Why Interfaith Education?

Monthly letters to help put the work of the catechist of the Good Shepherd into the context of the larger world · from the archives

by Catherine Maresca

Do your children have classmates or neighbors preparing for a bar/bat mitzvah? Do they have friends who wear a hijab? Do they have grandparents, aunts or uncles who practice Buddhism or Hinduism? Has news from North Carolina or around the world prompted questions about violence towards faithful followers of Islam or other religions? 

Exposure to non-Christian religions is more and more common in America, and is part of the reason why interfaith education is important to older children. Murders such as those last week of three young Muslims in North Carolina is another reason why interfaith education is critical. But older children’s own developmental needs also push them to want to explore the whole world with its many cultures and religions. Providing materials that allow them to do this is deeply satisfying.

Children who have been introduced to the method of signs at the heart of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd can easily understand that every religion has its sacred signs. In Christianity we have bread and wine, water and oil, gestures and objects that create access to the Holy One. Their facility with such signs enables them to recognize such signs and their importance in other traditions.  As they explore these signs, they experience the holiness of other traditions, and find the holiness of their own tradition affirmed in the encounter with people of other faiths. Finally, children learn not to be frightened by other faiths, or their practitioners. With interfaith education we nurture both faith and peace in our children.

The Center for Children and Theology has been slowly developing materials for interfaith education for children ages nine and up called Hands on Faith. This work has grown out an experience with children that is driven by the interest and energy of the older children, much like Sofia Cavalletti’s work in catechesis was also driven by the interest and love of the first children she worked with.

The work has also been inspired by a personal vision I had about twelve years ago. I “saw” a central space for study and prayer and discussion, surrounded by alcoves filled with materials related to the world’s great religions. A space for children and adults to experience other religions and compare various aspects of those religion with their own. Little by little we are creating these materials, and perhaps eventually we will receive the space to allow children and youth of many religions to work with them.

Meanwhile interfaith experiences can be offered in several ways – Hands on Islam and Hands on Buddhism each provide materials and guidance to introduce eleven aspects of these traditions. They can be prepared for special sessions about these faiths, or a few can be incorporated into an atrium on a shelf reserved for interfaith matters. Visit local mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples, etc. Prepare by reading and sharing information about the related scriptures, leaders, customs, and worship the preceding week. Invite friends or leaders from different traditions to come and discuss their faith with your group, answering questions as they arise. As you study Christian scriptures and worship, point out their connections to Judaism and Islam. Hindu worship includes the use of incense, oil, gestures, light and water. Do they signify the same or different realities when these same signs are used in Christian liturgy?

We have always invited parents to these interfaith experiences and they have participated with gratitude. Our last trip to a synagogue had as many parents as students present.

Each of the traditions we have studied has a vision of eternal peace and joy and wholeness as its culmination. We work towards this end within our own tradition and with people of other traditions. Interfaith education is one of the many ways we can participate in and contribute to the wholeness and unity of the Reign of God.

For more on this topic, see the Occasional Paper Children, Signs, and Spiritual Literacy: An Interfaith Experienceor view resources for Interfaith Education at Hands on Faith: A  Interfaith Experience for Children.

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