“Full Week Faith” or “Will There Be Faith?”

I’ve just been checking out Karen Bellavance-Grace’s white paper “Full Week Faith: Rethinking Religious Education and Faith Formation Ministries for Twenty-First Century Unitarian Universalists.” If you read it, I think you’ll find that this paper is a pretty good summary of the debates that have been going on within Unitarian Universalism regarding the role of religious education. And that’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because Bellavance-Grace summarizes the debates nicely, and offers a positive way forward. It’s a weakness because the Unitarian Universalist conversation on religious education has gotten pretty narrow, and has not paid attention to a wider international, interfaith conversation about the role of religious education.

While reading Bellavance-Grace’s paper, I’ve also been reading Thomas Groome’s latest book, Will There Be Faith? and it’s worth making a brief comparison of the two.

Both writers are committed to religious education that is grounded in the experience of learners. But Groome goes further than Bellavance-Grace, and he says that it’s not enough talk about “experience,” because that doesn’t do full justice to the ability of learners to take charge of their own learning. Drawing on Paolo Friere’s work, Groome says he prefers the word “praxis,” by which he means real-world practical action that is more than social service or band-aid charity. As a left-wing Catholic, Groome stands to the left of Bellavance-Grace, particularly in his insistence that children should be active participants in their own learning, and in his insistence that doing education with children can (and should) effect real change in the wider society. So it’s great that Bellavance-Grace continues to be committed to the tradition of experience in education, as set forth by John Dewey a century ago, and it’s great that she updates it for the postmodern era. But Groome is in that same tradition, and he elaborates on Dewey using the insights of Paolo Friere, and then he takes it even further using his own shared praxis model. I find Bellavance-Grace to be a little too conservative for my tastes; Groome’s insistence of the preferential option for the poor, his insistence on the need to seriously challenge the world around us — I find these more in line with what my religious convictions demand of me.

Both writers are committed to educating children into a faith tradition. Groome explicitly acknowledges the insights of John Westerhof, who, at the first rumblings of postmodernism in the 1970s, was one of the first religious educators to point out the new need to explicitly teach children how to be a part of a faith tradition. Bellavance-Grace does not explicitly acknowledge Westerhof, but his influence is clear on her work. Both Bellavance-Grace and Groome come up with similar pedagogical approaches to educating children in faith — Bellavance-Grace calls her approach “experilearn,” and Groome calls his “life to Faith to life.” — and both these approaches emphasize the connection between the life of faith and the rest of the world. But Groome’s pedagogy is much more fully developed, and has a more practical orientation. Also, because his pedagogy is grounded in Friere, there’s a much stronger sense of how reflection and praxis are intertwined; you don’t just learn something then move on, you engage in the world, reflect on your engagement, then engage again, reflect again, and so on for a lifetime. Since I’m a working religious educator, I find Groome’s practical and more fully developed pedagogy to be far more useful.

So Bellavance-Grace and Groome are pretty close in terms of their educational philosophy, and either or both would be useful to Unitarian Universalist parents and religious educators. Unfortunately, many Unitarian Universalists will be turned off by Groome simply because he is a Christian and a Catholic; so many Unitarian Universalists still wear the blinders of anti-Christian and/or anti-Catholic prejudice (and I’ve never quite understood why John Roberto gets a pass from Unitarian Universalists when other Christian religious educators don’t). But while Bellavance-Grace’s paper is quite useful, I think she just doesn’t go far enough; and in the end she advocates a kind of top-down approach driven more by religious professionals than by parents and kids. Groome’s shared praxis approach takes us beyond John Dewey; I think he has a better grasp of the postmodern context; he offers lots more sound practical advice, advice for the grass-roots which will work for religious professionals, parents, and even for kids.

Yes, Bellavance-Grace represents state-of-the-art Unitarian Universalist religious education; she has nicely distilled current cutting-edge Unitarian Universalist religious education practice. The problem is that Unitarian Universalist religious educators are behind the times, and if we want to catch up, we’re going to have to look beyond our narrow borders.

REA 2013 conference: Tom Groome and a pedagogy for teaching religion

For the Sunday morning breakout session at the Religious Education Association conference, I attended Tom Groome’s workshop titled (somewhat mysteriously) “Teaching to ‘Learn From’ Religious Traditions.”

Groome began by asking the question: How do you go about teaching religion in the schools? What is an appropriate pedagogy? He said he wanted a pedagogy that could work in either a public school or a private school, with diverse student populations, a pedagogy in which one could teach any given religious tradition without proselytizing.

More specifically, he wanted to teach religion such that students would become better people within their own tradition (or within their lack of religious tradition). He told a story about a Muslim student named Mohammed who had been in his class on Catholicism at Boston College. Groome told Mohammed that he wanted him to become a better Muslim through learning about Catholicism from his Catholic professor. Some years later Mohammed told Groom that indeed he had become a better Muslim because of that class. This is Groome’s ideal for teaching religion in the schools.

Groome said that they Enlightenment gave us two option: we could learn about religion, or we could learn to become part of a given religion. These two options come, in part, from Katn’s distinction between pure and practical reason. However, Groome takes seriously the feminist eopistemologists who pointed out the objective viewpoint of Kant’s pure reason does not really exist — “there is no view from nowhere.” Thus Groome proposes a third option on which to base an appropriate pedagogy: to learn from religions for your own life.

In other words, Groome called for a pedagogy that would teach religions as “great spiritual wisdoms for life,” rather than presenting them as data or history. “They’re not just a cognitive exercise,” he said, but rather a way for students to learn from other traditions in order to enrich their own traditions.

As an example, he spoke about how one might teach about the Muslim practice of Zakat; this is the practice of giving away 2-1/2% of one’s capital each year to persons in need. This spiritual practice not only promotes charity, it also promotes non-attachment to material goods, and it teaches about the ultimate power of God (i.e., it is God who really owns whatever material possessions one has). Groome said if he were teaching Zakat, he might begin be having the students name what they know about people who are in need, and then teach them Zakat as one religious response to poverty and need. “The learning outcome,” he said, “is that you’re going to encourage their own discernment about poverty.”

The workshop participants engaged in lively discussion with Groome.

There was some discussion about Groome’s theoretical underpinnings for his pedagogy, and one participant (I didn’t get his name) could not agree with Groome’s tendency towards universalism, i.e., that there is a common thread running through all religions. However, after some discussion it seemed clear that even people like me who tend to follow Mark Heim and Stephen Prothero in asserting that religions do not have a universal end or goal could still effectively use Groome’s pedagogical approach.

I asked about assessing learning outcomes, and Groome acknowledged that you can’t test or assess for the student’s own feeling — i.e., you can’t assess whether they have become, or will become, more humane — but you can test them for the data. However, pedagogy need not be driven completely by assessment.

Catherine Owens of Episcopal Divinity School pointed out that so many young adults today are unaffiliated, and having no grounding in any religious tradition, they are “appropriating bits and pieces from religions” (I would be blunt, and say they are often misappopriating) to build their own spiritual life. Therefore, part of what we need to do is to, as it were, expose them to the real thing.

I was sitting next to Kevin Sandberg, and in the time for small group discussion he suggested a “pedagogy of friendship” to supplement Groome’s pedagogy. I liked this formulation, and am thinking about how one might teach using a “pedagogy of friendship.”

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”