Important new book on faith education


Richard Robert Osmer and Friedrich Schweitzer, Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization: New Perspectives on the United States and Germany (Studies in Practical Theology), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. From $18.00 from online suppliers

SUMMARY –Reviews and reflections to follow…

This book is probably the most important book on faith education that I have read in two decades. I plan to firstly summarise it here, and in the coming weeks to write reviews for my colleagues in congregations and schools.

It explores the trends in Religious Education in the US and in Germany during the 20th Century and outlines some of the challenges Religious Education will face in the 21st Century. It defines Religious Education as broadly as possible. Religious Education includes the passing on of faith from one generation to the next, but is more than that. It includes congregational programs, but it is more than that. It takes place in schools, but its scope is wider than that. It is both intentional and a side-product of other faith activity. It is specifically Christian Education but is broader than that.

Importantly for the comparative descriptions in this book, Religious Education is at least both a congregational practice and a subject studied in State and church schools.

Richard Osmer is an educator who understands Religious Education in the round. Rather than pick up one strand of the Religious Education story, he elects to study the whole picture. This global approach is particularly useful when Christians are often either hammering away at congregational programs even though children have deserted many churches, or putting all their effort into school R.E. programs, even though students are turning off the subject.

I am impressed with Professor Osmer because he is brave enough to name dysfunctions in our approaches to faith education, and visionary enough to shed some light onto the path ahead.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization situates the practice and study of Religious Education both within the changing context of Practical Theology and wider philosophical trends. The study is particularly concerned with the effects modernisation had on Religious Education in the first half of the 20th Century and the move to globalisation in the second.

Modernisation is a process arising from the longer tradition of the enlightenment. It promotes independent thought and requires a greater dependence on empirical evidence. Its effect on education generally was to encourage teachers to foster more sceptical thinking; not to take things on trust and to question the word of authorities. Applied to Religious Education, modernisation invited Christians to move away from dependence on authority to more autonomous ways of thinking, which included the need to recognise the then new historical and critical approaches to scripture, and to find ways to enable Christians to think independently about their faith and the wider world.

Globalisation compresses the world into “a single place” (p. 61) and relativises different cultural patterns and beliefs. Globalisation inflates the importance of the economy at the expense of other exchanges. Globalisation goes alongside postmodernism, which denies the authority of a meta-narrative, a single comprehensive lens to consider the world and particular situations. For the postmodern thinker, there is no one answer to any problem or question. Postmodern people believe that in all cases, “it depends”.

Osmer and Schweitzer draw attention to the contradiction at the heart of postmodernism. It proclaims that every situation is contingent, that there is never one single approach – except insofar as that statement itself is an over-arching belief. In other words, postmodernism tries to believe that in every situation “it depends”, except in the belief that that relativism itself is always constant.

The authors divide the century into phases; in my opinion, not very clearly or convincingly. Effectively, the Second World War divides the century into two halves with very different outcomes for the US and for Germany.

Osmer and Schweitzer then summarise a key work of one Protestant Religious Educator in each country before and after the war. Friedrich Niebergall is described as a “liberal reformer” responding to modernity in Germany (p. 99 ff.) In the United States, George A. Coe also applied the insights of modernity to Religious Education. The effect of modernity on both writers was to turn the spotlight of modern thinking onto the Church itself, both to use the insights it brought to the practice of education and to provide a new framework for thinking about faith and religion.

The influential North American Religious Education Association was founded in the years after 1900 as a concerted response to modernity. It became identified with liberal thought around World War I and into the twenties. The fundamentalist movement, emphasising the evangelical fundamentals was in part a reaction to REA.

Religious Education, for example, picked up the insights which changed education from a teacher-centred activity to a child-centred activity. In Italy, and later Holland and India, Maria Montessori was one champion of child-centred education, both religious and general, and her influence could be placed alongside that of Coe and the liberal reformers in Germany.

In the US, this encouraged Religious Education to see itself more in terms of the way faith is appropriated, and in the post-war period, John H. Westerhoff III, the representative thinker summarised in the book, conceives of Religious Education primarily in the congregation. The audiences for Religious Education of self, family, schools and the wider community were pushed to the edge. In the US after World War II, Religious Education was pushed out of schools entirely.

Westerhoff’s reliance on his previous work in social anthropology emphasised the importance of formation, but for him, this was not at the expense of information and transformation. Incidentally, I studied with John Westerhoff from 1985-1987 and returned to Australia understanding that the task of Religious Education was strongly congregation-centred .

In Germany, by contrast, both the discovery of new ways of thinking about faith and the need after the War to educate a rising generation away from the destructive ideologies of the Nazis, the Religious Education effort was put mainly into schools. In Germany, Religious Education has been a compulsory subject in all State schools. Karl Ernst Nipkov and in particular his 1969 work Christliche Bildungstheorie und Schulpolitik trace these developments.

In the 20th Century, Osmer and Schweitzer argue, Religious Education became restricted to the contexts of congregation in the US and the State School in Germany. It also became restricted more and more to academic and professional specialists. The US witnessed the rise of a new professional in the congregation – the Director of Religious Education.

This book is a plea for to loosen these restrictions and to restore Religious Education both to ordinary people and to its other traditional audiences, in particular the family and the wider community.

Osmer reprises his earlier description from A Teachable Spirit (1990) of Religious Education as catechesis, exhortation and discernment. Families need to be more empowered to open to their children the world of faith, which is part of the work of catechesis. Particularly in the US where creationism is believed by a majority, stronger connections between catechesis and science should be forged. Individuals need the moral teaching of religious education in the process of identity formation, and exhortation is the pathway to healthy moral growth. Christians need to be able to “discern the signs of the times” and speak a constructive word from faith to the world.

The book critiques some of the strategies of the 20th Century. Small groups for example create intimacy with people like us, but offer few opportunities to explore the doctrines and creeds of people different from us (p. 246). Small groups do teach us to love one another, but not why we are Anglicans or Christians. Small groups also miss out on the missio Dei to “the wider human community” (p. 247).

The authors offer powerful arguments for the right of every child to receive Religious Education. “The right of children to a religious education rests upon their right to have some of their heartfelt inquiries about their world listened to with respect and responded to with care.” (p. 262) These questions include death and dying, self and identity, morality, religious pluralism and ideas of God. (pp. 262-265). The authors assert that only religion and its exploration can respond to these questions. (p. 266)

They suggest that all resources for Religious Education be written not only for academics but for ordinary Christians. Family ethics, ongoing religious and moral education in the home responding to teachable moments should be supported by good programs in the congregation.

The authors invite Religious Educators to expand their thinking beyond Christianity: for example, they believe the problems of globalisation can be explored in an interfaith context as Christians and Muslims together learn of the roles of the oikumene and the Umma. Discernment includes not only world events, but aesthetics. Christian engagement in the arts both as artists and critics is a contribution to society and is part of Christians’ educational activity.

This public education takes place not only in schools but through mass media and social media. My fellow-tertiary Paul Hawker, the current producer of the ABC TV program Compass is an important educator in the public sphere in Ausrtalia. Christians as individuals can learn to use social media (Facebook, Twitter and the media growing out from them) to bring that leaven of faith education to society.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globilization is a volume in a series of Studies in Practical Theology. It is both practical in providing ways of thinking and strategies for action in faith education, and theology in its analysis of the 20th Century church and the currents that shaped it.

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