Engaging the Whole: A Tripartite Theory of Interreligious Education

(Author’s note – the terms ‘interreligious’ and ‘interfaith’ will be used interchangeably in the paragraphs to follow.)

This time last autumn, an intra-office email came through. An experimental program, the First-Year Learning Community, is looking for topics courses. The program is designed to function for-the-student as a ‘welcome to college/central humanities colloquy’, as well as a link towards other, interdisciplinary topics (my topics course is a hybrid sociology/religion course). Immediately, I saw this as an opportunity to usher in new curricula for the small, private, Church of God, liberal-arts college: interreligious dialogue. 

After months of deliberation and planning, I was given the opportunity to teach a class overtly on interfaith. As time went on, and new questions were brought to the forefront of the planning process, one question was never asked of me. It was, I believe, trusted that I knew my content. The question was, simply: ‘How does one teach interreligious dialogue?’

Concurrent to teaching at this college, I serve on the board of a local, interfaith group under the Education heading. Our organization – the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland (ICGPdx) – has identified four, central elements: Advocacy, Relationships, Service, and Education. I took the above question to heart and worked with two other members of the education team. What we produced is far from comprehensive, but it is both the launching point of our organization’s Education subcommittee, and the central pedagogy of my interfaith class. We concluded that teaching interreligious dialogue is inherently tripartite: that of interreligious literacy, that of interreligious education, and that of interreligious engagement as education.

The importance of religious literacy has been well discussed (Prothero, 2007; cf. Patel & Meyer, 2011b; cf. Moore, 2007). Both at the ICGPdx and in my interfaith class, it is recognized that before I can speak competently with (rather than towards) a member of the religious other, I must, first, know something about they whom I talk to. Our primary aim intends to address and redirect assumptions and presuppositions which may be held towards various faiths.

Moreover, it could be argued that there should be both objective and subjective voices heard on the matter of religious literacy (for the sake of this post, it is assumed that there can, truly, be objective voices on the topic of religious traditions). Central to religious literacy should be viewpoints from the tradition thereof (subjective: Why do some Muslims participate in Ramadan? How does Zen practice vary from Mahayana?) as well as comparative analysis (objective: What does our city look like, demographically, in terms of religious adherence? How does soteriology differ between faiths?). In the context of the ICGPdx and my interfaith class, curiosity-driven searching (beliefnet.com, thearda.com) is combined with hearing/reading personalized narratives (guest speakers from a tradition, stateofformation.org).

Interreligious education is decidedly different from interreligious literacy; rather, interreligious education is the process of educating about interfaith engagements (Patel & Meyer, 2011a). It is one thing to learn about Bayard Rustin’s Quaker roots; it is quite another to read of his involvement with Dr. MLK Jr. and Rabbi Heschel in organizing the March on Washington. Investing in Islamic literacy is wonderful; reading of Benazir Bhutto’s or Malala Yousafzai’s tenacity towards pedagogy and advancement of education adds a personalized historicity to the account. Using examples of driven individuals who sought shared values across faith traditions encourages learning about interreligious engagement. For my class, we read Patel’s Acts of Faith (2007) and Stedman’s Faitheist (2012).

Before moving towards the tertiary form of interfaith as education, it should be noted, as Dr. Diana Eck (2009) avers, that America has become both the most religiously diverse and religiously devout nation. Putnam’s findings (2007) indicate something which should give us pause for concern: that as diversity increases, social cohesion decreases. Seemingly in response, Eck comments, ‘Creating the unum from the pluribus is now more challenging than ever… How we balance the rich particularities of the pluribus and the common commitment of the unum is today’s greatest cultural argument, and the voices clamoring for a hearing on the issue are many’ (2009: 29). Diversity is increasing; social cohesion is at stake; the views towards amelioration are many.

Herein rests the final component belief, that interreligious engagement is, eo ipso, educational. Crucial to this concept is what Paulo Freire calls ‘problem-posing education’ (2000: 80). That is, rather than a teacher knowing all, and students receiving what the all-knowing-teacher offers, a leveling process towards ‘teacher-student and students-teachers’ (ibid) can occur through active involvement with people of various faiths. This is as an assumption known in sociology  as the ‘contact theory’ – that simply engaging with the diverse other as an equal agent will cause changes in both parties.

This is, however, an assumption – one which in real life is often not the case (cf. Putnam, 2007 above). In the context of interfaith-as-education, it needs to be made explicit that what you are doing is why you are doing it. Interreligious engagement needs to be called out as such: we are in this place, at this time, for the purpose of engaging other faiths so as to learn through that interaction. Field trips. Site visits. Ceremony attendance. These are essential means of interfaith education as they not only engage the body of the student, but allows them to viscerally engage the interfaith process.

Another way that interfaith-as-education can be encountered is through hosting interfaith panel discussions addressing topics which are of human import. Bring together a Secular Humanist, Muslim, Buddhist and Jew to discuss climate change. Hold a conversation between a Christian, Hindu, Baha’i and Wiccan regarding human trafficking. Demonstrate interfaith engagement – engaging the common, shared value – through active, engaging discussions. Through this, it is trusted that attendees/students will learn about interfaith organically: phyletically.

Again, what I have to offer is far from comprehensive. It is also experimental (and in need of further testing). I do believe, however, that it is a competent start towards comprehensive interfaith education. It is our held belief at the ICGPdx that interfaith education needs to incorporate direct interreligious literacy, followed by overt education about interfaith, culminating in the lived experience of participation in interreligious events as education processes. How these are lived out in educational institutions will differ from how it is experienced in a mosque, temple, synagogue or other overtly religious institution; nevertheless, the three components ought to be equally incorporated for comprehensive purposes. 

Image of author in class, used with permission.


Eck, Diana. 2009. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Freire, Paulo. 2000 [1968]. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic

Moore, Diane L. 2007. Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education. New York: Palgrave MacMillan 

Patel, Eboo. 2007. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Patel, Eboo and Cassie Meyer. 2011a. “The Civic Relevance of Interfaith Cooperation for Colleges and Universities.” The Journal of College and Character. 12, No. 1

–––––. 2011b. “Teaching Interfaith Literacy.” The Journal of College and Character. 12, No. 4

Putnam, Robert. 2007. “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century.” Journal of Scandanavian Studies. 137-174 

Prothero, Stephen. 2007. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t. New York: Harper Collins.

Stedman, Chris. 2012. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Boston: Beacon Press.

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One thought on “Engaging the Whole: A Tripartite Theory of Interreligious Education

  1. Congratulations on developing this inspiring pedagogy. For me, this experiential learning course is a moral imperative on a global scale. Within the tripartite inter religious education section, I want to emphasize the role of story-telling. The references testify to the use of stories in this curriculum. To build on this method more explicitly, the telling of and listening to someone’s experience of their religious practice or a related encounter can be transformative to both parties. Learning to listen without judgment opens up an opportunity for cognitive stretching and reframing. Telling a story offers a chance to feel how tightly someone holds onto a story that may be ready for its own liberation. A terrific lecture on interfaith pedagogy is
    Jennifer Peace’s lecture, “Spiritual Other/Spiritual Self: Models of Transformative Interfaith Work,” the 2013 Surjit Singh lecture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Google the Singh Lecture Link to locate the video.

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