Critical Pedagogy for Interfaith Education

by Tiffany Puett

We live in difficult times. We are confronted with daily media images and news of violence and turmoil. We face a struggling economy and growing III stratifications of wealth. We live in a divided society, polarized by issues of war, healthcare, marriage, and moral values, among others. Moreover, a growing culture of fear has left little room for difference, diversity, or dissent.

Education is our hope for the future; it is the best resource and means for countering these dangerous trends of prejudice, violence and exclusion that plague our society. Peace educator Betty Reardon writes: "Education is that process by which we learn new ways of thinking and behaving, a very significant component of the transition-transformation processes. Education is that process by which we glimpse what might be and what we ourselves can become."2

However, traditional methods of education have not typically aimed to affect constructive social change. Their practices tend to promote assimilation rather than transformation. Transformative education seems not to be on the agenda of our contemporary public educational system, as current educational trends lauding standardized tests seem to illustrate. Subsequently, many educators are developing and advancing alternative educational methods. These educators recognize that nurturing productive citizens requires a holistic approach that takes into account not only the intellectual needs of students, but the emotional and spiritual dimensions as well.

As educators strive to meet the challenges of the 21st century, many also recognize the critical role that religion plays in our world. Throughout history, religious traditions have existed in a reciprocal relationship with the world's civilizations and cultures. In this current social climate, religious discourse has been both polarized and marginalized. This discourse is dominated by language and notions of fear, exclusion, vengeance, and control. As many educators, practitioners, and religious leaders recognize the seminal influence of religion on the futures of individuals, communities, and societies, they have thus turned to interfaith education to shed light upon the challenges of our times.

Interfaith education has an important role to play in the search for new methods of education that will advance broad social transformation, shifting away from a paradigm of dominance, exclusiveness, and violence and toward a new paradigm of equity, inclusiveness, and peace. In what follows, I will look at the contours of the field and consider the distinctive strengths that position it to meet the educational objectives of a paradigm and culture of peace. I will then argue for strengthening the transformative capacity of interfaith education through the cultivation and elaboration of a critical pedagogy drawing from the pedagogical method of "critical pedagogy."

The Field of Interfaith Education

Interfaith education is an emerging field still working to define itself and the challenges it faces.3 What constitutes not just interfaith education, but good interfaith education? What criteria should be used to measure and evaluate best practices? These questions involve sub-questions of location, objectives, and defining characteristics.

Regarding location, the broad field includes the educational methods of the classroom, the academy, and the seminary, alongside the grassroots practices of dialogue and community building among people of diverse religious backgrounds.4 The field is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from the areas of religious studies, including comparative religions, theology, sociology of religion, and religious education, as well as philosophy of education, peace education, critical and cultural studies and community organizing. Moreover, interfaith education strives to build bridges between the academic and the grassroots.

The nascent field of interfaith education includes practitioners who seek to explore and develop understanding of diverse religious worlds; yet learning about diverse religions is not pursued as an end in itself. Interfaith educators see their ultimate task as cultivating and sustaining social cohesion and a culture of peace. Interfaith educators seek to stimulate a religious discourse that expresses mutual respect and understanding and facilitates a process that builds solidarity. Interfaith educators ask how religions can address the most pressing issues of our times.

The parameters of the field include a diverse array of practices, not all of which would meet the criteria of "best practices." Best practices of interfaith education are contextual and experiential, aiming to put a "face" on religions, so they are not explored in just an abstract, theoretically objective manner, but are experienced as constellations of values, beliefs, practices, and heritages that give meaning to the lives of people we know. These practices present the complexities and internal diversity within religious traditions. The necessarily self-reflective nature of these experiential practices can create the capacity for profound personal and societal growth, which is essential to fostering and sustaining cultures of peace.

Interfaith education grew out of the interfaith movement, a movement with a progressive, activist agenda. The interfaith movement ostensibly began in 1893 at the World's Parliament of Religions gathering in Chicago, held as part of the World's Fair. This groundbreaking event was the first time in history that leaders of so-called "Eastern" and "Western" religions had come together for dialogue, seeking a common spiritual foundation for global unity. The event's lofty aspirations are well illustrated by the words of Charles Bonney, which closed the event, "Henceforth the religions of the world will make war, not on each other, but on the giant evils that afflict mankind."5 Although the organizers of this event were not able to sustain a formal organization, the World's Parliament lead to the eventual formation of interfaith organizations dedicated to fostering understanding and dialogue among people of the world's religions. Organizations such as the International Association for Religious Freedom, the Temple of Understanding, the World Congress of Faiths, and the World Conference on Religions and Peace arose within the first century following the World's Parliament. In 1993, a second World's Parliament was convened, this time sponsored by a formal organization, the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions. Dozens of other interfaith organizations have arisen in the past twelve years.6

I mention this brief history to situate the field of interfaith education within a wider grassroots movement. From the onset, the organizations within the nascent interfaith movement sought to bring together religious and spiritual leaders of diverse traditions to engage in dialogue, to educate each other and their audience about their respective traditions, and to introduce so-called "Eastern" religions to the "West." These organizations convened conferences and summits to bring these leaders together with lay people. These gatherings also aimed to address global problems of intolerance, injustice, and religious persecution.

Organizers soon began to advance a model of interfaith education that placed great value on empirical knowledge. The traditional conference model was joined by more experiential and inter-subjective models of community visits, service learning and immersion experiences. As inter-religious literacy within the interfaith movement developed, organizers began to turn their attention to the most effective methods and pedagogies for teaching others about different religions. Thus, the field of interfaith education began to emerge.

The raison d'etre of the interfaith movement and the field of interfaith education was never clearer than after September 11, 2001 and the consequent climate of social tension and conflict and incidences of bias, discrimination, and hate crimes. Educators in many arenas were challenged by these events. Interfaith educators especially viewed their work with a new urgency. Whereas before interfaith education may have been promoted for the purposes of one's personal spiritual growth, now it is espoused as a morally and socially essential means of countering bias, discrimination, and hate crimes.7

As the field of interfaith education has developed, studies have been initiated to investigate the scope and character of existing pedagogies. These studies also seek to elaborate the conceptual frameworks and theoretical issues that different approaches to interfaith education presuppose. To this end, there are ongoing efforts to connect interfaith education to the academic fields of religious studies, comparative religions and theology, thus grounding the field in solid scholarship. As a result, a large body of work now exists that provides compelling ethical and theological justifications for interfaith dialogue, exchange, and education. Moreover, the field of religious studies has seen the rise of scholarship focused on a global ethic, largely pioneered by theologian Hans Kung. Much of this scholarship has emphasized the importance of praxis, creating theory that promotes constructive social change and has practical applicability. This substantial body of work has done much to inform the self-understanding of interfaith educators. However, this discourse focuses primarily on the "why" of interfaith education. There is much less scholarship available on the "how" of interfaith education.

This lack cries out for scholarship on learning theory, pedagogies, and methodologies as these relate to the field of interfaith education. Among the issues that need to be addressed are the difference between interfaith education in the classroom and in less formal settings; the challenges that arise in experiential education, ranging from subjectivity to etiquette; and the question of what might count as criteria of interreligious literacy. There is a need to explore religious education across diverse religious traditions, expanding beyond Christian and Jewish perspectives. There is also a need to explore interfaith education's role in public education, as education for life in global society.

Critical Pedagogy for Interfaith Education

As interfaith educators endeavor to create a culture of peace, to facilitate individual and communal transformation, and to subvert the divisiveness, intolerance, and violence that currently plague our globe, there is a need for pedagogical reflection and for new pedagogies, as well, that explicitly address how we ought to educate for these ends. Interfaith education has an important role to play in the search for new methods of education that will foster broad social transformation. Yet, the field requires reflection on the development of pedagogies for transformation, in order to ensure that the methods used in interfaith education embody the ethic they promote.

Religions, in themselves, offer valuable resources for this task. Religions, as traditions and bodies of thought, ethics, and practices, persuade adherents to look beyond themselves as individuals and consider their wider connectedness. Religious identities are communal in nature. They assert a shared humanity and compel a critical examination of our obligations to others in our own communities and beyond our own communities.

However, valuable resources offered by religions are often overshadowed by the struggles religious traditions face both internally and in their relationships with each other. Interfaith education finds its greatest challenges in addressing the hegemonic tendencies of religions, through which one tradition has dominated another; the histories of violence found within many of our religious traditions; and the exclusivist and triumphalist strands within religious traditions that promote intolerance and discrimination. There is a need to acknowledge the role of power both among and within religious traditions.8 How we define the religious other may have less to do with the other than it does with 'our' world, our own religious tradition. It is important then that we work to uncover the biases and assumptions that inform our thinking, and that we recognize the ways in which we might be tacitly complicit, or actively involved, in reinforcing oppression and hegemony. Yet, creating educational practices that address these issues is challenging.

One important yet overlooked resource to which interfaith educators should look as they endeavor to create self-critical interfaith pedagogy is the pedagogical approach known as "critical pedagogy." While critical pedagogy has not traditionally focused on learning about religions, its goals speak to the objectives of interfaith education. This approach would offer a theoretical framework to aid in exploring the problematic aspects of religious traditions and relationships among religions, as well as elevating the promising resources religious traditions offer for building community and solidarity and working for constructive social change.

Critical pedagogy is a pedagogical method, philosophy, and movement that has been developed within the past thirty or so years. This pedagogical approach seeks to promote educational experiences that are transformative, empowering, transgressive, and even subversive. Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which aims at helping students find a sense of agency in their lives through the process of "conscientization," is generally regarded as the foundational text of this approach."9

From Freire's "pedagogy of the oppressed" to bell hooks's feminist pedagogy which aims at promoting "education as the practice of freedom," critical pedagogy has taken many forms. While it is difficult to arrive at a single definition of critical pedagogy, the various approaches to critical pedagogy share common themes. One is the questioning of how power operates in the construction of knowledge. As bell hooks explains, "More than ever before . . . educators are compelled to confront the biases that have shaped teaching practices in our society and to create new ways of knowing, different strategies for the sharing of knowledge."10 This involves rethinking a number of aspects of educational practices, including who makes the decisions about what and how to learn, who does the talking, and who takes the responsibility for learning. It also entails reassessing by who and how learning is gauged. Henry Giroux, another important theorist of critical pedagogy, identifies a common set of problems that various approaches to critical pedagogy all address in some way. "These problems include but are not limited to the relationship between knowledge and power, language and experience, ethics and authority, student agency and transformative politics, and teacher location and student formations."11

It is worth noting that critical pedagogy has many critics whose concerns range from criticisms of the Marxist assumptions underlying Freire's work to criticisms of overly elaborate theories lacking in applicability, directed at the work of theorists such as Peter McLaren and Henry Giroux. Some critics charge that theorists of critical pedagogy are more often than not directly implicated in the very systems they seek to change. Moreover, many of these theories may be uncritically grounded in Western epistemologies.12 I do not want to suggest an uncritical embrace of critical pedagogy as a whole. Rather, interfaith educators should seek out aspects of critical pedagogy that would illuminate the challenges and support the tasks of transformative interfaith education, creating a critical interfaith pedagogy.

Drawing from the field of critical pedagogy, a critical interfaith pedagogy would raise questions about the power dynamics between the center and the margin in relations within and between religions. It would promote a form of power grounded in relationships, mutual exchange, and the capacity to accomplish together what one cannot accomplish alone.

It would lead to the development of curriculum that respect and are responsive to the personal religious and cultural experiences that constitute peoples' religious identities differently. It would endeavor to develop an approach to reading religious texts and histories that can find its place in a larger social and pedagogical project of rethinking and reconfiguring power and identity, particularly as these have been shaped around the categories of race, gender, class, and ethnicity.13

While each religious community has its formally recognized "experts," critical interfaith pedagogy would affirm that they are not the only knowers; indeed, in a profound sense, we are all experts with a store of knowledge, insights, experiences, and stories from which others can learn. Through critical interfaith education, students would discover that they have as much to learn from the stories of each other's lives as they do from the sacred stories passed on by our religious traditions. As Catherine MacKinnon argues, "we know things with our lives and we live that knowledge beyond what any theory has yet theorized."14 Moreover, by learning to listen to each other and by hearing each other's stories, students can begin to see how the paradigms of the human experience are expressed through various religious traditions.

Such critical interfaith pedagogy would aim to promote diversity of thinking in what it means to be religious. It would illumine the changing face of religion in America and explore the impact of pluralism and religious diversity upon religious identity.

In addition to examining the location of power in religious traditions, interreligious relations, and interfaith education, critical interfaith pedagogy would foster empowerment and solidarity through community building. With an eye to the important work of educator Parker Palmer, critical interfaith education would ground community building in communal, or collaborative, methods of learning.15 As Palmer explains, "If we gained knowledge through a collaborative, communal process, we would possess a knowledge that could be used in cooperative, not manipulative ways."16

The crux of interfaith education honors the insight that we cannot know ourselves without knowing the other. The self is inherently relational by nature and consequently cannot truly know anything in isolation. Palmer elaborates the notion of a relational self, stating, "In order to know something, we depend on the consensus of the community in which we are rooted—a consensus so deep that we often draw upon it unconsciously."17 Interdependence is the essence of reality and as such, all action springs out of relationships. Thus, building relationships—personal relationships, community relationships, and relationships with creation— must be at the heart of interfaith educational praxis.

Palmer tells us, "Because reality is communal, we learn best by interacting with it."18 A critical interfaith pedagogy would advocate for communal models of education, rather than competitive, hierarchical models, models that are experiential, seek to connect theory and practice, and foster a shared learning environment through a "community of learners." True to its grassroots foundations, critical interfaith pedagogy would also promote building community by developing leadership, nurturing leaders and enhancing their skills, values, and commitments.


There is a need to explore the positive potential that religions have to offer our world. Far too often in our society today, people focus on the negative contributions that religions make to the world—fanaticism, zealotry, and triumphalism leading to discrimination, conflict and violence. Many people are so accustomed to this negative spin that they believe these tendencies reflect the true nature of religions, rather than a distortion of religions. Yet, many of the greatest leaders and social reformers of our time have been motivated by religious convictions—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela.

Critical interfaith pedagogy would strengthen and support the critical and transformative capacity of interfaith education. Of course, challenges arise in determining how these theories can be applied in educational settings. Given the broad scope of interfaith education, it follows that transformative educational practices need to be carefully assessed and tailored to fit these diverse contexts. At the same time, many of the "best practices" of interfaith education already embody ideals of critical pedagogies. These need to be elaborated, articulated, and further developed. The importance of elaborating these ideals and the pedagogical philosophy that underlies them is that by doing so we can establish the foundation for developing and analyzing practices, and for assessing whether our practices are accomplishing their objectives. The task of developing these critical theories without losing sight of their practices and applicability is incumbent upon interfaith educators. The promise of critical interfaith pedagogy at its best is a process of engaging difference, coming to know others and ourselves, realizing the claims of community upon our lives, and providing the impetus and even the resources to work for constructive social change. As educators cultivate critical interfaith education, we are cultivating the capacity to transform our world.


1. I would like to acknowledge and thank the members of the Planning Committee for the Consultation for Interfaith Education. My collaboration with them throughout the past two years has introduced me to innovative theories and best practices in the field of interfaith education, raised my awareness of critical issues in the field, and given me the insights that have made this article possible.

2. Betty A. Reardon, Sexism and the War System (New York: Teachers College Press, 1985), 84. 3. There is some debate in the field about terminology—interfaith education, multifaith education, interreligious education. Are these terms synonymous? What makes them different? Often the terms are used interchangeably. I do realize the limitations of the notion of "faith" within "interfaith"—not all religious traditions place an emphasis on faith and, thus, may not understand themselves to be "faith traditions." However, I have chosen to use interfaith education in this article. Using the term "interfaith" retains the connection to the interfaith movement. Moreover, I am an educator working for an interfaith organization and I understand my work to take place in that context, falling within a definition of interfaith suggested by Dr. Eboo Patel: "'Interfaith' is when our experience of the diversity of modern life and our connections to our religious traditions cohere such that we develop faith identities which encourages us to interact with others in intentional and appreciative ways. It is the goal of being rooted in our own traditions and in relationship with others." (Eboo Patel, "Of Visions, Methodologies and Movements: Interfaith Youth Work in the 21st Century" Talk at Harvard University's Center for World Religions, March 11, 2004.

4. Consultation for Interfaith Education, http://www.globalinterfaithed.org/. The Consultation for Interfaith Education is an international association of organizations that have been drawn together by a common interest in the development of the field of interfaith education and by the belief that interfaith education is indispensable to the emergence of a less violent and more equitable social order on every level of our common life - locally, nationally and internationally. My discussion of the parameters of the field draws from the research this network has initiated in this area.

5. As quoted by Marcus Braybrooke, Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age, (Grand Rapids, MI: CoNexus Press, 1998), 17.

6. See Braybrooke's Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age for an extensive history of the interfaith movement.

7. The place of spirituality and interspirituality within the interfaith movement is currently contentious. Some are concerned that the inclusion of syncretistic "New Age" spiritual perspectives waters down and demeans the substance of interfaith work. Moreover, it can lead religious conservatives and fundamentalists to dismiss interfaith work. Others believe that interfaith work focused only on bringing together representatives of formal religious traditions is exclusionary and ignores the beliefs and practices of a significant population in society.

8. One might consider this is to be an extension of Edward Said's notion of "Orientalism" to interfaith education. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

9. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum Press, 1970)

10. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 12.

11. Henry Giroux, "Doing Cultural Studies: Youth and the Challenge of Pedagogy" <http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/courses/ed253a/Giroux/Giroux1.html>

12. Many critiques of critical pedagogy exist. One article that gives an overview of several critiques is: Linda Keesing-Styles, "The Relationship between Critical Pedagogy and Assessment in Teacher Education" <http://radicalpedagogy.icaap.org/content/issue5_1/03_keesing-styles.html>

13. This description of critical interfaith pedagogy is adapted from the critical pedagogy of Henry Giroux, "What is Critical Pedagogy?" <http://www.perfectfit.org/CT/giroux2.html>

14. Catherine MacKinnon as quoted by bell hooks, 75.

15. While Palmer, a religious educator, would probably acknowledge that his work is critical in nature, he would probably not situate it in the field or movement of "critical pedagogy."

16. Parker J. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 38.

17. Palmer, xv.

18. Palmer, xvii.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2005, Vol. 55,  No 2.