encountering the other and Deepening in Faith

Barbara Veale Smith

Mercy High School

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e. e.cummings


The awakening of my ears and the opening of my eyes is an apt image of the interreligious learning that took place for me as a participant in the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium. The new ways of hearing and seeing, however, were of a sort quite unexpected. As I review in retrospect the literature sent to us prior to the Colloquium, it is clear that the intent of our sessions was to facilitate learning both about one’s own faith tradition as well as the other’s. Yet as one baptized as an infant and raised as a Catholic, and having recently completed a graduate degree in religious education, I did not anticipate that the major insights I would take from the Colloquium would pertain to Catholicism.

Instead, I fully expected that my primary learning would be about Judaism and Jews–an understanding I lacked and so anticipated eagerly. In fact, I did learn a great deal about Judaism. Not only did I acquire significant information, new insights and a wealth of resources, but most importantly, I came to know eleven outstanding Jewish educators as colleagues. Much to my surprise, however, I came away from the Colloquium with important new perspectives on Catholicism. I am now clearer about my beliefs, more enamored of my own religious tradition, and more concerned about educating others in the Catholic faith tradition than before.

In this essay I will first highlight an aspect of the Colloquium that I found particularly compelling in deepening my own religious identity. Then I will tease out a few implications in regard to educating for religious identity and engendering respect for others. In so doing, I will be addressing some of the dilemmas I experience as a religious studies teacher in a Catholic high school with many students who are not Catholic. Because the Colloquium provided me with some new perspectives on what it might mean simultaneously to root individuals in their own faith tradition and engender respect for the faith lives of others, I hope readers will extrapolate from my own situation to theirs.

The Power of Evocative Questions

As a graduate student at Boston College I had often heard Thomas Groome remark that an effective educator will be more concerned about what questions she’ll ask her students rather than what she’ll say to them. This proved true for me in the Colloquium: Mary Boys and Sara Lee asked remarkably evocative questions of us–questions that stimulated not only close study and lively exchange but also demand a lifetime to ponder adequately.

For example, each of us was asked to come prepared at the first session to identify a biblical text that played a central role in his or her own understanding of Judaism or Catholicism. After much consideration, I recalled for the group Matthew’s account of Jesus breaking bread and sharing wine with his disciples on the night before he died (Matthew 26: 26-28). Given the centrality of the Eucharist to Catholic identity, my choice, if not predictable, was certainly representative. What I discovered, however, is that this powerful story, which lies at the heart of Catholic belief, is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we fail to appreciate how difficult it is to articulate its meaning to those of other faith traditions. In subsequent sessions, I encountered that reality in a multitude of ways.

At the second session, we engaged in participant-led study sessions on two prayers central to our respective traditions, the Amidah and the Eucharistic prayer. After an opening presentation about the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ, Jewish participants probed, "But what does that really mean to you?" I remember offering answers that had always made good sense to me. When pressed for further clarification, however, I realized that what was a known and lived reality to me could not easily be communicated to others who lived within a different context of faith. It wasn’t so much that the Jews believed differently than I did. It was that I could not seem to communicate to someone who did not share my world or the system of my beliefs. I left the room that evening feeling wholly inadequate to explain myself–and overwhelmed that I was inarticulate about a belief so fundamental. Yet that experience motivated me to deepen my own understanding of Eucharist. I revisited this exchange in later discussions throughout the Colloquium, coming to new understandings for myself and others as well as clearer ways to communicate.

Similarly, at one point in the Colloquium I found myself questioning my entire identity as one who follows Christ. Having encountered people of deep faith who worshipped God with no reference to Christ, and having been challenged by our study of Nachmanides’ "Disputation at Barcelona," (1263) in which Nachmanides argues that Pablo Christiani’s belief in Christ is a matter of habit, I began to question myself as to my true faith. Was I simply a theist? Or did I really believe in Christ’s birth, death, resurrection and salvific action in the world? After much consternation and deep thought, I concluded with joy and great conviction that not only had I experienced God in the world but that more specifically I had experienced Christ in my own brokenness and in the brokenness of our world and in love that abounds when new life is shared. The point here is that had I not been in the presence of others of deep faith who were questioning me to explain myself, I would not have needed to clarify my own beliefs for them nor for myself – nor would I have come to the depths of conviction that our study engendered.

Educating for Religious Identity and Respect

What, then, will facilitate education both for religious identity and respect for others? I believe three components are essential to the task. First, education of this sort cannot be done by one group about another in isolation. Persons of deep faith need to encounter the faith incarnate in the other. When persons from different faith traditions grow to know one another and can tangibly see, hear, feel, and nearly touch the religious integrity with which people from other faiths live in relationship to God, a perspective such as "mine is the only way" becomes nearly impossible to maintain. Sustained and serious encounter with the depths and integrity of another’s faith generates respect.

Second, serious dialogue and encounter with "the other" assists and perhaps even compels us to decide what it is that we believe, and to communicate those beliefs in more adequate fashion. The decision and the telling lead us to "own" our story and to cherish it in a new way. My engagement with other participants and commitment to the study asked of us led not only to clearer faith convictions for me personally but also to a passionate desire to educate others about Catholicism. While Catholicism is certainly a deeply flawed tradition – we were all profoundly shamed by its sinfulness when, for instance, we discovered in reading Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews the history of hostility by the Church to Judaism and the many atrocities committed against Jews in the name of Christianity–it is also a viable and beautiful way for one to live in relationship with God. In particular, the sacramental imagination and worldview taught and embraced by Catholics is distinctive (see Greeley 1990, 34-64), an insight that came as a result of the Colloquium.

The third consideration deals with educating persons who have not yet grown into a mature or "deep" faith–for example, adolescents attending Catholic high schools. Today, Catholic school students may not necessarily be Catholic or even Christian. What happens when an educator who is committed to Catholic education finds herself in a Catholic school teaching students from various Christian denominations as well as non-Christian traditions?

Many questions arise, particularly when the religion course being taught is geared toward imparting information and strengthening the faith lives of students around distinctively Catholic concerns and is not geared more generally toward learning about other religions (for example, a course entitled Catholic Morality rather than World Religions). Will I use a text that is written specifically for a Catholic readership? How will I choose examples to illustrate concepts? Will students be responsible for learning the Catholic thinking on given issues, since the school is sponsored by a Catholic institution (e.g., a religious community or a diocese), and studenta (and/or their parents) have chosen to attend that school–even though that may not be their tradition of faith? How will I handle comments and questions from students who do not know what they believe, yet are intrigued by the faith lives of their peers? Can I as an educator encourage students to choose one faith over another (i.e., to choose actively or reaffirm their Catholicism if that is their home tradition) in the presence of the other students who are not Catholic? How might I do so without demonstrating disrespect for "the other" ?

One of the fundamental issues relates to how we conceive truth in relation to pluralism. That is, is there just one way to live in relationship with God? Is it possible for both Jews and Christians, for instance, to be living truthfully? How can we believe and live differently and yet still be people of religious integrity? Can one attain salvation (primarily a Christian concern) without believing in and following Jesus Christ? Christians of some evangelical and fundamentalist denominations might suggest that one cannot. A certain interpretation of the proclamation of Jesus that "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) admits of no other way to God but through Christ.

My own experiences, study, and careful considerations from the Colloquium suggest an alternate conclusion. I believe, as Mary Boys often says, there are "many ways to the one God," and that what is shared by people who profess faith in the Eternal One is much deeper that what divides us.

What I have also come to believe is that the desire to respect other traditions does not need to dilute one’s own commitment of faith within a specific tradition. When teaching a group of students from various faith backgrounds, the teacher will do all of the students a disservice if only commonalties are stressed–in a sense boiling all down to the "least common denominator." I see this tendency as particularly harmful and educationally irresponsible at levels of education in which people have not yet come to a mature faith stance and are questioning their religious identity in a healthy way. The questioning of students is all the more reason to ensure that their education in the faith is academically, theologically, and scripturally sound, and that their teachers enthusiastically invite them to consider committing themselves to God through their home tradition.

At the same time, our educational efforts must be both respectful of the persons who live and believe differently than we do and also respectful of the differences themselves. Glossing over the distinctions between one’s home tradition and other traditions in educational settings serves none of the parties and represents a sort of false liberalism. Educational integrity should motivate one to teach in such a way that individuals are encouraged to embrace their home tradition and to grow in understanding and respect for those whose history, viewpoint, and choices are different from our own. The challenges involved are many, but so, too, the rewards. In a religious context, engendering a new way of hearing and seeing unalterably changes one’s perspective, and may lead to a closer relationship with God and a more just, peace-filled, and holy way of living– precisely the sort of transformation that is at the heart of religious education.

Barbara Veale Smith is a religious studies teacher at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, Michigan.


List of Works Consulted

cummings, e.e. 1972. Complete poems 1913-1962. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.,

Greeley, Andrew M. 1990. The Catholic myth. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Flannery, Edward. 1985. The Anguish of the Jews. New York/Mahwah: Paulist.