Words beyond Words: is it possible to be Religiously Literate?

by Corrine Guntrip
Religious Text
23 Jan 2017

Words beyond Words: is it possible to be Religiously Literate?

Posted By

Corrine Guntrip is the RE and Christian Distinctiveness SLE for All Saints Teaching Alliance.

As I write this, I am reflecting on another amazing weekend of RE CPD.

The RE conference that I attended this weekend saw members from across the RE community come together in dialogue, learning and collaboration which has shown, once again, the enthusiasm and engagement for Religious Education as a subject- particularly as many professionals have been happy to spend their weekend engaging in this!

The theme of the conference was based upon ‘Religious Literacy’ and I was intrigued and eager to see how the wide variety of workshops and keynotes enhanced my understanding of this as a concept. What I came away with was a greater depth of knowledge but also an increased amount of questions.

I will aim to explore some of these questions here. I am very aware I am posing questions that I do not necessarily have any clear answers to. I am hoping that this will continue to spark dialogue and debate and maybe even engage other questions from the RE community along the way.

I suppose that the overarching question that I am focussing on is ‘Is it possible to be religiously literate?’ It may seem as though this in itself is quite a simple question but, as many people within the RE community know, this is so multifaceted and complex that it is often difficult to know where to begin with the explanation of this.

It was said this weekend that literacy doesn’t mean the ability to speak THE language but the ability to speak A language. This got me thinking in terms of what this means in terms of religious literacy. What language is it that we are talking about when we say A language?

I am of the opinion that I am not entirely sure to what extent the term ‘Religious Literacy’ is helpful. This is for a number of reasons.

Firstly I am still not entirely sure that there is a common understanding of what it means to be religiously literate. Is a common understanding necessary? I think so, and I believe this for a number of reasons.

  1. Who decides?

Who or what determines the criteria for religious literacy? Where is the metaphorical line drawn? How do you know if you are nearing religious literacy, are far away from it, are secure or are mastering this concept? Are we thinking about this in terms of yet something else that can be assessed and measured? If not, then how do we finally know when this concept has been ‘achieved’?

  1. Fewer things in greater depth

Many schools and syllabi are now focussing on ‘fewer things in greater depth.’ Indeed, many syllabi have been revised to ensure that pupils have the opportunity to study in this way. I wonder how this enables pupils to become religiously literate. Is it the case that there are many different forms of religious literacy that can be obtained? Could you be religiously literate in, say, Christianity or indeed one key concept of Christianity with little knowledge of other world religions or non-religious worldviews? Again, who determines this and, if no one does, then how do we know when this has been achieved?

  1. Classroom vs Academia

Is a conflict between the understanding of the concept of religious literacy in terms of the classroom and in academia (by which I mean HE and beyond). Do the approaches, depth of study, pedagogical approaches etc impact upon this and, if so, then how do we ‘marry’ these conflicting ideas? And do we need to?

  1. Context

Can religious literacy ever be understood in the same way in different contexts? I am using ‘contexts’ in a general sense here. To what extent do the experiences of children impact upon their religious literacy? Does gender, age, faith, cultural setting, teaching etc pose lenses through which religious literacy can be achieved and experienced and are these helpful? If this is the case then this creates many issues surrounding this concept.

  1. Informed Dialogue

The conversations and learning that I have engaged in this weekend lead me to believe that informed dialogue is one of the foundational elements of religious literacy. I would like to get to the core of what we mean by informed dialogue. Is this concerned with the language that is used within communication with others? The relationships that are built between people? How we show each other respect? (Is this in itself always possible and should we always show respect to everyone?) Is it in the level of knowledge that is held and drawn upon within particular situations? Does this mean that, without a particular level of religious knowledge you can’t do the majority of these things anyway? Or in the same way?

I am very aware that I have posed many questions here; some that you may not agree with, some that you may think are ‘off track’ and I would really like to hear people’s thoughts on this.

What I am attempting to do here is to open up the dialogue of religious literacy further and to continue the fantastic engagement from this weekend.

My final question is- to how much does this shared understanding make a difference to RE as a subject? Do we all, as professionals in a range of contexts, need to interpret this in the same way? Is there room for freedom of interpretation or does a lack of shared understanding affect the credibility of Religious Education?