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Wrestling with Diversity

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How do we welcome non-Christians into our schools and our religion classrooms, and at the same time give witness to our own Christ-centered faith? How do we invite students to learn from and respect other faith traditions without sending the message that Catholics believe that all faiths are equally true? These are questions that thoughtful teachers recognize as gateways to the lifelong faith journey.
How do we welcome non-Christians into our schools and our religion classrooms, and at the same time give witness to our own Christ-centered faith? How do we invite students to learn from and respect other faith traditions without sending the message that Catholics believe that all faiths are equally true? These are questions that thoughtful teachers recognize as gateways to the lifelong faith journey.

We have a model for dealing with these questions in the story of Jacob, who wrestled all night long with an angel, refusing to let go until he received a blessing. A real act of courage on a teacher's part is to resist the urge to provide answers, which we know will be less than adequate, and to instead invite students to embrace the questions.

While this activity may not relate directly to a topic in your course outline, it would be appropriate when local community members are celebrating a holiday such as Purim or Tet. You could also tuck it away for future use; inevitably, at some point during the semester, a student in your class will raise a question about the relative value of other faiths, and you could schedule this lesson in response.

  1. Provide four types of significantly different snack food for your students, such as candy, cookies, chips, and fruit. Allow each student to choose a snack, and then group the students according to their choices. (You may need to have more than one group for each snack choice, depending on the size of the class.) Direct the groups to list all the reasons they had for choosing as they did.

  2. Assign each group one of the following position statements in favor of their snack choice:
    • Explain the virtues of your snack without reference to other choices.
    • Favorably compare your snack to other snacks, but without criticism.
    • Explain that your snack is superior by criticizing other snacks.
    • Explain that each snack has its virtues, and support your own choice.

    Groups may draw from their list of reasons but are not limited to those ideas. Invite the students to record their feelings or thoughts as they listen to each group's presentation.

  3. When the presentations are over, discuss the students' reactions to the different approaches. Ask the students to note that there are good qualities to all the snacks. Lead a discussion with these or similar questions:
    • How is comparing snack food preferences similar to discussing religious beliefs? How is it different?
    • Which arguments had the most merit? Why?
    • If the snacks had been religions, which approaches would have been the most respectful? the most disrespectful? Why?

  4. Using the chalkboard, note that there is a continuum of possible responses to diversity.
    • In an attempt to be open-minded and accepting, many people choose relativism as a way of dealing with conflicting beliefs so that they end up valuing all things equally. Relativism represents one end of the continuum.
    • Candidates for political office sometimes choose the other end of the continuum. We have all seen ads where candidates try to win the audience over by making their opponents' ideas look inadequate, without ever stating their own views.
    • When we discuss other religions, we are affected by both of these strategies. While relativism is respectful of diversity, it doesn't leave room for passion, or even for evaluation. Criticism of other points of view is clearly passionate but not particularly respectful.
    • The Catholic church finds a mark somewhere toward the middle of the continuum. Catholics value the path of salvation through the church more than they value the path offered by other faiths, but they also respect the many good aspects of other faith traditions. Catholics would say that affirming belief in one's own tradition does not discount the value found in other faith traditions.

  5. Pose questions such as these for the students to discuss in groups or to address in journals:
    • Does interfaith dialogue ever make you question your own faith?
    • What makes it hard or easy to listen to others' faith statements?
    • What makes it hard or easy to state your own beliefs?
    • What is the value of interfaith dialogue?

  6. Conclude by sharing the following ideas with the students:
    • Remaining loyal to our own faith among other religious traditions requires a certain level of spiritual sophistication. We may find ourselves seesawing between a belief that other religions could be just as true as our own and a belief that our own faith tradition is the truest.
    • It is natural to feel defensive when our own faith is challenged, and it is also natural to want others to share the benefits we've found in our own faith.
    • While the Catholic church believes that all people are saved by Christ, it also teaches that people who have never encountered Christianity can still be touched by God so as to be saved (Catechism, nos. 846–848).
    • In the Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965), the church teaches, "Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture" (no. 2).

  7. Conclude the lesson by asking the students to write in their journal or notebook a "Jacob question" that arises for them from today's discussion and the following quote from the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus, 1965): "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church, nevertheless, still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize" (no. 7). Encourage them to bring this question to prayer.

Acknowledgments

Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published January 1, 2002.