world council of churches

The consultation statement

Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jew and Christian, we are educators, wives, mothers, social service workers, doctors and women of faith from around the world. We gather because we recognize the need for greater attention to religious education in our world. This education manifests itself in myriad settings through a myriad people. It comes in the form of general religious education in schools for people in mixed faith communities. It comes as religious instruction in a specific tradition. It affects people of every faith as well as people of no particular faith and is led by clergy and laity, men and women, young and old. It is taught by example. It is learned from experience. It is lived by all.

Life does not discriminate by faith. We all share certain common experiences -- birth, death, joy and pain. People of faith also share a search for answers to certain existential questions. These questions can be both an excellent entry point to interfaith dialogue as well as an honest departure point for interfaith differences. They can be tailored to educational settings. For example, children raise the question of death and afterlife when relatives, friends or pets die. A schoolteacher may find herself plunged unexpectedly into an interfaith dialogue when a sad child questions the fate of her newly departed pet hamster. How does she deal with this? In an increasingly pluralistic world, such questions raise issues from various perspectives. With the proper training, however, such questions can become beautiful learning experiences rather than a fright. In these situations children become the educators. They can share their various experiences and learn from one another.

Our goal in religious education is to create spiritual, moral, cultural and social beings. Religious education concerns learning about and from traditions including our own. Still, this community enterprise is not embraced by all. Teachers find students with no particular faith foundation in their classrooms. Similarly, they encounter parents who have, at best, a luke warm understanding of faith, themselves. More religiously expressive parents fear that their childrenís faith will be undermined by inter-religious education. Secular education does not aim to instill faith, and many pupils are entering into their inter-religious world with no real faith base. Education, then, should address its four fold goals from each personís starting point. For some, this means beginning from a firm religious root. For others, it means approaching a spiritual insight through other cultural, moral or social means.

Further, education must nurture the student and teach respect for religion, culture and individuals. This comes through a tri-part exchange on the part of caregivers, teachers and children. Each plays an important role in the development of the whole being in the same way that religious ritual develops the whole person -- body, mind and soul.

But, how do we improve secular religious education and faith-based religious instruction so that they enable the next generation to be persons of faith and citizens of a culturally religious and plural world? Before we can dream of changing this learning experience for future generations, we must look at improvements for the ways in which religious education and religious instruction are presented:

Remembering this, what action can we, as women of faith, envisage to create, sustain and develop interfaith communities?

First, we must look at the definition of an interfaith community. While being wary of placing too much emphasis on theory over praxis and for the purposes of definition, we shall call an interfaith community one that requires a group of people to meet regularly for the purpose of working consciously in an interfaith mode. At these meetings dialogue is openly one of the points of the agenda, and in this way dialogue becomes intentional.

Certain issues demand action and are common among women of all faiths. Action on these points will help to empower women in their struggles. Violence, for example, affects women everywhere. These actions may include such activities as reading scripture together, theologizing in that scripture or learning about community through ritual.

Inter-religious networks of women have to be built to make room for women in problematic hierarchical and patriarchal structures. In these situations, room must be made for women to freely act in ways that they feel appropriate, to have control and to make conscious choices. We must replace patriarchal structures with ones in which women feel comfortable working. We must continue to encourage and empower women in their own interfaith efforts. This means lifting up the small grass-roots initiatives as well as rejoicing in the triumphs of women in the spotlight. As women working together for a common goal, we cannot fall prey to the same structures that sometimes keep us at armís length.

In interfaith education, women tend to know the person first and her faith second. It is through such intentional relationship building that women relate to each other best. In experiencing the other, we come to know ourselves better. In MŁlheim, for example, we began each morning with a shared meditation. While we recognized that the setting of a meeting room was an artificial space in which to represent our traditions, the prayers we offered were shared in a rich atmosphere of trust and acceptance.

Interfaith understanding, therefore, comes to women one relationship at a time. Just as the sower in Matthew 13 sows seeds in a variety of soils, interfaith understanding begins with one conversation but also profoundly affects generations to come. This is a slow process, and it is in this slow intentionality that women live interfaith lives. This relational style of doing interfaith, however, cannot be over-analyzed. It is in the praxis, not the theory, that inter-religious women understand each other, other faiths, and their own traditions.

Keeping all of this in mind, we turn to the WCCís Guidelines for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths looking for ways to formulate interreligious guidelines serving a life of interreligious encounters. We offer the following suggestions for future documents:

Whereas centuries ago Christians sent missionaries to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel of Christ, today we need dialogue "missionaries" to promote the ethic of dialogue at home and abroad. These people, unlike the missionaries of old, will come to the dialogue table without a hidden agenda or penchant for proselytism. Rather, they will be torchbearers who bring the light of dialogue to the citizens of the world.

The promotion of dialogue is the responsibility of people of all faiths. Its safekeeping is the task of all Godís children, and we all must work together to nurture a sensitive approach to the task. Just as Christians understand God to be simultaneously immanent and transcendent, interfaith dialogue must nurture an outward and inward relationship in every tradition that engages in it. While actively engaging in interfaith dialogue and action, people in living faiths must also continue to maintain intra-faith dialogue, as well.

Go to Learning to live in a Euruope of many Religions by Anne Davison
Return to Current Dialogue (35), July 2000

© 2000 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor