Basis of:
Scriptural Eggshells

Or RE in a no-win situation clashing with principles of critical education using readings from the Qur'an as examples.

and my approach to RE...

The tendencies of Religious Education can be identified as:

Phenomenology means usually getting down to fundamental mental concepts of matters, and in the case of RE it means seeing the meaning of practiced religious language and activity from the inside. It is conceptual and academic, mapping links from one concept within to the next as a logical whole (eg Trinity, incarnation, crucifixion-resurrection are all linked and understood from within as producing a logical string; or with samsara, dharma, nirvana). An overall truth claim is abandoned. In theology this is postliberal or even premodern within the postmodern bubble.
The ethnographic/ anthropological approach in general goes beyond religious concepts and religious experience to find religion existing as just one kind of symbolic universe that people create for themselves within cultures. There is a great deal of listening to microscopic experience and understanding involved. So one would expect a going into religious communities to see how they make sense to themselves, and then the researcher essay writes a transcription of this understanding (except this is impossible as the essay distorts that because it becomes the anthropologist's story). In RE however it is about portraying how the religious community understands itself, and tends to be perhaps uncritical and descriptive and seeing religion as packages - perhaps the opposite of researched anthropology! The question raised here is whether in effect an internal presentation of what the religion portrays is enough - we are surely not limited to the equivalent of interfaith meetings where one says their cause and another says theirs and everyone nods.
The experiential approach draws on the fact that religion is somewhat different from other academic disciplines (not so different - an aspect of Business Studies is role playing as if the students are in business, and English has expressive literature and drama). This falls into affective ideas of learning as well as the cognitive. Much centres around ritual and performance - doing the drama of religion. The idea is to get under the skin of what religions experience and be empathetic, but also dealing with responses to moral issues and issues of felt concern. Again it is difficult to get outside this and invalidate experience.
In the questions of human meaning approach religion is simply another way of understanding the world around us. It is a subset, a means to an end. The packages are not bought whole, and the experience involved is hardly the end of the matter being too internalised. Anthropology is too microscopic because the big picture is individuals and groups negotiating the world.
Truth claims of religion is the most universal of all of these, and carries an implicit (sometimes quite explicit) agenda of external objectivity. It is very critical, searching and accepts nothing without analysing against another. Experience is clearly not rooted enough in some critical comparison, and anthropology is not universal enough. This method is liberal rather than postliberal (the phenomenological approach).

My own approach is a mixture of these, in general. I have an academic background which includes sociology of religion ethnographic research (young people in churches) and I have always seen religion as inhabited meaning systems passed between people that are alternatives or additions (in tension - people hold beliefs in conflict) to the wider plural-secularised culture. But in my theology work and in seeking to understand the religions I have something of the phenomenological approach as above, so that I have been "inside" Unitarianism, Christianity and Western/ Tibetan (offshoots) Buddhism. Clearly there is also the experiential involved here, as in eucharists, meditation types, my spirituality and taking services (Unitarian, Pagan, Christian). Yet my style is not to let anything "get away with it" and thus is about comparative truth claims!

The Scriptural Eggshells piece on the Qur'an readings is setting them against other aims of education, particularly gender equality (not male superiority and distinction) and inclusiveness (not insiders and outsiders). Whilst this is therefore largely conceptual it is only comparative-conceptual, because I am a liberal postmodernist which also recognises the secular as largely the guiding basis of language. I'm not complete and resolved on this because science as a method is repeatable and therefore has possible objective outcomes, at some distant point (Kuhn's paradigm shifts happen at the important level of understanding of a connected string of facts, not individual or a list of facts) and there are broad sweeps of reliable maths, whereas a great deal else is cultural like art of which religion is one related form. Whilst one basis of doing this work was therefore the Qur'an and readings for students to ponder over as experiential responses, it also turned the whole thing around to be a critical challenge between RE and some other aims within education and so comes within the truth claims of religion.


September 2002