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Multifaith consultation on religious education

Letter from the participants in a multifaith consultation on religious education held in Bangkok 11-15 October, 2000, to colleagues engaged in religious education within all our religious communities and in educational institutions.

15 October 2000

held in Bangkok 11-15 October, 2000

to colleagues engaged in religious education within all our religious communities and in educational institutions

Bangkok, 15 October 2000

Dear colleagues in education in all our various religious traditions...

" Slowly but surely the global consumerist culture is making deep inroads into the religious life of our people; it is doubtful that the generations that come after us would be as deeply committed to our religious traditions as we and our parents have been," said one of the Sikh participants at our meeting.

" We as a family have regularly participated in Christian worship, and we have encouraged our children to attend the Sunday school regularly. But I doubt that the kind of religious education given to our children would have any lasting impact on their religious life," lamented a Christian participant, observing that perhaps all our religious traditions are losing the influence and impact they have had on the lives of people.

"I am from an Orthodox Jewish home, and our children have all been exposed to that religious and cultural reality. But as my children become teenagers, I could observe the tremendous impact the global youth culture is having on them. Our religious traditions seem to be losing their capacity to inspire and attract the younger generations".

Even though these were experiences of persons from specific religious traditions, everyone present in the room found that each of the statements made above resonated with the experience of their own religious community.

We had gathered as religious educators from six of the major religious traditions of the world. During our five days of discussion we became aware that all of our religious traditions faced similar issues and problems and that many of these problems can be addressed if we have in place an effective religious education which is relevant to our contemporary multi-religious world.

We therefore paid particular attention to what religious education might offer in the context of religious plurality by drawing upon the wisdom and resources of all of our religious traditions.

We address this letter to you hoping that what we have learned will be of interest to you. We also invite you to become partners with us in a continuing wider global conversation on the challenges we face and how we might address them together as educators in our respective religious communities.

Who are we?

We are a small group drawn from the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities and from one of the Indigenous Religious Traditions of the Philippines (unfortunately the Hindus invited were unable to attend at the last moment).

Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, we were able to have two of the local religious leaders, a Buddhist and a Christian, share with us the challenges they face in a nation drawn deeply into the forces of modernization. The words of our Buddhist speaker echoed those of the Sikh, Christian and Jewish speakers referred to above. He told us that although Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country and its culture is seeped in the teachings of the Buddha dharma it has become very difficult, individually and socially, to practice the basic tenets of Buddhism- compassion, nonviolence and selflessness- in a society that is constantly being allured by the promises of a consumerist culture

Variety of understandings of religious education

During our discussions we realized that there was great diversity in our understanding of what we meant by religious education. In some cases the purpose of religious education was to pass on the religious tradition through formal instruction in classes, through memorizing texts, sermons, and activities such as camps. Religious instruction was particularly important when an individual was being prepared for full membership of the religious community concerned. In others, religious beliefs are transmitted through a gradual process of immersion into the religious life of the community. In some traditions, the practice of spiritual disciplines enables the individual to achieve the intended goals of life. In some countries religious education takes place through the secular day school system and this may offer instruction in all the traditions of that particular country.

Although aware of these diversities, we all agreed that these activities are ways in which people are strengthened and can grow in their spiritual life.

If this were true, are they still able to form and transform people in the context of our contemporary life? Has, for example, the impact of the technological, consumerist culture, the weakening of the authority of religion over people’s lives and the changing patterns of family life, influenced the processes of teaching and learning? Does religious plurality require religious education which is not confined to one religious tradition?

During these five days we have learned from one another’s experience and explored new ways of bringing a renewed vitality to an educational system which is relevant to today’s society. What follows is the substance of our findings.

Focus of religious education

  • Religious education as traditionally taught, focusing mainly on memorizing texts, doctrines, concepts, beliefs and rituals can limit, control or restrict the full spiritual development of the person. Religious education, to be effective, needs to go beyond these traditional methods and also to be experiential, engage the senses, liberating and life-enhancing.
  • To be effective religious education should be contextual and address the individual’s needs, enabling them to relate to and address the issues and challenges of today’s society, while also being sensitive to needs of others.

Religious Education and Identity

  • One of the roles of religion has been to provide an individual with an identity thus giving a solid foundation from which he or she can develop and act as a free person.
  • However, religious identities can create narrow, exclusive, and rival communities, leading to both racial and religious prejudice, confrontation and sometimes violence.
  • While affirming the value of religious identity, we must also recognize the interdependence of all of life and the mutual dependence of communities within the larger human community. Religious education therefore needs to look at ways of fostering religious identity as interdependent and relational in the context of our relationship with God/Absolute.

Religious education and the challenge of new contexts

We focused on religious plurality and its implications to religious education. Within our traditions we have the texts and value affirmations that can help us to understand and interpret our tradition in order to relate creatively to religious plurality.

  • It is part of the task of religious education to affirm the positive common ground within our diversities and discern ways of understanding reality that exclude, promote divisions and foster violence, and enable us to confront the misuse of power and social and religious injustice. This may mean daring to explore alternative methods of education.
  • Religious education should include the recognition of the indigenous religious traditions, their self-understanding, their spirituality and the political and economic reality of their communities.
  • Freedom, human dignity, justice and recognition of all peoples, particularly minorities, are spiritual issues that need to be addressed by the religious traditions, through religious education.

Religious education and multi-faith education

Education only in and about one’s own tradition deprives people of the richness and diversity of the human community. Knowledge and experience of the religious lives of those among whom we live help us to have a feel of what it means to be part of the wider human community.

We should have at least a basic knowledge of the beliefs and practices of other religious traditions and it is essential that those preparing and presenting this knowledge are competent followers of the different traditions. This will avoid prejudice and misperception enabling us to understand how other religious traditions relate to our own, which is crucial to the formation of our attitude to others and their spiritual lives.

  • We recognize that such knowledge and understanding of each other is never fully realized except in actual relationships, which are truly fostered only when they engage together on common issues and in concrete actions. In this way communities discover common values and principles they would want to affirm together. There are increasing number of people who hold that such an affirmation of commonly held values is at the heart of our search for peace and harmony in a troubled world.

Adventure of Faith

We had come to Bangkok with a modest project of sharing as persons of different religious communities the values and concepts of learning. We discovered that we not only had common problems in the area of religious education, but that we needed each other both to clarify the issues and to seek ways to address them. As we lived together and shared our lives at deeper levels we also became aware that our religious education and learnings would never be complete unless we have found ways to understand and make sense of one another’s spiritual traditions as part of our own spiritual journeys and adventures of faith.

We believe that there are important dimensions of religious education here that might speak to your own situation as well. It is this conviction that has impelled us to invite you to be partners and fellow pilgrims with us as we continue to engage in this process.

Whilst the World Council of Churches was able to facilitate this consultation, we hope that the different religious traditions together will take up the discussion at regional, national and local levels. The World Council of Churches will be glad to receive your responses and help disseminate them more widely.

the participants from the consultation
on inter-religious learning