REA Conference, part six

“Diversity and Neuroscience” was the title of the fifth plenary session of the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA). Moderator Harold Horell introduced the panel discussion with two questions:

— What are the implications of neuroscience for the field of religious education? — and
— How did the presentations and conversations address the racially and ethnically diverse constituencies of the Religious Education Association?

Claire Smith of Saint Paul School of Theology was the first panelist to speak. “I found in this conference an awareness of the issues of diversity,” she said, “and a concern to include all.” She gave several specific examples, e.g., the recognition of native peoples in the opening ritual.

While there was a general awareness of diversity issues within the REA, Smith offered two cautions.

First, much of the brain research we have is provisional, and “we should not treat it as gospel.” In spite of this caution, Smith said that there is much that comes out of this research that are important for our work as religious educators. Continue reading “REA Conference, part six”

REA conference, part five

During the Saturday afternoon breakout session of the Religious Education Association annual conference, I attended a workshop titled “Practical Neuroscience for the Pews”; it was led by Mary Cheng and Alan Weissenbacher, both doctoral candidates at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Of the six people who participated in this workshop, three were full-time practitioners working in local congregations: a catechist serving a Roman Catholic parish outside Toronto, a pastor serving a Uniting Church congregation near Brisbane, Australia, and me, a minister of religious education from California. Another participant was associated with Fordham, but she also served in a local congregation, and I believe at least one other participant also served a Catholic parish. The workshop leaders encouraged full participation from the rest of us and allowed the conversation to range widely; as a result, this report may seem a little disjointed. However, the workshop seemed anything but disjointed: at the end, several of us agreed that it was by far the best presentation yet.

Goals and ends

Weissenbacher and Cheng began by asking us to consider what our goals are as religious educators, and to consider how brain science gets us to our goals. Then Weissenbacher asked a provocative question: If we use brain science to reach our religious education goals, how are we different from those who use brain science to practice mind control? Does what we are doing lay the foundation for more intrusive mind control techniques? He said that key difference is that religious educators (ethical ones, anyway) respect the agency of the people they are educating; furthermore, religious educators will be quite open about the techniques they are using. Continue reading “REA conference, part five”

REA conference, part four

The fourth plenary session of the annual Religious Education Association conference was devoted to “lightning talks,” five-minute presentations by scholars on their work in progress. I’ll give brief overviews of three of the lightning talks that I found of particular interest; and I’ll add one more quick overview of current research at the end.

Mark Hayse of MidAmerica Nazarene University spoke about his current research in theology and technology, and in particular about his study of video games from a theological perspective. He said that there is a tension in video games between narrative or story, and procedures and rules. He also said that video games provide an interesting bridge between religious education and technological studies. In his research, he draws on the work of Dwayne Hubner and others regarding the synthesis of the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Hayse said his research has raised some challenging questions, including the following: Continue reading “REA conference, part four”

REA conference, part three

For the Saturday morning breakout sessions at the Religious Education Association annual conference, I went to Ryan Gardner’s presentation titled “Improving Teacher Reflection in the Religious Education Classroom.” Gardner is doing his Ph.D. research on how paid religious education teachers at the Latter Day Saints Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (S&I).

Gardner introduced his work on teacher reflection with a quote from Joseph Smith, who once wrote about “serious reflection and great uneasiness.” Gardner suggested that often serious reflection by religious education teachers can often lead to great uneasiness. Certainly, this has been my experience supervising volunteer teachers, and I found it very interesting to talk about how serious reflection may often lead to greater uneasiness for teachers, at least in the short term.

His doctoral dissertation aims to come up with a practical, useable model for teacher reflection. He has recently concluded a research phase, where he did intensive qualitative field research of six S&I teachers, trying to determine what kinds of reflection they engaged in as teachers. He led us through his theoretical approach, and wound up presenting us with an instrument for teacher reflection. Continue reading “REA conference, part three”

REA conference, part two

During the Friday afternoon breakout sessions of the annual Religious Education Association conference, I went to a colloquium that included three different presentations, on quite different subjects.

The first presentation was titled “Deepening Pedagogy to Adolescents,” and was presented by Carmichael Crutchfield of Memphis Theological Seminary, whose research area is African American adolescents.

Crutchfield began by quoting A Winter’s Tale where Shakespeare has a shepherd say that the most troublesome time in a person’s life is between the ages of 10 and 23:

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting… [Act III, scene iii]

This is just the time that neuroscientists now tell us that our brains are going through some major developments. He then read a passage which described how young people no longer treat their elders with respect — and then revealed that this very contemporary-sounding passage was actually written 2,500 years ago by Plato. So adolescence has long been a challenging time of life. “We are called, as practical theologians,” said Crutchfield, to “better understand adolescents.” Continue reading “REA conference, part two”

REA conference, part one

Near Toronto

David Hogue spoke on the topic “Practicing Religion, Forming the Faithful” in the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association (REA) Annual Meeting for 2011. Hogue is a professor at Garrick Evangelical in Evanston, Illinois, and has research interests in ritual, liturgy, pastoral care, and brain science. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Hogue gave a brief orientation to the physiology of the brain from the point of view of a practical theologian. He also pointed out that neuroscience is investigating questions that religions have been pondering for a long time. He believes both science and religion can contribute productively to an ongoing investigation of these questions.

Hogue said he is convinced that experiences of spirituality are grounded in experiences of everyday living, and in particular he’s interested in storytelling, memory, and human relationships. These three areas are also topics of interest to neuroscience. Rather than discuss “spirituality” per se, he chose to focus on these three specific areas to engage religious education with neuroscience. Continue reading “REA conference, part one”

Toronto, I think

I’m in Toronto for the annual Religious Education Association annual meeting. This year’s topic is neuroscience and cognitive science as applied to religious education.

I say I’m in Toronto, except that the conference is in an airport hotel, which looks like every other airport hotel I’ve ever been in. The only way I know that I’m really in Toronto, and not in San Francisco, is that the airport had bilingual French and English signs.

Isaac Asimov on sex education

In his memoir I. Asimov, the writer Isaac Asimov has this to say about sex education:

Considering how important sex is,how great a source of joy, how enormous a source of misery and disease, how it permeates the working of courtship and marriage, isn’t it strange that we go to great lengths to teach our children to play football and make no effort whatever to teach them to play sex?

Any attempt to introduce sex education classes into the school curriculum is always met with fierce opposition. The feeling among those who oppose it (after you strip off the hypocrisies of “morality”) is that learning about sex will encourage youngsters to experiment with it and lead to unwanted pregnancies and disease.

To me, this seems ridiculous. Nothing on earth can stop youngsters from experimenting with sex unless they are kept so brutally in ignorance and captivity that their lives are distorted and ruined. By stripping away the mysteries of sex and treating it openly, the act is robbed of illegality, of its attraction as “forbidden fruit.” In my opinion, good knowledge of all aspects of sex, including proper methods of contraception and hygiene, will actually reduce unwanted pregnancies and disease.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Pangu and the beginning of the universe

Another story for liberal religious kids; this time, from Chinese mythology.

At the beginning, there was little difference between heaven and earth. All was chaos, and heaven and earth had no distinct forms, like the inside of a chicken’s egg. Within this chaos, the god Pangu was born inside the egg.

Pangu grew and grew inside the egg. After 18,000 years, the egg somehow opened up. Some say that Pangu stretched himself inside the egg, and shattered the egg’s shell into pieces.

Once the egg had shattered open, the lightest part of it, the part that was like the white of a chicken’s egg, rose upwards, and became the heavens. The heavier part of the egg, like the yolk of a chicken’s egg, sank downwards and became the earth. Pangu took a hammer and an adze, and cut the connections between earth and the heavens. Then to keep earth and the heavens from merging together once again, Pangu stood between them, serving as the pillar that kept them apart.

Pangu lived within earth and the heavens, standing between them. And one day he began to transform. He became more sacred than the earth, and he became more divine than the heavens. The heavens began to rise, going up one zhang, or about ten feet, each day. The earth began to grow thicker, thickening by one zhang each day. And as the heavens rose, so too Pangu grew; he grew one zhang taller each day. And this continued for 18,000 years: each day, the earth grew thicker, and the heavens rose higher, and Pangu grew taller. Continue reading “Pangu and the beginning of the universe”

The Moon and the hare

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story, from an extinct language group in Southern Africa, offers an explanation for the beginnings of death.

The original language this story was told in was the |Xam language, which is now extinct. The people who spoke this language are part of a larger ethnic group commonly referred to as “Bushmen”; in academic circles, the term “San” is used. Both names may have pejorative connotations for the people to whom they refer; I have chosen to use the academic term.

———

When the San people first saw the new moon, they would look towards it, and put their hands over their eyes, and say this:

“Star, O Star, yonder in the sky!
Take my face there. You shall give me my face there.
When you have died, Moon, you return, alive again;
We no longer saw you, and then you came again.
Take my face that I may resemble you.
You always return, alive again, after we lose sight of you.
It was the hare that told you that you should do this.
It used to be that you told us that we also should return,
Alive again, after we had died.”

Having said this prayer, once a man of the San people named Dia!kwain followed the prayer by telling this story:

In the beginning, the hares looked much like a human beings. And when they died, they did not die forever, for after a time they would return to living once again. Continue reading “The Moon and the hare”