by Rebecca Collins Jordan
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is part of a collection of essays on teaching religious studies for K-12 teachers. The essays were collated and edited by one of the CrossCurrents Editorial Board members, Henry Goldschmidt. We always welcome essays and ideas on pedagogy, particularly when connected to interreligious work, social justice, and the arts.
My proudest teaching moment was, like many such moments, already over before I realized it had begun. In a talk at an annual grade-level spiritual retreat, a student said as an aside to a larger personal point, “We’re lucky to go to a school that teaches pluralism.” I almost missed her comment, but then I remembered the day I had taught her the word “pluralism” as a sophomore two years earlier, in September of 2020, and how her class had puzzled over what Diana Eck describes as the difference between true pluralism and the “mere” existence of diversity. As political debates raged in the news, her class dove into research projects on topics of their choice in Hinduism and Buddhism. As students made sense of the unrest that culminated on January 6th, 2021, we began our unit on Islam. Every day, our time together combined a matrix of interests – learning about ways of knowing outside of Catholicism, exploring the rich interreligious history of our extended neighborhood of New York City, and finding common ground within the classroom.
To me, that year was a time of deep purpose, when civil conversation prevailed in the classroom over the division that engulfed our world, and when the joy of encountering religious diversity lit up students’ faces. While I personally cherished memories of that year, I also worried that the students would quickly lose all their learning, throwing themselves into other endeavors. But there was my student, two years later, casually mentioning the key term of that intro unit lesson in an aside to an unrelated topic.
Why do I value pluralism and interreligious literacy so much, and hope for students to do the same? The answer seems self-explanatory to me and probably to many readers, and yet it still feels urgently necessary to name it: Without understanding what our neighbors hold sacred, we cannot understand the worlds they inhabit. If we don’t understand each other’s worlds, we cannot communicate effectively. If we cannot communicate, it simply follows that our democracy will continue to erode.
I came into the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute with this conviction and left feeling it even more strongly. It deeply resonated with me that the institute began with a conversation on the importance of religious literacy in a democratic society. Students today, we all agreed, are coming of age in a time when democracy is a constant topic of conversation, something that people define and defend and do not (we hope) take for granted. How can we truly respect our diversity without having the most basic clue about the religious values, lives, and habits that define our fellow citizens’ very movement in the world? The three-week summer institute, which focused on the teaching of religious diversity through the lens of lived religion, had us walking the streets and crossing boroughs, seeing the many ways in which religion motivates and animates the interlocking lives of New York City residents.
One thing that struck me during our visits to diverse houses of worship was how members of each faith community we encountered seemed deeply honored to be seen, known, and respected by educators who sought to teach religion well. In particular, I will always remember a backyard Vodou ceremony in Canarsie, Brooklyn, which we attended during a torrential rain and thunderstorm. Before the ceremony began, our hosts started with a presentation on the importance of respectful and bias-free representations of Vodou in classrooms today. It was a powerful reminder that religious literacy education, when done well, affords people from many backgrounds the chance to be seen, understood, and valued. Friendly conversations with women at the 96th street mosque had a similar effect on me. They reminded me of the look on my students’ faces when they have the opportunity to engage with religious leaders and scholars from other faiths. The chance to converse, to ask questions, and to take risks lights up their eyes more than any other classroom activity. It is the look of a healthy democracy in action.
At the same time, my work as a religion teacher, instilling these values of interreligious literacy and dialogue, is also an example of my Catholic faith in action. My career as a teacher at an all-girls’ Catholic high school was preceded by my career as a student at an all-girls’ Catholic high school. Just like my students, I also took a course on world religions in my sophomore year. It only lasted for one semester, but it opened my world forever – I remember craving more knowledge and experience immediately. I was (and still am) a devout Catholic, but I was (and still am) certain that I needed to engage with the world’s religious diversity in order to truly understand who I am in relation to the world. For me, that journey never ended; it eventually launched a teaching career.
Today, I teach students in our tenth grade retreat the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which Jesus praises a member of the Samaritan minority who steps up to help a Jewish neighbor. This retreat comes early in the year, and it asks students to engage with their own religious principles and identity, Catholic or otherwise, in relation to the diversity their tenth-grade year will expose them to in a combined set of world religions, world literature, and world history courses. To be a good neighbor, they learn, is to reach across lines of difference and serve and listen to others, in the way that the Good Samaritan once did on the road to Jericho. This year of school, we remind them, is really a way to learn about our neighborhood – locally and globally.
To be Catholic, in my experience, is to believe the world and everything in it is fundamentally filled with God’s sacred touch. In recognition of this truth, I am called as a religion teacher to give my students the tools to truly see one another, their neighbors, and the world at large, in the religious worlds they each inhabit. I go back often to the charge from the Vatican’s 1965 document on interfaith relations, Nostra Aetate, which “ardently implores the Christian faithful to ‘maintain good fellowship among the nations’” (quoting here from the first letter of Peter). In that line, I return to the ethic of religious pluralism, of coming together across traditions and building something bigger than ourselves. I will, therefore, continue to know the success of my work by the ease with which “pluralism” rolls off the tongues of my students in years to come.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute for teachers is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York, in partnership with Union Theological Seminary, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Rebecca Collins Jordan (she/her) is an educator in New York State, where she has taught world religions, Christian scripture, and other courses at Roman Catholic high schools. She studied English literature and environmental studies at the University of Montana, and holds a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where her work focused on systematic theology. In addition to her classroom teaching, she has written for the National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal Magazine.