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New directions in religious education

30 September, 2012

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In many parts of the world today religious education is facing dramatic challenges. Contemporary debates have highlighted a certain confusion about the terminology and the purpose of religious education. Such confusion has frequently led to inappropriate expectations on the part of educational bodies, Church personnel and society in general.

Is religious education a thing of the past, or has its time has not yet arrived? In New Directions in Religious Education Finola Cunnane details her conviction that religious education is one of the most important issues facing our world today and argues that there is a need for a language that honours both the educational and the religious in life. New Directions in Religious Education aims to provide food for thought, to suggest a new imagining of religious education, and to unveil the truest meaning of this endeavour.

Dr Finola Cunnane, SSL is Director of Religious Education in the Diocese of Ferns. She has worked in the area of school chaplaincy and religious education in Ireland and abroad.


1. A babel of languages
2. Setting the framework for the conversation
3. A paradigm shift: education – the overall framework
4. The family as religious educator
5. The school as religious educator
6. The parish as religious educator
Epilogue: what next?

208 pp, Veritas, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie

CHAPTER 1: A babel of languages
It is my conviction that religious education is one of the most important issues facing our world today. It is also my belief that religious education is of little importance to society as a whole and that it does not achieve supreme acknowledgment in the Christian Churches. This is partly due to the narrow understanding of the meaning and purpose of religious education. If religious education is perceived as an activity that engages in proselytising and indoctrination, then society is right in regarding this action as insignificant. However, if religious education is understood as that which pertains to the centre of human life and is recognised as contributing to the quality of our being in the world, then it is, undoubtedly, an indispensable endeavour. Such an understanding recognises that religious education is an activity that educates religiously throughout the life of the human person. In order to explore this more fully, it is helpful to examine the current reality of religious education with a view to re-imagining a fuller meaning of this task at this crucial point in our history.

The current reality
Religious education in many parts of the world is narrowly understood as that which takes place within either the school or parish setting. Predominantly directed to people between the ages of five and eighteen years, religious education is taught with the title varying from catechetics, to religion, to religious knowledge, to religious studies, to religious instruction, to Christian doctrine, to Christian education, to religious education. (Devitt: 1992) In Roman Catholic circles, the content for younger children concerns their introduction to the basic truths and doctrines of their faith and includes their preparation for the sacraments of Penance, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation. This is catechesis in its classical form. The curriculum content for older children and adolescents frequently involves a deeper exploration of the truths and doctrines learned earlier in life, as well as issues pertaining to adolescent growth and development. In some countries, religious education at post-primary or high-school level includes the study of religion as an exam subject.

Confining religious education to the school or parish setting and directing it solely at those aged between five and eighteen years has highlighted many problems for those involved as well as for concerned others. While many efforts have been made to establish links between the key forms of life that educate, for example, family, school and parish, the educational contribution of some of these forms tends to be diminished or, excluded when religious education is confined to a single setting. In Ireland, for example, school is the context for religious education and the schoolteacher is the religious educator. This results in an unwarranted burden being placed on the schoolteacher and excludes others from the conversation. In an age of growing secularisation depicted by a ‘decline both in church attendance and in the overall significance of religion for individuals and for society’ the burden for schoolteachers increases (Walsh: 2003, 25).

Problems arise when the catechetical dimension of religious education is confined to the school setting. The faith formation of young people takes place outside of the faith community and sacramental preparation is automatically embraced when one reaches a certain class or grade. Family, school and parish no longer engage in the same conversation nor speak the same language. The result is that the religious education learned in school frequently clashes with the lived experience of the young person outside of the school setting.

This story of religious education throughout the world points to a number of problems inherent in its implementation. The first concerns the absence of a field that can be accurately named religious education. A dearth of research and theoretical scholarship results in religious education being regarded as a duty or obligation rather than a field in which to be engaged. With little or no recognition of the adult population, religious education is addressed, almost exclusively; to school-aged children and, even at that, is considered to be an appendage to real education. Not considered to be of primary importance, many schools and churches allocate a minimum of resources to religious education and nobody seems to be concerned.

A second problem inherent in religious education pertains to the babel of languages used to describe what takes place. Although they possess varying meanings and differing sets of assumptions, the words catechetics, religion, religious knowledge, religious studies, religious instruction, Christian doctrine, Christian education and religious education are judged to be synonymous and are used interchangeably both in literature and in conversation. As a result, different people mean different things when using the term religious education. Attaining consensus regarding the use of terms is a necessary and essential prerequisite for any discipline or field of study; particularly that of religious education.

The babel of languages and interchangeability of terms has led to confusion and a crisis of identity regarding the activity of religious education and the role of religious educators. Confusion of identity leads to confusion of purpose. The third problem, therefore, concerns the purpose of religious education. What is the purpose of religious education? The variety of interpretations of the term religious education has resulted in a multiplicity of understandings of the purpose or aim of religious education. This was highlighted in Ireland with the introduction of Religious Education as an exam subject. Questions arose concerning the meaning of religious education. Does it concern the academic study of religion or the catechetical formation of a person? This situation points to a fourth concern, namely, the absence of a coherent theory of religious education, a theory that would outline the philosophy, assumptions, and foundational principles of religious education and, at the same time, serve to dissipate the confusion of purpose and crisis of identity that abounds.

The story related above points to the reality of religious education in many areas of the world, as many well-renowned international religious educators will attest. For example, religious educators such as Gabriel Moran and Kieran Scott continually seek to address these issues and contribute to their clarification. For over thirty years, Gabriel Moran has noted the absence of a field of religious education, has sought to break open the meaning of words in order to bring about linguistic clarity and has called for an adequate theory of religious education (Moran: 1971, 14). Kieran Scott acknowledges similar concerns (Scott: 1984, 323-339).Calling for order in the area of religious education, Scott contends that the field of religious education is not clearly defined. No consensus has been reached with regard to key terms. The purpose of religious education is unclear and more attention must be given to the theory of religious education.

The linguistic debate
In order to grapple with the four above-mentioned problems of religious education, it is necessary to pay attention to terms in an attempt to unravel and unearth the history, set of assumptions, and world-views embedded in the various expressions used to describe religious education. Therein lie the clues to understanding religious education in its broadest sense. Indeed, Gabriel Moran believes that the meaning of the term religious education determines whether religious education is a thing of the past or ‘an idea whose time has not yet arrived.’ (Moran: 1981, 21) He proposes that religious education be explored by means of two directions. (Moran: 1987, 318-323) One direction would be to describe the way in which religious education is and has been used, i.e. the term of religious education. The second direction would involve an exploration of the meaning of religious education. By that is meant what could and should be included in the meaning of religious education. Both directions require exploration.

Beginning with the first direction and concentrating on the origins of the term religious education, the aim is to unravel the history and set of assumptions contained in this term as well as in the terms with which it is interchanged. In order to do this, it is helpful to examine the positions of leading scholars in the field, thereby taking them into our conversation. Only when this has been accomplished can the fullest idea of religious education be explored.

Thomas H. Groome
In approaching the topic of religious education, Thomas H. Groome begins with an analysis of the meaning of education in order to name this activity. He then proceeds to deal with the notion of religion which he weds to education. It is within this context that he names the activity of religious education as ‘a deliberate attending to the transcendent dimension of life by which a conscious relationship to an ultimate ground of being is promoted and enabled to come to expression.’ (Groome: 1980, 22) However, he regards this activity as incomplete and goes on to name religious education, undertaken by and from within the Christian community as Christian religious education which he defines as

a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present, to the Story of the Christian faith community, and to the Vision of God’s Kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us. (Groome: 1980, 25)

Of particular importance in this statement is Christian religious education’s participation in ‘the political nature of education in general. ‘ (Groome: 1980, 25) Education, by its nature, is a political activity since it influences how people live in, and shape the future of, society.

In relation to catechesis, Groome writes that coming from the Greek verb katechein, meaning to resound, to echo, or to hand down, catechesis, throughout history, is understood as oral instruction. In this regard, he disagrees with Berard Marthaler who understands catechesis as ‘a process whereby individuals are initiated and socialized in the church community.’ (Marthaler: 1976, 459) Neither is he happy with John Westerhoff III who sees it as the entire process involved in becoming a Christian. Naming these two understandings as ‘Christian socialization or enculturation’, Groome argues that such redefinitions are so far removed £rom the word’s etymological, scriptural, and historical roots that they are hardly accurate and certainly not useful. (Groome: 1980, 27) Furthermore, there is a major disadvantage in redefining catechesis in such a broad manner because ‘it fails to name and thus severs the Christian educational enterprise from its commonality with education and religious education.’ (Groome: 1980, 27) If this occurs, then where does one begin to engage in catechetical activity? According to Groome, it is more accurate and more helpful that our understanding of the word catechesis is consistent with its etymological, scriptural and historical meaning, that of ‘re-echoing or retelling the story of Christian faith.’ (Groome: 1980, 27) Catechesis, therefore, is a specific instructional activity situated within Christian religious education.

Mary C. Boys
Acknowledging that the field of religious education is relatively young (dating from 1903), Mary C. Boys recognises that its practice is considerably ancient. In recent years this has led to many questions being posed regarding the understanding and intentionality of religious education, as well as what it means to educate religiously. According to Boys, religious education identifies the classic expression that ‘weds classic liberal theology and progressivist educational thought.’ (M.C. Boys: 1989, 108) This leads her to define religious education as ‘the making accessible of the traditions of the religious community and the making manifest of the intrinsic linkage between traditions and transformation.’ (M.C. Boys: 1989, 124)

In discussing the term Christian education, Boys notes that the term began as a theological critique of religious education by calling into question the relation of religion and culture. Criticising the advocates of religious education for the attention they gave to world religions, psychology and the social sciences, the proponents of Christian education regarded theology as central, allowing it to control Christian education. According to their perspective, the task of Christian education was to form faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, with the focus being on an ecclesial holiness. Interestingly, such an understanding of Christian education has undergone contemporary modifications. For example, C. Ellis Nelson advocates the use of the social sciences and replacing dialectical theology with other theological perspectives. (Nelson: 1971) Randolph Crump Miller believes that equal voice must be given to theology and education in Christian education. I? While these modifications may be commendable, their introduction has served to reveal the lack of clarity surrounding the nature and purpose of Christian education.

Boys goes on to equate Catholic education with catechetics, stating that Catholic education was the most inclusive term in existence until directly after Vatican II, when the term catechetics became more dominant. The genesis of catechetics lies in the kerygmatic movement, a renewal movement that originated in Europe in the 1930s, whose aim was to return to biblical and liturgical roots. Recognising the unity of scripture and tradition, the Catholic Church undertook scripture study, thereby grounding catechetics in the bible, and recognising its link with the liturgical life. As a result, new understandings emerged and the task of catechetics was perceived as deepening conversion ‘so that people can better discern God’s ways in the social sphere and, thus, participate in the churches prophetic mission.’ (M.C. Boys: 1989, 75) Such an understanding of catechetics does not differ greatly from Boys’ own definition of religious education. This is a clear example of the babel of languages that is in existence.

Kieran Scott
Kieran Scott understands the activity of religious education as the synthesis of religion and education. Recognising that religion and education infiltrate most areas of our lives, religious education is a ‘particular and pervasive need confronting our society’. (Scott: 1980, 75) It is seen ‘as a test of the maturity of our culture, the health of our institutions and the quality of our lives together.’ (Scott: 1980, 75) Aware that contemporary society understands religious education in a restrictive manner by confining it to the context of Church and ecclesial language, Scott sets out to free the assumptions, claims and perceptions lying behind the variety of terms.

Beginning with catechetics, Scott traces the history of the term from early Christian times to the present, painting a panoramic picture of how our understanding of the term has changed. Moving into the contemporary catechetical scene in the United States, Scott turns to the National Catechetical Directory of the United States, entitled Sharing the Light of Faith, for a comprehensive description of the meaning of catechesis. According to this document, the term catechesis involves the entire process of ‘maturing in the faith’ and ‘refers to efforts which help individuals and communities acquire and deepen Christian faith and identity through initiation rites, instruction, and formation of conscience.’ While Sharing the Light of Faith contains rich catechetical insights, Scott’s reservations with it focus on the three major issues of language, Church pattern and education. ‘The linguistic world of catechetics’, he writes, ‘is decisively ecclesiastical and narrow in context.’ (Scott: 1981, 82) With regard to Church pattern, Scott critiques its structures as bureaucratic and hierarchical and calls for their reform. In relation to education, he criticises the Church’s refusal to be identified with this activity, contending that ‘when religion is placed in an educational context, it can make a decisively positive contribution to personal development and the quality of public life.’ (Scott: 1980, 83)

Taking the issue of language a step further and analysing the National Catholic Directory’s use of the terms catechesis and religious education, Scott outlines the editors’ struggle with both these terms, and notes their movement from using the terms interchangeably in the initial stages, to omitting the term religious education in the final draft. This resulted in the term religious education being ‘absorbed into catechesis’, an action which served to determine the nature and focus of the directory. (Scott: 1981, 1-4)

In an effort to illustrate the differing and vitally important tasks of catechesis and religious education, Scott analyses the world of catechesis and outlines its constitutive elements. Representing the Roman Catholic tradition, the main concern of catechesis is ‘to maintain the tradition, pass on the heritage, and solidify one’s religious identity.’ (Scott: 1981, 1) This lifelong process takes place through ‘socialisation, enculturation, and evangelisation…’, and, is the task of the whole Christian community. (Scott: 1981, 1) Acknowledging the strengths of this ecclesiastical viewpoint, Scott also notes its limitations, arguing that ‘catechesis does not and cannot contain the wide range of concerns and contexts which the term religious education denotes.’ (Scott: 1981, 2) Religious education is more than socialising people into the Catholic Church. Differing from catechesis in terms of context, content and curriculum, Scott points to the educational mission of religious education whose task is ‘to insert critical openness into church ministry and to bring educational critique to current church forms.’ (Scott: 1981, 2) This leads him to conclude that the terms catechesis and religious education cannot be used interchangeably. ‘The former’, he writes, ‘is limited and restricted to an ecclesial semantic world, whereas the latter has the ability to house the full range of religious and educational questions and concerns emerging in contemporary culture.’ (Scott: 1980, 83)

Gabriel Moran
Like Scott, Gabriel Moran acknowledges the lack of consensus regarding the use of the term religious education and points to the extraordinary difficulties that abound in attempting to define its meaning. He states that religious education, a term that came into vogue in the twentieth century, can be narrowly understood as that which some people do in some places, or it may be more broadly employed to include ‘the practices that govern people’s lives in every time and every place. ‘ (Moran: 1987, 318) Stating that the schools of England and Wales use the term religious education in the clearest way, Moran notes that in these countries ‘the term does transcend particular religious parties and has taken on a legally established meaning.’ (Moran: 1987, 319)  In these countries a clear definition of the term can be traced to 1944 when the British Government rendered religious education compulsory in state-supported schools. Here the meaning of religious education was religious instruction that was to be executed in accordance with ‘an approved syllabus and a daily assembly for worship.’ (Moran: 1987, 319)  Since 1960, this meaning has been modified due to two major developments, namely ‘increasing doubt about the value of compulsory worship in state schools and a greater pluralism of religion in many English schools.’ (Moran: 1987, 319)  This has resulted in religious education becoming almost synonymous with religious instruction, not in the sense of being confined to knowledge of the Bible or a single religious tradition, but with an openness to understanding many of the world religions. In England today, the term religious education refers to ‘the name of a subject taught in state schools.’ (Moran: 1987, 319) Such a reference, Moran contends, stands in stark contrast to the way in which the term is understood and employed in the United States of America.

In order to reveal the historical assumptions and understandings of religious education, Moran outlines a history of the term as it unfolded in the USA. The term religious education came into being in that country with the founding of the Religious Education Association, (REA). The REA was founded in 1903 when four hundred people, mainly Protestants of liberal denominations, came together to search for an educational approach to religion. They articulated a three-fold purpose for the new movement:

– 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 mind the idea of Religious Education and the sense of its need and value. (Barker: 1981, 27)

Hoping to improve upon the educational ideal offered by the Sunday school and to approach religion in public and Church schools in a more scholarly fashion, the aim of the REA was to create an academic field of religious education, as well as a religious education profession.

The underlying foundations of the REA comprised liberal theology, the social gospel and the progressive educational movement. These three currents of thought contributed to the success of the REA during the 1920s. Up to this point theology had been influenced by the strong patriarchal religion of the nineteenth century in which God saved the human person from sin and damnation. This gave way to a more liberal understanding of religion in which people were in charge of their own religious lives. Inspiration for moral living was gleaned from the bible. Language remained biblical, with the powerful image of the Kingdom of God being retained, an image that for some become synonymous with self-realisation. The chief value of religion was deemed to be social: that is, it provided the rules, inspirations and insights for people living together in a democratic society.

The liberal education movement aimed to follow the challenge of John Dewey that religion be ‘public, generally known, and tested in ordinary ways.’ (Dewey: 1981, 29) As a result, education in the school setting adopted some of the ideas and roles of religion. The eighteenth century’s trust in reason reached fruition in the nineteenth century’s trust in science. Science became key in education literature, as well as such phrases as social, democratic, child-centred life situations. This was an exciting time. Change in the world was accelerating, psychology was revealing insights previously unknown and George Albert Coe was questioning the primary purpose of Christian education. Was it ‘to hand on a religion or to create a new world’? (Coe: 1917, 20)

Circumstances changed, however. The experiences of the Depression and the two World Wars resulted in a pessimism concerning the human person. In addition, the influence of European neo-orthodox theology by theologians such as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner began to question the origins of liberal religious education. It was deemed that doctrinal substance had eroded within the Protestant Church. Karl Barth retaliated with his neo-orthodoxy and returned the Word of God to the centre of theology, a movement which paralysed the Religious Education movement and one from which it never recovered in its original form.

In 1940, the publication of Harrison S. Elliott’s book, Can Religious Education be Christian?, marked a critical moment. Elliott challenged neo-orthodox theology, accusing it of being authoritarian and interfering with people’s free choice in relation to religious matters. His thesis was to resist what neo-orthodoxy had to offer and return to the promulgations of liberal theology. The following year, H. Shelton Smith, in Faith and Nurture, addressed the same predicament, but with a different outcome. His concern was ‘shall Protestant nurture realign its theological foundations with the newer currents of Christian thought or shall it resist those currents and merely affirm its faith in traditional liberalism?’ (Smith: 1941, vii) Smith’s option for the former alternative marked the beginning of a new era. A new breed of educationalists emerged and they replaced the term religious education with the title Christian education. The outcome was that the Protestant Church regained control of its own education, thereby shifting the direction of religious education and, thus, the hope of creating a new profession died. The failure to admit this resulted in religious education and Christian education being used interchangeably in Protestant circles.

Since the 1960s, the term religious education has experienced some revival in the United States and is associated with the teaching of children outside Catholic schools. While the term is more frequently used by Catholics than by other denominations, no consensus of meaning for the term exists, even within the Catholic Church.

By way of summary then, it can be seen that the term religious education is used in two distinctive ways. Religious education refers to religious instruction that takes place in the classroom and it also refers to a Church sponsoring activity of religious socialisation. The future life of the term, therefore, depends on two major factors – the inclusion of non-schooling elements of education into the understanding and meaning of education (a factor which would include the very young, as well as the adult population) and the development of ‘a systematic and comparative study of religious practice.’ (Moran: 1987, 322)

Exploring the meaning of religious education
Having examined the term of religious education, it is now possible to turn to the second direction in which religious education can be explored, that is, the meaning of religious education. Gabriel Moran, in his attempt to explore the fullest meaning of religious education, indicates a need for two languages of religious education – an ecclesiastical language and an educational language. While both languages have their strengths and weaknesses, it is important to note their complementarity. Ecclesiastical language needs the language of education to prevent its being threatened by parochialism. Conversely, the language of education requires the concreteness of religious organisation, but it must not be reduced solely to Church language. Such a reduction serves to perpetuate the current problem of equating religious education with catechetics in the Catholic tradition and Christian education with religious education in Protestant circles. It must be recognised that the term religious education is broader in meaning than catechetics or Christian education.

Ecclesiastical language comprises the two components of theology and catechetics/ Christian education, with theology governing their content. The appropriateness of the word theology has been questioned, however, and it has been suggested that this word may not be necessary or even helpful when speaking about a Christian position. (Moran: 1987, 41) The role of theology is to provide one model among many as a means to understanding religion. Theology’s failure to understand itself in this light has resulted in its control of catechetical language; a factor that renders dialogue impossible and serves to limit the effectiveness of the work carried out by catechists and Christian educators. Rather, dialogue within the Churches can be facilitated by placing the study of religion into an educational context instead of in an ecclesiastical setting. (Moran: 1987, 42)

An educational context seems a more appropriate context for religious education than the ecclesiastical. While similarities exist between the school’s control of education and the Church’s control of religion, it is important to distinguish between education and school. Education has been described as ‘the systematic planning of experience for growth in human understanding.’ (Moran: 1987, 43)  This depiction of education recognises the possibility of religious issues surfacing in all aspects of life. In this regard, religion is referred to as that which ‘pertains to the origin, destiny or deepest meaning of our world and finds expression in social gestures.’ (Moran: 1987, 43)  Existing as ‘personal attitude, communal symbol and bodily behaviour, the religious is something out of the ordinary that calls the ordinary into question.’ (Moran: 1987, 43)

Recognising the tension that exists between the words religion and education, particularly as one gets closer to a fuller understanding of education, it is important to recognise that both words need each other in order to become fully effective. Education needs religion lest its institutions become obsessed with bringing the ordinary under control. Similarly, in an effort to break out of the ordinary and refuse any form of restraint, religion needs the influence of education’s guidance and temporal forms. (Moran: 1987, 40-50)

While it is possible for all education to have religious significance, it is essential to include three areas of education in religion where religion is recognised and honoured. These comprise: (a) the study of a specific religion from within; (b) the study of religion from a position of some distance; (c) the practice of a religious life. (Moran: 1987, 46)

Taking each in turn, the study of a religion from within invites one to turn away from introversion or defensiveness in relation to one’s own religion and to perfect one’s vision, viewing the world through the eyes of another. Such an activity implies an appreciation of things for their own uniqueness. The task of religious institutions is to appreciate everything in this way.

The study of religion from a distance is also crucial as a component of a full religious education. This element of religious education means observing one’s own religion in relation to other religious and nonreligious options. Educational institutions provide the best forum for this form of religious education.

The third element of a full religious education concerns the practice of a religious life, a practice that can be briefly summarised by prayer and social action. Because of the private and intimate nature of many of these practices, (for example, contemplation, the sacraments, and social justice), this aspect of religious education cannot be studied or taught. Rather, this meaning of religious education can be tested in its ability to retain what is most valuable from the past, while at the same time opening new possibilities for the future. The challenge of religious education now is ‘to help us speak and live the truth we know while also removing the intolerance which is embedded in our language.’ (Moran: 1987, 47)

These three areas of education draw attention to two approaches to religious education that ought to be avoided: proselytising and indoctrinating on the one hand, and simply understanding explanations of religion on the other. The former terms have negative connotations, while the latter is too removed from the religious life. What is needed is the development of the religious life of humankind. In this regard, religious education needs to be understood as that which concerns ‘the religious life of the human race and with bringing people within the influence of that life.’ (Moran: 1989, 218) There are two distinct, yet complementary, ways to foster this development. These comprise (1) the understanding of religion (which pertains to what happens in the classroom and in academic institutions), and (2) formation in being religious, that is, the catechetical. A fuller exploration of these two aims of religious education can be found in a later chapter.

Four qualities of emerging meaning
In order to extend the conversation, Gabriel Moran points to four essential qualities that must be included in our fullest meaning of religious education. First, religious education should be international, that is, take into account the variety of national meanings of the term. While academic religious education in most countries is in some way related to national governments and while many religions have a trans-national character, an international dialogue or discussion is difficult because of the lack of a common language. There is no universal meaning of religious education and the term religious education is translated differently in different languages. Scholars in other disciplines who meet internationally may have a common text (albeit with some variations) as a basis for discussion, whereas an agreed general area for religious educators is more nebulous. Perhaps Ireland, a nation that has been significantly influenced by the UK and the USA, is a good example of a country which, instead of being a satellite to the international dialogue, may be instrumental in developing the fullest meaning of religious education. Indeed, the Irish situation provides an opportunity to integrate the UK meaning (schooling in religion) with the US meaning (formation in religion). Both meanings are needed for a comprehensive theory of religious education.

The second aspect or quality of conversation needed for religious education is inter-religious dialogue, a quality that is inherent to religious education itself. The need for this aspect of religious education has arisen with the growth of religious pluralism. Indeed, education in inter-religious dialogue is essential for international cooperation and for the future security of humankind. This is highlighted by Eleanor Nesbitt who focuses principally on the Sikh tradition while making reference to studies from the Hindu and Christian experience. Contending that agreed boundaries separating faith traditions are becoming increasingly anachronistic, she argues for greater openness in religious education in order to expose the dynamics of religious and cultural evolution. (Nesbit: 2001, 137-158) It is interesting to note here that the term inter-religious provides a broader forum than the narrower title interfaith because inter-religious connotes the visible and tangible aspects of faith that can be dealt with educationally. Religious pluralism is not just about multiplicity. It is about affirming the importance of each religion, but only in relation to all of the others. In other words, pluralism and relativism are understood positively. This, however, requires authentic education within each religious group and between groups. If religious pluralism has been the factor that led to religious education, then religious education is the basis for sustaining religious pluralism. Religious education in this context may then be understood as having two aims: (1) a heightened awareness and appreciation of one’s own religious life and (2) a deeper understanding and appreciation of the religion of others.

When speaking of religious education, Gabriel Moran prefers to use the image of learning a second language. Our first language is our faith / religious language, the language we acquire and absorb from our religious/ ecclesiastical tradition, and one that pertains to the ultimate in life. Religious education as a second language begins to emerge when our first religious language is compared with an entirely different one. Using the analogy of lingua franca, religious education can be understood as’ the attempt to bring many religious languages into one conversation. The importance of such a framework is essential in the promotion of understanding, tolerance and world peace. Such a conversation would result in a better understanding of one’s first religious language, as well as a deeper appreciation of the religious languages of other traditions.

Third, religious education should be intergenerational. Aware that many people understand education as that which happens to children, religious education may lead the way in promoting a lifelong education. The concept of intergenerational education is an important reminder that people are being taught continually by those who are older than them as well as by those who are younger. Indeed, ‘the most dramatic embodiment of intergenerational education is the conversation between the old a few years from death and the young a few years from birth.’ (Moran: 1989, 234) Religious education can contribute to education generally by encouraging the relation of the very young and the very old. The very young and the mature adult often have a profound religious sense and this can be salutary for those going through the hustle and bustle of the middle years.

Finally, religious education should be inter-institutional. Lifelong education goes hand in hand with life-wide education. Similar to life-long, intergenerational education, life-wide education correlates particularly well with religious education. In order to be effective, education must engage the major institutions of society. Cooperation between religious bodies (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) and public institutions is extremely important and the pitfalls of total identification and total opposition must be avoided. Rather, their roles are to be regarded as complementary. How does this work out in practice? The primary responsibility of the State is to provide the resources necessary for education and religious education, whereas the vocation of the churches is to model a religious way of life.

In advocating a wider conversation for religious education, we are invited into a deeper journey, a journey into the quest for richer meaning. An easier route would be the path of definitions, the concern with defining terms. However, the ‘road less travelled’, the road that resists the definition of terms, invites the traveller to break open words in order to allow the deeper levels of meaning to emerge. Only when this happens can important changes take place. It is to this that we how turn.


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Smith, H. Shelton (1941), Faith and Nature, (New York).

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