Guest Blog: Rev. Lauren Zinn, Ph.D.
Who is honored? He who gives honor to others. – Pirkei Avot
An interfaith orientation within a mono-faith educational program is no longer optional. Today, it is essential. As countries around the world become more pluralistic, faith communities have a responsibility to prepare their children to move gracefully and competently through their communities — now and in the future.
Despite its importance, religious school teachers and parents have not been given the pedagogical tools and curricular resources needed to help kids thrive in a multi-faith world. For this reason, I have used my 20+ years of experience teaching Judaism (my Home Religion) to develop Teaching Religion Responsibly (TRR™). My program offers teaching guidelines and lesson plan ideas appropriate for any/all religious traditions, and they can easily be adapted to a variety of ages. This post outlines some of the primary ideas found in my approach.
If we want to teach religion responsibly, we need to hold the space for our home religion while also placing it into the context of other faith traditions. This includes exploring both similarities and differences. Our model incorporates three overlapping circles — Home Religion, Interfaith Orientation, and Value TENsions. The circles are equally important, and make important contributions to my TRR model. I briefly outline each one below.
Each major religion shares the 4 C’s:
- an ethical code (values, rules, morality)
- creed (beliefs, prayers, rituals)
- culture (language, history, holidays), and
- community (customs, belonging, place).
Most religious educational programs already know how to teach their home religion. This alone, however, is no longer enough.
Regardless of whether or not basic knowledge of other religions is taught in public schools, religion-based programs must incorporate an appreciation for other major religions. When taught together, this actually enriches a student’s relationship with their home religion, and it lays the groundwork for global competency and harmony.
It is also important to acknowledge that there are several axes of tension inherent in this approach. I have identified 10 of them which exist on 10 different continua. They include things like the tension between Innovation vs. Tradition and the tension between Interdependence vs. Independence.
As parents and educators, we must find the appropriate balancing points, and we must model that process for our children. To be successful in this world, they need to practice communicating respectfully and wisely with people from other cultures and spiritualities. These skills will then serve as the foundation for peacefully (re)solving both global and local problems.
How can teachers/parents begin Teaching Religion Responsibly (TRR™) in their religious community/family/classroom?
Once you have made the decision to incorporate TRR™ into your religious classroom, you need to create curricular materials that match your specific needs. Before jumping in with both feet, however, I recommend preparing both yourself and your community for the task ahead.
Inhabit an Open Mind
Explore what a religious school curriculum could look like when integrated with an interfaith orientation. Teachers and parents can incorporate children’s books like We All Have Sacred Spaces for younger kids, or take a course, like Encounters with World Religions, to prepare to teach older students.
Adopt a Long View
Anticipate how religious education needs to change and design lessons accordingly. Stay tuned for sample lesson plans that you can adapt to your home religion.
Pilot an Interfaith Program
Learn by integrating interfaith-oriented lessons with one class/event at a time. My guess is that students (and parents) will love it and want more.
Unfortunately, even when parents and teachers want to teach religion responsibly, clergy and/or religious school administrators sometimes stand in the way. In addition to the Value TENsions, I have also identified several typical objections that are often made when one attempts to integrate an interfaith perspective. In my opinion, these are imagined scenarios based on fear, not appropriate reasons based on data. Let’s look at a few individually and explore possible responses.
Weakens Faith in Our Religion
The argument that interfaith education will weaken a child’s faith in his/her/their own tradition assumes a faith is already in place. But that doesn’t mean it will be weakened by learning about others. Let me back this up with a story.
Once, in the middle of a Jewish prayer service, a visiting stranger was introduced. An Arab Muslim Israeli. He was there to promote a successful program in Israel where Muslim and Jewish children learned Arabic and Hebrew side by side. He also shared how he could attend and enjoy our service because he felt secure in his own faith.
Interfaith perspectives do not weaken an existing faith that is strong. What naysayers are really concerned about is that such faith is weak to begin with and needs to be strengthened before “others” are introduced. What naysayers miss is that an interfaith orientation can inspire students to want to know more about their home religion.
Promotes Identification with a Different Religion
Another argument is that teaching other religions alongside one’s own might result in a child leaving their religion for another. There are many possible responses to this type of objection.
We Should Celebrate Curiosity
If students like another religion, it shows an interest in learning about others. As a youth leader, I found many ways to enrich my students’ understanding of Judaism by teaching and appreciating beliefs and practices of other religions. Interfaith religious education is a great opportunity for learning what religions have in common and how each one has something unique and special to offer. If a child wants to explore another religion, assist rather than resist.
Holding Back May Be Detrimental
In some cases, kids may feel that information is being kept from them. By remaining firmly within the traditions of our home religions, we risk teaching kids that religion is not something we are open and accepting about. Again, I’ll offer a couple of examples.
As a child, I was personally attracted to Native American traditions. As an adolescent, it was Eastern mysticism. I regret not having any guidance to encourage further exposure. When I look back, I feel that part of my global spiritual inheritance was cut off. Moreover, my understanding of the world would have been so much richer if I had been encouraged to learn more.
Fear about sharing other religions was also expressed by a rabbi in training that I met at an interfaith educators conference. Attendees were asked to express their biggest fears about interfaith education. As the father of a one-year-old, the young rabbi admitted that his biggest fear was not being able to share Judaism with his daughter if she chose to follow a different religion.
I understand this fear. But holding back, instead of sharing the teachings of other traditions, may do more harm than good. As parents, we can open new windows with our children when we approach their interest with respect and curiosity. And as teachers, we can use a student’s interests to guide them in their spiritual growth.
Maybe This Is Exactly What We Need
The ethno-centric worldview that once served us, may no longer be evolutionarily appropriate. Many of the goals of religious identification — like offering protection, survival, and continuity — need no longer be the drivers of affiliation. They can be part of it, but not all of it. Indeed, focusing strictly on religious identification could actually prevent the next generation from participating in the emergence of a greater purpose: identification with world-centric belonging.
No Time Left for Our Religion
Yet another argument against incorporating an interfaith orientation in religious education is that it reduces the amount of time spent on the home religions. This represents a real, practical concern. As a youth, I attended Hebrew school every Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, plus services and youth groups on Saturdays. Religious after-school programs are indeed limited in instructional time, and competing extra-curricular activities already impinge on such programs. But, interfaith education is not out of the question. The truth is, when we don’t want to do something, we politely say we have no time. There is always too much to learn. With the overload of information in every discipline and instant access via the Internet, students are better served if they learn how to learn.
In short, if there’s a will, there’s a way. The key is deciding what’s important in a TRR curriculum and how to achieve it given the constraints. This is why integration is critical rather than simply adding on new stuff.
Where Do These Fears Come From?
It can also be helpful to address the origin of these fears. In many cases, they stem from an ethno-centric worldview where we must be loyal to our tribe for survival. Today, to survive, we must be loyal to each other (the world) while also still belonging to our tribes. Our youth need religious education that primes them for a world-centric worldview. Everyone needs to feel they belong to the world, not just to their tribe.
Omitting an interfaith orientation from the religious school classroom is a disservice to all. We certainly want to feel proud about our home religion. But understanding how our religion fits into the array of other world traditions helps us become even more connected with others in our own faith community and with our neighbors. Quite frankly, doing anything less impairs the ability of future generations to solve global problems in a multicultural, multi-faith world.
When we teach religion responsibly, we honor the unique goodness, truth, and beauty in all of our religions. So, let’s roll up our sleeves together and start Teaching Religion Responsibly by addressing the Value TENsions and integrating an interfaith orientation into our faith-based programs.
About Lauren Zinn
Lauren Zinn has been active in interfaith dialogue, teaching, writing, speaking and activism since her interfaith marriage began over three decades ago. Her strong Jewish background, coupled with formal and informal Jewish teaching experience with children of all ages, provided the foundation for her subject matter expertise. By incorporating her skills in gaming-simulation design and philosophy for children’s pedagogy, Lauren forged a new path for religion education. Her model, TRR: Teaching Religion Responsibly, aims to support all religion Teachers with the principles, guidelines, and tools needed to integrate an interfaith orientation into their curriculum without sacrificing their religious educational goals. Students will become global citizens and knowledgeable in their practice of a religion/spirituality/culture while also understanding those of others. Instead of feeling isolated or left out, TRR helps students belong to our global community. TRR’s motto is Belong to the World, Bring your Tribe.