Educational Foundations for Dialogue

Dwayne E. Huebner


The Catholic-Jewish Colloquium is a provocative model for thinking about interreligious and multicultural education. The framework for planning and implementation of the Colloquium is readily transferable to other contexts. The Colloquium also illuminates the nature of education and the important role of religious educators in today’s pluralistic culture.

Religious Educators

When thinking of religious education, one usually thinks of curriculum materials and the organization of classes within a community. However, the exciting thing about this Colloquium was the productive relationship between Boys and Lee, and the manner in which they brought into dialogue people from their own religious traditions. They emphasized the importance of team teaching, but the success of the Colloquium was not an outcome of team teaching but of a relationship that led to team teaching. Their relationship indicates that being a religious educator requires the vision and courage to look beyond one’s self and one’s tradition, and to recognize that others and their traditions, can enrich and transform both self and community. Religious educators who only ask what they should teach and then look for curriculum materials for that purpose are not fully living out their vocations. The religious educator educates not only by teaching, but also, and maybe even primarily, by being a mentor and model. Secular education provides few mentors and models, thereby increasing their importance in religious education. The modeling of curiosity, vulnerability, study, and dialogue is a manifestation of a commitment to God and love for neighbor.



For Boys and Lee, the word "transformation" is a major concept in their definition of education. Other terms indicate that they think more religiously about education than their language signals. They acknowledge that the presence of the other is crucial, particularly in study. They recognize the inhibiting role of "emotional loadings" and "cognitive assumptions." The importance of "identity" and "vocation" is conveyed by one participant’s reference to "recrafting the whole sense of self" and the "scripts" carried by people. They appropriately emphasize the importance of understanding the traditions within which each dwells. The value of their contribution to interreligious and multicultural education is seen more clearly if the Colloquium is described in religious rather than educational terms.

The Psalmist states that "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (Psalm 42). Educational language predisposes one to think not of longing and thirst, but of motivation and learning. Yet longing and thirst are central to human life and crucial for education. When self-satisfaction sets in, when longing is no more, when thirst no longer drives one to seek the "living water;" then education comes to an end.

Why do self-satisfaction, complacency, defensiveness, or prejudice displace longing and thirst? What happens? Boys and Lee make reference to these difficulties as they discuss "emotional loadings" and "conceptual assumptions," and the participants’ level of discomfort and possible fear. Others acknowledge similar problems. Brueggemann (1978) uses the term "royal consciousness’ to refer to the blocking tendency of intellectual constructs. Hull (1991) suggests that ideologies block the education of adult Christians. Both suggest that social realities constructed by people can envelop them in a hermetically closed world. A socially useful, but limited, knowledge of the world replaces the fear of God. The mystery of the world and of its people is no longer a source of awe or wonder, because ideologies, emotional blockages, or conceptual assumptions have veiled mystery. In a good educational situation, such as that provided by Boys and Lee, these realities are accepted, confronted, and overcome so education continues to be the open search that makes up life.

Fortunately, the closed world is broken open by the presence of the strange, the stranger, and by events that fracture the taken-for-granted. The tears of tragedy, the laughter of comedy, the joy of surprise, and the awe before a numinous world indicate that confining boundaries can be breached. A confrontation that elicits anxiety, fear, and defensiveness indicates that longing and thirst have been prematurely satisfied. This Colloquium highlights the value of encountering that which is different, maybe even strange.

Fortunately for all of us, Jews and Christians are, for the most part, strangers to each other. Fortunately, because in that strangeness lurks new understandings of self, others, the world, and God. The differences that make us strangers are usually glossed over with silence or superficial glad tidings. The commonalties in our identities enable us to talk together about social and political life, or commerce and economic matters, and maybe even health and sexuality. But when it comes to our relationships with God, we are fundamentally strangers to each other. A stranger evokes fear, defensiveness, and the use of dogmas, ideologies, or theologies to shore up the threatened self. For self-protection we hesitate to reach out to the stranger. Common longings and thirsts, and different paths by the flowing stream, are not acknowledged. We forget that "the Lord your God . . . , the great God, . . . loves the strangers," and we ignore the injunction, "You shall also love the strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Strangers are pathways to new understandings of how God and human beings are in relationship. Boys and Lee, with great skill, identify two reasons why we forget and hence why we are afraid of those strangers who quench that insatiable thirst differently that we do. One is the emotional loading, alluded to above. The other is our history—buried, forgotten, unavailable for reflection, but powerfully operative in our lives. History, whether collective or individual, if left unreflected upon and silent in our lives, breaks out in these various emotional loadings—signs of bondage to a past. They are reminders of a past struggling to come forth, and of fear that identity or self might be lost.

In spite of our predisposition to live in the present, we are historical beings. Our personal pasts shape our personalities and character. But more significantly, the languages we use, the practices in which we engage, the situations and problems we encounter, and the communities to which we belong are manifestations or outcroppings of our histories—of our commitments to cultural, social, technological, or religious traditions. Personal identity is an artifact of history. Much of that history is a force outside our understanding. It seeps out in the surprises that overtake us, the insights that enlighten us, the anger and fear that control us. Blinded by the present and unable to dwell in the historical imagination that can free us from control by the unconscious past, we become enslaved by our history, rather than conscious historical agents. Our personal and cultural histories, and the personal and cultural histories of others, are deep wells of life. Too often we are unable to draw from these wells the water that nourishes us.

Boys and Lee rightly emphasized the importance of the histories of Judaism and Christianity, and their relationship to one another. These histories have shaped current cultural, social and political contexts, just as they have shaped the identities of the Colloquium participants. When the participants spoke and reacted, they did so as agents of these historical traditions. As they came to new understandings of themselves and their traditions, and of the others and their traditions, they were being "educated" and becoming actors in an historical drama of struggle and reconciliation. Exposing the historical roots of self, other, and cultural traditions is a prerequisite for any effort at interreligious education, or any education that penetrates cultural boundaries.

This, then, is education—the meeting of the historically determined self with the new, the strange, the stranger, in such a way that the profound longing and thirst is again recognized as the source and goal of life. The Catholic-Jewish Colloquium exemplifies education at its best. It can be a model for other interreligious and multicultural meetings and the education that follows from them. It requires committed educators, time, awareness of how history influences identity, and recognition that we all can be actors in the world’s movement toward reconciliation.


Planning and Implementation

How can we educators embrace the strengths of this model, given our limited educational traditions, our constricted ways and our own tendencies toward discomfort, anxiety and defensiveness rather than openness and longing in the presence of the stranger? Five dimensions or aspects require attention: leadership, history, study, dialogue and interpretation, and time.

The importance of leadership has been suggested above: good leadership involves both personal qualities and appropriate preparation. Before beginning to plan, one first educates oneself. Reading can prepare the way, but the process of being an agent of historical reconciliation requires acts of involvement in reconciliation, not simply disengaged reading. The leader must seek out a personal educational experience of cross-boundary dialogue. This entails making oneself vulnerable, accepting the historical determination of one’s own practices, cognitive structures, and emotions, and, above all, being curious about the longings of others and ways they quench their thirst for the living God. One hopes that this process will lead to educational colleagueship, as it did with Boys and Lee. In the actual teaching situation, leadership entails modeling dialogue, being sensitive to the anxiety of those reaching beyond boundaries, and being open to the emerging insights and feelings of participants. The planning of leaders is finished only when the educational experience is over, because adequate planning requires seeing the whites of the participant’s eyes, and hearing the timbre of their voices.

A major problem is how the deep well of personal and collective histories is to be made accessible. Which parts of that history can be tentatively ignored while others are emphasized? Given the educational background of these participants the wells could be tapped by text material—texts shared by the two traditions and texts distinctive to each, as well as texts that depict key turning points of separation and differential identity. But the wells were also tapped by lectures, by the personal experiences of the two leaders, and by providing opportunities for the participants to dredge their own pasts for significant feelings, events, and understandings. The difficulty helping participants develop leadership to provide similar interreligious education can be attributed, in part, to the failure to explore the histories that shaped their traditions of religious education. If the participants were expected to develop opportunities for interreligious learning in their own work and institutions, they should have been helped to explore the histories that have shaped their respective traditions of religious education.

Study played a significant role in the Colloquium in equipping participants to learn constructively from encountering one another and their own histories. Study is also a historical tradition. The Jewish religious tradition is grounded in study, whereas the Christian tradition has emphasized catechetics and teaching rather than study. The emphasis on study in the Colloquium underscores the notion of study as the sine qua non of all education. This model contrasts with conventional educational thought, in which the focus on teaching and learning makes study a means to an end rather than a central educational act. Those accustomed to American schools think of study as a means to pass a test, or a requirement to "learn" something

Dialogue was recognized as the most important part of the educational process. Two dimensions of it stand out. The first is dialogue with the texts. Again, secular educational practices have intruded here, for the use of textbooks rather than the use of texts has covered over the significance of interpretation in education. People read text books for facts or for ready made understandings, but as Ricoeur (1976) and many others have indicated, interpretation is at the heart of language and knowledge. Developing the skills of interpretation is often not important in secular education. But the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of other religions, require that those skills be at the disposal of all religious people. Second, interpretation is crucial as we listen to the words of the stranger. Buber (1936, 1955) makes dialogue the most important dimension of all encounters. Others have highlighted the importance of it in therapy, in the relationships between children and adults, and in education. Good interreligious or multicultural education demands recognition of the educational significance of interpretation and dialogue. Lecturing is usually only a preface to real education.

Finally, time is essential. Education is not something that happens quickly. Engagements with strangers, texts, one’s own history and emotions bring forth much that needs careful attention and reflection. Conflicts and meetings with strangers create significant intellectual imbalances, and time is required to reach an equilibrium with respect to emerging new identities. The aroused feelings need to be lived through, not buried. Again, secular education does not provide good models, for the emotional content that comes forth in schools is relegated to guidance counselors, peers, or family, rather than being seen as a significance source of further education.

Ongoing encounters with the strange and the stranger within the common world and within one’s self, accompanied by dialogue, are the primary vehicle for education and reconciliation in our troubled times.

Dwayne Huebner is Professor Emeritus of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University and Horace Bushnell Professor Emeritus of Christian Nuture, Yale Divinity School.


List of Works Consulted

Buber, Martin. 1937. I and thou. Trans. By Ronald Gregor Smith. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

___________. 1955. Genuine conversation and the possibilities of peace. Cross Currents 5: 292 - 296.

Brueggemann, Walter. 1978. The prophetic imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

The holy bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hull, John M. 1991. What prevents Christian adults from learning. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1976. Interpretation theory: discourse and the surplus of meaning Fort Worth, Texas: The Texas Christian University Press.