Teaching is creating a community where truth is discovered. –Parker Palmer
Imagine this: You walk into a room full of people, most of whom you’ve never met. You come from different parts of the United States, and also from different parts of the world. Some of the people in the room come from a similar background and hold a similar worldview to your own. However, you are positive that there are many in the room who look at the world much differently, and who hold assumptions about faith, community, and identity in a much different way than you. You know you’ll disagree on more than one of these assumptions. Additionally, you’ve entered the room to engage in a topic with which you personally have very little experience, but you’re also pretty sure that a lot of the folks in the room have years and years of experience to draw from. And before anyone has officially met anyone else or begun a conversation around that topic, you have all committed to spending over 30 hours together in a five-day period.
Does that sound fun or what? Because that was a pretty accurate, although simplified, description of my experience last week!
During the month of January, Andover Newton has a winter session, during which students can opt to enroll in a two-week or a one-week intensive course before the spring semester begins. Several courses are offered during this time and I chose a class on religious education called “Teaching In and Across Religious Traditions.” What made this course unique was the fact that it was co-taught by a professor from Andover Newton and a rabbi from Hebrew College, the institution with which we share a campus. The students enrolled in the class were Jewish students from HC, and Christian and Unitarian Universalist students from ANTS. So in addition to exploring and practicing the art of religious education within our own faiths, we also discussed what is to be learned from interfaith encounters and ministries.
Obviously, it was an intense week; to fit an entire semester’s worth of class time, required reading, and assignments into five days was exhausting! There are so many moments and experiences that I would love to share with you: the little “interfaith moments” that occurred when one student would mention some aspect of their faith tradition and another student of a different faith would interrupt to ask a question or ask for an elaboration; the afternoon we spent visiting and observing classrooms, teachers, and students at a Jewish day school in the area; the various lessons that our small groups prepared throughout the week and then taught the class; the evening interfaith panel with guests sharing about teaching and learning in the presence of the religious “other;” the afternoon we learned from the Hebrew College students about the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat and then celebrated with a mini Seder in class…just to name a few!
For the sake of my own learning and hopefully to sum up my experiences and takeaways, I will share with you an adaptation of a short essay I wrote in class on the last day. As a result of our class discussions and learning opportunities, we were asked to reflect on our perception of ourselves as religious educators both within our own faith traditions and in exploring interactions and encounters across faith traditions. As you can see, I started this response timidly but eventually came to a stronger and more confident understanding by the end:
This is a hard question for me to answer, because truthfully I’ve never thought of myself as an educator, let alone a religious educator. I suppose after this week I see myself as a question-poser. This isn’t really a surprise, coming from the fact that in my Meyers Briggs profile, I am an N for Intuition, which means that in making sense of my day-to-day experiences, I am likely to interpret events in terms of inherent possibility for the future. I tend to value questions and speculation such as, “What if…”, “What might happen if…”, or “What this could mean is…” rather than definitive or absolute answers.
In class this week we talked a lot about education as question- or problem-posing. Educator and thinker Paulo Freire preferred the type of education that poses questions or problems and then invites creative response from the community. Jewish intellectual and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most common response to questions in the classroom was, “Is that the right question?” Within the Christian tradition, when Jesus was asked a question by one of his disciples or followers, more often than not, he responded by asking another question. (Perhaps this was also a reflection of his Jewish-ness!)
Additionally, over the past six months of seminary, I have come to understand the jurisdiction of the minister as meaning-making. So perhaps my role as a religious educator is helping others to create and pose questions of meaning in community. In this way, the religious educator is not that much different from the minister. [ This probably isn’t a surprise, but cut me some slack here… I’m learning! 🙂 ]
I also want to take seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. The Sermon on the Mount is a beloved part of the Christian scriptures and it is especially valued in the Church of the Brethren. Jesus’ words in verse 9 come from what have been called the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Personally, I look at the violence and animosity in this world as stemming, in part, from intolerance and hatred across religious and ideological differences. If I am to be a peacemaker as Christ calls me to be, I must take seriously this problem and use my framework and authority as a minister to educate and plant seeds of religious literacy, respect, and cooperation in Christians for other faith traditions.
In summation, standing on a foundation of my question-posing orientation, I understand my role as a religious educator to be one of opening up possibilities of both meaning-making within my own tradition and of living in peace with our religious and non-religious neighbors.
I feel so blessed to have experienced this time of sacred encounter with my religious neighbors, and I am still full with the lessons and stories shared throughout the week. As always, I am deeply grateful for your support and especially for your prayers during this challenging yet rewarding phase of my ministry journey. Thank you, thank you, thank you!