Editor’s note: This post continues a short series on education, children, and the Church. Come back over the next three days to read more on our education page.
By John Thorpe
In my work as an Episcopal school chaplain, I meet many parents who want their children to learn about the world’s religions. These parents may or may not be Christian, and those who are Christians have varying degrees of commitment. But they come to Episcopal schools because they recognize that religion offers added value to education. We might call them religious optimists: they believe that, despite all the high-profile failures of religions and religious people, the yearning of the human heart for God has the potential to lift us out of our narrow, individualistic perspectives, to strengthen our societies, and to make the world a better place. They want this for their children, and they want their children to be responsible citizens in a religiously plural American culture. This list is designed for these parents, so they can know how to begin teaching religious citizenship to their children at an early age
Know your own tradition well. Every journey needs a starting place, and every parent already has a history with religion and a series of religious decisions that inevitably form the culture of their family. Hindus are Hindus for a reason; atheists are atheists for a reason. Maybe it was your family’s practice for a hundred generations, or decisions your parents made for you as a child, or your independent choices as part of your life’s story. Whatever the background you, as a parent, bring to this task, it will become the starting point for your child’s journey. Reflect on your spiritual story. Be able to explain your one or two most important religious choices in a few sentences that your child can understand. Be able to explain your tradition’s history in two minutes or less. Yes, this might mean you need to do some research, but that’s okay. You’re the parent, after all. And Google is good for that.
Make peace with God. Many adults live their lives with perpetual cognitive dissonance between their lives and their religious commitments. We feel guilty, we feel like we’ve neglected something important, we wish we had been more disciplined, and we carry the burden of what we think would be the expectations of previous generations. We are painfully aware of our doubts, fears, sins, struggles, failures, and the limits to our knowledge. The perception that we are out of our spiritual depth is the biggest obstacle to parents teaching children about religion. But you can and should conquer that fear. Make peace with God so that you won’t be running from your religion’s commitments but will be able to teach from a standpoint of contentment. You cannot guide your child on a path you are not committed to walk.
Don’t try to make all religions the same or even compatible. This is tempting, especially in a time of religious tension around the world and near home. We would love to focus only on what religions share in common and thus be at peace with one another, but that approach does not tell the whole story. It does violence to the theological systems of the world’s religions, and your children will infer, quite dangerously, that they should only respect those who think like them. Making all religions sound like they agree reinforces American cultural narcissism, and smacks of colonialism and armchair anthropology. Instead, let each religion speak with its own voice. Let each one tell of its successes and failures. Find books, websites, and other sources that will accurately observe the details and power of each tradition, and help your children comprehend what is compelling about each particular narrative.
Build an ethic of personal respect based on common humanity. As far back as archaeology can tell, humans have practiced religion. As a species, our oldest art is religious art; fertility idols are among our oldest surviving artifacts; and who knows how long people have looked at the sky and sung poetic songs about the stories written in the stars? Religion is older than farming, older than writing, older than war, older than civilization. Religion is fundamentally and uniquely human. Therefore, the yearning that drives me to church on Sunday is, to a certain degree, the same force that drives a Muslim to mosque on Friday: we both feel incomplete without it. Religions will disagree, but our religious need is shared. Each religion comprises a different answer to the common yearning of the human heart. Recognizing this will help you and your child understand religious language and iconography, unpacking common images and themes. But it also serves as the foundation for an ethic of personal respect. All people can be respected, even if their solutions to the yearning of the human heart are flatly contradictory to ours.
Take a risk and grow with your child. Learning itself is a risk. What you learn may change your life forever. To invite your child into a robust religious commitment is to invite her to be comfortable with a certain level of guided risk, and you must be ready to undertake those risks. From little risks, like setting aside a portion of an allowance for alms to the poor, to more significant ones like fasting or confessing your shortcomings, to the highest risks of all in giving one’s life as a minister, monk, or martyr — risk-taking is a basic skill of religion. But these experiences make us grow and mature. They keep us religiously supple; the Bible calls it having a “heart of flesh” that is willing to be directed by God, in contrast to having a stubborn and inflexible “heart of stone” (Ezek. 36:26). If you do not risk something yourself for the sake of your religion’s commitments, no level of teaching will undo that lesson in your child’s mind.
Direct experience is best. As much as possible, you and your child should experience the religions you study directly and together. Visit and observe regular worship. Read the sacred texts and take a stab and answering the dreaded question, “What does that mean?” (You don’t have to get it right every time; model the skill and struggle of finding meaning in a sacred text.) Think through religious beliefs together; pay attention to how you both feel after observing a ritual and help your child unpack those feelings. Compare and contrast each new experience with what you already know, and don’t be afraid to offer subjective evaluations.
Be comfortable with boundaries. It can be a great privilege to visit other religions’ places of worship and observe rituals from another religious tradition. This kind of experience teaches more than hours and hours in a classroom. But be prepared to observe and not participate. Don’t take it as a personal affront if you, as an outsider, are not allowed to do everything that community members do. This is to be expected: many religious rituals imply religious commitment or identity and should not be engaged in without a willingness to make that commitment. Christian baptism, for example, is only appropriate if a person believes Jesus to be the Son of God; even the logic of infant baptism rests on the strength of the faith and commitment of parents, godparents, and the Church. To participate without that intention is to make the ritual into a lie. As a guide to your child, be aware of implied commitment and the boundaries of the hospitality offered by the community you’re studying.
It’s not all about ideas. American culture has been shaped by the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, both of which were based in Europe and founded upon ideas. But the world is bigger than Europe, and religion is more than ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of only talking or thinking about religion in terms of beliefs: most people in the world experience their religion as community, daily disciplines, family, history, time, food, music, laughter, pain, life, and death. Ideas are only one tool we use to make sense of these experiences.
Don’t be too quick to approach religion as a choice. While there may be some wisdom in the maxim that children should make their own decisions, and though America’s free and pluralistic society means your children will make their choices at some point, think twice about approaching it that way when you are teaching religion to your children. Children often interpret our attitudes differently than parents intend. A father who is deeply pious might hesitate to influence his child’s choice out of respect for the deeply personal nature of religion, and a desire to support his child’s dignity. But the child will likely experience that hesitation as a lack of commitment or as skepticism; and her takeaway might be that irreligion is better. Most religions also follow a very traditional educational model: disciples follow a master, students learn from a teacher, supplicants obey and imitate the guru. There may be truths in religion that cannot be discovered alone, which must be passed on from a spiritual guide.
Remember, too, that most religious people in most of human history have come to their commitments not by sampling the smorgasbord of options — religious pluralism is a relatively rare idea in human history, after all — but through the mandatory guidance of families and communities. Around the world and even in modern America, most religious people are never given a choice. Let that sink in for a moment.
Thinking of religion as a choice among options, like a spiritual buffet, is a very new, very American idea, and it is not a perspective shared by most religions. Most children receive religious (or non-religious) training without their consent. Many adults continue the traditions in which they were brought up because of family relationships, yearly festivals, social conventions, and matters of taste. Social bonds and religious bonds reinforce each other, making them very difficult either to untangle or to break. Most societies in human history have considered this connection beneficial and have wound these threads of social and religious cohesion tightly together. Before we disentangle them in our children, we would do well to consider the wisdom of our elders in the human race.