Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

Advertisements