Creating Interfaith Learning Opportunities in Education

Editorial Director’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

“I thoroughly enjoyed your class,” the man told me.  I had known I was being evaluated as a student teacher, but I was overjoyed he had chosen this morning to visit, when I pulled out all the stops with a lesson plan on Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church that included an activity where students created a “Wanted” poster for the famous scientist.

“Thank you,” I said, meekly, unsure how to respond.

“And I found the lesson very even-handed,” he went on.  “Usually classes on this topic make me cringe, but as a Catholic, I felt completely comfortable in your classroom. And I liked that you mentioned the Pope’s 1992 apology for persecuting Galileo.”

The comment took me a while to digest.  Teaching in a predominantly African-American high school that had a mix of Catholic and Muslim students, I had been concerned about how, as a white man, I should handle racially sensitive topics like the origins of slavery, but it had not occurred to me to worry about how a Catholic would feel in my classroom. Though Catholics had been a reviled minority in nineteenth-century America, I had never thought that in the 2010s, Catholics would have a reason to feel aggrieved about how their faith was treated in American classrooms.  But then I recalled an incident that had taken place in the classroom a few weeks before.  My mentor teacher was expounding on the Reformation and had referred, rather brusquely, to the “lies and hypocrisy” of the Catholic Church, with no indication that this was merely how contemporary Protestants viewed the matter.  Reflecting on this episode made me squirm; how would it feel to me if a teacher had matter-of-factly discussed the “lies and hypocrisy” of the Pharisees while explaining the growth of Christianity?

As my student teaching came to an end, I frequently reflected on what my evaluator had said, and about how absent an in-depth understanding of religion had been in my own education.  Like many Americans, the teaching about religion I had received typified the “jack-in-the-box” model Stephen Prothero describes in his work, Religious Literacy: deeply religious figures popped up every once in a while, to do battle against Galileo or burn witches at Salem, only to disappear once the dust settled and secularism inevitably steamed ahead.  Almost nothing was said about what motivated people to join such religious communities, nor was attention given to the beliefs of more progressive religious communities even when, as in the case of the Quakers, those beliefs helped shape the modern world.  Only when I chose to study religion in college did I learned how figures like Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi developed their progressive ideals because of their faith.

Moreover, my own life had been colored by the perceptions of religious people I formed in my education.  As I explored my own Jewish heritage in college, I developed the stereotypes of Christians I had developed in my education.  Christianity had set up Judaism as a straw man over the century, distorting the nature of Jewish law into something hideous and monstrous.  In turn, it became easy for me to stereotype Christian notions of agape as a hypocritical veneer that, underneath, created a system just as legalistic as the one it claimed to displace.  Only years afterward, when, on the advice of a friend who understood my need for spiritual solace I was not getting in my own synagogue, I began to study the New Testament with a group of Evangelical Christian men, did I come to understand the very personal nature of much of what the New Testament teaches, and of how it might provide me with a novel and challenging conception of what faith can accomplish for the believer, and I have begun to integrate that understanding not only into my own practice of Judaism but hope to use it as a touchstone in a career as a scholar of religion.

At the same time, my experience in this group has helped to reshape much of what these men believe about Jews and Judaism.  I have often been called on to explain issues of Jewish law as they appear in the New Testament, whether about Jewish dietary law or Sabbath observance.  By taking on this role, I have exposed these men to the creativity I see in my own tradition, and show that far from being inhumane and inflexible, Jewish law often involves complicated gymnastics to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering.  We have all gained from this interfaith encounter.

My interfaith experiences have led me to understand the necessity of spaces in which serious interfaith dialogue can happen.  Although many interfaith organizations exist, they predominantly focus primarily on promoting good works, whether for local or global issues yet often sidestep the real, hard work of interfaith understanding, especially involving controversial subjects.  Although this urge is understandable, it is regrettable, because it denies opportunities for deeper spiritual growth.  It is just these kinds of opportunities I would like to help foster as a religious educator, and it is the hope of creating them that had prompted me to write for State of Formation.

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