An Approach to Religious Education

Members of the Menomonie Ministerial Association (M.A.M.A) stared at me in slack-jawed silence. We had been in the midst of a discussion about the war in our town, a war of old versus new, this time erupting over the Indian logo at the high school, and there was distress among the clergy that their churches had become part of the battlefield in the height of raging controversy and political action.

"People don’t know how to love and care for one another," one pastor muttered.

Another could not contain her bitterness as she said, "I keep telling them every Sunday that there is that of God within, but they don’t listen."

"Of course they don’t listen," I had said. "They aren’t ready to listen. And, if they are not ready, they cannot hear."

A roomful of pastors quieted as I went on to talk about religious education in contrast to spoken ministry. And I was on pretty shaky ground with them because I was talking about a kind of religious education in which very little is spoken. Rather, it is an approach to education that helps us learn how to listen with open, loving hearts.

I went on to explain that one of the most important ministries that we can have as meeting and church leaders is to give young adults, often teachers and parents, the tools they need when they need them for their continued spiritual growth; tools that help us to grow deeper in love.

What are these tools? One basic tool is developmental theory. Knowing developmental stages gives us clues regarding when and how to present material. Sometimes knowledge of developmental stages helps us identify when our listeners are ready to hear. For example, great care needs to be taken in introducing our biblical roots since many newcomers have been wounded by past use of the Bible.

My favorite illustration of developmental theory is with images of God. Many adults come to Quakerism thinking that their previous religion has taught them that God is an old man with a white beard (which is most likely not true).

As a twenty-something parent, I was determined to move away from all-male images of God. When I put our three-year-old to bed, we would say thank you for the good things that happened during the day, and talk about the bad. I don’t remember ever using the words "God" or "prayer." One night, my daughter surprised me by saying, "I have been thinking and thinking . . ."

"About what?" I asked.

"About God . . . and now I think I know."

"Know what?" I wondered, all ears.

"God is a lady on a great big bicycle. If she didn’t have a bicycle, a really big bicycle, how could she ever get around and hear all of the little children’s prayers?"

I smiled a deep smile, gave her a kiss, and tucked her into bed.

What did we do right in this little exchange?

First, my daughter worked out her own image of God and prayer. In her literal style of thinking, she worked out God in human form.

As for me, I listened and did not laugh. If I had started to lecture her on God as Spirit, I would have been depriving her of the opportunity to continue to work things out for herself. At the same time, I was somehow communicating some of my reflections on the feminine aspects of God.

In other words, a knowledge of developmental stages can help us understand ways in which another is struggling to make sense of the world and religion while we are struggling ourselves. Stages can help us know when to talk and when to listen.

Developmental theory also teaches that some people may never move out of a given stage, and that trying to encourage spiritual growth through argument or criticism only causes hurt feelings and defensiveness. It is when we listen to and accept each other that we give one another the freedom to experiment and to grow in understanding.

Listening skills are another important component in the religious education toolbox. Learning to listen to what is behind the words of another is a useful skill in any group situation. My philosophy is that the basic skills of quieting the mind and learning how to listen carry us toward the larger task of centering. Centering helps us enter silent worship, as does learning how to listen to "the still small voice."

At this time, I am actually experimenting with a meditation/deep listening ecumenical class as a step toward meeting for worship. Without some guidance in what to do in silence, there is often confusion regarding what discipline is being practiced. Buddhist, Quaker, and Transcendental Meditation methods all stress different aspects of silence. All practices are helpful for Friends, but it is also helpful to be clear about the differences.

An open-ended approach to the Bible and Quaker history is important in the development of our third tool, that of interpretation. For example, translating language, especially sexist language, into language that allows us to hear the heart of a story. However, this example of interpretation needs to be practiced in a safe place, as open-ended discussion may quickly irritate past wounds. Sometimes anger needs to be ventilated and, hopefully, understood. Nevertheless, past wounds of an individual should not bring the religious education of others to a screeching halt. Closely intertwined with interpretation is learning how to disagree about touchy subjects without rancor.

A fourth tool that meeting elders and ministers may give to facilitator-teachers of children (and please notice that this is the first tool for children only) is a prepared environment. This is an area that belongs to the group, not the teacher. The teacher’s role becomes that of listener and discerner. For example, the First-day school coordinator may bring in stories, art, and play materials appropriate for various age groups and interests. Teaching children how to care for and share such materials is the teacher’s job.

Learning how to use and care for materials is foundational to living in community. Handling art supplies with reverence, putting things away for the next person, and working mindfully teach volumes more than any lecture on the Testimony of Community.

A prepared environment includes rules that extend beyond caring and sharing. "No put-downs here" is my favorite for children. "Speak for yourself. Never try to tell the group what someone else is thinking" is my favorite advice for all ages, especially adults. Always, the bottom line is respect for one another’s deeply held opinions and beliefs, not winning a debate.

And finally, the fifth tool of religious education is storytelling. Through telling and retelling stories, we offer listeners the opportunity to hear different aspects of each story as we grow and mature. For centuries, storytelling was the vehicle for passing on cultural and religious concepts from one generation to the next. The great blessing of storytelling is that fundamental religious concepts are introduced more gently than with a sermon or talk.

For instance, I often suggest that meetings start talking about the Divine through reading and responding to the children’s story, Old Turtle. In this tale, each animal and object believes that God is a reflection of what they are. In the end, people begin to see God in one another and in the beauty of the Earth.

Observing the responses to stories can be a discernment tool for facilitator-teachers. For example, if someone responds to a biblical story with bitterness, that response is a signal that this person is not yet ready to explore the biblical roots of Quakerism.

Quakerism I and II is a curriculum of stories with the intention of introducing children and newcomers to the concept of God Within and meeting for worship. The general idea is that once there is trust in experiential methods and storytelling that emphasize foundational concepts of Quakerism, people will start to practice the same techniques with the Bible.

In a mixed age group, I encourage older children to bring their favorite stories into the prepared environment; and, voilà, with a choice of art and play responses to the story, we have a First-day school "lesson" for the younger and/or new attenders. There is no fuss about irregular attendance or age groups. Furthermore, asking children to help with leadership is a drawing out of what older children have learned thus far. A perceptive coordinator may be able to give older children the tools they need next to continue their own growth.

Now, I am in Scotland reading Muriel Stark; and through her most famous character, Miss Jean Brody, the author has this to say about education: "To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion. . . . Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education."

Traditional ministry from the pulpit and the lecture approach to education are the pouring in rather than a leading out. As Friends, we need to better understand the leading out of knowledge that is already there as our approach to religious education. George Fox gave us the image of the seed of God that Christ has sown in our hearts. I like to think of the seed as that little bit of inner knowledge of the Divine. Like all seeds, this one grows best in fertile soil. As facilitator-teachers, it is our joy—to use another expression from George Fox—to break up the Earth in people’s hearts, encouraging the development of fertile ground for the miracle of God’s work.

Many times our best "religious education" is learned unconsciously from elders and not from teachers or defined programs. I am thinking here of those people who know how to quiet their overactive minds, how to question with gentleness and respect, how to listen beyond the words, and how to be supportive of another’s spiritual path.

To illustrate one way in which this extremely informal yet affirming education works (and here I am thinking of one-on-one education outside of any programs), I would like to close with a quote by another Scottish author, Anne Donovan, from her book Buddha Da. The main character, Jimmy, is talking with his Buddhist monk teacher about the difficulties he is having with meditation during a retreat:

"Ah could hardly sit still, ma mind was birlin. In the end ah just sat and listened tae the rain on the roof."

"Tell me, Jimmy, what were you doing when you were listening to the rain?"

"Ah wisnae daein anythin, ah tellt you, Rinpoche, ah was just sittin, listenin, followin the sound ae the raindraps landing on a roof—my mind was just empty."

"How wonderful."

"But ah thought ah was supposed tae be followin the breaths, daein the mindfulness a breathin."

"Maybe you were doing the mindfulness of raindrops, Jimmy."

The monk is being a nonjudgmental, affirming facilitator-teacher and elder par excellence. May we all as Friends learn how to do the same for one another, no matter our ages.

Mary Snyder

Mary Snyder, a member of Paullina (Iowa) Meeting, has recently compiled a curriculum, Bringing Religious Education Home, which invites Friends and newcomers to daily reading and responding to short pieces from the Bible, George Fox, and other Friends.