Religions and Theological Education

Rev. Dr. Selvam Robertson
Religions and Theological Education: An Evaluation of the Religion Cluster of the New BD Curriculum-2010 of the Senate of Serampore College (University)
In this paper I shall make an overview of purposes/objectives of the study of religions in theological institutions and then try to assess whether these are satisfactorily addressed in the new curriculum of the Senate -2010.
Pedagogy is the study of being a teacher or the process of teaching. The term generally refers to strategies of instruction, or a style of instruction.  Pedagogy is also occasionally referred to as the correct use of instructive strategies.[1]
While dealing with instructive strategies or instructive theory pertaining to teaching religions in theological institutions it is appropriate to remember some limitations too.  Eric J. Lot warns “any one attempting a scholarly investigation of a religious tradition must first recognize the complexity of religion, no matter how simple it may seem to those who participate in its life.”[2] Added to this is the following advice of Raimon Panikkar that “Truth although one is multifaceted and we can only have a glimpse of some of the aspects of the truth…We are conditioned by our perspectives, attitudes and culture; and what is needed is that we accept these limitations and cooperate with others in the search for Reality.”[3] Considering these limitations it is proper to graphically highlight the necessities of learning other religions in our theological education.
1. Necessity to Study Religions
According to Ninian Smart “understanding the world’s religions and ideologies is important in three ways. First, they are a vital ingredient in the varied story of humankind’s various experiments in living….Second, and of more immediate importance, is the fact that in order to grasp the meanings and values of the plural cultures of today’s world, we need to know something of the worldviews which underlie them….Third, we may as individuals be trying to form our own coherent and emotionally satisfying picture of reality, and it is always relevant to see the great ideas and practices of various important cultures and civilizations.”[4]
Added to this list is the fact that “before judging people, it is important to understand their beliefs because it is on the basis of these that they act.”[5] Closely connected with this is the plural context where varieties of people live together which demands ‘to know something of others, so that mutual understanding, though may be not agreement, may animate community relations’.[6]
Considering these necessities the previous Senate BD curriculum (prior to 2010) placed the following objectives in studying other religions:
“Recognizing the importance of religions in human life and acknowledging that the interaction between religion and ideologies provides the context in which Christian Theological reflection should take place, this department seeks to train a community of students with the necessary skills and tools for such reflection. With this view, the attempt is made
a)    to study the phenomena of religions in society through the scriptures, traditions, rituals, symbols social practices and other constituent elements.
b)    to understand religion of India in their classical, modern and contemporary expression, including tribal and village religions
c)     to learn classical languages of Indian religions.
d)    to enable students to participate in the struggle for an inclusive human community, overcoming attitudes of narrow fanaticism or shallow friendliness.
e)    to understand and appreciate the religious experience of people of other faiths and overcome misconceptions of beliefs, practices and ways of life of others.
f)     to understand the cultural heritage and roots of Indian Christians.
g)    to gain new insights for the Christian faith-experience from the religiosity and spirituality of others.
h)   to encourage intra and inter-faith dialogue.”[7] These objectives are very
  relevant even today.
Apart from the positive necessities the other inferential we need to address
is the following fear voiced by our Hindu neighbors (Hinduism). In the words of Ravi Tiwari “it feels threatened and in turn, poses the same to the very existence of the followers of other religions, a process we are now experiencing in India.”[8] Of course the fear is the result of unwillingness to accept the changing scenario, which is vivid in the statement that “the fact of plurality of religion, in which Hinduism is merely one among many, has been very uncomfortable to the propounders of neo-Hindu ideologues.”[9]
            It has become usual in recent times to emphasize the need for democratic living even in religious matters. Varghese Manimala writes “today if Christianity, or for that matter any religion, had to fulfill its mission there should be a paradigm shift. One of the important values that religions will have to promote is democracy or a reverential attitude for others.”[10]
            In spite of the fact that religion cannot be replaced by ethics there is also a tendency to reduce the role of religion in human activities. For example it is argued that “we now live in times where our political beliefs are founded on ethical precepts such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. People no longer need to turn to organized religion in order to organize or stabilize society.
In this age, religion has to stand on its own; which will happen only if the faith in the hearts of its believers is true, solid and complete. The struggle is private and internal, and a need to publicly defend a faith is an implicit admission either a lack of belief in the power of god or of insecurity in the faith of His believers. A strident call for public action to defend a faith may over time serve to undermine the very cause that it claims to plead.”[11]
            In this context the following realization needs special attention that “traditional religious education, based on scriptures, can leave young people both ignorant and prejudiced about alternative faiths.”[12] In a nutshell, teaching and learning religion in theological institutions require innovations and dynamism to address newly emerging concerns besides the continuing ones.
1.1 Common Humanness
To continue the discussion further study of religions need to seriously view the one humanity which is behind all religiosity. Mircea Eliade wrote “it is simply a matter of not losing sight of the profound and indivisible unity of the history of the human mind. Consciousness of this unity of the spiritual history of humanity is a recent discovery, which has not yet been sufficiently assimilated.”[13] In the words of William James ‘the pivot round which the religious life revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism’.[14] According to Raimon Panikkar “what religion needs to do is to make the human beings realize their common humanity and strengthen the bonds of friendship and affection.”[15]
Religious studies need to concentrate more in this direction because “in whatever field we work, be it science, technology, medicine, politics, policing, theology, religion or the judiciary, we have to remain in the service of the common man whose well-being is central to all human knowledge and endeavor.”[16] Further “Religions need to realize that they are only means; they are not an end in themselves. Human beings are not to be made slaves of religions; rather they must experience freedom in religion and freedom for religion.”[17] To this end the department of religions has its task cut out.
1.2 Religion and Ideologies
As mentioned earlier “it is important for us to recognize secular ideologies as part of the story of human worldview.”[18] There is justification for this endeavour. Ninian Smart writes “before, there is the narrative of the rise and fall of religious cultures in differing parts of the globe; afterwards, we see patterns of interaction, and eventually the emergence of a global civilization, in which inevitably religious and secular worldviews have to learn to adapt to one another.”[19] It is not just for coexistence but for cooperation for common causes. In many cases earnest ideologies have played significant role in transforming societies and liberating people. Therefore there is an essential need for religious education to explore the possibilities of religion and ideologies cooperating for liberative causes.
1.3 Religion and Theology
Although attempts to strengthen the difference between religion and theology continue to exist, the signs of our times show that there needs to be closer exchange of data between the two to rationalize their contributions. It is thoughtfully said “with regard to theology, it is no longer possible to limit the consideration of theological topics to the Christian sphere; we must take into account the questions and answers posed by other religions.” [20] This mutual enrichment is a necessity. Eric J.Lot writes about his work that “it has been intended to show that in spite of certain distinctive aims and modes of functioning making it necessary to distinguish the theological task within a religious tradition from other forms of systematic investigation found in ‘religious studies’, there are also significant and substantial areas of interdependence between these two basic approaches.”[21] The concern to relate theology and religious data and using religious data for relevant theologizing and mission deserves attention in teaching and learning religions.
1.4 Renewal of Religious Traditions
The meeting of different cultures and traditions often produces new religious movements.[22]That is why “while it remains most important to evaluate founders and early scriptures, we also need to be sensitive to the ways in which religious traditions evolve and form.”[23]  In other words, there is distinction between the period or periods of roots and those of formation.[24] The development of many religions confirms that it is because of crises in depth and the creations that result from them that religious traditions are able to renew themselves.[25] Hence, religious study needs to be more sensitive to this aspect and be analytical in nature to address such issues. 
1.5 Plurality of Religions
There is a strong reason to consider plurality of religions as a serious matter for consideration while studying religions. Paul Knitter writes “it is said that in our present age, religious people have to be religious interreligiously. To walk one’s faith-path, one needs to be walking with others from different paths.”[26] John Hick maintains “I suggest that the best religious account we can give of the global situation is that of a single ineffable Ultimate Reality whose universal presence is being differently conceived and experienced and responded to within the different human religious traditions.”[27] To go further “Reality is intrinsically complex, rich, intricate, mysterious.”[28]  A substantial and meaningful recognition of many religions is not a matter of compromising faith traditions but transcending boundaries while deeply committed to our own. In the words of Paul Tillich “in the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.”[29] 
In our given context religions need to acknowledge one another as co-travelers towards the Absolute offering mutual support and enrichment.[30] Ninian Smart emphatically suggests ‘a pluralistic approach to religious education is best’.[31] Such a painstaking and risky assertion is grounded on the fact that ‘religion cannot be shelved to some corners of life and to a few hours of practice; it has to permeate the whole life. As religious pluralism is a gift and a challenge the religions need to take it up with earnestness not by its denial but by learning to live with it’.[32]  It is fitting to recall here that “we must all remember, very often we tend to forget that religion is an accident of birth except perhaps for that minuscule minority which might adopt it by choice. It is, therefore, essential that we realize that the purpose and objective of every religion is to foster peace, harmony, brotherhood, and not to quarrel needlessly.”[33] Hence a responsible undertaking of studying religions needs to address the uniqueness of the existence of different religions and their problems and prospects.
1.6 Dialogical approach
Recognition of the existence and reality of many religions and ideologies is closely linked to one of the concerns expressed in Samartha’s One Christ Many Religions, i.e. to listen to the experiences and voices of others as well. This he demanded in the context of dialogue between different faith traditions and it is finding space in the present academic exercises as well. For example it is said “until now, we have only had representatives of various religions speak to each other in interfaith dialogue; a next step will be taken when Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and other theologians of religions begin to dialogue and perhaps carry out common research projects.”[34]
Such daring considerations require humility because “we can be persuaded by personal experience: and this may indeed be spiritually convincing, but it is a ‘soft’ reason for belief, in as much as a differing revelation can attract a similar proof. From a public point of view, however much my belief is hedged by certitude, it is still (and I repeat, from a public point of view) a matter of opinion.”[35]
Hence “from this perspective, faith is not something about which to dogmatize, and again it is a matter about which we may enter into dialogue, and should.”[36] To deepen the discussion Eric J. Lot writes “if we believe our faith in some way puts us in touch with ultimate realities, then engaging in dialogue with people of similar conviction, even if their faith and its community loyalty identifies them as ‘other’, is an essential part of the dialogical life faith calls for. Given the crises of our times, and the frequent violence between religion-based communities, there can be few more urgent tasks than that of dialogical interpretation.”[37]
Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s view point is relevant here because “Smith recognizes that in each religious tradition ‘faith’ is interpreted differently; but in that faith is that by which the religious person participates in transcendence, he sees it as essentially the same in all cultures.”[38] He goes on to suggest that “it is this generic quality of ‘faith’ by which people of all kinds of cultures find a link between the mundane and the transcendent; it thus creates the interaction between these two poles of human existence. Faith, then, is a universal characteristic of humanity, it is the fundamental quality of the religious life, though because it represents more adequately that fundamental quality of human life in all its dynamism,  this term ‘faith’ can supersede ‘religion’ as the focal category for religious study.”[39]
Still further “the study of religion is essentially the study of persons. If faith is central to religious life, then we should look to personal life as ‘the locus of faith’.”[40] Therefore “if the locus of faith is person, our goal in the systematic study of religions should be primarily to understand the inner life of religious traditions.”[41] On the basis of this  “an important task of the professional student of religion, contends Smith, is to participate in the growing interaction between world cultures and religious traditions and even to further activate this process.”[42] Although our new curriculum often implicitly points to these directions, it is essential to be made explicit in our teaching(pedagogy) and make them functional. May be this too is ambitious given the pastoral paradigm, but let us not doubt about its effects in the days to come.
1.7 Tribal and Dallit Religions
E.E. Evans Pritchard writes “primitive religion are species of the genus religion, and that all who have any interest in religion must acknowledge that a study of the religious ideas and practices of primitive peoples, which are of great variety, may help us to reach certain conclusions about the nature of religion in general, and therefore also about the so-called higher religions or historical and positive religions or the religions of revelation, including our own.”[43] Again he declares “indeed I would go further and say that, to understand fully the nature of revealed religion, we have to understand the nature of so-called natural religion, for nothing could have been revealed about anything if men had not already had an idea about that thing.”[44] Further ‘they provide all the more valuable data for a comparative analysis aiming at determining the essential characteristics of religious phenomena and making general, valid, and significant statements about them’.[45]
A.M.Abraham Ayrookuzhiel remarks about the dynamism required to understand Dalit religion in India. He writes “I think if we are serious about the 200 million Dalit community in India regaining their religious status, we should undertake the study of Dalit religious heritage both in its folk form and in its historical form.”[46] Since there is a growing reassertion of traditional values particularly in tribal and dalit religions, our learning and teaching of religions need to square out substantial space and program for deeper understanding of these phenomena so as to explore them and constructively use the findings.
2. Evaluations
In the new BD curriculum the Religions Cluster (Religion, Culture and Society) has been placed as third cluster from its previous Branch 6. It is a significant pointer to the fact that religious study requires serious consideration in our context. In the previous curriculum, the religion branch was titled as religion and society, the new curriculum has included culture as well to the title. The broader and useful objectives set forth as introduction to the entire courses under religion branch in the previous BD curriculum are replaced with a brief pointer at the beginning of each course. This may raise a question whether the new curriculum has sincerely absorbed all the purposes behind learning and teaching religions in theological colleges.
 Histories and cultures of India/South Asia Regions is a new and ambitious course. Apart from constrains of time, the objectives of the course are praiseworthy, but it may become mere repetition to a History graduate. It may be useful if this course is taught at the first year of BD five year program in the place of philosophical foundations and philosophical foundation is made available to all.
            The course on Introduction to Indian religious traditions includes two additional religions (Zoroastrianism and Dalit Religion) which also have implication for teaching load. The suggested methodologies need further consideration because each method is relevant for certain purposes. All the proven methods together constitute the study of religions. The section on different methods to study religions is avoided in the new curriculum. It may be because it finds vivid expression under an interdisciplinary course (methodologies).The importance of harmonious living together with others for the purpose of engaging them for sustainable existence need more emphasis.
            As per Sanskrit language is concerned no change has been effected, not even attempt to suggest recent available books.
In the detailed study of Hinduism the text from Upanishad is replaced with texts from Manusumurti. The objectives like concern for woman, tribals and poor, dalit and interreligious relations laid down for the detailed courses are appreciable. The addition of required perspective readings is new but the authors mentioned need substantial justification.
            Under the course Modern religio—socio-political Movements in India Hinduism section contains a few new titles: satyashodhak Samaj, Narayana Guru Movement, Prajapati Brahmakumaris.  Under Guru Movements the new titles are: Mata Amritananda Mayi, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Under political parties more regional parties are added. The section on contemporary issues and the responses of churches is new and comprehensively direction oriented.  Including additional topics are encouraging but time management has to be taken in to account.
Detailed study of primal religion is removed from new religion cluster; similarly, Indian philosophy and Cultural anthropology. These changes are not in line with the emphasis on the importance of philosophical approach in India. This also is the case with tribal concerns including their methodology.
            The courses under Inter-disciplinary are useful from the point of religions; particularly the course on Methodologies extensively deals with most of the methodologies used for the systematic study of religions. The course Science and religion offers the possibility of dialogue. And Christian faith and witness in pluralistic societies, is removed from theology branch and included as interdisciplinary course in the new curriculum. This is also in line with the purpose of learning and teaching religions in theological institutions. 
In the new curriculum the optional courses are reduced. Flexibility is relegated to tight schedule which robes the expected freedom to choose.
All of us can judge whether the above listed purposes are met in the new curriculum. Even if these are implicitly referred to, a right pedagogy can help addressing these concerns.
In general the shift from old curriculum to new is minimal in nature. A manageable religion syllabus may be worked out even with the consultation of people of other faith traditions. Nevertheless, as listed in the previous pages, if we can pursue teaching and learning other religions, we can achieve the target.
3. Conclusion
While evaluating the new curriculum one has to bear that different strands of thoughts will continue to exist side by side with the favored and newly emerging ones. Therefore emphasizing one aspect does not mean other aspects are ignored. What is important is to prioritize the relevant concerns.
Every branch of M.Th. study needs to include a course on pedagogy even before the commencement of evaluation of M.Th. curriculum as M.Th. being the basic degree for teaching.
In order to avoid the notion of ‘too ambitious’ clear demarcation between BD and M.Th. courses and standards are necessary to be set. It helps limit the scope of different courses and make it manageable. It can be helpful in managing stipulated time frame for different courses.
The emerging view point that many courses are lengthier needs serious consideration. In this regard the senate fraternity should courageously be satisfied with courses in consonance with time limit permissible to a BD degree course.
It will also be immensely credible if Senate can workout course numbers that are same in syllabus and examination registration form.
Of course the one inalienable factor that has to motivate the religion pedagogy is to ensure that God’s Mission is carried out at all circumstances in collaboration even with other religions and ideologies.
Finally to sum up, the pedagogy of religions needs to help religions to be viewed as vital ingredient in the varied story of humankind’s various experiments in living, help grasp the meanings and values of the plural cultures of today’s world, help see the great ideas and practices of various important cultures and civilization, help judging people, help animate community relations in plural contexts, help analyze the importance of religions in human life, help interaction between religion and ideologies, help religious communities participate in the struggle for an inclusive human community, help understand and appreciate the religious experience of people of other faiths, help gain new insights for the Christian faith-experience, help encourage intra and inter-faith dialogue, help avoid fear of Hinduism, help promoting democratic living, help avoiding reduction of religion to mere ethics,  helps overcome traditional religious education based on scriptures, help recognizing common humanness, help cooperation between religion and ideologies, help interaction between religion and theology, help see causes for renewal of religious traditions, help recognize plurality of religions, help promote dialogical approach, help sincere study of tribal and dalit religions and help adequate space for other significant developments.
Religion and Dialogue

[1] For example, Paulo Freire referred to his method of teaching adult humans as "critical pedagogy". In correlation with those instructive strategies the instructor's own philosophical beliefs of instruction are harbored and governed by the pupil's background knowledge and experience, situation, and environment, as well as learning goals set by the student and teacher.
[2] Eric J. Lott, “Approaching Religious Tradition,”, in Religious Traditions of India, edited by P.S. Daniel,David C. Scott and G.R. Singh (New Delhi: ISPCK,2002), p.1.
[3] Raimon Panikkar, “Introduction,” in Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment of Religions, Varghese 
Manimala(Delhi: Media House and ISPCK), 2009, p.15.
[4] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.10.
[5] Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw and Tite Tienou, Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to      Popular Beliefs and Practices (Michigan: Baker Books), 2001, p.21.
[6] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.11.
[7] Senate of Serampore College, Bachelor of Divinity Degree Syllabus (Serampore: Senate of Serampore College, 2005),  P.128.
[8] Ravi Tiwari, Reflections and Studies in Religion (Delhi: ISPCK, 2008), p.129.
[9] Ibid., p.138.
 [10]Varghese Manimala, Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment of Religions  (Delhi: Media Houseand ISPCK), 2009, p.506.
[11] Prem Chandavarkar, “Should One be Defending One’s Faith at all?,” The Hindu (Vijayawada), 28th November 2010, p. 12.
[12] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.590.
[13] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 1, translated by Willard R. Trask (ChicagoThe University of Chicago Press), 1978, p. xiv.
[14] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (LondonCollier Macmillan Publishers), 1961, p.381.
[15] Raimon Panikkar, “Introduction,” in Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment ofReligions,  Varghese Manimala(Delhi: Media House and ISPCK), 2009, p.18.
[16] A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, “The Joy of Human Life,” in Towards a Culture of Harmony and Peace, editedby T.D. Singh (New Delhi & Kolkata:Delhi Peace Summit & Bhaktivedanta Institute, 2005), pp.13-14.
[17] Raimon Panikkar, “Introduction,” in Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment ofReligions,  Varghese Manimala(Delhi: Media House and ISPCK), 2009, p.19.
[18] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.10.
[19] Ibid., p.11.
[20] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions (Illinois: Inter VarsityPress), 2003,  p.17.
[21] Eric J. Lot, Vision, Tradition, Interpretation: Theology, Religion, and the Study of religion (Berlin. New York. Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter), 1988, p. 253.
[22] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.13.
[23] Ibid., p.26.
[24] Ibid., p.27.
[25] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 1, translated by Willard R. Trask (ChicagoThe University of Chicago Press), 1978, p. xiv.(It is enough to cite the case of India, where the tension and despair brought on by the religious devalorization of the Brahmanic sacrifice produced a series of outstanding creations (the Upanishads, the codification of Yogic techniques, the message of Gautama Buddha, mystical devotion, etc.), each one of them constituting a different and daring resolution of the same crisis)
[26] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis
 Books, 2002) p.xi.
[27] John Hick, “The next Step beyond Dialogue,” in The Myth of Religious Superiority: MultifaithExplorations of Religious Pluralism, edited by Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.12.
[28] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis
   Books, 2002) p.7.
[29] Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (New York and London:Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 97.
[30] Raimon Panikkar, “Introduction,” in Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment ofReligions,  Varghese Manimala(Delhi: Media House and ISPCK), 2009, p.14.
[31] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.590.
[32] Raimon Panikkar, “Introduction,” in Toward Mutual Fecundation and Fulfilment ofReligions, Manimala(Delhi: Media House and ISPCK), 2009, p.14.
[33] A.M. Ahmadi., “Towards a Global Society,” in Towards a Culture of Harmony and Peace, edited byT.D. Singh (New Delhi & Kolkata:Delhi Peace Summit & Bhaktivedanta Institute, 2005), p. 18.
[34] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions (Illinois: Inter VarsityPress), 2003,  p.354.
[35] Ninian Smart, The world’s Religions 2nd ed.(Cambridge: University Press),2002, p.583.
[36] Ibid., p.583.
[37] Eric Lott, Religious Faith, Human Dignity: Dangerous Dynamics in Global and Indian Life (BangaloreATC/UTC), 2005, p.400.
[38] Eric J. Lott, Vision, Tradition, Interpretation, Theology, Religion, and the Study of Religion, Mouton de Gruyter, 1988, p.193.
[39] Ibid., p.193.
[40] Ibid., p.194.
[41] Ibid., p.195.
[42] Ibid., p.198.
[43] E.E. Evans Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1965), pp.1-2.
[44] Ibid., p. 2.
[45] Ibid., 1965, p. 2.
[46] A.M.Abraham Ayrookuzhiel, Essays on Dalits, Religion and Liberation (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation), 2006, p. 40.


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