Fall 2016


Jack Seymour

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

In the late spring, Robert O’Gorman suggested a process for those of us in the senior scholar task force to prepare for our meeting at the November 2016 Religious Education Association. Bob suggested the following:

  • one of us in the senior scholar task force would write a brief essay on a topic,
  • two or three of us would be invited to respond, and
  • then all of us would be invited to add to the conversation.

Following the suggestion, Charles Foster provided an idea and followed with a provocative essay encouraging a re-articulation of the mission of religious education. In fact, he asks what unifies and focuses the field and discipline of religious education since it has multiple emphases: in religion, education, formation, theology, multi-faith communication, public advocacy, schooling, religious schooling.

The REA is a key place to explore these issues of mission as our field seeks to contribute to scholarship, faith formation, and public life. As we know, our academic discipline was defined by the conversations of the early participants in the REA. They saw religious education as a creative linking of education and religion — for the public good. In fact, the first issue of Religious Education in April of 1906 published an REA resolution defining the “threefold purpose of religious education:

”to inspire the educational forces of our country with the religious ideal: to inspire the religious forces of our country with the educational ideal; and to keep before the public the mind and ideal of Religious Education, and the sense of its need and value.” [Religious Education, 1 (April 1906):2]

While stated parochially as a U.S. conversation, the field spread internationally gathering up popular and scholarly conversations within faith communities and the countries they affected. Also while those first conventions were primarily Christian and “mainline,” the number of interfaith participants continued to grow. Both aspects of interfaith and international are at the heart of current discussions of religious education.

As the founders of our field entered the 20th century, they were concerned about the public good and the role that religion and education mutually played in shaping it. They thought the three had to work in symbiotic relationships for the good of society. This was nowhere better illustrated that in Education for Democracy written by Henry Cope, the first editor of Religious Education and the REA General Secretary (New York: Macmillan, 1920).

Yet, while these three terms education, religion, and the common good have been highlighted in conversations in the last 100 years, their relationship, or lack of relationship, is at the heart of today’s discussion. The following essay by Chuck Foster and the responses by Maureen O’Brien, Ronnie Prevost and Kathy Winings invite us into a conversation about how these three terms may be linked today. How do we define the mission of religious education?


Discussion Starter


Chuck Foster
Professor of Religion and Education, emeritus
Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Religious Education Association and its members is as old as the organization itself. It has to do with the attention given to both religion and education in the thinking and practices of its members. That challenge was central to the work of William Rainey Harper, John Dewey and George Albert Coe at the beginning of the 20th century. It certainly shaped the research and writing of my mentors Larry Cremin and Bob Lynn in the 1960’s. Today we face a different variation of that challenge. Our predecessors questioned neither the place or significance of religion or education nor their interdependence when they were writing and teaching. Yet, the question of their interdependence and contributions hovers in the background of the thinking and practice of most, if not all, contemporary religious educators in the academy and our communities of faith and observance.

What does it mean to engage the interplay of religion and education in theory or practice at a time like this:

  • when the notion of religion for many is identified with spirituality;
  • when religious identity for many in the western world is “none,” even as religious practice has intensified in many other parts of the world;
  • when the quest to protect religious particularity prevents significant inter-religious dialogue about education (note the resurgence of schooling in some religious traditions; fundamentalist movements in all religions; and the withdrawal of some Christian religious educators into the particularities of Christian practical theology); and
  • when in the world of higher education in Europe and North America, the place, role, and influence of religion is often ignored, identified with cultural or historical studies, or dismissed in courses and research projects?

In similar fashion what does it mean to engage the theory and practice at the heart of the interplay of religion and education

  • when education is subsumed under notions of formation;
  • when it is viewed primarily as schooling; and
  • when schooling has been transformed into corporate centers of commodified learning and learning is primarily associated with testing and measurement and directed to modes of productivity.

Given the interdependence of the contemporary global and local contexts for doing religious education, this challenge gives rise to the urgent need in religious education for a continuing re-articulation of its mission. At its heart this task is one of the “center” of religious education, that holds the field together so we can develop collaborative ways of theorizing and practicing religious education while at the same time energizing the development of theories and practices integral to the continuing development of its constitutive parts – religion, schooling, education, theology, faith practices, formation, interfaith education, public witness, etc.

What holds the field together?

During the past fifty years much of the attention of the REA has been focused on clarifying and distinguishing features integral to those constitutive parts, including at least:

  • religious education in and among the communities of various traditions of faith and observance,
  • religious education as faith formation,
  • multi-faith religious education,
  • inter-religious education,
  • teaching religion in schools, colleges and universities
  • religious education in the public square
  • religious education as practical theology, and
  • the professional preparation of religious educators to give intellectual and institutional leadership to the exercise of each of these foci of concern in the field of religious education

Generally missing, however, in the midst of all the energy we expend on each of these important religious education concerns is a lively conversation about

  • how they are related;
  • how the theories and practices integral to each links them in some cohesive and focused enterprise;
  • how the vitality and relevance of the distinctive approaches to religious education among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims are dependent on the vitality and relevance of the whole enterprise in a global religious economy; and
  • how the discourse among us might move beyond our guild to challenge the contemporary trend in much of the academic world to reduce religion to cultural studies and education to the production of learning and measurement.

This conversation about our mission, I would argue, is urgently needed to ensure not only a vital future for the field and this association; it is crucial to the future of our various religious communities, their thinkers and practitioners. We need in other words, religious education theoretical frameworks large and robust enough to fund both our particular and shared conversations. In a time when the study of religion is increasingly subsumed under or identified with cultural studies and education struggles with the impact of popular appropriation of corporation values of measurement and production in schooling in the training of teachers, and the organization and curriculum of schools, a robust and rigorous conversation in religious education may be one of the few sources of constructive critique to these trends in our faith traditions, in the academy, and in public life.


Maureen O’Brien
Associate Professor of Theology
Duquesne University

In reflecting on Chuck Foster’s wide-ranging and challenging statement, I find it hard to avoid the dizzying and overwhelming sense of the urgent needs raised there, and the corresponding responsibilities of religious educators. Chuck names many aspects of our field that show its rich history and variety of commitments over the decades. There is so much to celebrate in the accomplishments of religious educators, researchers and practitioners alike! And yet the issues we now face are real and growing, with the rapid and uncertain flux that characterizes postmodernity making our tasks ever more complex. He shows how our times are distinct and our efforts, while creative and energetic, require a greater coherence of purpose.

Chuck’s challenge is that REA should continue and heighten conversation about “develop[ing] religious education theoretical frameworks large and robust enough to fund both our particular and shared conversations.” Much of my own practice in parish ministry and academe has focused on the “particular” in his statement, while my membership in REA has continually reminded me of the need for the “shared” dimension. My response here will emphasize the latter, while seeking to honor and incorporate the former, in an effort to spur further conversation.

I draw especially on the classic framework developed (separately and together) by Maria Harris and Gabriel Moran, and some recent work by Tom Groome, to propose the following:

Religious education as a discipline coheres in the efforts of its scholar-practitioners to shape and reshape the forms through which we “learn from” religion and “learn with” others to cultivate and express our attention to an insistently beckoning “beyond.” In this mutual exchange, we are seeking to understand and practice ways in which the “beyond” sustains and challenges our efforts toward greater flourishing of the web of life.

It seems to me that framing our task in this way is helpful for the following reasons:

It embraces the multiplicity of forms and orientations through which religious education takes place. As Harris and Moran have shown, family, faith community, school, local context and other settings are profoundly educational, with each containing a multiplicity of educational forms. Some are strongly oriented toward formation in particularity of belief and practice; others create space for entertaining a variety of religious commitments, or no commitment.

Every act of teaching involves a “shaping and reshaping of forms.” Whether we prepare a syllabus, lesson plan, faith community formation curriculum, social action training agenda or interreligious dialogue workshop, we must create viable structures to help accomplish our objectives. Yet the very act of teaching (or formation, or organization, etc.) is a reshaping of these forms in reflective practice.

The “beyond” in my description may seem quite abstract. I intend it to signify the ultimacy of Divine Being in God as affirmed in theistic religions, as well as divine mystery or a way toward fullness of life in other religions. But as well, it can refer to the beyond that is held forth in every educational enterprise as integral to the transformative nature of learning. Every curriculum has a horizon (professional competence, deeper grasp of a discipline or tradition, etc.) toward which educators and students orient themselves; religious education attends to this explicitly and with awareness of its significance for the whole person in relationship.

In Groome’s Will There Be Faith?, he points out that depending on context and goals, RE may be construed as “learning about” faith, “learning from” faith or “becoming” faith. While the third dimension is essential for forming members of faith communities in their commitments, Groome maintains that all RE should aim at least to “learn from” rather than “learn about” in a falsely objectivist way. Building on this, I propose that RE in a communal emphasis requires “learning with” (which also includes “learning from”) to emphasize not only the essentially mutual quality of such learning in any particular group, but also the vital engagement that their practice must have with others beyond it.

“Learning with” others in “mutual exchange” will flow beyond any strictly defined RE activity into the fullness of community life—and further into the web of all life on our fragile planet. As in Harris’s presentation of the forms of the congregational curriculum in Fashion Me a People, their interrelationship means that the understandings and practices of didache will influence those of diakonia, koinonia and all the rest. RE helps participants to name and deepen such understandings and practices for greater faithfulness to the summons of the “beyond.”

What Moran names in his understanding of RE as occurring “with and without end” is implicit in my proposal. “End” as meaning, purpose or ultimate horizon (for Christians, the Kingdom of God) is pursued “without end” as connoting a finishing point. Good educators are always looking toward a goal and vision for which they strive. Yet the ongoing nature of our communal learning, and the dynamic quality of the “beckoning beyond”—not to mention the shifting needs of the world around us–keep us from ever finishing our task.

Some Sources:

  • Groome, Thomas H. Will There Be Faith? San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011.
  • Harris, Maria. Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.
  • Moran, Gabriel. No Ladder to the Sky: Education and Morality. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

Ronnie Prevost
Professor Emeritus
Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University

Charles Foster has done us all a great service – and challenged us – by noting the concerns that led REA’s progenitors to found the organization a century ago. He identifies the source of the greatest danger that can be addressed by those of us in the REA when noting surging fundamentalism among world religions and wrote, “the quest to protect religious particularity prevents inter-religious dialogue about education.” One could reasonably add that such also dissuades or disinclines diverse populations regarding inter-religious dialogue about anything. World events and national and international politics daily testify that the lack of inter-religious dialogue has consequences that are as far-reaching as they are deadly and tragic. Therefore, my concern is less with how others perceive the study of religion or religious education and more how all religions and their respective religious educations can work more universally and consistently for peace and justice.

For educators in all religions to work toward that goal will require a major shift in emphases. Schooling and education in one’s faith has always been a major task for religious educators. Such is understandable and vital. However, religious educators today must balance their catechetical pedagogy with schooling and education about other religions. This learning is not about “knowing one’s enemy.” Nor is it about to teach how to “defend the truth” (real truth needs no defense). It should be for purposes of understanding and clarifying what the others are as well as what they are not. Neither should one expect agreement. Sincerely held beliefs that differ inevitably differ, but they should work to find ways to live in beneficent tension.

Cautions are in order. First, one should not assume that such an approach will be reciprocated by others (even within one’s own faith community). Nevertheless, most religions have some form of “The Golden Rule” (one overview is on and none promise treatment in kind. Second, religious educators adopting what this essay describes above can safely assume that they will face opposition from many – and, assuredly, many of the powerful – within their respective faith communities.

More optimistically, current technology offers unprecedented opportunity for inter-religious dialogue and praxis among what Foster describes as a “global religious economy.” Just one example: how rich the possibilities to be explored – and found – in an internet-based dialogue involving a mixture of religiously diverse students from various places around the world, learning about each other not only from books and teachers, but from each other and not as adversaries, but as fellow pilgrims.

Among the treasures to be found are a deeper appreciation of the distinctiveness of one’s own faith and how that faith fits among the world’s religions. As globally important is greater knowledge of and respect for those who differ. Finally, the point of such a mission for religious education is not just survival as a discipline, but being part of working toward peace and justice and, so, rescuing humankind from devolution into chaos. Some may find this overly-idealistic. Borrowing from Robert Browning, my response is that religious education’s reach should exceed its grasp “or what’s a heaven for?” As Foster rightly notes, the matter is urgent.

Kathy Winings
Professor of Religious Education and Social Justice Ministry
Unification Theological Seminary

Chuck Foster, as usual, has written a succinct and thoughtful essay on the challenges facing our field today as we try to either redefine or understand anew the mission of religious education in a vastly different globalized context. The concerns and questions that he raises are right on the mark. I too believe that with the complex and diverse challenges that we are all called to address as people of faith, a “continuing re-articulation of the mission” of religious education is needed. I also resonate with the four conversational themes that are offered.
I would add, though, one additional question to be included in our on-going, lively conversation: What insights or wisdom can an energized or re-articulated understanding of religious education offer to heal a deeply divided global community? I see this as the “so what” question. While this question may be understood or subsumed in the four, I believe it is important to keep it consciously in front of us. I also see this question as a way to create more synergy between them. But I need to back up a bit in order to understand why I think so.

For me, the essential question that led me to religious education as a vocation was my quest to find meaning. Meaning on both a personal and global level. When it comes down to it, isn’t this what draws many people to faith? As a young child, I was not concerned about religion and religiosity. I was certainly not aware of my essential identity in the eyes of God. Sunday school taught me about the basics: there was a God who loved me and that His son, Jesus, came and died for me. And Sunday school taught me that I should strive to be a good person (whatever that meant). And who can forget that timeless song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But Sunday school never taught me, nor were the teachers probably aware of such profound concepts as the imago dei or the fullness of Jesus’ statement that “I am in you and you in me” and what that meant and what these concepts required or how to embody them. So when I graduated from high school, I was reasonably confident that I was a good person who was getting ready to settle down in my little corner of the world. End of story. Or so I thought.

As a young adult, I am not so sure that I “found” religion so much as it “found” me. For a few years, I had a simplistic approach to studying Scripture and faith. But it was not until seminary that I discovered and wrestled with a more rigorous and profound understanding of God, of life altering theological concepts and the larger question of how this pertains to our global existence; that there was more to faith and to life. One concept in particular hit me hard and has stayed with me all these years, even finding a way into my courses, is the concept of the imago dei. Through the lens of the imago dei, I could sharpen my questions and my search to find meaning, which ultimately led me to the field of religious education. My newfound understanding of the imago dei led me to the question: So what? The field of religious education then took it further and challenged me to seriously engage religion and faith and to question. For me then, seminary became the ultimate Sunday school where God, faith and meaning were no longer just concepts and words.

When I returned to the seminary as a faculty member, I had to reflect further as to how to re-capture that initial experience and re-create it again and again within myself and in my courses. The one challenge I faced in teaching Religious Education courses was how to respond to the one question that invariably came up each semester – What is religious education? Though I had had some epiphanies and insights when I was going through seminary, this one question was now the hardest one to address as a teacher. I did not want to reduce it to a simplistic answer nor to a focus on doctrinal particularity. I also did not want to hone in on faith or spiritual formation or just spirituality as the end-all, be-all definition. So, to be honest, the first year or so of teaching, I engaged students in a dance, if you will. A dance that saw religious education as all of these yet none of these responses. An unsatisfying experience at best.

Then, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, while working with my students to provide disaster services for first responders and victims at Ground Zero, my students asked the question, “So what?” What were they doing sitting in class talking about religious education when this cataclysmic event had changed the lives of millions of people forever? How could they sit in class and discuss spirituality and theological theories? At the same time, how could they not discuss these things? What was the point of spiritual formation? What clues could be found in theology? What did it mean to be “religious”? Was there a role for an understanding of inter-religious education? Was there value in plumbing the depths of the imago dei and what it means to a post-9/11 world? Could religious education make a contribution in the midst of all of this? Our conclusion was a resounding “yes.”

This brings me back full circle to my initial insights generated by Chuck’s essay. In asking what might serve as the center for our field, at the end of the day, is it possible that this “so what” question might serve this purpose and so energize us as we move forward into the future? Might the question: How can insights from religious education heal our deeply divided world serve as our center? Might it indeed. . .


  1. While studying these pages I read an E.J. Dionne Washington Post piece “In Search of Humble Prophets” (August 25, 2016 ) that opens with the question: “What has happened to the religious intellectuals, the thinkers taken seriously by nonbelievers as well as believers?” He immediately follows this question with an issue that Chuck Foster echoes: “In this increasingly secular time . . . Who cares? Why should the thinking of those inspired by faith even matter to those who don’t share it?” He points out how Reinhold Niebuhr “graced the cover of Time magazine in 1948.”[Jack Seymour’s reflection.] He goes on to describe our present context: “we live in a world where (1) religion has been subsumed by politics; (2) many liberals have accepted the view that religion now lives almost entirely on the right end of politics [Ronnie Prevost’s point]; (3) the popular media tend to focus on the most extreme and outlandish examples of religion rather than the more thoughtful kind; which means that (4) the quieter forms of religious expression — left, right and center — rarely win notice on the covers of magazines or anywhere else.” “Religion is talked about a lot, but mostly superficially. ‘The absence of sustained, public scrutiny of religious ideas in our time,’ the Berkeley historian David Hollinger has written, ‘has created a vacuum filled with easy God talk.’” He ends his piece with what I think qualifies as a reflection on the center of our vocation: “Humble prophets . . . have a special vocation: to remind the skeptical that religion, which can indeed be divisive, is also a moral prod and an intellectual spark.”

  2. My entry above is from two years ago. A number of people have cited it and helpfully added to it. I have no disagreements with the comments. But the problem is that there is not a common framework that all or even a majority of us work from. I only add here what seems to me the most crucial alignment that would be needed for a comprehensive meaning of religious education. Only then could a consistent language emerge.
    In a surprising way the founders of the REA were close to having this outlook. That is, religious education would have to include two very different groups. First is educators in religious bodies, including churches but not limited to them. Educators in a religious body might be leaders in recognizing that education has to be lifelong, with special emphasis on infancy, teenage and elderhood. Second,the other major part of religious education would be teachers in public institutions, including elementary schools, high schools and universities. Ideally, education in religion would include other institutions in the public sector but that might be going from impractical to utopian.

  3. Thanks so much Chuck, Bob, Jack, Maureen, Ronnie, and Kathy for getting this conversation going! Good job!

    Having fallen prey to the ethos of the current election season, I am jumping in with a bit of stream of consciousness response..

    * I wonder to what extent our times have more similarities to the founding era of REA than not. Thinking about analogs between contemporary SBNR culture that Chuck notes with early 20th century liberal understandings of religion as expressions of primal experiences of God or the human spirit. I recognize what they took as universal was pretty Christian. Later the field struggled with whether religious education could be Christian. On the education side of the house, contemporary emphasis on outcomes measurement assumes a kind of product control that hearkens back to factory models of education ala Tyler models.
    * The concern for the common good and the public certainly seems consistent through REA history. I wonder we can learn from how religious education was nested in western culture…liberal religio-human spirituality, Christian civil religion, multi-religious. What is the public ethos within which religion is shaped and can contribute to the common good? I tend to think that actually making a contribution to the common good and public flourishing is a key. Fundamentalist religion has contributed to an assumption that religion in the public is a detriment convincing many that Enlightenment partition of religion and public was right to start with. I am not thinking about any kind of public apologetics for action. Can people see that humans and the rest of creation flourish when religion is active in the public? Such engagement does not side step intractable doctrinal issues but it reframes how they are engaged (ala Eboo Patel). This may be akin to orthopraxis, but my gut thinks it is more basic responsiveness to the Divine in the public and creation.
    * Fowler noted that vocation is a vision of human life in a particular community while faith is a universal. Should we give more attention to the telos of the educational efforts of faith traditions? Would this help engage issues of how religious education contributes to the common good and flourishing? Would an intentional vocational lens on religious education help us frame issues of responsiveness (and partnership) with the divine in the public? It seems this could be engaged without becoming proselytizing in scholarship or practice.
    * When I think about the role of Harper, Dewey and Coe in the founding of the REA, I come to the categories of cognate disciplines and professionalism. Surely this is a gross generalization (painting with a push broom), but it seems like the popularization of biblical studies and psychology was a motivating factor for the founders. These emerging cognate disciplines were shaped assumptions about religion and education. Incorporating these disciplines required training, education and professionalization. In many contexts, professional religious education is waning either in light of specialized ministries or loss of positions due to economics. To what extent is our understanding of religious education based on it being professional?

    That’s it for now…perhaps I will have more to say in some 3:00 am post 😉


  4. The Mission of the Field and Discipline of Religious Education

    The mission of religious education is to give ready, informed, and appreciative access to traditions of faith – religions – so as to lend spiritual wisdom to people’s lives and for the life of the world.

    As a field/discipline, religious education is to provide the scholarly foundations needed to inform and form practitioners who can mediate effectively between people’s lives and the spiritual wisdom of religious traditions in ways that are life-giving for participants, promote inter-religious understanding and appreciation, and work to promote justice and human harmony.

  5. First of all, heaps of thanks to Bob O’Gorman for keeping us on track, to Jack Seymour for moderating this conversation in 2016, to Chuck Foster for his provocative essay, and to Maureen O’Brien, Ronnie Prevost, and Kathy Whinings for their responses. My contribution will be a brief set of beginning “wonderings” at those points where their thinking and mine intersect.

    Wondering #1: I definitely resonate with Chuck’s analysis of our current context where religion and education are concerned, with characteristics different from those at the time of the inception of the REA and its first half century. At the same time, I wonder if, for example, the current “identification of religion with spirituality” might not offer a fitting challenge for us to tackle. In other words, would an openness to such a notion push us to consider seriously a transformed understanding of “religion” and its present-day practitioners, some of whom might be located among the “nones”? Here I am struck by the phenomenon of a former theological college/seminary remaking itself into a “school of religion” in recent years so as to accommodate the increasing number of undergraduates enrolling in religion courses, accompanied by a dwindling enrollment of post-baccalaureate students in theology. (Queen’s Theological College now Queen’s School of Religion in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.)

    Wondering #2: Related to this is an epistemological issue: From a postcolonial perspective, might not “religion” as we understand it in Europe and North America be admitted as a “Western” concept, much as “West” and “East” were similar concepts (a la Edward Said)? Whereas “the rest” (including indigenous/Aboriginal cultures) might understand (and engage in) religion quite differently, mainly via practices and “spirituality”, with no organizational structure, need for formal membership, etc.

    Wondering #3: What are the implications when this notion meets “education”? In this connection, I find it instructive to remember that the term for “education” in the Chinese language, jiaoyu, is made up of the two characters for “teach” and “nurture,” and the term for “learning/scholarship,” shuewen, is made up of the two characters for “learn” and “ask/question.” Maureen’s insistence on “learning with” becomes a significant element here.

    Wondering #4: One aspect of our context in this second decade of the 21st century, the mass global migration of people fleeing conflict, requires an expanded location of “the public good” beyond its traditional spheres and populations. It also brings particular extra-Christian faith traditions close to the lives of North Americans so that inter-religious understanding becomes a requirement rather than a luxury (see Ronnie’s response) for the public good of the whole world. How do we as religious educators equip ourselves, our students, and members of our own faith communities to work towards such an “end” without end? (see Maureen’s reference to Gabe Moran).

    Respectfully submitted Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng, Emerita at Emmanuel College, Victoria University in the University of Toronto
    November 1, 2016, from Toronto, Canada

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