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Religious Education


Religious education is understood in several ways. As a generic term it serves as an umbrella for a variety of pedagogical activities associated in one way or another with religion, e.g., formation, instruction, socialization, schooling, moral development, catechesis, bible study, teaching theology. In recent years it has also acquired a specific meaning, describing a particular field or discipline of academic study which investigates the theory and practice of the activities mentioned. In this latter sense religious education is perceived as "a special work demanding focused scholarship, unique training programs, and personnel" (Lee 8).

Origins of the Discipline. Several factors caused scholars to take a more systematic and theoretical approach to religious education. By the end of the 19th century the public school, a firm support of the Protestant tradition in the U.S., was well on its way toward secularization. The burden of religious education, therefore, fell more and more on the family, churches, Sunday and vacation schools, and similar institutions. Such Protestant writers as George Albert Coe, Paul Vieth, William Clayton Bower, Luther Weigle, Lewis Sherrill, H. Shelton Smith, and James Smart subjected religious education endeavors to a critical examination. In Roman Catholic circles a certain dissatisfaction with the conventional method of rote memorization of the catechism, the emergence of kerygmatic theology in the 1930s, and the blossoming of the liturgical movement in the 1950s raised theoretical questions about the nature and purpose of religious education. The need to address theoretical issues became more clearly defined in the 1960s when The Catholic University of America, Marquette, Fordham, Notre Dame, and other Catholic universities began to offer graduate programs.

Theoretical Approaches. It is possible to identify four theoretical approaches to religious education among contemporary Roman Catholic writers.

The Theological Approach. This accepts the premise of the 1972 General Catechetical Directory that religious education is a form of the ministry of the Word (1972 GCD 17). The nature and purpose of religious education are defined in terms of transmitting creed, code, and cult. Religion is carried on under the direction of the Church's teaching authority.

The Social Science Approach. The designation describes religious education as the process by which religious behavior is facilitated. It argues that religious education must be grounded in learning theory and the empirical research of the social sciences. It emphasizes teaching or instruction which is defined as a prime means "of promoting learning more rapidly, of helping to effect the retention of learned behaviors for a longer period, and facilitating the translation of learned behaviors into the personal lifestyle of the student" (Lee 8).

The Socialization Approach. A third approach sees religious education as a process of socialization. The term is used, by different authors, to mean: (1) the nurture of a personal religious identity and integrity; (2) the process whereby a person is initiated and assimilated into a particular religious community; or (3) the acquisition of a religious symbol system. The first understands socialization as it is used by psychologists; the second as in sociology; and the third as in anthropology, where it is also called acculturation. Religious educators who take this approach insist to a greater or lesser degree on all three aspects. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is based on a socialization model of catechesis.

The Educational Approach. This theory holds that education is essentially religious. In this context education is carefully distinguished and sometimes totally dissociated from schooling. Education is understood as the systematic planning of experience for growth in human understanding. It is religious insofar as it examines the deepest meaning of the origin and destiny of the world and finds its expression in social gesturessymbols and behaviors.

Evaluation. The differences in these four approaches can be most readily seen in the way they define the relationship of religion to education. The theological model takes religioncreeds, code, and cultas the content to be taught; its educational philosophy and procedures are largely unexamined. The social-science model puts religion and education in dialogue with one another so that religious education is responsive to psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as well as to theology. The socialization model takes creed, code, and cult not so much as the content but as the means whereby individuals and communities acquire religious identity in a particular tradition; they create what they represent. The educational model separates institutional religion from education so that while Christian education and catechesis are legitimate ministries of the Church, they are not properly speaking dimensions of religious education.

While this taxonomy is based on the works of contemporary Catholic authors, there are also Protestant scholars who advocate each of the above approaches. Whatever must be said of the philosophical assumptions and theories which underlie them, in practice these approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Bibliography: h. w. burgess. An Invitation to Religious Education (Mishawaka, Ind. 1975). j. m. lee, The Shape of Religious Instruction (Dayton 1971). m. j. taylor, ed., Foundations for Christian Education in an Era of Change (Nashville 1976). p. o'hare, ed., Foundations of Religious Education (New York 1978). t. groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco 1980). k. r. barker, Religious Education, Catechesis, and Freedom (Birmingham, Ala. 1981). m. harris, Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church (Louisville, Ky. 1989). i. v. cully and k. b. cully, Harper's Encyclopedia of Religious Education (San Francisco 1990). t. h. morris, The RCIA: Transforming the Church: A Resource for Pastoral Implementation, rev. and updated ed. (New York 1997).

[b. l. marthaler]

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