DANIEL’S BLOG Religions as lenses to see the world

On describing his conversion to Christianity, C. S. Lewis remarked, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’ (Lewis, 1945, p. 21). To paraphrase, for Lewis, not only is Christianity something credible to believe in, but it also provides a coherent and credible framework within which to make sense of everything else.


Theologians working within other religious traditions would mostly concur with this: while no one can have a “God’s eye” view of the world (other than God) – religion provides the most meaningful and satisfactory way to see the universe. Furthermore, in addition to perceiving, religions also provide a way of being in the world. They impact and form the habits, philosophies, theologies, aspirations, ethical positions and education (among other things), of those who identify with them.


Scholars have provided different paradigms to account for the comprehensiveness of religions. Systematic theologies are perhaps the most obvious and long-standing of these, but social scientists in the last century have advanced theories to account for the total and complex impact of religions on society and the person – from ‘religious cosmology’, ‘worldview’, ‘life-world’ or ‘identity’, to Ninian Smart’s various dimensions of religions, for example. These all affirm that for those who adhere strongly to a religion, seeing the world from that position is all encompassing and cogently so.


One kind of object seen through the lens of a given religion, so to speak, are other religions. This presents further complexity for religious educators to address. An educator’s lens will affect what students are encouraged to look for, and how students are encouraged to interpret it. Error may result when our eyes are so focused on the object beyond the lens, the possible effect of the lens itself goes unaccounted. Likewise, our view may be distorted when our vision rests on our lens without looking through it at all. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to look through one lens or another and to have that lens focused somewhere (rather than everywhere).


While it is frequently sought, there is controversy as to whether there is any ‘neutral’ position from which to see religions. There is no lens from nowhere. The religious studies approach that became popular in the 1970s as a supposedly more impartial method than traditional theology has been discredited and exposed as an ideology in its own right. The belief that all religions share the same common fundamental principles represents just one religious lens among a wide spectrum of positions. Many religious believers see other religions as prefigurements, or antecedents that have been subsequently superseded by their own religions, for example. In chronological order, from Judaism, Christianity and to Islam, each successive revelation is believed by the newer religions to have ‘superseded’, ‘fulfilled’ or ‘sealed’ the previous one. The universalism of some forms of religious education can be seen as superimposing a newer narrative of the supposed unity of these traditions that supersedes the exclusivist truth claims of bygone eras of religious fundamentalism.


One alternative to a homogenizing approach that sees all religions as at heart the same, is one that apprehends the religions as a diverse and dynamic set of incommensurable lenses. This does not mean that when we do religious education, we must don new sets of glasses – even if that were possible. Perhaps to recognize why we stick to one view over another is to be as equally well religiously educated as those who claim to have taken a difficult glimpse of the world through another perspective.


Recent research has attempted to follow this general line of inquiry. For a special issue of the Journal of Beliefs and Values, I invited a group of scholars to explore examples of how different religions have seen each other throughout history. The results give counter-examples to some common views of the way religions are often thought to perceive one another. I give some examples. Jews and Christians actually saw the destruction of the second temple in similar ways. In the twelfth century Middle East, records from a Jewish traveler suggest that despite different legal statuses and disastrous events, in some places Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in constructive coexistence. In nineteenth century Germany, Jewish scholars frequently compared themselves with Muslims in the context of Christian Europe. Contemporary Lebanon can be seen as a model of Christian-Muslim relations. In the contemporary USA, some attempts at interreligious dialogue may fail to engage with some minority religions, despite the organizers’ intentions. The examples could continue, but the lesson is the same. The way religions see each other, and the way people see religions, change across time and place. Perceptions are affected by significant events and ways of thinking: war; social and economic factors; and prevailing intellectual trends.


Given this complexity, what do we need to do as religious educators to help students understand the phenomenon of religion? Clearly, we can never know enough about religion in each different context and circumstance, and even if we could, we would never be able to impart all this knowledge to our students. However, while we cannot see everything to be seen, our lenses may be adjusted, and they may also be used in conjunction with a reflector (if I may continue with the metaphor). This means that future observations may be better encountered and considered through informed understanding.


It is by helping students to construct the tools of self-understanding and adopt the practices of reflection that we may progress. Good religious education promotes the habits of mind needed for the task of understanding one’s own position and interpreting other people’s. This involves serious intellectual virtues: suspending judgment; thinking through one’s own views; imagining what it would be like to be different; weighing all the evidence; asking and answering questions; disagreeing respectfully; and, above all: not taking anyone’s word for it. These are just some of the ways of thinking, ways of being, that good teachers and students learn, practise and rehearse in religious education.


One way to become a better teacher or student of religious education, or indeed religious practitioner – as well as to overcome barriers between those of different religions – is to develop the reflexivity to understand the implications and origins of one’s own perceptions. This not only enables those who look through different lenses to understand how to live well together and see each other better. It may also enable the development of more coherent visions of the world itself.


Dr Daniel Moulin-Stożek is a religious educator and researcher with experience of religion and education in England and continental Europe.