15 September 2009

The Ethicist weighs in on who should teach Sunday School

from "Religious News Service" (RNS) blog today...(and I've also reposted my comment on this question, what do you think?)

~The Rev. Peter M. Carey

Last Friday's "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times posed an interesting question.

"B.J.," a Catholic Sunday school teacher from Washington, asks Randy Cohen, the Times' resident ethicist, whether one must always teach what the church teaches, even if one disagrees with the church on the matter.

Cohen answers: "Your church asked you to teach a class in Catholic doctrine, not one in B. J.'s views of Catholic doctrine, a reasonable, if personally inhibiting, request. But to give students a real understanding of both this doctrine and the state of the modern church, you may - you should - provide some context. It is a matter of fact, and not a trivial one, that many Catholics differ with their church on all sorts of things.... To note that opinions differ within your religious community would be to convey something objectively true, pertinent to the discussion and informative for the students. You would not be offering your personal views, which are beside the point in this setting. Indeed, a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist, could honorably teach this class using these guidelines, giving the students a rich understanding of the subject without broaching the teacher's personal beliefs."

I'd be interested in hearing people's reactions to that last line. Can an atheist, within Cohen's guidelines, really teach Catholic Sunday school?


I think this answer hinges on Cohen’s definition of “honorably teach” - that is, could a non-believer teach the tenets of a particular faith “honorably.” I guess I agree, from one perspective, (as a teacher for over 15 years) that a good teacher could teach material, whether or not they ascribed to it (as in, one could teach about fascism, evolution, Christianity or any topic) without necessarily believing in it.

On the other hand, when a church (or other body of faith) has people teaching others about the faith, my thinking is that we would like people to be able to speak from the heart - to relate the “material” to one’s life (full disclosure, I am an Episcopal Priest). There may be different opinions (for instance) on interpretation of scripture, and a good teacher may lay out the various approaches - and would (ideally) also offer their own approach and the ways that scripture informs their life.

If someone cares deeply about the subject matter, and if one’s life is spiritually and intellectually shaped by their faith, I believe the teaching would be all the better…

Peter Carey+

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