose through “embracing uncertainty.”

Thus leadership is a set of practices in which the leader accepts responsibility, and enables others to achieve a purpose under conditions of uncertainty; leadership is also a form of social interaction. So leadership is less about a person or a position of authority than it is about purpose and real-world work that needs to be done. Continue reading “REA 2013 conference: Marshall Ganz”