Reclaiming the words “Religious Education”

(This was written as a newsletter article for the congregation I serve)

I serve as your Director of Religious Education (DRE).  This is the terminology that this congregation and the UU tradition has been using for a very long time.  And yet, these two words – religious and education have history and associations with them that have become problematic for many, leading to a trend of UU congregations renaming their programs.  “Religious Exploration” is popular now, as is “Life Long Learning”.  I’ve also heard of programs re-named “Spiritual Development”.

Those who prefer the word Spiritual to the word Religious usually point to all the negative history of organized religion, the association with indoctrination in many people’s minds, and a sense that religion implies external authority and closed-mindedness.  In contrast, Spiritual seems to mean “individualistic” and “independent” to many people.

But strictly speaking, the word spiritual means “of, relating to, or affecting the human soul or spirit as opposed to material or physical things” or “having the nature of spirit; not tangible or physical”.   In its Latin roots spiritus means “of breathing or of the spirit”.

If you look up religious you get the definition “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”.  The origins of the word from the Latin religio mean to “bind together” or “place an obligation upon”.  So while spiritual refers to what affects our human spirits, religious refers to what we are called to be faithful to – what our ultimate reality and ideals are and what we are called to do in a community bound together by mutual obligations.

It’s not that I don’t like the word spiritual.   It certainly has its value as well, and part of what we do in the RE program is certainly about the human spirit and its care and development.  But I find the meaning of religio to be a better definition of our learning community, with its sharing of community values and striving to honor the call to build beloved community and a better world.

Moving on to education, I find the arguments against the word laid out very well in the book Letting Go: transforming congregations for ministry by Roy D. Phillips.  Here, Phillips lists three reasons not to use the word “education”: 1. It is associated with just adding to a person’s stock of knowledge, 2.  It is associated with someone full pouring their bounty into someone empty, 3. It is the inculcating of community norms.  For these reasons, Phillips urges congregations to rename their programs “spiritual development”.

But the root of the word education is from the Latin educare meaning “to draw forth”.  Development means “a specified state of growth or advancement” and probably comes from the Old French desveloper meaning to “unwrap or unfurl”.  Perhaps education has those negative associations with the word – basically associations with some of the less-enlightened ways we have tried to educate each other over the centuries.  But I still believe in educare – to draw forth something with some sense of intention.

And you might notice something with each pairing of words: religious is more about community than spiritual, education is about a relationship between the one who draws forth and the one being drawn forth while development could be a completely individual process.  The older phrase is about a community process, while “spiritual development” does imply more individualism.  In the context of the rampant individualism of our society, holding to the old words says that we still value community and the relationships between people in a learning community.

Words are tricky things.  In the theology course I recently took the lecturer remarked that theologians are always playing at the edge of established language, and have two choices: to make up a new word or to reclaim or redefine an old word.  We can turn to new words to signal our intentions, such as saying Spiritual Development because we want to break with the negative notions of filling children up with a closed-end authoritative doctrine, or we can redefine what we mean by Religious Education and say that we mean to “draw forth that which binds us together in ultimate value, reality, and meaning”.

It might be the conservationist in me, but I hate to throw away some perfectly lovely and serviceable words.  I stand by Religious Education, and am proud to say that I serve as your Director of Religious Education.


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