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”

REA 2013 conference: pre-conference trip to DSNI

The pre-conference session for this year’s Religious Education Association was a trip to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury (Roxbury is a section of Boston). DSNI is a non-profit devoted to community-based planning and organization.

During our trip to DSNI, we learned that the Dudley area is poor — average annual income is about $12,300 — and its residents are primarily people of color, with about a third of the population 19 or younger. It’s also just two miles from the heart of downtown Boston, which says to me that it’s an area that’s ripe for gentrification (just as West Oakland is now being gentrified by young white people moving away from the high rents of San Francisco, forcing long time minority residents to move out).

Starting in the 1980s, the Dudley area was hit by a rash of arson, which resulted in large tracts of land left vacant. DSNI managed to get power of eminent domain within the limits of its neighborhood, and over the years they have acquired 32 acres of land which has been place in a community land trust. They then engaged in a community planning process, and built the kind of housing the community members really wanted. The houses are purchased by the residents, but the land continues to be owned by DSNI, in order to keep the housing affordable and to prevent gentrification that would force out long-time residents.

But what’s really remarkable about DSNI, and the real reason we made a trip to see what they’re doing, is that they reserve four seats on their 35-member Board of Directors for youth aged 15-17. They also have a Youth Council which engages youth in community organizing, and they give substantial power to the youth to plan projects, manage budgets, etc. Youth are mentored into leadership by adult community members, and the whole organization supports them as they mature skills as leaders. Significantly, these youth stay with DSNI as adults, either as volunteers or paid staff, and a couple of their former youth have moved into wider city or state politics as a result of their DSNI experience.

(Parenthetical note: As I was hearing about the way DSNI does youth empowerment, I couldn’t help thinking about what is called youth empowerment in Unitarian Universalist circles. DSNI youth are empowered to work in the wider community, working towards sustainable economic development, working for things like better housing and food security; the youth have an outward focus, tackling real-world problems. Unitarian Universalist youth ministry “empowers” youth to run weekend-long events for themselves; the youth wind up having an inward focus, where they support each other. Of course, the same thing happens in many adult Unitarian Universalist communities and congregations: we also maintain an inward focus, training our adult leaders mostly to run programs for ourselves.)

It was a good trip — hearing DSNI staffer May Louie speak about what they do and how they do it, seeing their accomplishments, getting the faith-based perspective of Father Walter Waldron, pastor of nearby Saint Patrick’s Parish in Roxbury. I just wish I had been able to learn more about how they mentor and empower youth to do real-world community organizing and project management.


After spending six hours learning about and visiting DSNI, six of us went out to dinner in downtown Waltham. We all know some of the best conversations at conferences take place in the informal interactions you have with other conferees; and tonight’s dinner conversations were both inspiring and helpful. Charles Chesnavage, who teaches at a Catholic high school in New York City, told us about his interfaith work in Yonkers, including regular meetings with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim interfaith partners. We asked the Catholics at the table what they thought of the new pope. Someone whose name I didn’t catch (the restaurant was noisy) heard I was a Unitarian and said Sophia Lyon Fahs was one of her inspirations, and we talked about the need for some kind of lab school for religious education, along the lines of what Fahs did at Union Theological School in the 1920s.

Perhaps most interesting moment from my point of view was listening to Leslie A. Long of Oklahoma City University talking about her work training lay youth workers for small congregations. She emphasized the need to train and retain older adults who will stay with youth work for the long haul, helping teens build intergenerational connections. (I couldn’t help but notice similarities between her approach and the approach of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.) I was also struck by her comment that research shows what youth are looking for is intergenerational connection and mentoring, while the usual model of youth ministry that looks like fun and games and parties is failing both youth and congregations.

That’s just the pre-conference session; the real conference starts tomorrow — and already I have learned enough to justify taking this time away from my local congregation.

Whining and complaining post

I need to whine and complain about one of my professional associations, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). Not everyone likes to read whining, complaining posts; therefore I’m warning you right at the beginning so you can skip this post if you want.

Continue reading “Whining and complaining post”

REA conference, part seven

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. Continue reading “REA conference, part seven”

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”