Lived Religion: Making Religion Relevant in the Classroom

Posted On 18 Jan 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, PhD Founder and Lead Consultant

In previous blogs, I provided reasons and frameworks for teaching about religion in the classroom. The six-point framework, in particular, provides a strong foundation in which an educator can approach the topic of religion. Also, I sketched out civil dialogue as a pedagogical tool to use in discussing religion in the classroom. In this blog, I will add another pedagogical method of teaching about religion: the lived religion model.

In the past, there has been one way of teaching about religion or religious studies in the classroom. This approach is the world religions model. In general, it has the following elements. First, it typically only addresses the “big” six religious traditions. In no particular order, these are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Each of the major religious traditions is defined by core doctrines or beliefs, life history of the founder(s), geographic origin and spread, selections from the significant sacred text(s), ritual practices, and major holidays. For example, students would be taught about Islam through a biographical study of Muhammed, a description of the Five Pillars, the rapid growth out of Saudi Arabia into North Africa and the Middle East, a few brief selections from the Quran, details of rituals in a mosque and customs surrounding Ramadan. For another example, students would be taught about Christianity through a biographical study of Jesus Christ, a description of the beatitudes, the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, a few reading selections from the gospels and acts of the apostles, rituals associated with the early Church, and the holidays of Christmas and Easter. 

The problem with the world religions model is that it is typically static, embedded in the past, and thus out of context for deep student understanding. For students to fully participate in civic life filled with religious diversity, they need to understand the diversity and flexibility of religious beliefs and traditions. To gain this understanding, educators should use the lived religion model. This approach, used by Henry Goldschmidt of Interfaith Center of New York, takes religion out of “the rarified realm of doctrine and text and places it instead within the give-and-take of a multicultural public sphere.” (1) Using the 3Bs which I have detailed in a past blog, students will understand the uniquely embedded beliefs, behaviors, and belonging of religious tradition. Whereas the world religions model is focused mostly on beliefs and behaviors at a fixed point in time, the lived religion model takes into account the religion within its current context. As a reminder, the 3Bs are framed as follows:

  • Beliefs: Religions are diverse and not internally homogenous. Internal diversity challenges prevailing stereotypes and prejudices by deconstructing crude generalizations.
  • Behavior: Religions are dynamic and changing, not static and fixed. There are multiple perspectives of a religious tradition intertwined in the period of time in which they occupy. This perspective assures a multiplication of views per legal guidelines when teaching about religion. 
  • Belonging: Religions are embedded in the culture, not isolated from it. Public and private spheres are in constant contact, not separated. This perspective avoids promoting non-religion over religion, which is needed legally when teaching about religion. (2)

For Goldschmidt, there is no better way in which to demonstrate lived religion and the 3Bs but through literature—although an educator should not look toward only one source of literature but develop a range of literary texts and also films. The Religious Worlds of New York institute, a collaborative project of the Interfaith Center of New York and Union Theological Seminary, has a great teacher resources page for those who are looking for a place to begin. Regardless of the literature and films selected, students must understand that no representation of religion is perfect. Faith traditions are living and breathing. As such, they are dynamic and changing with the culture in which they are embedded. For students, this critical perspective will help faith traditions become more real and rooted in a more profound human experience.

(1) Henry Goldschmidt, “Chapter 7: Teaching Lived Religion Through Literature: Classroom Strategies for Community-Based Learning” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.

(2) Benjamin Marcus, “Chapter 1: Teaching About Religion in Public Schools,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.