Daniel Moulin wrote on his blog this splendid report of the conference. Thanks a lot, Daniel!
The 2016 Annual Meeting of the Religious Education Association – a US-based organisation with a global remit for the promotion and development of religious education – took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the weekend before the Presidential Election.
Outside the conference, the election campaign was in full swing (Hilary Clinton visited Pittsburgh the day after), and churches in the city distributed flyers asking congregations to reflect in conscience on her campaign pledges versus those of Trump.
The election inevitably remained an informal topic of discussion throughout the conference. But this was not coincidental or tangential. The role of religion in American politics is well-known. And more generally, the role of religious educators among all the division, noise and turbulence of the world – political and otherwise – has ongoing pedagogical and theological significance. This issue informed the conference theme of ‘generating hope’.
An after-dinner address was made by the award-winning columnist Tony Norman who gave an eloquent and detailed account of the inspiring teachers of literature who had encouraged him to write and had given him hope. Bert Roebben, an advocate of the importance of theology in religious education, in his presidential address meditated on the importance of hope in religious education, showing how theological ideas may inform praxis.
Of Belgian nationality but working in Dortmund, like many others in Germany Roebben has observed first-hand the despair of refugees arriving there, but through those challenging circumstances he has also seen the hope that religious education can provide, including the work of his students and colleagues with them.
Roebben’s argument, drawing upon the work of Heather Walton, is that teaching is not just phronèsis or rightly-informed practical action, but actually poèsis – a creative action that symbiotically transforms the teacher, student and world. Reflecting on his own work as a teacher-educator led Roebben to see hope as fundamental to this process. Because of the enormity of the task of engaging students with ultimate questions, the teacher’s work must be ‘anchored in a habitus of hope’ (p. 235).
As part of his meditation of the meaning of hope, Roebben referred to the thought of the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic, Václav Havel. Havel observed while incarcerated by the communist regime that to hope does not mean to expect things will work out for the best, but that we must endeavour to do what makes sense, regardless of how things turn out. It follows therefore, that we should not just see hope as a goal, but that it can saturate the teacher’s outlook, motivation and methods.
To practice hope in the classroom, Roebben argues, we must break isolation and learn patiently and deeply in the presence others. One way of doing this is to use ‘sensitizing stories’ – narratives that encourage a deeper reflection of oneself and one’s values. In such ways using story can transform classrooms and teacher-training. Roebben used the stories of the last gardener of Aleppo and the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26-29) to illustrate this point. While the former is a sensitizing story of hope being destroyed, Roebben suggests the latter provides a metaphor of how our toil can lead to new growth without us knowing why. One aspect of this is hope’s eschatological dimension – for in looking towards the time when a corrupt order will be overthrown, praxis can also pass on theology.
The philosopher of education John Dewey once stated that the teacher is the usher of the Kingdom of God on earth. Many today would not share such a utopian view of democracy or of education. Perhaps religious education can never transcend the political. But if there is a place where our deepest values, questions and concerns may be identified, addressed and shared, that surely must be in the religious education classroom. The religious education teacher therefore has tremendous responsibility, but also may be a harbinger of hope.