Is it possible to construct
a form of Religious Education for Schools
that Sea of Faith Networkers
Would be happy about?
I am assuming that SOFN members would not be happy with what is called 'confessional Religious Education', i.e. the kind of RE which is 'teaching for belief', either explicitly - as a missionary activity, or implicitly - teaching one particular religion in such a way that its beliefs are assumed to be the truth. Confessional RE was the traditional form of the subject for many decades in the UK, and it is still the most widely used approach to the subject in schools with a religious foundation (whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim).
What then is the alternative? I want to suggest a form of the subject which is more appropriately called Religious Studies. Its approach is objective. It involves teacher and students in bracketing out their own beliefs (a method known as epoché) and attempting to stand in other people's shoes, trying to understand what particular beliefs and practices mean to those people ('eidetic vision'). Teachers will, of course, have their own beliefs, and students may well be engaged in working out their beliefs, or they may have accepted the beliefs of their parents (religious or non-religious), and individuals will respond in different ways to what they discover about religions, but they will first attempt to understand why certain beliefs and practices are significant for the adherents of a religion.
The purpose of Religious Studies is not to advocate a particular religion - but neither is it to put obstacles in the way of young people developing their own religious commitment. The function of Religious Studies, as of the other areas of the curriculum, is educational, and it should provide an excellent foundation on which a family and a faith community of any religion - or none - can build.
There are a number of factors that have to be taken into account when planning Religious Studies in schools:
1) The aim of the subject, and the aims of each of the schemes of work that make up the total syllabus. Aimless teaching is not good teaching! I consider the following to be an appropriate aim for Religious Studies:
To enable students, by the time they leave secondary school, to understand the nature of religion and its expression and influence in the lives of individuals and society.
This involves teaching about more than one religion. As far back as 1873 the scholar Friedrich Max Muller claimed that the person who knows only one religion does not know any religion - an adaptation of the poet Goethe's saying, 'He who knows one language, knows none'. For example, those who know only Christianity are likely to assume that the role of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, is similar to that of the Bible. In fact, it is quite different. The Qur'an has the same place in Islam that the person of Christ has in Christianity.
So back to our aim. One thing that an aim does is to give us criteria for the selection of material. If we just said that we wanted to teach world religions, we would not have any criteria for deciding which religions to include, or how to construct an effective syllabus.
2) The nature of the objectives that need to be met if the aim is to be achieved. An aim is by nature general. It has to be broken down into more concrete objectives. Four sets of objectives are appropriate for the above aim. In order to understand the nature of religion students will need to:
a) acquire a knowledge of religions, especially the way in which beliefs are expressed through the phenomena of religions: places and forms of worship, festivals, sacred writings, pilgrimage, rituals and customs, rites of passage, ethical systems and community traditions, and in and through all of these: symbol, story, music, visual arts, etc.
b) explore and reflect on those aspects of human experience which give rise to ultimate questions. Ultimate questions are those questions to which there are no provable answers in the human sciences (such as, Is there any meaning in life? Is death the end? What does it mean to be human? How does one come to terms with evil and suffering?) Religions - and non-religious systems such as Humanism - offer answers to ultimate questions, and reflection on human experience (often best done through good fiction) is a prerequisite for understanding the answers religions give.
c) master appropriate skills: understanding the uses of language in religion, having the ability to handle literary and historical material, understanding the use of non-verbal expression in religion, e.g., music, the visual arts, dance, ritual, symbolism.
d) develop sensitive attitudes: accepting and respecting differences, respecting religion as a significant element in human experience, learning to stand in other people's shoes.
3) The age and ability of the students. For example, it is a waste of time trying to get students in the concrete stage of thinking to handle abstract concepts. Even worse, the resulting distortion of concepts means that it is very difficult to escape from the distortions later. Most of the population of NZ are living proof of confusion about Christianity, in spite of so many having been to Sunday School, or had religious education in school under the scheme run by the Churches' Education Commission. It is important to ask, what is the optimum age at which to teach something, not asking how early we can teach it.
4) The background of the students. This should not affect the aim of the subject, but our approach and our starting point may well be different. For example, a particular school in Auckland with 31 different language groups represented, will have a richness to draw on straight away: students will be able to contribute to lessons from their own cultural and religious background.
5) The integrity of the subject. 'Getting it right' at every stage is very important indeed. If material has to be simplified so much that it becomes simplistic, then it is wrong for that age group. One criterion is whether students can master the appropriate terminology, and understand the significance of key concepts for the adherents of the religion being studied.
I have chosen religious language and sacred writings - one of the skills objectives and one of the knowledge objectives - to illustrate, very much in outline, the way in which aspects of religions can be structured so that students' understanding is gradually built up.
For younger primary school children the most important thing is that they should gain confidence in handling language, especially in articulating what is significant to them. This is, of course, already an integral part of any good primary school's practice. In the upper part of the primary school boys and girls are fascinated by the different ways in which words are used, e.g. puns, codes, etc., and this is the stage at which they are learning to distinguish different types of literature: myth, legend, fable, allegory - and I would include parable. They are also learning about signs and symbols, and I would include religious symbols, and also introduce the idea of the use of symbolic language in religion, e.g., the biblical 'angel' and 'cloud'.
For twelve or thirteen year olds, a scheme of work on 'Asking questions' could help students to distinguish different types of questions - empirical, aesthetic, ethical, religious - and the appropriate methods for trying to discover answers. Fourteen or fifteen year olds might tackle 'What is belief?', exploring the different ways in which we use the word 'belief', and what role there is for verification of such beliefs.
Sixteen to seventeen year olds could build on the foundation of these schemes of work to undertake a study of the nature of religious language, distinguishing particularly the use of language in theology and worship from its use in a religion's everyday activities.
I am assuming as an aim: enabling students to recognise the role and significance of sacred writings in religions.
First, however, a reminder that
a) sacred writings are interpreted writings; they belong within communities of faith, and they are authoritative only within those communities of faith,
and b) all sacred writings were originally addressed to adults, and although parts of some of them may be appropriate for children and young people (especially within the particular community of faith), on the whole they require adult experience for any adequate understanding of their significance.
For a summary of attainment targets for sacred writings, I am drawing on material we prepared for Cambridgeshire teachers in 1992. We suggested that pupils should:
5-7 year olds - listen to a variety of types of literature, including stories from religious traditions
- begin to be aware that some books/writings are 'special' to some groups of people
7-11 year olds - begin to understand the characteristics and use of different kinds of literature,
e.g. myth, legend, poetry, parable.
- know something of the language and script, and use within religious
communities, of some sacred writings
11-14 year olds - learn how and why respect is shown to sacred writings, both within religious
communities and in the wider community, e.g. their relationship to culture
- develop the ability to recognise the symbolic use of language and explore how it
14-16 year olds - be familiar with some of the issues for believers in interpreting sacred writings
- examine sacred texts as sources of religious perspectives on personal and social issues
- undertake more detailed examination of selected texts
16-18 year olds - examine the controversies generated by the contrast between 'orthodox' and
'liberal' interpretations of sacred writings
- explore the relationship of sacred writings to the historical and cultural roots of religions.
The Christian Bible
This is probably the most difficult area for teachers who have had experience of teaching either in sunday school or in schools as voluntary religious education teachers. The two reminders above are particularly relevant here. In religious studies the Christian Bible is not regarded as more authoritative than other sacred writings - except, of course, for Christians.
There are several paths which should be followed in building up an understanding of the Christian Bible. One is through learning about the social, historical and geographical background which is often taken for granted in the text, but without which the text cannot be properly understood by people of a different culture and a different age. This could take the form of straight background schemes of work - life in Bible times - but a more effective approach is through a study of the great biblical images. An appropriate sequence is: Shepherd (nomadic life) for 7-8 year olds, Bread (the life of the farmer) for 8-9 year olds, Water (both nomadic and settled way of life) for 9-11 year olds, Light for 11-13 year olds, Fire for 13-15 year olds, Pilgrim People for 15-18 year olds. These schemes of work would involve learning about the way of life out of which the images emerged. Students would become familiar with parts of the Bible that are normally not encountered in conventional schemes - or in Bible Stories for children - and they would gradually build up their knowledge until, in Pilgrim People, much of what they had learned in previous schemes would help them to tackle what is largely a historical study.
A second path leads to and through a study of the literature of the Bible. An essential foundation is the primary school's practice of making children aware that people use different types of writing for different purposes. The usual categories of factual description, myth, legend, fable, allegory, poetry, etc. need to be extended to include parable, and, at intermediate level, students could tackle the scheme, 'What is a gospel?' A recognition that the gospels are faith documents, not historical biographies, is an essential prerequisite for understanding the nature of the Christian scriptures, and the person of Jesus, especially his Jewishness.
An introduction to the transmission of biblical texts belongs ideally at the 10-13 age stage, with schemes on the discovery of manuscripts, particularly Sinaiticus and the Qumran scrolls. Even where there is no recognised subject of Religious Studies in a school, significant finds such as these could legitimately be included in a unit on archaeology, which normally features in the curriculum for this age group, at least in the UK.
Biblical translation is an appropriate study for 13-16 year olds, raising as it does the problem of finding exact equivalents for key terms in another language and for readers from a different culture. There are numerous examples that would appeal to adolescents, e.g., the old Swahili-speaking priest who, helping a translator of the Psalms, and being faced with 'Purge me with hyssop', finally suggested for a people who did not use purgatives and had never seen hyssop, 'Scrub me with sandsoap', or the Inuit dilemma over 'Lamb of God' in a country with no sheep, and their eventual replacement of it with 'Baby seal of God'. Biblical examples could easily be included in a study that involved understanding other cultures.
Senior forms should be able to undertake a study of the issues arising from interpretation of scriptural texts (though this is not an area that lends itself to isolated illustrations included in a general study). Conservative and radical, orthodox and liberal positions would be presented, along with the rationale that each group would want to make for its own position. This contrasts with traditional teaching, in which one position is given more favourable treatment than others.
The third path to an understanding of the Christian Bible leads through the use that Christians make of their scriptures. This is easier to demonstrate than the nature of the literature, especially for younger students, because of its concrete expression. A visit to a church, perhaps as part of a primary school study of the neighbourhood, makes pupils aware of the centrality of the Bible in Christian worship. They should also be aware of the stories that Christians re-tell at the heart of their major festivals.
Growing up in a religion is an appropriate scheme of work for 11-14 year olds, and Growing up in Christianity would obviously include the place of the Bible in the young person's experience.
Rites of passage provide a most important window into a religion's beliefs, and while birth and initiation rites are best dealt with in a study of growing up in a religion (because they don't lend themselves to cross-cultural study), marriage and death can be schemes in their own right. I would tackle death first, because 13-15 year olds tend to be fascinated by questions about death and life after death, while marriage is more relevant to 15-17 year olds than to younger students. A rites of passage scheme would involve learning about the role of scriptures in rituals as well as discovering their teaching.
I have been outlining an approach to Religious Studies as a subject in its own right. It is not realistic to think that such a subject could be introduced into NZ state schools in the near future. However, existing curriculum areas, especially Social Studies, English, Art, Music, give great scope for the inclusion of aspects of religion. The 1996 draft of 'Social Studies in the NZ Curriculum' includes Strand B: 'Culture and Heritage'. Culture and religion are inextricably interwoven; one can't understand a culture without an understaning of its religion - and vice versa. The Social Studies document states that from their study students will 'understand the bi-cultural identity and heritage of people in NZ and the cultures and heritages of communities within NZ's multicultural society'. This fits well within the aim for RS that I have suggested: to enable students to understand the nature of religion and its expression and influence in the lives of individuals and society.
Three brief examples, related to two of the four sets of objectives I mentioned earlier.
• Knowledge of religions Level 3 of the Social Studies curriculum expects students to 'describe and compare particular customs relating to . . . significant occasions for a range of cultural and religious groups within and beyond NZ', and mentions that possible topics include 'special events and seasons, such as Easter, Ramadan; rites of passage, such as Bar Mitzvah. . .; weddings'.
• Skills Level 3: 'investigate and present examples of how music and dance are used now and were used in the past, to express cultural identity among the groups in NZ's bi- and multicultural society', and suggestions include 'music for religious and spiritual ceremonies'.
• Level 5:
• 'explain the role of language in culture'.
So, I ask: Is this a form of RE that SOFiA members would be happy about? And, if so, what are we going to do about it?