I spent the day at the IOE in London hearing about the READY project. It’s an Erasmus plus project bringing together countries working on RE teaching and the training of teachers. I was really struck by the first session, by Farid Panjwani a colleague I have known for many years and it was fascinating to hear how his thinking is developing. He spoke about the problem of a kind of binary (my term) that emerges when you see postings on social media that Islam is a religion of war alongside pamphlets suggesting Islam is a religion of peace. He thinks we need to get beyond these kind of binaries. It’s quite possible to pull up quotes from the Qur’an to try to back up each of these possible arguments, but maybe our study of Islam needs to get beyond all this. He wove together two themes that he has long been interested – that of the reification and essentialization of religion. You can see this in questions like ‘is Islam compatible with democracy’ or Is Islam compatible with human rights’. These sorts of question lead to an argument about what the essential Islam is. Farid wonders if this is going about things the wrong way, if we need to focus more closely on a hermeneutical approach to the study of religion that brings into focus the question of how Muslims make sense of their religion in different situations, times and places. Reification and essentialization turns religions into museum pieces and does not recognises the lived dimension of religion, where an engagement happens between the believer and the sources of faith. Here he is drawing on Gadamer. He thinks we need to move away from talking about ‘Islam’s view’ of thing and focus instead on how Muslims view thins in certain times and places. Farid thinks we need to stop focussing our question on ‘Islam’s view of things’.
I was struck with the thought that behind this concern is a similar sort of concern about religion and science, where there is a tendency to suggest there is a religious perspective and a scientist perspective, one versus the other, something that LASAR which has moved from the University of Reading to Canterbury Christ Church University (my university). Believing in creation gets compounded with creationism. Taking science seriously is compounded with scientism. My colleague Professor Billingsley is really worried that her research suggests children think RE and science education are competing answers to the same question. There seems to be a problem in how pupils understand the role of their subjects as offering different ways of interpreting meaning.
It’s striking how the place of interpretation, or discernment is becoming much more important. I have a blog where I post things that might be interesting to those involved in hermeneutics and RE. I am left wondering and worrying that the tendency for GCSE RS exams to encourage oppositional debate might not encourage the kind of analysis that an interpretative or hermeneutical approach recommends.