Summary of the Chicago 2014 Meeting

The responses over the year were rich and evocative continuing to elaborate issues the field needs to address. The themes that emerged seemed to cluster under: commitments, nature of the field, challenges, and questions for further reflection. Below in list form (with reference to some of the people who named these themes and a few salient quotes) was the agenda Mary Elizabeth more graciously provided for discussion by sixteen gathered in Chicago October 2014.

 

Commitments:

  • Being a person of faith (Seymour) or “living religiously” (Nolan)
  • Educating in faith (Groome)
  • Excellence in teaching – across ages and contexts (Horell’s “lifelong and life wide”)
  • Excellence in scholarship
  • Educating for justice (Winings and others)

 

Nature of the Field of Religious Education:

  • “Traditioning” – “passing on a heritage through time as care for the future” (Seymour)
  • Interdisciplinarity – “This inter-connectivity with other fields is what makes us unique.” (Nolan)
  • Crossing boundaries – “interreligious, intergenerational, inter-institutional and international” (Moran; Myers)
  • Centered on teaching and learning (named by several)
  • Complementary to practical theology with mutually beneficial emphases (O’Brien; Myers), though with diverse views of the value of this relationship (e.g., Gilmour)
  • Practical theology contributes an accent on the value of grounding at least some of our religious education work in faith communities and traditions. (O’Brien)
  • Religious education contributes an accent on the importance of personal and social transformation, and also contributes an interreligious accent to practical theology. (O’Brien; Gilmour)
  • Significant tensions exist between religious education and practical theology (Gilmour)
  • The divide between religious education and practical theology (often played out in the contrast between church-related seminaries and university divinity schools) presents an obstacle to mutual learning and collaboration (Myers)
  • Practical theology might be understood as “a particular and limited subset of religious education.” (Seymour)

Challenges:

  • Challenge of linking:
    • How do we establish religious education in the academy, especially in a changing academy? (Groome; Foster)
    • How do we link academic study with education in religious communities? (Horell; Foster)
  • Challenge of responding to complexity and change
    • How do we reshape our work to meet challenges of postmodernity, diverse communities & contexts, “nones,” and so forth? (Myers; Winings)
    • How do we engage the complexity of the field – communal, interreligious, public, postmodern, and academic – as we do our distinctive work within the field? (Foster)
  • Challenge of sorting the vocational confusion of religious and Christian educators in changing contexts and religious landscapes
    • “Are we becoming artifacts of Christendom – no longer important to the Academy’s scheme of things – or might this be a kairos moment to sort out who we are vocational and then ride the worldwind?” (Myers)
    • How do we envision our future? “I agree with Gabriel Moran that we are still in our infancy, still growing into a future real meaning and purpose in religious and educational realms.” (Nolan)

 

Questions:

  • What can religious education contribute to generate and support religious discourses and religious concerns within religious communities, across religious communities, and in the public sphere?
  • What unique opportunities exist for religious education at this moment of time – when postmodernity, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, and rapid social changes raise fundamental issues about our existence? What is needed in teaching, research, and collaboration?
  • What unique contributions can religious education make to practical theology and to theology and ethics as a whole?
  • What do “seniors” have to contribute to wisdom, support, and stepping back?

 

What immediately focused the Chicago discussion was the relationship of practical theology and religious education. Religious education claims a 100 year history of being interreligious as well as being international. Recalling that we were born out of education – the AERA education section of the associations connected with religion – is a reminder that we are educators. Today our identity in Germany and England in the Academy is that of educators. And yet we are educators trying to understand the relationship of education to theology and religion. Traditioning is an educational practice.

The nature of the field of religious education generated significant energy in our discussion. And there definitely seem to be a tension that certainly was present in the writings of our members during the year preceding our Chicago meeting this past November. It seems this tension has to do with the proverbial “chicken/egg” question in academics – the relationship of practice and theory. REA/APPRE people have had the practice of teaching as our starting point. Many of us in our own doctoral work many years ago attempted to provide a theoretical/philosophical/theological grounding and framework for our experience of the practice – teaching/learning. Many of us went in different domains and this can be documented in our 50 year (plus or minus) conference activity and our own publications in our association – some to history, some to social science, some to Bible, some to epistemology, some to ethics, and several to various theological branches, etc. Often times as we moved into these various and different domains as teachers we may have been looked down upon – seen as dilettantes by those who were masters of those respective domains – but it was in our yearly times of renewal and in our quarterly readings of our journal that we maintained our solidarity and identity as religious educators.

But over the last 25 years others in various disciplines in theology – particularly with the development of contextual theologies – began to see a shift in the very operation of theology itself – more inductive, more grassroots, more attentive to practices. During this time a new and distinctive field called, “Practical Theology” emerged, a curious name – perhaps an indictment that this domain had been out of touch with people’s practices. In this respect, many of us found this enterprise to be a vindication of a self-esteem problem that we may have experienced in our doctoral work. This enterprise follows the rhythm of practice> theory> practice, making it much more compatible to our experience as educators. Many of us became so enamored with this field that we saw it as encompassing and defining religious education – so much so that some of our colleagues moved their association and identity from the REA to the APT (the Association of Practical Theology) and did their writing and research in this new field. However, many of watched as this new field fought for a place in the theological Academy – after all the noun is “theology” and the adjective is practice. In observing this, many of us continued to experience the negative hegemony of theology over practice and rejected practical theology as our home.

There are many implications much deeper than the political and personal, which I have focused on in these last three paragraphs.

Responding to the Chicago 2014 meeting Ronnie Prevost expresses well this location of our identity. He said: “I could not help but reflect on how fascinated I am by growing older. That is, though developmentalism has never been my specialty, it is a significant part of religious education. Over the years I have studied the stages of human development and what/how they have to say to faith issues and vice versa. Over those same years I have taught and dialogued with students over the same. What fascinated me is how living through and experiencing all the stages of development is vastly different than studying and teaching them. It is not that I doubted the perspectives of those such as Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg and Fowler. What I wonder as an individual and, perhaps, what we are dealing with together as a group, is what developmentalism says about us at this point in our lives.

Perhaps we need to accept ourselves and our discipline simply for what it is, understanding that the issue of identity is an ever-evolving/developing one for a discipline just as it is for individuals. Whatever we “seniors” contribute – in living out and out of our generativity and our fending off despair (i.e., dealing with aspects of Erikson’s last two stages) – we can and will be role models for those of our colleagues who are less ‘chronologically enhanced’.”

And Margaret Ann Crain shared: “Perhaps our interdisciplinary nature is our most powerful contribution. No other theological field is interdisciplinary in the way that we are. And the Christian church is floundering with only theology for guidance. I think that one fruitful place for some exploration is to try to define just what it is that we offer to the church and world. I think it is something about teaching and learning, for sure. And our skill in teaching/learning understanding is explicitly grounded in theological convictions. That makes us different from those in the field of education.

If we are to survive, I think we need to explore how the expertise we offer in theologically grounded teaching/learning is useful in many contexts. We have traditionally thought of it as useful in congregation and school. But where else do our understandings prove transformative and hope producing? For instance, does religious education have something to offer as we consider inter-religious cooperation? Or as seek to create community in a shelter for persons who are homeless? Or as we analyze economic systems?

As a deacon in the UMC, I am encouraging deacons to think about a variety of jobs that their skill set will fit because there are fewer and fewer congregational positions available. I have worked with some who have degrees in Christian education who have found jobs in shelters, camps, missions, etc.

And Barney Kathan wrote: “Over the past few months I have done research in the personal papers and archives of early professors and deans, gleaned faculty minutes from 1906 to 1916, perused a biography, read articles in early issues of the journal, Religious Education, and the publication, Yale Divinity News.

1) There was little discussion of the nature and goals of this new field. The bound volumes of the Proceedings of the first three REA convention seemed to be very influential.

2) George Albert Coe was a guest lecturer at Yale Divinity School in 1909-10 during his first year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This was a turning point for YDS, since the faculty decided to add a course in RE in 1912 and brought E. Hershey Sneath to teach it. It is also clear that Coe’s background in the psychology of religion led YDS to want more by way of biblical and theological foundations.

3) Sneath engineered the creation of the Horace Bushnell Chair of Christian Nurture and persuaded a former student, Luther Weigle, to leave Carleton College in Minnesota and occupy the chair in 1916. Sneath and the rest of the faculty were impressed with Weigle’s 1911 book, The Pupil and the Teacher, which sold a million copies.

4) There were many definitions of the new field, but one that might capture the Yale Divinity School thinking at the time was:

“Religious Education is an interdisciplinary field which brings together

  1. a) biblical and theological foundations;
  2. b) philosophical inquiry;
  3. c) a psychological understanding of human growth and development;
  4. d) and the best pedagogical tools to enable learning to take place.”

 

5) The curriculum of Yale Divinity School was divided in 1907 into three fields with a variety of electives: Historical, primarily Bible and Semitics; Philosophical, including theology; and Practical, with courses in sociology, ethics, etc. According to Bainton in his Yale and the Ministry, the faculty in 1910 “shifted the alignment from subjects to professions and differentiated four varieties of Christian ministry.” The four fields were Pastoral Service, Missions, Religious Education, and Social Service. In other words, Religious Education was regarded as a part of Practical Theology, along with the training of ministers, missionaries, Y secretaries, but the new field was not regarded as synonymous with Practical Theology. When a Religious Education professor is called a Professor of Practical Theology, does that mean that he or she teaches homiletics, pastoral counseling, missiology, and the like?”

About O'Gorman, Robert

Emeritus Professor of Pastoral Studies Loyola University Chicago
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