Religious education differs vastly from faith formation
Opinion:There’s an important distinction to be made between how religious teachings are introduced in a church, mosque or synagogue, and how such teachings are to be introduced in schools.
Where this difference is overlooked, there is a danger that the need to distinguish between educational experience and faith formation will be similarly disregarded. Both generally involve systematic learning. And religious teachings can feature in both. But, properly understood, educational experience is mainly exploratory in character while faith formation is, from the start, evangelising in purpose and in practice.
The distinction here is not simply one of “learning about” religion on the one hand and being nurtured in the teachings of a particular faith on the other. Genuine educational experience is always more than “learning about”.
As well as a deepening of conceptual understanding or an advance in knowledge, it involves some appreciation of the significance of what is learned for one’s sense of personal identity, for one’s efforts to find an enduring sense of orientation and belonging in a world shared with others.
Where Christianity is concerned, a keen awareness of the distinction I’m highlighting can be discerned in the teaching activities of Jesus Christ, as documented in the synoptic Gospels. But the distinction seems subsequently to have become eclipsed in the history of institutionalised Christianity, from imperial Rome to Reformation and thereafter. The distinction is all but obliterated by the concept of “school patronage” – a remnant that still burdens educational policy and practice in 21st-century Ireland.
Jesus Christ used strikingly different approaches when dealing with “disciples” on the one hand and “multitudes” on the other. Here’s how Matthew tells it: “All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes; and without parables he did not speak to them.” (Matthew 13:34).
Mark’s account is similarly unequivocal: “And with many such parables he spoke to them the word, according as they were able to hear. And without parable he did not speak unto them; but apart, he explained all things to his disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34).
“Multitudes” were heterogeneous groupings – what today we might describe as groups containing a wide plurality of values and beliefs. The term “disciples”, then and now, refers to already well-disposed and eager believers. Viewed from a religion perspective, most Irish schools today, including faith schools, are populated more by multitudes than by disciples. That is probably as true of the teachers as of the students.
Teaching in parables
Speaking to multitudes only in parables seems to have been a decisive, even a categorical strategy on Christ’s part. As a teaching approach, parables draw imaginatively on life’s troubles and triumphs. They seek to illustrate important points in a memorable way, yet in one that makes no presumptions on the loyalties or convictions of the hearers.
Jesus Christ set up no schools. The teaching episodes described in the Gospels are all informal, whether with disciples or with multitudes. Of course Christ’s purposes were evangelising ones. But where multitudes were concerned, his practices were invitational and exploratory. The concept of school patronage, and its preoccupation with control, is properly a foreigner to Christian missionary endeavour.