world council of churches

Mission in the context of plurality:
Christian educational perspective

Hannibal Cabral

From the beginning of the history of the Jewish community, religious education has taken a central place in the life of the people. As it is rightly said, education depends upon what Bernard Bailyn calls "The great axles of society - family, church, community and the economy."1 Christian education is the systematic, definite teaching ministry of the Christian community, which helps its members in their faith formation so that they would become the agents of transformation in and outside the community. Maybe Thomas Groome's definition suffice this understanding:
Christian education is a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present, to the story of the Christian faith community, and to the vision of God's kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us.2
Christianity is not a package of ideas and beliefs that once ascended from the clouds. Nor is it a philosophy that any intelligent individual might think for himself/herself. "It is the life of a community of people responding to God's deed in Christ and God's continuing activity in the world."3

What is the relation existing between mission and Christian education? Because Christianity is the life of a community, its aim is not the promotion of the community, but the healing, preaching, teaching and reconciling mission to which the community is called. Hence Christian education is also described as the effort "to introduce persons into the life and mission of the community of Christian faith."4 This conception of Christian education is consistent both with the biblical understanding of the Church and with the findings of recent educational psychology about the learning process. One cannot overlook the role of tradition, culture and handing over of the religious experiences of the faith community through its generation. John Dewey calls it "the funded capital of civilization". Part of the task of Christian education is to ensure that our "funded capital" is preserved and made available to people in the present.

Likewise, the contemporary educational psychology emphasizes the importance of the human relationships in which education takes place. Particularly psychologists like John Dewey, Piaget, Kohlberg, Erick Ericksons have shown that human development and growth involves more than intellectual forces. In other words, one's faith formation also takes place in his/her socio-political, politico-religious and historical context. The question of what does my faith say about the various crisis, challenges, problems, social evils that I encounter in my day to day life cannot be ignored when we discuss the role of Christian education in the context of pluralism.

In the Indian context, Christian community cannot function without relating to the multi-cultural and multi-religious reality. In fact we have to admit that in spite of this realization we have failed to formulate our objective of mission and the Christian religious education in this broader perspective. Therefore, realizing the role of Christian education as effort to introduce persons into the life and mission of the Christian community, we need to discuss a few important issues.

1. The Narrow Understanding of the Great Commission
Throughout the history of the Indian church, it aimed its missionary goal as the preaching of the gospel and the making of disciples. In so doing, the modus operandi was of an exclusivistic, triumphalistic and dominant nature. Albeit, pluralism whether religious, cultural or ethnic, is revealed as part of God's purpose in the biblical vision of healing, wholeness and reconciliation, the Church was not obedient to this biblical vision. As Samartha rightly pointed out, "Historically Christian identity has been defined through the exclusion of, and not interaction with".5 It is a fact that in most of the Christian education content, songs and stories still continue to stress the religious superiority complex and arrogance, perpetuate religious fundamentalism and reduce the vision inherent in the gospel to a narrow parochialism.

Secondly, there seems to be a one-sided emphasis on the great commission. That is of baptizing alone. According to the words of Jesus, the commission also includes the role of "teaching" which the Church has taken for granted as preaching. The etymology of the word "teach" offers a significant clue to the nature of the activity itself. The English word comes from the Latin ducare meaning "to lead" and the prefix e, meaning "out". At its root meaning then, education is an activity of "leading out". According to Thomas Groome three dimensions of emphasis can be discerned in "leading out". To quote:

1) a point from which, 2) a present process, and 3) a future toward which the leading out is done. In this sense, education has an "already", a "being" realized, and a "not yet" dimension to it.6
These three emphases discernible in the word education have not been taken seriously in the present teaching ministry of the Church. Often in the present Christian education, as well as mission model, there is no place to hear the already experience of the learner. Nor is there any possibility of helping the learner to discover the truth. Since the educational agenda is designed by the teaching ministry of the Church as "the ultimate", the dimension of "not yetness" toward which the leading out is done, is designed by the Church. In the pedagogical terms of Paulo Friere this attitude is called "domestication". If we want to transform the dimension of mission towards the relational model in contrary to "one against the other", there should be a shift in the Christian education. This shift may have to take seriously the experiences of the people of other faiths, the openness to learn from other scriptures, and to learn to live with people of other faith in tolerance. Our early teaching had only stressed the weak points in other faiths and put Christianity on a pedestal. This cannot happen today. In India Christianity has to live side by side with these faiths. This challenges us to teach the Christian faith in the context of a plurality of faiths. Russell Chandran asserts:
Unfortunately in the past we have adopted an exclusivist attitude to other faiths. Jesus therefore challenged the exclusivist attitude of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He even said that his own people, the Jews, could learn from the Samaritans. Therefore, the present day Christians must consider others as authentic and learn from them rather than adopt an attitude of superiority. We must learn what is good in other people's faith.7
The above discussion certainly raises a few questions such as: does our Christian education enable us to discover light and truth in the lives of people of other faith? Or do we work on the assumption that we alone have the light and truth? How can we cooperate with others then, realizing that we need their input, their experiences in order that we find a common answer to the local, national and global threats? Can we teach in the Christian educational agencies such as Sunday School, confirmation classes, youth fellowship, men's fellowship, women's fellowship and others the ecumenical principle "that which we can do together we should not do separately" and apply it in a world of religious plurality? These questions challenge the present Christian education to be more inclusive and critical in its nature. Again, to quote the words of Russell Chandran:
The Christian education or Christian nurture should, along with making members aware of the total Christian heritage of the apostolic faith and witness, help the widening of the horizons of understanding and develop in the people openness to whatever is true, beautiful and good in other people, including those of other faiths.8
2. The Content of Christian Education
In the present teaching ministry of the mainline churches Christian education is limited to the imparting of the Bible and Christian tradition. As it is observed, "The church school stops often at merely giving information about the Bible".9 Quite often Christian education is understood as a set of imparting biblical content, stories and creeds. It is used as a process of conditioning the mind, body and spirit of learners according to the popularly accepted norms and beliefs of the Church and society. But, Christian education is much more and very different from the above mentioned proposition. As Herbert Hoeffer succinctly remarked:
The aim of Christian education is much more radical and dynamic. The emphasis is not knowing but becoming. Christian education is the process of relating God's people to the challenges and opportunities of their lives in His service.10
This means Christian education is a process in which the learner is facilitated to look at his or her faith in relation to scripture, traditions of the Church as well as to the Indian context and to the life situations. No doubt Christian heritage and tradition which includes the Bible, liturgical tradition and rituals help us to keep our identity. Particularly at the present time where media explosion has crept into the lives of our younger generation, they are losing their interest in the religious life of the Church as they feel the way Christian religious way of teaching is not on par with recent media technics. On the other hand, the stories and mythologies of the other faiths are presented in such an effective manner they are more attracted to them. So between these two realities the Church needs to present Christian religious education which is appropriate and meaningful. It means, though the Bible occupies an important place in the practice of Christian education, it cannot be taken as the sole content to be dealt with, because as Sara Little says:
Content is not to be understood as subject matter, the living power of truth which imposes itself as such upon the subject matter and forms of Christian education by virtue of its intrinsic authority.11
In Christian education the Bible needs to be used as both the beginning point and a reliable way to interpret the meaning of God's liberative activity in human experience. But we need to bear in mind that it has the interpretation of the content of the Bible that has bearing on Christian education rather than the content itself. Therefore, as Christian community, it becomes necessary for us to look at the Bible critically to see what it has to teach us.

Apart from the scriptures the content of Christian education must include a study of the environment, various religions in our area and the various burning issues of the times with which we are struggling. If we are really serious about a Christian education for Indian churches, we cannot ignore the contextual issues like widespread poverty, the impact of the national economics policy, globalization, media explosion, plurality of religions, cultures, festivals, deepening fundamentalism, increasing tendency to violence and widening social imbalances. Therefore, the content of Christian education cannot be limited to the so-called Judeo-Christian heritage contained in the Bible and Christian tradition. We need to take the cultural heritage and socio-economic realities which are contained in Indian scriptures, literature, newspapers and also in the day to day life experiences of the learners. Carol Hess reminds us of the words of Karl Barth:

Karl Barth advised pastors to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That is good advice for living as well. Let us live with the Bible, our confessions, our prayers, and the rest of our meaningful traditions in one hand while holding the world around us in the other.12
Russell Chandran in his article "Ecclesiology in the Context of Religious Pluralism" writes that we need to "learn from the signs of the times"13 because there is hardly any situation in the world today which is not pluralistic in religion, culture, ethnic origins etc. of the people. Our life, in local, national and global spheres is marked by the plurality of religious faiths, cultures, socio-political structures, social conditions, etc.

3. Methods of Christian Education
Living within a modern, secular and pluralistic society one is bound to be confronted with the people of different belief systems and different life stances. At present Christians cannot think of living in "ghettoes" any longer. The impact of colonialism and early missionary movements had its time. There is no room any longer for a kind of not only isolated community but also "excluded community". As it is observed by Peter Tze Ming Ng:

The situation becomes more difficult when one comes to realize that one's own culture or faith tradition is in no way superior to those of others, with no likely claim for preeminence. This explains why Christians in the Asian contexts are more sensitive to issues of cultural diversity and religious pluralism. 14
This diversity also has a challenge to Christian religious education in its method of teaching. Here Paulo Freire's pedagogical method of "dialogue" comes for our help. Paulo Friere speaks of two concepts of education. 1) The banking concept of education. 2) Problem solving concept.

In the first concept it is the teacher who is said to have a deposit of knowledge which he/she must impart to the ignorant student. The banking concept of education does not give any opportunity for the learner for dialogue. This is very much against the gospel values of freedom and human dignity.

The second model which Paulo Freire suggests is that of problem solving education where the critical reflection of both the learner and the teacher bring the fruits of learning. It is mutual. Paulo Freire's new educational theory has been called "problem posing education" which responds to the essence of consciousness-intentionality, rejecting communiqu‚s and embodying communication.15 In this model, the teacher and learner relationship is based on mutuality, free from fear and domination. Learning is non-repressive but actualizing. Thomas Groome for his "shared Christian praxis approach" 16 takes a great deal from Paulo Friere's praxis approach to education. Groome writes that in Paulo Freire's praxis approach, the role of the pedagogue is to be "with" rather than "over" people, enabling them to name their world and through dialogue come to act creatively on their historical reality. In recent times, from the interreligious perspective too, many have raised their voice in favour of the interreligious dialogue. To quote:

Growth and development in every area of life, be it socio-economic, politico-cultural, or religious, both of the individual and of the community, require that persons be in communication, in dialogue with one another. Hence it is vital for the well being of all that people professing different religions in a society be also in dialogue with one another.18
One of the methods that is used by Jesus is the method of dialogue, e.g. (St. John 3:1-20, 4:1-26) where Jesus helped the learners to come to find the truth from the known to the unknown. Jesus was very positive about the method of dialogue and the importance of listening to others. Today, the teaching ministry of the church should be ready to enter into interreligious dialogue with eagerness to develop common grounds of understanding and cooperation. Today instead of seeing pluralism as a cause of division in society, the teaching ministry of the church should attempt to explore it as a source of mutual enrichment and mutual transformation.

4. Christian Education and the Indigenous Culture
The other problem that has been all along with the mission of the Church is that of the cultural identity of the Indian church amidst "pluralism". On the one hand, it is the earlier missionary policy which forced the converts to give up all that belonged to the former faith which has resulted in the cultural, religious and spiritual impoverishment of the Christians. On the other hand, the Church in India adopted the modes operandi of its mission and teaching ministry from the Western pattern. As Martin Palmer rightly pointed out, "the Western Church has been firmly shaped by an anti-pluralist mentality, which it has passed on to those around it."19 According to Samartha:

Culture refers to the whole complex of distinctive, spiritual, material intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or a social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of human beings, value systems, traditions and beliefs.20
One cannot overlook the tension between the so-called Christian culture which has been promoted by the Jewish Christian tradition, and Christian community against the Indian culture, which is of the learner's context. More often the theological and pedagogical patterns for Christian religious education fosters a spirit of alienation from our cultural kinship of India. Our intolerance and discrediting notions towards people of other faiths and to contemporary problems, is one of the witnesses for our alienation toward the Indian culture. Our failure to employ the indigenous methods in Christian education, worship, singing and life style, are a few evidences of our rigidity in blindly following the Judeo-Christian tradition and culture. Further, the influence of the media, new national economic policy, the concept of globalization, have already created a transition of the Indian culture to the Western culture and world value system which has raised the question whether the Church needs to stick to one culture. To quote Thomas Wiser:
Cultural identity seems to be on the defensive all over the world as most people live in more than one culture. More and more ethnic minorities claim the right to their distinctive identity. Can and should cultural identity be defended at what cost?21
In the midst of these uncertainties, the Christian religious education needs to grapple with the following questions. How can we maintain cultural values proper to specific groups in the midst of an enabling culture (or cult) or technocracy? To what extent can we rely on the traditional culture and heritage of the Judeo-Christian heritage? What is the place of Indian tradition and scriptures in our Christian religious education? How can we integrate the elements of technological culture into lives without allowing them to kill the traditional values? All these questions challenge the present Christian religious education to find an appropriate pedagogical approach to Christian religious education in India which will embrace the good and beautiful elements of other religions and the Indian cultures. To quote:
All that is good and true in the different religions and cultures are ours and we are Christ's. Therefore, we have to find ways of taking back what we have been deprived of because of the wrong missionary approach..... The Christian education programme of the different churches is one of the important instruments for re-education about our fuller religious heritage.22
In conclusion, the kind of Christian religious education that is demanded in the Indian pluralistic context is one that can equip people, regardless of the religious traditions to which they belong, to cope with real issues of cultural diversity and to live harmoniously with people of other religious beliefs and life stances. Religious education should try to foster open communication between people of other faiths, cultures and experiences.

The Rev. Hannibal Cabral is a pastor of the Church of South India and presently engaged on a doctoral programme on Christian Education at the South Asia Theological Research Institute in Bangalore.

1. Bernard Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society, New York: Vintage Books, 1960, p. 45.

2. Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, New York: Harper San Francisco, 1980, p. 25.

3. Roger L. Shinn, "Foundation for Christian Education" in Marvin J. Taylor ed., An Introduction to Christian Education, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966, p. 12.

4. Roger L. Shinn, p. 12.

5. S.J. Samartha, in Education News Letter, Programme Unit II "Life, Education and Mission", WCC, No. 2/3, 1993, p .l.

6. Thomas Groome, p. 5.

7. Russell Chandran, "Evolving a New Paradigm in Theology for Asia", a paper presented at a consultation at the Ecumenical Centre, Bangalore.

8. Russell Chandran, "Rethinking Christian Ministry in India" in K.C. Abraham edited, New Horizons in Ecumenism, Bangalore: BTESSC/BTTBPSA, 1993, p. 56.

9. James D. Smart, The Teaching Ministry of the Church, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956, pp. 150-151.

10. Herbert Hoeffer, ed., Debate on Missions, Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research, 1979, p. 448.

11. Sara Little, Revelation, The Bible and Christian Education, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966, p. 45.

12. Carol Hess, The Shaping and Shaking of Congregational Life, Class Hand Out, Princeton Theological College, Princeton.

13. Russell Chandran, "Ecclesiology in the Context of Religious Pluralism", paper presented in the United Theological College.

14. Peter Tze Ming Ng, "Towards a New Agenda for Religious Education in a Multi-Cultural Society", in Religious Education, Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall 1993.

15. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Herdes and Herdes, 1986, p. 66.

16. Christian religious education by shared praxis can be described as a group of Christians sharing dialogue, their critical reflection in light of the Christian story and its vision toward the end of lived Christian faith. Thomas Groome, p. 184.

17. Thomas Groome, p. 176.

18. Jose Kuttianimattathil, Practice and Theology of Interreligious Dialogue, Bangalore: Kristu Jyothi, 1995, p. 2.

19. Martin Palmer, What Should We Teach?, Geneva: WCC, 1991, p. 54.

20. Stanley J. Samartha, "The Cross and the Rainbow" in John Hick and Paul Knitter edited, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, New York: Orbis Books, 19987, p. 75.

21. Thomas Wiser edited, Whither Ecumenism, Geneva: WCC, 1986, p. 4.

22. Russell Chandran, "Ecclesiology in the Indian Context". Unpublished paper presented at the United Theological College, p. 6.

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