|Ms. Teny Pirri-Simonian
is Executive Secretary Church and Ecumenical Relations at the World Council
of Churches. The proposed curricula present a challenge to Christians to
affirm their vocation in religiously and culturally pluralist societies.
The tension between the
will to affirm one’s identity and the need to recognise religious, cultural
or ethnic differences (pluralism) is an ancient one. Christians addressed
this tension by the Biblical call to the church “to make clear God’s loving,
eternal purpose to heal and reconcile humankind to God in Jesus Christ,
and to restore wholeness to all creation,”
through programmes of mission and dialogue. Social scientists have
described this tension in terms of three concepts of social relations:
1) assimilation into one dominant group (losing identity), 2) closing into
one’s own shell and excluding others and 3) accepting a system of co-operation,
tolerance based on the principle of ‘live and let live’ (parallel existence).
Unfortunately, these models have produced massacres, religious wars and
Colonialism, science and
technology have brought people of different races/ethnicities, cultures
and faiths into close contact with one another, and thereby called into
question the concepts of national identity and citizenship embodied within
the framework of a nation state. Fears and prejudices that were once suppressed
by the need for ‘good citizenship’ are now being expressed openly in places
such as Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya. One way
to pre-empt conflict and confrontation is to set processes that deal with
these fears and prejudices. Educators should attempt to inspire people
to incorporate the disciplines of self-criticism and listening. They should
stimulate people to seek to understand others’ traditions and beliefs,
to recognise the divine in the religion of the other, acknowledge the righteousness/goodness
of the values and spiritual richness of other religions, discover comparable
ethical and moral principles in the cultures of the other and respect the
other as a fellow human being, without compromising their own identity.
These are difficult educational tasks.
II. The Background of
Ecumenical Education Work
In the World Council of
Churches (WCC), this concern was articulated in 1970 through the “Programme
on Dialogue with Other Living Faiths.” While this programme has aided the
peaceful resolution of conflicts and promoted inter?communal living, it
has neither been able to prevent conflicts nor provide the tools to affirm
identity in dialogue. How can we enable Christians to remain obedient to
the Gospel of Jesus Christ within their own cultural setting while witnessing
in dialogue with people of other faiths? How can we help to build a vision
of a new world that affirms distinct identities and communities and provides
the space for all people to fulfil themselves within the framework of their
In June 1990, the WCC Subunit
on Education and Renewal organised a meeting
on Education 2000, in Montreal,
Canada. This workshop directed the staff to concentrate on education and
formation for inter-religious and intercultural living as a priority issue.
Then, in October 1992, a
workshop entitled ‘Christian Religious Education in Multi-Religious Societies,’
was held in Salatiga, Indonesia, in collaboration with the Satya Wacana
Christian University. This setting provided the occasion to explore more
specifically the issues of Christians and Moslems living and learning together.
The participants recommended
that the WCC assist in the education and formation
of religious people living
in pluralist societies. They set the following goals for this new programme:
1) to identify teaching
models and resources for Christians for pluralist living;
2) to identify women’s experiences
in inter-religious, intercultural living that carry within them elements
of educational methods;
3) to enable women to develop
educational methods and resources from these learning/teaching experiences.
During the implementation
phase, the work involved Sunday School curriculum writers and teachers
and women’s groups. The office has developed new curricula and new methods
of teaching with the Sunday School group, designed to help learners acknowledge
the religious and cultural differences of their neighbours. The Boldern
Protestant Academy and the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women
have joined to create the European Women’s Summer Academy, which, since
1993, has been bringing together women from all parts of Europe. Every
other year about 120 women from some 25 countries gather at Boldern/near
Zurich to reflect on the challenges of living in a multicultural Europe.
We started working on the Summer Academy after the fall of communism. We
felt the need
to contribute, together
with women from all parts of the former Soviet bloc, to democracy education
and to the development of the idea of civil society.
The Summer Academy explores
such issues as the tensions between nationalist memories and new European
challenges, women’s roles in multicultural/multi-religious, often patriarchal,
contexts and the struggle for new identities. The curriculum is intended
to bring together new theoretical feminist insights, practical experiences
of the Christian women’s movements Europe-wide, and the dynamics of working
and living together. It is also an experiment in inter-medial learning.
Issues are taken up in a variety of ways: in lectures and theme-centred
discussion groups, in creative and artistic workshops, which reflect the
theme in another medium, and in sessions in which participants share worship/prayer
elements from various traditions. The summer academy has regularly included
workshops on inter-religious issues. Particularly dynamic have been the
workshops on Christian-Muslim concerns, which have included women from
the former Yugoslavia working together on issues and thereby reflecting
the process of co-operation. The workshops incorporate such elements as
biography work, sensitivity training, with creative transposition (role
playing, etc), informative and reflective inputs, the practical work of
project development (e.g. mapping projects of inter-religious living in
everyday life) and elements of feast-day celebration in family and community.
A second undertaking, the
European Women’s College, a women’s project in alternative education, headed
by Reinhild Traitler-Espiritu and Elisabeth Raiser-von Weizsäcker,
is modelled on the concept of a travelling college. Different modules,
which usually last about eight to ten days, are organised in different
parts of Europe. These modules concentrate on women’s issues that play
a prominent role in the context of a particular location. They link these
issues to the women’s movements and gender-studies centres of a specific
location and present them in the ‘language’ (the conceptual framework)
of the women concerned. This is an effort to contextualise education and
enable the women to define their own problems.
The learning process involves
conceptual work, dialogue and creative actualisation.
III. Why start with women?
In education for inter-religious
and intercultural living, there are two important religious values, right
relationships and life in community. The role of inter-religious and intercultural
education is to insure that these values are respected. These values come
mainly from religion. For Christians, living a God-centred life, means
living with spirituality, where the living God becomes the guiding force
of human activity. God-centred life is rooted in the Christ-event and the
Gospel, and expresses its quality through the Holy Spirit. Living such
a life is not a one-time act but a continuing experience of taking the
God-centred life to one’s own context and transforming that context. Spirituality
is the clear awareness of this experience, and is central to building right
relationships and life in community. Life in community includes reciprocity
Reciprocity in most social
relationships implies power relationships conditioned by
the values of a society.
Historically, women have been subordinate, men super-ordinate. Men have
justified this situation by claiming that it is based on either divinely
ordained or universally accepted human principles and values that stand
for the common good and the good of the individual. However, these claims
are based on the interpretation of those values over time. Between the
sources and the application, there is a profound chasm.
By reflecting on their role
in society, women begin to build awareness and develop new models of gender
relations. For a number of reasons, this has not been easy:
No existing model of democracy
addresses the actual needs of contemporary societies. The great democratic
ideals of liberty, basic rights, political and social equality and solidarity
have been distorted. Criteria for gender analysis and relations in society
can be determined only within the framework of clearly defined democratic
values. Women are studying the great democratic ideals in their desire
to give them credibility and to shape societal values accordingly.
The notion of people-hood
has been changed by the recognition that religion- and ethnic-belonging
are legitimate sources of identity. This new understanding of people-hood
has provided the space for people of many identities to exist in a mutually
beneficial relationship and to respect the differences of others. Countries
currently following a pluralist model, however, in which religious and
ethnic identities are recognised, are exclusivist and anti-democratic.
In addition, religion and ethnicity are often used to cover other struggles
in society. For example, behind the struggles for self-determination and
freedom of religious expression, one also finds issues of ideology, identity,
economic disparity and social and political discrimination. Usually, women’s
problems and concerns remain hidden or ignored in these complexities. Therefore,
women and men concerned with the practice of gender equality within the
social and religious institutions of their communities should scrutinise
carefully issues related to religion, ethnic identity and socio-economic
problems. They should also attempt to determine how these struggles touch
The emergence of religion
and ethnicity as sources of identity has created new problems in conflict
resolution. This situation requires more flexible and open instruments
“to legitimise ethnic identity without making it incompatible with the
formation of larger units of identity based on mutually enriching and beneficial
is an open and flexible model. New ways are particularly necessary in cases
where problems have long histories and are deeply rooted in belief systems.
In these situations prejudices and stereotypes have been uncritically incorporated
into the body of knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation.
Among the injustices produced by these prejudices and stereotypes are oppression
of and violence against women.
Education has a role to
play in managing and resolving conflict. Because educational institutions
and processes can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices, we need to encourage
models of education that will build awareness and critical consciousness
(to deal with distorted histories) and that will train people to negotiate.
Consciousness training for negotiation is both a preventive and a problem-solving
paradigm. The learning model calls for ‘memory work.’ That is, we have
to admit our complicity in situations even when we think we are only victims.
The model calls us to be aware of cultural differences among the learners
and to recognise different speech forms (ideological and non-ideological).
An implicit component of this process is cultural negotiation, in which
the learner comes to know ‘who he or she is’ and ‘what he or she wants.’
Women appreciate this model
because it requires a careful reconsideration of the spiritual, religious,
cultural, social, economic and political forces in society as they affect
people’s lives, and because it calls for an integrated way of looking at
these forces, without undermining one’s cause for the benefit of another.
This approach to education enables people to sort out the ‘negotiable’
and ‘non-negotiable’ factors in pluralist living and gives them the tools
to build non-competitive pluralist societies and to build solidarity on
the elements that unite them. If carefully pursued, this approach could
impact other models of education and inspire new paradigms for conflict
While democratic values,
religious values and values related to identity and belonging are not essentially
coercive or exploitive, leaders have often manipulated them and turned
them into engines of coercive power. In order to counteract this misuse
of values, women should seek to understand how democracy and democratic
values and religion and religious values relate to the spiritual life of
the faithful and to their human experience, shape institutions and norms
and condition peoples’ daily life.
IV. Models for Women Learning
together: Vision and Ethic.
It is within the above-mentioned
context that women are seeking new models of political theory and educational
The theory of civil society
is already providing women with the elements of a new vision and space
for them to assess their roles and rights in society in relation to democratic
values. The co-operative work of the WCC and the European Women’s Academy
helped the staff identify two models of educational processes with a specific
approach (pedagogy) and content (curricula). Both models, a short workshop
and a longer-term diploma programme, aim to help women reflect upon their
experiences of living together with other faiths (in many cases this also
means living with Christians of other confessional families), build common
grounds for pluralist living and establish the framework for a global ethic.
While the points of reference
are women, women’s experiences and women’s framework of analysis, the model
has been applied to mixed groups. It is clear that the fresh insights brought
by women to education can apply to the wider society.
These include five one-and-a-half
· Session 1: Building
community. The ‘learners’ as a community and the community at home. This
session includes sensitivity training, during which the group discusses
history, prejudices and memory work.
· Session 2: Definitions
of ‘good life’ and the place of traditions. Discussion focuses on life
together in the world and in community. ‘Religions and the ‘good life,’
utopia or reality, for whom? The role of culture in sharing the good life.
· Session 3: Finding
the common ground. Global efforts in defining the ‘good life’. (Discussion
on the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic: Parliament of the World’s Religions.
4 September 1993, Chicago, U.S.A.). The women felt that because the Global
Ethic Project takes men as the anthropological starting point for the ethics
it proposes, it excludes the life situation and experiences of women.
· Session 4: Individual
work or group work for a creative expression of experiences.
· Session 5: Evaluation
of the workshop and presentation of individual or group work.
Learning for interfaith
living: a diploma programme.
The following project builds
on insights gained in the short-term workshops on interfaith learning.
Although the project is designed with the European experience in mind and
will be implemented in Europe, it takes the Middle Eastern situation into
consideration because of that area’s experiences in interfaith living.
Once the pilot is completed, the project will be reformulated into an interfaith
learning project for women and men in community.
The curriculum is designed
· affirm religious
identity as an antidote to insecurity and conflict;
· build awareness
of the complexities of the secular context in which religions exist today;
· identify and make
intentional the contribution of women to shaping a Europe of many faiths;
· contribute to the
ongoing discourse on human rights/women’s rights;
· bring insights
from the women’s movement and feminist scholarship into inter-religious
In doing this, the project
hopes to help generate a democratic climate and practice in all spheres
of life, including the religious one.
The goals of the project
The goals of the project
to educate Christian women
who live with people of other faiths to express their identity as Christian
women and to learn to understand and respect the identity of others. The
pilot project will focus on the theme of Christians and Moslems living
· to help women understand
the faith of their neighbours and make them aware that living with differences
can be a source of enrichment in building community;
· to show the complex
relationship between religion, culture, politics and economics, and to
highlight the factors that lead people to misuse religion in conflict situations.
It is hoped that in this way the project will contribute to the process
of building a ‘culture of peace’;
· to identify religious
principles, moral and ethical values, and norms that are comparable and
that can be negotiated for a life together;
· to establish principles
and moral and ethical values that are distinct to each faith and may not
always be grasped by people of other faiths,
· to establish a
platform where the terms of living together are defined, and to test the
feasibility of the document proposed by the World Parliament of Religions
on “Global Ethic” from the perspective of women.
Proposed Methodology of
The pilot project will include
five modules, each of which will take place in a different location. In
co-operation with the International Electronic Women’s University, select
staff may tutor learners between the modules through electronic media.
In this way the pilot project will imaginatively combine learning though
direct and through virtual communication. Teaching will be interdisciplinary
and intermedial. A variety of methods will allow for learning at different
levels, and for the development of cognitive skills and emotional and social
competence to deal with inter-religious situations.
Methods will include:
· sensitivity training,
· experiential learning
through exposure programmes to local situations,
· biography work
· lecturing /academic
Students will be required
to become involved in a practical project and to document their involvement.
The courses are structured in such a way that the same issues are taken
up several times, but looked at in the light of newly acquired theoretical
and practical insights.
The project will be designed
to help people who live and work in multi-religious contexts to develop
sensitivity, knowledge and skills in order to act in their life and work
situations in a better and more informed way.
Its target audience will
· social workers,
teachers, pastors and students in these professions;
· personnel managers
or people in similar positions;
· police or security
personnel, immigration officers, etc;
· journalists and
· trainers of volunteer
workers and other personnel in interfaith projects.
For practical reasons the
working language of the pilot project will be English.
Religious and cultural pluralism
are here to stay. Humanity cannot remain indifferent to genocides and conflicts
happening in the name of religion and culture. Nor can humanity allow religion
to be exploited for special interests. Religion provides a sense of identity,
security, spirituality and life-giving values. The time has come for educators
to find new ways of thinking, a new language and new models of teaching/learning
for a harmonious interfaith living. Some Christian women and feminists
who are questioning their traditional roles in society, are already expressing
themselves in new ways and proposing new ways of interfaith living. The
proposed curricula is the outcome of such women’s work. If given a chance,
it may transform the world into a new reality. In this new world, the good
life will become the norm rather than the privilege of a selected few.
Programme Unit II - Mission, Education and Witness. Minutes of the
Commission Meeting, 9-16 May 1992. Evian France, p.38.
Rupesinghe, Kamar and Valery A. Tishkov, eds., Ethnicity and Power in the
Contemporary World (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1966), p.3.