Daughter asks mommy: ‘Are we fundamentalist Christians or liberal Christians’?

It’s not exactly the kind of question my wife expected but when a 9-year-old comes up with that, you just know she has been doing RE at school.

  • Mum -, ‘that’s an interesting question – what makes you ask it?’
  • Daughter – ‘we were doing it in RE’
  • Mum – ‘so what do you think?’
  • Daughter – ‘Well Miss says that fundamentalists believe that all of the Bible is true but liberal Christians think only some of the Bible is true’
  • Mum – ‘So what do you think about us?’
  • Daughter – ‘ Well I thought maybe we were liberal Christians but as you think the Bible is really important I suppose we are fundamental Christians?’ (asked questioningly)

[Contextual information: Mum is a lay minister who leads worship and coordinator of the Sunday School team. Dad is a sometime RE teacher, RE teacher educator and RE researcher.]

We talked about this incident quite a lot, wondering how religious children make sense of the categories they hear in class and the language they see in the media.

I wonder if we need to take greater care of the categories we use in RE. I remember a conservative evangelical telling me that her daughter had come home with questions about Genesis and that the teacher had presented binary alternatives – either you believe Genesis is literally true or you believe it is a symbol for something or some sort of myth.

I wonder if we place too much importance on these categories and too little time focussing on the lives of Christians and the ways they discern things, which may not fit our categories. Most conservative evangelicals (I suggest) do not believe every word and book in the Bible is ‘True’ in precisely the same way as every other word and Book in the Bible. In other words, some texts have a kind of reach into Christian life that is different from other words (think the difference between poetry, history and moral command).

I suspect my daughter thinks we place a lot of importance on the Bible because we have about 20 different bibles on my bookshelves and I write about this sort of stuff (http://ethicalstudies.co.uk/). But maybe I would prefer her teacher to focus on the different ways religious people discern meaning from religious sources, rather than obsess about which category bucket people can be put inside. Sometimes I am pretty literal about bits of the Bible. Sometimes I think its meanings are (also or alternatively) much, much more important that that. I mean if you say ‘God saves’ the literalness can’t be fully accounted for in terms of a linguistic literal notion of saving. I may be saved from drowning today, but no inner transformation is necessary with that sort of saving, and I may still drown tomorrow. To say a Christian literally believes she is saved by God is not enough. We need to know much more to understanding what is meant by saving. To believe Jesus literally rose from the dead in the past, need not imply anything about what will happen to me after my death. Belief in the risen Christ is not the same as the belief that Jesus rose from the dead (one time). There is a link of course (for many/most Christians) but, again, we need to get beyond categorising terms which actually are more about labels and less about understanding.

I think meaning can have a more powerful and universal significance than a literal reading so I am not sure that the liberal – fundamental, symbolic – literal binaries really help do much, apart from creating essentialized notions of Christians that limit, reduce and simplify religious life.

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The READY conference at the IOE

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.

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