On teaching about religion

— Midweek Meditations:
thoughts, inspiration and encouragement
from ACF community members —

This week at UWC Robert Bosch College, I begin teaching a unit on religion as part of the course ‘Theory of Knowledge’. It’s a theme that students can sign up for if they wish. I certainly find the relationship between knowledge and religion fascinating. The task before me is straightforward (leading six 1-hour long sessions with a dozen high school students), and discussion questions have been prescribed by the International Baccalaureate (i.e., what does religious knowledge contribute to knowledge overall; can there be religious knowledge independent of the culture that produces it; where do religious beliefs come from; is a global ethics desirable and possible?).

Still, I feel some trepidation as I prepare for the sessions. It’s a feeling that I’ve been unable to shake, despite reminding myself that knowledge and religion is a unit that I’ve already taught several times, each time satisfactorily. Why then am I anxious, even fearful? I’m not sure, but I suspect there are a few causes.

To start with, there’s the obvious concern about not knowing my stuff. This is common to all teaching, but in the context of religion, the concern seems the more real. There’s so much to know; this ‘area of knowledge’ incorporates a vast range of beliefs and systems, including varieties of theism, pantheism, and polytheism. Students are to learn through the unit about how different religions perceive the world and to learn about what ‘knowledge’ they promote. With this objective in mind, I think I’m wary of misunderstanding or misrepresenting others’ religion.

The consequences of ignorance about religious tenets, positions, or practices also seem to me the greater than with other optional themes being offered. I don’t think I’d be so concerned if I were teaching about ‘knowledge and technology’ or ‘knowledge and language’. Religion is a very important topic for RBC students (who are from 80 different nationalities) as it is generally for those outside western Europe (three-quarters of humankind profess to hold religious beliefs). It’s the subject of very personal and deeply held convictions and for many, it provides a background to all other knowledge that they have. Accordingly, I worry that I might misstep or misspeak and seriously offend someone’s sensibilities.

Third, teaching the unit is made trickier by the fact that the issues that arise from the relationship between knowledge and religion can be contentious. The emphasis in the sessions is, however, to be on sharing, understanding, and tolerance. Am I and more, the students really prepared to engage critically with these issues and at the same time to show respect and empathy toward the differing beliefs and opinions? Moreover, how can I ensure productive discussions, and what can I do if students don’t show those attitudes?

Finally, I teach the unit knowing that attempts at learning about, exchanging views and feelings on, as well as celebrating the diversity of religions worldwide have historically had limited to no success, in international and local contexts. Typically, pluralists, those who believe that other religions are true by their own light, are few and far between. Will my attempt at the College also prove pointless?

Reflecting on these causes of my trepidation, I wonder whether I am ultimately concerned about something that underlies them all. Could it be that being an Anglican (or a Christian) might hinder my teaching about religion well? I do have a particular position in relation to non-members / believers, namely holding that our church espouses the ‘truth’ (and that we are called to proclaim it). Might that not increase the likelihood of my being ignorant, giving offence, or failing at this interreligious dialogue?

The ACF Midweek Meditations
are written by a diverse group of our church members with the intention to seek God’s fingerprints in our lives. They range from somber to humorous and are inspired by all facets of live and faith. Written by ordinary people from all walks of life, they reflect a wide range of Christian backgrounds and spiritualities.

Each week’s text portrays the individual viewpoint of its author. They might not always resonate with everyone, and are not meant to be understood as representing the Anglican Church Freiburg as a whole. Yet, as a church that is aiming to ‘Build a Community of Grace’ we seek to practice learning from and listening to one another.

We pray that these humble ponderings add a small spark of blessing to your week.

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