This article was originally published in the prairie messenger
Such a pleasant, beaming face. Such an earnest smile. From the back of the classroom, on the first day of school, in the first minute of class, an eager student had a question. Actually, when I called on her, it was more of a comment than a question. No, it was more of a maxim.
“My brother told me this is the easiest class to pass. You just have to put ‘Jesus loves you’ as the answer to every question and they can’t mark you wrong.”
Twenty-nine heads swivelled to gauge the first-year teacher’s response to this observation.
Ultimately I’d find out that wisdom like this was not an uncommon approach to religious education. Depending on your assumptions, it seems a fair conclusion. But maybe you can imagine me at the beginning of my career as a religious educator, not wanting to concede on this.
From one perspective, the kid has a point. What is the point of Catholic education, after all, and religious instruction especially, if not to bring students into a personal experience of Christ’s love? If giving academic credit for such simple formulae as “Jesus loves you” sounds trite and artificial, this thinking goes, then perhaps we should re-examine the practice of assigning grades and credits for religious education.
But in fact there are things that we can know and understand about the Catholic faith — and our tradition has some of the most highly developed and nuanced religious language, concepts and scholarship. From Scripture and tradition are myriad ways of describing and explaining Christ’s love; it would seem valid to instruct students in some of these ways, and then to expect them to demonstrate their understanding. The phrase “Canada is a country” is not wrong, but neither is it considered everything a graduating student needs to know about our society.
As I put it to my students later on, “Jesus is not the answer . . . to No. 39 on the exam.” Whether or not Jesus is the answer, the pressing concern for a religious educator is what, exactly, is the question? For that student in my very first religious education class, then, I could have set a few different kinds questions.
I could have asked, “If Jesus loves you, then, who is Jesus?” Who does the creed say he is? Who does St. Paul say he is? Who does St. Peter say he is?
I could have asked, “If Jesus loves you, then, how does he show it?” How does the death and resurrection of Jesus show his love for you? How does the eucharist show Jesus’ love? How does creation show Jesus’ love?
I could have asked, “If Jesus loves you, then, what does it mean about who you are?” What does It mean about your place in the world? What does it mean for your understanding of yourself? What does it mean for your future?
Finally, I could have asked, “If Jesus loves you, then what ought you do about it?” What ought you do in your relationships? What should your participation in society look like? What should you think about, aspire to, and grow toward?
These last questions require more than memorization. They require understanding, analysis, and the application of knowledge — thinking skills which are essential components of building religious literacy in students and in society.
Religious literacy means the ability to understand critically and engage positively with religious expression in language, culture and society, especially, but not exclusively, the expression of one’s own religious tradition. Certainly from the perspective of the Catholic Church — and also from the perspective of secularism — this ability is very important for all people (and so for all school graduates) to have in a globalized world which experiences unprecedented ubiquitous interaction between people of different faiths and no faith.
Religious literacy is, when fully considered, a fascinating concept that in some ways is emergent in our generation. The literacy that allowed for the practice of religion and its involvement in all forms of personal and social life was engrained in homogenous cultures for as much as 10,000 years of human civilization. Today, in the blurring of geographic, generational and ideological boundaries that globalization has wrought, we see a need for a new capacity — that of learning our own religious tradition for ourselves (possibly as a religious minority in our local cultures) and interacting purposefully and positively with those of other traditions. We have to be conscious of this learning in new ways than before; we need not just knowledge but habits of openness, interpretation and application of that knowledge to deal with a different global religious reality.
For the Catholic tradition, the good news is that the teachings of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church offer a religious tradition that has respect and critical acceptance of those who hold other worldviews. Our challenge is to wisely invest our energies and our students’ attention so as to bring this tradition fully and honestly to our students.