Cutting Edges: Education for Redemptive Community

Jack Seymour HBy Jack Seymour, Professor of Religious Education

The young Muslim scholar who had just completed his Ph.D. quietly rose and spoke to those of us—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—who had participated with him in an international conference at Cambridge University on Commitment, Character, and Citizenship: Religious Education in Liberal Democracy: “I thank you for including me. Here I have been able to share my passion both for my faith and the world we share. I have been free to talk about the communities I love and their needs.” Many of us nodded in assent. Together we were freed to share our differing religious traditions and build shared commitments. Truths were claimed, risked, and challenged in order to learn how to teach for both faith commitment and civic participation.

We all identify with the struggles facing our shared planet from environmental degradation to armed conflict. We know that many of these are rooted in deep and long-standing religious differences. We hope that our faiths can inform and mobilize our work for living in a redemptive, healing community. I am convinced that we cannot make any progress toward that hope alone— partnerships and coalitions are needed. Only together can we glimpse redemptive community.

This has been an aspect of my research and ministry. For the last ten years, I have edited RELIGIOUS EDUCATION for the Religious Education Association (REA). Last year, the journal included essays from 14 countries and three religious traditions. Learning and mutuality has occurred as scholars share their commitments to their own traditions, point to common struggles, and seek ways of making a difference. Dr. Deborah Court, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, and I have been working on an interfaith education project. We have discovered diverse motivations – from apologetic and information purposes to coalition building. Yet, above all, we have discovered a spiritual outcome. As Professor Court well states: human connections across traditions “move us from a lonely spiritual quest to seeking and recognizing shared connection and insights about creation and community”—embodying our mutual seeking to respond to the invitation of God.

As examples, I point you to the interfaith action on college campuses stimulated by Interfaith Youth Core (www.ifyc.org) and to efforts of the Parliament of the World’s Religions – “Interfaith Shows Philanthropists Why Religion is a Force of Good” (www.parliamentofreligions.org; July 12, 2014). Three suggestions for your ministry:

1. Teach truthfully our traditions. While deeply immersing ourselves in our commitments, also be truthful about the ways we have hurt and excluded others.
2. Teach our scriptures and traditions in partnership with members of another religious tradition. Studying our traditions in the presence of others helps us learn more about each other and ourselves.
3. Build local coalitions of religious groups working for healing. Here we discover our common concerns. Neighborhoods are increasingly diverse. A faithful question is, “How are we working to be a force of good?”

How are we learning both about our faith and the faith of others, as well as embodying our mutual seeking to respond to the love and call of God?

These questions will be the focus of a conference on Educating for Redemptive Community at Garrett- Evangelical on November 10, 2014. Dori Baker, chaplain at Sweet Briar College and scholar in residence at the Fund for Theological Education and Mai-Anh Le Tran, associate professor of Christian Education at Eden Seminary and president-elect of the REA will focus our reflections. Denise Janssen, assistant professor of Christian Education at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, will chair a panel of Garrett-Evangelical faculty on our plans to expand our work to include child advocacy and teaching religion in public schools. We will let you know what we learn.


Hanan A. Alexander and Ayman K. Agbaria, eds. Commitment, Character, and Citizenship: Religious Education in Liberal Democracy (Routledge, 2012).

Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook. God beyond Borders: Interreligious Learning among Faith Communities (Cascade, 2014).

Jack Seymour. Teaching the Way of Jesus: Educating Christians for Faithful Living (Abingdon, 2014).

Cutting Edges: Crisis, Change, and Renewal in Historical Perspective

By Anna Marie Johnson, Assistant Professor of Reformation History

Anna JohnsonEverything is changing for churches. They are losing their members, their vigor, and their respected place in the fabric of society. The laity’s formation in the faith is often superficial. Societal and economic conditions make effective ministry challenging. Old models do not seem sustainable, and the future seems unstable at best.

You might assume I am describing the situation of mainline Protestant churches in the United States, and the description certainly fits. But I wrote that description with a very different context in mind: sixteenth-century Germany. In that place and at that time, the church was facing its own challenges.

The church’s critics were vocal and numerous. Prominent academics questioned the power the church had traditionally held in society, and popular songs and stories portrayed priests as inept and self-interested. Individual Christians were certainly pious, but their piety was often unorthodox and sometimes openly heterodox. Public figures used religion for their political gain, and the church hierarchy was more interested in temporal power than shepherding souls. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was threatening to overtake central Europe, and famines and inflation made a stable economy nearly impossible.

This was the situation that Christians faced in the sixteenth century, and despite the bleak parallels between then and now, knowing this part of the church’s past gives me hope for the church of the future. Remembering how much the church has been through and the many forms it has taken in its long history can help us be less anxious about our current situation. Anxiety has a way of making us think our circumstances are unique and insurmountable. It is a normal response to change, but it is not a particularly helpful response.

There is an older, romanticized type of history that viewed prominent historical figures as giants who walked among mortals, handing out exquisite pearls of wisdom as they went. Many of these figures were truly great and wise, but that is only part of the picture. It is important to remember that they had anxieties, doubts, and failures as well. In short, they were no more or less capable than we are to meet the church’s current challenges, and the circumstances they faced were at least as difficult as ours.

The Protestant reformers had a particularly difficult task since they had to re-build a church structure from scratch. In their exile from the pope, whether forced or self-imposed, they were separated from the institutions, communities, and resources that were familiar to them. Yet they rose to the challenge and tried to address the issues of their time through many different channels.                       

They committed themselves to studying, discussing, and living by the Bible. They carefully considered their theology and practices to discern what needed to change and what needed to stay. They reformed worship practices to reflect and to teach their theology. They organized poor relief in cities. They told the laity that their baptismal vows were every bit as important as the clergy’s vows. And they used the new medium of the printing press to foster biblical faith, saturating communities with instruction on prayer, the sacraments, ethics, childrearing, suffering, and Christian vocation. Many of those laypeople responded by engaging in theological discussions, teaching their children the Bible and the catechisms, urging their rulers to be just, and serving their neighbors and communities.

The results of the Reformation were not all positive, but the movement did create churches that were vibrant enough to nurture the faith of their members and to impact their societies. This is just one example of a challenge the church has met during its long history. In many different contexts, the Holy Spirit has formed churches that engage and respond to society in faithful service. Taking the long view of church history, the current situation is one challenge the church has faced among many. In that perspective, our crisis might seem less threatening. When we are less anxious about the future of “our” churches, we are more open to the Holy Spirit’s call to God’s churches in our time and our place.

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UMC Logo Garrett-Evangelical, a seminary related to
The United Methodist Church, welcomes
students from a wide range of faith traditions.