Teaching Religion in a Friends School

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I am very clear in a public context that I
never say, “I teach religion,” because I have learned in my life that that’s a
conversation stopper. For most people that I encounter in the United
States of America, they hear that as, “I participate in indoctrinating people in the
correct way to think in terms of the cosmology or the metanarratives of religious philosophy.” It couldn’t be further from the truth at
a Friends school. That is not what we do. In fact, when I say to people, “I teach
religions,” they say, “Oh wow, that sounds cool!” I’ve heard people say when I say I teach
world religions, they say, “Oh that was my favorite subject in college, I loved that,”
and it’s a conversation opener. And that’s what we’re doing at Friends
schools, we’re opening the conversation, we’re not closing it. I’m Tom Hoopes. I am a member of Valley Meeting in Valley
Forge, Pennsylvania. I teach at George School, a Quaker international
boarding school, and this is the George School meetinghouse. For me as a teacher, my goal is to create
an energized, safe space for students to get in touch with their own ideas but to encounter
the ideas of other people in the room and other people from other times and other spaces,
either through a text or through the internet or some other device that I share and I want
them to be alive in the present with what’s real for them. Quakerism is a wonderful container to have
conversations around the edges. I often say that Quakerism is a great religion
for people who are entering religion for the first time or for people who are leaving religion. So we have a lot of people who are excited
about Quakerism because they’ve thought of themselves as agnostics or atheists and
then they encounter this tradition that permits that possibility but also invites exploration
of the mysterious and doesn’t block out experiences of transformational or paranormal
possibilities. And then there are other people who have come
from very doctrinal or creedal religions and they have felt oppressed or controlled by
those traditions and Quakerism gives them freedom. Great, welcome! So we have a tremendous mix within our community,
and that’s a mix that we also have in our classrooms because at Friends schools, the
majority of people in the room are not Quaker, and there is no expectation that they should
be—and more often than not, the teacher is not Quaker either. So what we’re doing is we’re having a
conversation that is possible because of the Quaker ethos of acceptance, tolerance, universality,
and openness to the unknown. This is not a situation where there’s a
catechism or a planned method of instruction so that you get the right answers or the right
information. It’s quite opposite, actually. What we are doing at a Friends school is we
are creating safe, discursive space for people to ask into the sublime, into the mystical,
into the beautiful, into the mysterious. And it turns out that everyone has had that
experience. We’ve all had dreams. Are dreams real? Are dreams religious? Are some dreams religious? Are no dreams religious? In fact, what does it mean to be a person
who is in touch with a dimension of reality that we can’t measure or see? It means to be fully alive, so let’s talk
about that. And at the same time, I am very happy bringing
in the language of scientific cosmology and what some people call atheism because that
belongs in the room as well. So when I tell them that when I was young,
I identified as both Quaker and atheist, I see their eyes get wide, like, “Oh that’s
a thing? Like, I’m allowed to be that?” Sure! What are you, what’s your truth? And then suddenly I hear a polyphony of different
identities around the room and suddenly now we’re talking, because, “Well I’m Jewish
and Christian?” Well, theologically speaking, how can you
be both? Well it doesn’t matter, let’s not interrogate
that question. Let’s honor that that’s your truth and
let’s talk about what that means to you. Which stories speak to you? Which parts of those traditions have meaning
for you personally, and why is it important that you honor both of those traditions when
you were asked what religion are you? And let’s welcome all of that and stumble
forward. I want students to leave my class saying “That
was fun!,” because it is fun actually. It’s fun to realize that you are having
some dimension of reality that you know is true validated by somebody else and then you
find out that there are rich traditions that offer different narratives, different names,
different colors, different stories, different energies to exactly the stories that you personally
have had. Wow, that’s cool! Now turn to the person next to you and talk
about your experience and listen to their experience and notice if there are similarities
or differences. And now let’s come back to what we were
talking about. Maybe we have a text from the Bhagavad Gita
that says something really profound from a couple thousand years ago, and now let’s
look at the Gospel of John, or the Gospel of Thomas even! Or maybe we’ll look at something from Deuteronomy
and say, “How does this compare to your dream? What do
you love?”


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