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Teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions

Consultation report of a 19-23 October 2000 consultation in Geneva on "Concepts of teaching and learning in religions: teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions", held in cooperation with the German Comenius Institute "At this point in history, two main trends - globalization and pluralism - are the focus of the ecumenical movement, and are decisive elements influencing societies and all areas of education all over the world. Both trends present challenges and opportunites for intercultural and interreligious exchange and learning."

23 October 2000

Consultation organized by the Education and Ecumenical Formation and Interreligious Relations teams in cooperation with the Comenius-Institut, Münster, Germany
Geneva 19 - 23 October 2000

I An invitation for conversation

We are religious educators from Western European countries hosted by the World Council of Churches, Education and Ecumenical Formation Team gathered to reflect about the changing role of Religious Education (RE) in a time of growing pluralism. We were encouraged by the sharing of experiences from a variety of settings. Our work was given further impetus by the results of the WCC consultation in October 2000 held in Bangkok, where representatives of different faith traditions were brought together. Their willingness to work together in this area and the way in which shared spiritual concerns built bridges between participants give us hope for the future.

Our particular focus was teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions. We start from a position of acknowledging that in some situations Christianity is taught in a confessional context and in others as one religion among many. We also note that RE takes place in various settings, such as the family, congregations and educational institutions.

At this point in history two main trends are the focus of the ecumenical movement, globalisation and pluralism, which are decisive elements influencing societies and all areas of education all over the world. Both trends present challenges and opportunities for intercultural and interreligious exchange and learning

We now have more immediate contact with other ways of believing, knowing and behaving. There is a perception that cultural and religious differences lead to social conflict. For many, the increased exposure to other world views constitutes a threat instead of being seen as an enrichment.

In this context RE takes on a renewed importance. In societies where religious indifference, cultural intolerance and rapidly changing norms and values seem to prevail, RE can be the space in which young people learn how to deal with challenges to identity, manage conflict and develop sensitivity in interacting with difference. The task of conceptualising RE, in dialogue with other faith traditions is an essential way forward.

Those with whom we wish to engage in dialogue, often find themselves among the marginalised of our societies. This can make it difficult for them to enter any discussion on the basis of equality. Therefore it is a prerequisite for RE in dialogue with other religious traditions, that it addresses theological and sociological questions of justice. To go one step further, we would stress that RE needs not only to be rooted in a theology of dialogue but also in a theology of justice.

Aware of the confessional diversity of Christianity we also recognise that the presence in Western Europe of Christians with origins in other parts of the world, makes the presentation of Christianity as a multicultural and global religion a pressing need. To teach Christianity ecumenically in Europe is a statement against racism and ethnocentricity.

Given these observations, we can see a close relation between a RE in dialogue with other Faith traditions and the Decade to Overcome Violence, as decided by the VIIIth WCC assembly in Harare. We especially underline the goal of "working with communities of other faiths against the misuse of religious and ethnic identities in pluralistic societies". We believe that RE can play a vital role in achieving this goal

We address these emerging convictions of ours to you in the hope that you will enter with us into a wider process of sharing.

II Principles involved in teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions

Christian education and formation support the individual in the development of religious identity. This can contribute to the formation of social values and communal living. Teaching of Christianity should be based upon the following theological foundations:

  • The doctrine of creation as expressed in the value and human rights of everybody
  • the incarnation as the willingness of God to engage with humanity
  • compassion as learning in dialogue addressing the suffering of others
  • the prophetic tradition of challenging injustice
  • reconciliation and love.

Our confidence was reinforced by the Bangkok consultation where participants affirmed that their religious traditions also have important principles to offer.

As well as these resources, Christianity also has barriers to dialogue such as:

  • Exclusive truth claims
  • Church history which contains elements of anti-semitism, xenophobia, colonialism, sectarianism and sexism.
  • Attitudes of cultural superiority being justified theologically.

    Regarding this ambivalence within our own tradition, teaching Christianity in dialogue with others highlights the need for a wider discussion on a theology of religions.

Teaching Christianity should be sensitive to the reality that children studying RE may come from faith traditions where different learning styles are of importance and make use of the following didactic principles:

  • to give opportunities for face to face encounters
  • to elicit family and community support
  • to make links with the every day experience of the learner.

III Aims and objectives in teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions

Being aware of different learning contexts we promote the following objectives as requirements for enabling learning:

  • to focus on the perspective of the learner, taking particular account of the local situation
  • to create an environment which is supportive for a process of individual identity building respecting the otherness of others.
  • to enable learners to show respect toward different religious traditions and experiences, and the seriousness of different truth claims
  • to create a safe space for communication of religious differences
  • to allow each learner the freedom to disclose private experiences or not
  • to allow the learner to express their own religious experience in their own way, noting that no individual can represent the whole religious tradition.

IV A proposed way forward

We see the need for more reflection on a theology of religions, and a way to participate in the development of a Christian theology of RE. We would also like to promote discussion about ways to conceptualise teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions in the field of training teachers and clergy.

We therefore invite religious educators to send us reports, however brief, of their work in this area.

Geneva, Le Cénacle, 23 October 2000