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Why Theology should remain at the heart of RE

Why Theology should remain at the heart of RE

Religious Education is facing major challenges. The Commission on RE will make recommendations about how to improve the subject later this year. We’ve asked a range of RE professionals and researchers to set out what they think RE might look like five years in the future. In Part 7 in our series on the future of RE, Philip Robinson discusses why theology should remain at the heart of RE.

In Part 1, Simon Perfect outlines the main challenges facing RE today

In five years’ time, I would like to see Theology retaining its central position as the core discipline of good quality Religious Education. It surprises me that this is a controversial claim, given that at the Higher Education level, the subject is called Theology and Religious Studies by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). However, for some within the RE community, Theology has come to stand for everything they think is wrong with Religious Education in schools: they believe it is a proxy for confessional, partial and uncritical classroom practice.

Such a caricature is one I would reject and want to begin by focusing on a very simple question: what do we hope students of RE will become? If a History teacher is ensuring that her students are becoming good historians, what should I, as a teacher of RE, be seeking to ensure my students are becoming? Students who excel in History are becoming good historians; students who excel in Religious Education are becoming good what? Without a good answer to that question, it will be difficult for RE to present itself as a serious academic subject on the school curriculum. Yet, making precisely this defence of our subject as a legitimate area for academic study appears to me to be one of the few things that genuinely unites the competing voices in the debates surrounding the future of RE.

Another way to ask this question is to think about which of the university disciplines the teacher of RE imagines he is preparing his students for. There are a number of valid candidates here. Theology, Sociology, Philosophy or Religious Studies, to name some of the most prominent candidates, would all be legitimate places to which a student can progress from success in the RE classroom. This immediately shows us one of the ways in which RE is a more complex curriculum subject than something like History.

Having said that, this complexity is probably not unique to RE. A student who excels in English at school, might equally progress to Philology or English Literature. It should not be unduly concerning therefore that Religious Education has this disciplinary plurality. In fact, as long as a professional is able to identify the ways in which RE is preparing students to become either a good theologian or a good sociologist of religion, which they choose is not as important as the fact that they choose. As long as classroom RE is an initiation into one of the academic disciplinary conversations, it does not matter much which discipline that is.

I hope that in five years’ time, RE will continue to be a serious academic subject on the school curriculum that is preparing students for disciplinary engagement with study at a higher level. I also hope that Theology will continue to be recognised as one of these legitimate disciplines. Against some of the sceptics, I would argue that without Theology, RE lacks an essential perspective on the meaning of religion and belief. There are those who would argue that because the study of religion and belief in all schools must be objective, critical and pluralistic, the appropriate method of study is the one that brackets out individual belief and studies religions as purely human phenomena.

While not wanting to deny the importance of understanding religions and belief through the lens of the social sciences, eliding the theological view is to occlude in advance the religious believer’s own self–understanding and to fail to recognise the impossibility of a genuinely neutral standpoint from which to view religion. There is a helpful distinction employed by C.S. Lewis in his essay “Meditations in a Toolshed” where he draws on the metaphor of a beam of light breaking into a toolshed over the top of an imperfectly fitting door. He points out that we can look at the beam of light from the side or we can look along the beam of light to the world outside that it illuminates. These are two discrete perceptual experiences, and both are genuine experiences of the beam of light. However, and importantly, neither is more veridical. Neither can be said to be objective, since in both cases the observer is standing somewhere and where they stand determines what they are able to see. In the same way, “looking at” religion, from the side as it were, is a different perceptual experience from standing inside it, “looking along it” at the way it illuminates the world.

Again, importantly, both views are perspectives and it is simply arbitrary to claim that one of them is the objective and true way of viewing the significance of religion and the other is not. The only truthful claim is to recognise the ways in which both are legitimate perspectives, but neither is superior. It is also important to recognise the ways in which Theology brings important insights to the study of religion that would otherwise be lacking. Theology treats religion not as another human item in the world but as a different way of seeing the world itself; in Theology, religion becomes not the thing looked at, but the means by which the student looks at things.

Good Religious Education should help students to experience religious belief in both of these senses of “looking at” and “looking along” religion since education is about opening the minds of students to worlds they otherwise could not imagine. Theology and Sociology are both legitimate ways of reading religion, but each presents a conceptually discrete world of understanding the way in which religions have meaning. Both are important. I hope for a future for RE that is not apologetic about asserting that one of the things a good student of RE might become is a first–rate theologian.


 Image by Michael Kooiman available under this Creative Commons Licence

 Philip Robinson

Philip Robinson

 Philip Robinson, Religious Education Adviser to the Catholic Education Service

Watch, listen to or read more from Philip Robinson

Posted 2 July 2018

Education, Religious Education


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