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Education for Religion as Relationship

by Rev. Patricia Hoertdoerfer, excerpted from an essay in Essex Conversations (Skinner House, 2001)

Although we are a part of Western culture and share the Judeo-Christian religious and moral heritage, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a different way of being religious and a distinct way of doing education. Our paradigm or the constellation of beliefs, values and techniques shared by members of our faith community is identified by a core of values, a method that binds us together, and a set of principles encompassing our several theologies. Our Unitarian Universalist paradigm is twofold: one of content, the pluralistic beliefs of our membership, and the other of process, the way we do religion. Our individual theologies are growing and changing; our method of doing religion is constant and consistent.

Unitarian Universalists affirm the individual credo. In our religious communities we are free to and encouraged to create and develop our own core of meanings, values and commitments. Our religion draws on “many sources” of our “living tradition” and lifts up our common affirmations. Our credos evolve out of the particular instances of our experiences which we generalize toward final truths that “are amplified into a coherent system and applied to the interpretation of life,” to use A.N. Whitehead’s terms for “religion in the making.” Building our credo is our lifelong adventure that we do in our religious communities, our UU Society.

Unitarian Universalists covenant together. It is our voluntary agreement with each other; it is our freedom to promise mutuality. It is our pledge of mutuality to respect “individual religious rights” and it is a commitment to action. Our covenant is a pledge to bond together to pursue common goals.

Unitarian Universalist religion emphasizes credo and covenant. Our UU paradigm is personal and communal as well as independent, dependent, and interdependent. It demands a harmony of individual and community, self, and society. In response to our common principles and in partnership with others we are called to transform our self and our culture: a transforming of the negative effects of our culture in order for each self to become more fully human.

Education “draws us out” and takes us to new understandings, abilities and ways of being in the world. Our education is religious because we “bind together” in a caring community to search for truth and to live lives of peace and justice, freedom and responsibility. Our religious education nurtures both roots and wings; the roots of community and shared values, and the wings of the free mind and creative spirit. Liberal religious education can lead us into living lives loyal to our deepest faith toward wholeness and ultimate commitment.

Religion Is Relationship

Religion is our quest for meaning and our ultimate commitment. By nature religion is relational. Our religious imperative is to live with ourselves, with others, and with our earth. These are the three inescapable relationships—psychological (self), social (others), natural (planet earth). In I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote, “In the beginning is relationship…is a freedom together…one must commit oneself to a conjunction with the other—but it is not selfless—it is a maintaining of the self in mystic balance and integrity—like a star balanced with another star.” He also wrote, “I (Ich) become through my relation to the Thou (Du), as I become I, I say Thou.” This means meeting self, meeting others, meeting nature, and meeting the mysterium tremendum.

Growing into relationships is essential to becoming a person. We all exist within a vast interacting web of relationships and we are shaped by them. As we grow we become aware of their enormous variety and complexity. We begin with these qualities and experiences in the process of becoming a self. We start with our own bodies. Then we move to experiences with other persons, building relationships with parents, siblings, extended family members, friends and acquaintances. Equally important in our growing are relationships beyond other individuals—communities, institutions and ideologies, networks and systems, history and time. We discover our relationship with the earth and all living things as well as our emergent relationship to the universe or mysterium tremendum.

All religion begins in experience: it is discovered. It is the emergence of a conscious awareness of sustaining and transforming relationships. Such a moment can come with the birth of a child or at the side of a dying loved one if we experience the awe that life and death are one and that each emerges out of the other. It can come with the loving union when two selves ecstatically flow into one. It can come in the midst of the urban center where we can experience the diversity within the multitude and allow ourselves to be swept up in the flow of humanity. It can come in the radiance of a splendid sunset when we can grow beyond the beauty and wonder and know that we are the same stuff as the sun and all the other stars.

The discovery of transforming relationships can come through a limitless variety of experiences, at any point in our lives. After the discovery come choices. We can consciously choose to seek to create the conditions which will make the experience of transforming relationships an essential and continuing part of our lives. Indeed, religious education is committed to this process, to this discovery, to these experiences.

Relationships that help us grow are characterized by the process Henry Nelson Wieman calls creative interchange. He identifies creative interchange at the center of our being and defines it as the attempt to achieve an appreciative understanding of the unique individuality of the other—another person or thing or story. It is the process that introduces the unique in our experience, whether we call it revelation, God, intuition, or insight.

Education for Religion As Relationship

Our religious education is a lifelong adventure shared in a community of seekers. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pablo Freire says, “No one educates anyone else; no one educates himself alone; persons are educated in communion with one another, in the midst of the world’s influences.” We discover, explore, and integrate many possibilities and we act on our examined choices.

Unitarian Universalist religious education aims to engage children, youth, and adults in opportunities that empower them to develop their own religious philosophy, thereby freeing them to be their own best selves and to become kind, fair, creative, and responsible persons. Our goal is to provide participants with dynamic, vivid experiences of the power of Unitarian Universalism and to help them develop life-enhancing relationships. The goals in our religious education programs are to provide opportunities to experience a depth of relationship with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the earth, and with the universe.

The spiral is our model of education for religion as relationship. The diagram below offers an image of the spiral of ever-expanding relationships that touch us and the religious values and ethical principles that we seek to nurture on our life’s journey. Imagine this model in constant movement with all relationships interfacing with all other relationships, and the self dancing with the universe from the moment we are born. We begin with the relationship with self and hold up the value of a strong healthy self-identity. Then we move to relationships with family, parents, siblings, extended family members, and support the values of love and sharing. In our relationships with friends and acquaintances in our peer groups and community life, we seek to foster a sense of belonging as well as the values of freedom and responsibility. In our Unitarian Universalist community we develop a relationship with its story and tradition and nurture our core values of purpose and choice. As inheritors of the Jewish and Christian traditions, we honor the values of courage and continuity. Our relationship with other world religions engages our understandings of similarities and differences and fosters the values of respect and tolerance. Our relationships expand to include all humanity and deepen our insight and practice of justice, liberation, and cooperation. Our relationship to the earth honors the interdependent web of existence and promotes the values of appreciation and stewardship. Our evolving relationship to the universe or mysterium tremendum engages our curiosity and imagination and values wonder, mystery, and reverence.

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