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Relections on the Liberal Church: Education as Spiritual Practice

Relections on the Liberal Church: Education as Spiritual Practice February 1, 2008


(Education is) a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with people to our present, to the past heritage it embodies, and to the future possibility it holds for the total person and community.

Thomas Groome

Quite simply, I consider religious education one of the most important things we do in our churches. Possibly the most important thing we do. One of the better things I inherited from my Baptist background was the belief that when a new congregation forms, the first building to be constructed should be the religious education wing. Then, if things work out, and only then, should the congregation think about building the sanctuary. First things first.

Some describe our congregations as lifelong learning communities. I believe this is so. As my mentor and friend, the late Reverend Dan O’Neal, once observed about life-span learning: “This is perhaps the broadest view to take of the religious community because religious education encompasses most other aspects of community life: worship, social action, social life, fun and celebration.”

Sophia Fahs wrote in her highly influential Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, “Instead of helping children on Sunday to think about ‘religious’ things, we need to learn how to help children to think about ordinary things until insights and feelings are found which have a religious quality… The religious way is the deep way, the way with a growing perspective and an expanding view… the way that dips into the heart of things… that touches universal relationships.”

I believe at the center of this liberal religious way is a critical and moral sense. A critical eye, together with an understanding of love, of heart, gives us the necessary tools for successfully living in the world. This attitude has consequences in how we pursue education.

Now when we look objectively at what is going on, it seems to me much, or most of education can be seen as a process of socialization. This is good—it gives us many of those tools for survival that we need. But this socialization can embed us so firmly within our societies that we never question the meaning or direction we’re given. Our love becomes constrained, and we may never cultivate the critical eye. This, I suggest, is not our real goal.

As a religious educator Thomas Groome suggests “Far from socializing our students more effectively, our educational task will often require that we call in question and counteract much of the socialization that is already taking place.” I believe our religious education should empower our children. They should come away from their sojourn among us as critical thinkers, as people with a healthy sense of self, and with a deep appreciation of interdependence. This “form,” this learning the “hows” of religious life is very important.

Now, I also believe content is important. Those who pass through our religious education programs should become familiar with the great themes of the world’s religions. They should know what religious Humanism is, and certainly they should know the stories of our Unitarian and Universalist heritage. They should also be more than passingly aware of our common Western religious heritage within Judaism and Christianity. As Groome says, “We live in history and are shaped by it. But we can also be shapers of it. We cannot totally control it, but neither should history totally determine us.”

I feel we should be particularly familiar with the Hebrew and Christian stories. Quite simply they stand at the heart of our Western culture. We need to devote a considerable part of our energies to learning these stories and engaging them with that critical eye and with a loving heart. Of course, as religious liberals, we can and should draw freely upon the perspectives of world folklore and mythology. We can be deeply enriched by the insights of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and all those engaged in the study of religion and myth as a source of human wisdom, of our deepest truths.

Content is important. We all, not just our children, should be familiar with the stories of the world’s faiths, ranging from Judaism and Christianity to the Earth-centered spiritualities. These stories give shape to our dreams and focus to our lives. They are the mud and straw of our interior lives. With a Humanist and rational perspective, we can help give a direction to these dreams of our history that promises richer and fuller lives than many can ever otherwise hope for. When properly engaged we can make good bricks with which to build something solid.

And yet even this is still just a start. When we learn something of the “how” of religious thinking, and become familiar with some of those core stories of the human spirit, we are open to great possibilities. As Sophia Fahs tells us, then everything can be viewed religiously, deeply. The arts, secular literature, science, history and contemporary events are all teaching resources. The UU Religious Education Futures Committee wrote “We must address the whole person: the intellectual, the emotional, the physical, the aesthetic, the moral, the spiritual, the imaginative, the historical social dimensions of an individual living within an interdependent ecosystem.”

This education process should not be limited to our children. Every age should have access to the educative process, intergenerational encounter and enrichment as well. We all have much to learn, and we all have much to teach.

I see my ministry in part patterned on the rabbinic model, where the minister is a teacher. But, we’re very much all in this together. All teachers must continue to be students, if they hope to be effective. It is a rich process that flows in all directions. I hope we will explore all those many ways that we can enrich and teach each other.

Religious education is a dynamic process, where each congregation can enrich the denomination, the greater Universal church, and society at large, within the process of exploring and discovering together.

As UUs, we have unique opportunities to educate ourselves, to experience the true richness of our lives as human beings. This process allows us to discover what we are. In the words of the theologian Robert Macafee Brown, we can be open to that “creative dislocation,” when we are startled by the unexpected, and come away with new eyes.

False history gets made all day, any day,

the truth of the new is never on the news
False history gets written every day

and by some who should know better:

The lesbian archaeologist watches herself

sifting her own life out from the shards she’s piecing,

asking the clay all questions but her own.

Yet suddenly for once the standard version

splits open to something shocking, unintentional.

In the elegant Southwest Museum, no trace of bloodshed

or broken treaty. But, behind glass, these baskets

woven for the young women’s puberty dances

still performed among the still surviving

Apache people; filled with offerings:
cans of diet Pepsi, peanut brittle,

Cracker Jack, Hershey bars
piled there, behind glass, without notation

In the anthropologist’s typewritten text

which like a patient voice tired of explaining

goes on to explain a different method of weaving.

Adrienne Rich

Let’s never get tired of explaining, of learning. We have so much opportunity within our liberal communities of faith: to make something better, to discover our old stories, to weave new stories, to become good and wise and loving.

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