How can religious education promote good relationships in the community?

Consultation for educators in religion
Aya Napa, Cyprus
29 November - 4 December, 2001

Forms of Religious Education which only recognise one faith tradition have come under severe challenge from the effects of the increased migration of people due to war, human rights violations or the multiple effects of globalisation. More people then ever before live in close contact with people of more than one faith traditions. Teaching of religion has to take this new context into account.

For Ecumenical Learning the field of inter-religious/inter-cultural encounter is a central issue. Though there is a long experience in this area for some countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, it is a fairly new insight and daily experience for many in the Northern Hemisphere. Participants in two recent consultation on "Learning in Religions" and "Concepts on Teaching and Learning in Religions" described some of the challenges.

At this point in history two main trends are in 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 inter-cultural and inter-religious 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.

(Final Statement from the Regional meeting on Concepts on Teaching and Learning in Religions Teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions, Geneva, 19-23 October 2000)

We recognise that such knowledge and understanding of each other is never fully realised 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.

(Participants of the global Interfaith Consultation on Concepts and Values of Learning in Religions, Bangkok, 11-15 October 2000)

It is here that Ecumenical Learning in the realm of inter-religious /inter-cultural learning, has a contribution to make in avoiding conflict, learning peace learning and building community.

Religious education in state education systems and in faith communities can be a factor in inter-communal mistrust, intolerance and violence. Children and adults may be left in ignorance about the belief and practice of the faith of their neighbours or even given a distorted view in order to reinforce the value of their own tradition. Ignorance and false myths are breeding grounds for communal violence.

The process of consultations we have mentioned above has raised questions about how education in religion can strengthen community life.

  • How can education in religion help us develop a sympathetic attitude towards, as well as know about, those who differ from us?
  • How can education in religion help develop a faith identity which stands alongside others rather than over against them?
  • How can religious education contribute to good, creative relationships in community and avoid "sectarianism"?
  • How can religious education be a tool for building integrated communities in strange and complex environments?

We believe that, in the context of the ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence and the UN initiated Peace Decade, reflecting such questions and contributing through Religious Education to an inclusive understanding of the Teaching of Religion, can be a help to promoting good relationships in communities and overcoming violent, mistrusting forms of encounter.

Dr Gert Rüppell