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Episcopal Identity and Our Pluralistic World

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: Mar 23, 2012, 09:00 AM
There is no greater challenge facing the Episcopal school today than to understand its identity in the midst of a world where the very nature of identity has dramatically shifted. Once the task of understanding ourselves was about the “givens” of life—background, neighborhood, religion, what cards life had dealt us—and now identity is more and more about the choices we make in life. As Eboo Patel observes:

Today, people spend less time encapsulated by the institutions of their traditional communities, and more time in spaces where there are frequent interactions between people of diverse backgrounds. This leads to constant exposure to lifestyles and perspectives different from those encouraged by the traditional community. In previous eras, an individual received the same basic message about her identity from her family, peer group, house of worship, and school. [Now] an individual can receive dramatically different messages about how she should live and what she should believe from the family and the school, the house of worship and the peer group.1

All of us are now forced to stop and think, and ultimately make choices, about our identity. This is, to be sure, “new material,” a pioneering and immense challenge not only for the individual but for the institution, including the Episcopal school. Adding to the enormity of the task, nothing can be more delicate, more intricate, more vexing than articulating the religious dimension of our identity, given how rapid and pervasive that diversity is becoming, as well as how potentially explosive it can be if not handled wisely.

Little wonder, then, that many school communities—not to mention individuals—tend to throw in the towel when it comes to articulating a clear understanding of themselves and their religious mission in the midst of this ever-changing landscape of identity. It feels simply too hard to carve out an understandable, working sense of ourselves when the “givens” of the past are no longer the automatic supports they once were.

In the midst of this whirlwind, decisions are often made, in one form or another, to forfeit the religious identity, simply because it is so difficult to maintain and articulate. We become prone to what I would call the “obstacle theory” on religious identity. It can contain the following symptoms:

  • Requiring chapel is no longer a tenable option, given how our student body is so diverse.
  • We need to talk down the religious identity of the school, because it can be a hindrance to marketing and advancement pressures.
  • To speak of ourselves as a Christian school is dangerous, as it may lead some to associate us with groups on the extreme religious right.
  • In some cases the very name of the school becomes a problem, as it conveys to the larger community a restricted and seemingly archaic image.
The religious identity of the school, in whatever form it may take, becomes an obstacle, and in some cases too big of an obstacle, to take on or clarify. In those cases, some may think, it is best to downplay, if not privatize altogether, this identity. It has become simply too difficult, too dangerous a thing to embrace. This response is perfectly understandable: if the religious identity of the school becomes a problem, at least in theory or as a result of focus group discussions, why not alleviate the problem?

I would maintain this is a big mistake, not to mention a missed opportunity, both for the school as well as the community it serves.

It is a mistake for the school, because it inhibits genuine dialogue about religious pluralism, something all of us need to be doing, particularly in our schools. Some may assume the opposite to be the case, but engaging in discussion about and understanding of the many and varied expressions of faith in our world today best comes from a standpoint, a frame of reference, a position of belief or conviction as opposed to a perceived absence of it. Religious vacuums are of little help in the much-needed encounter between religious traditions in our world. Better understanding of and healthy interaction between religious traditions can only begin when there is a place from which the discussion proceeds, and a well-articulated understanding of the religious identity of the school is a much more effective catalyst than a religious identity we are prone to sweep under the rug.

Moreover, viewing religious identity as an obstacle is of little value to the needs of our communities, as they are suffering more from an absence of dialogue about religious diversity than its presence. Each one of us could point to situations in our world today where we see the adverse effects of sidestepping or privatizing our religious views, where there is an absence of language and framework from which people of differing traditions can better understand each other. The result can often be that the vacuum is a fertile ground for religious intolerance and misunderstanding. No one is addressing the religious questions in a mature and confident manner, thus there is a green light for those who can manipulate them or play upon peoples’ suspicions.

Most of us have had this experience in one form or another: a family that comes from a differing and underrepresented religious tradition in the school challenges us to be more articulate, more open about our religious identity as a school. The parents explain that they sent their son or daughter to the school precisely because it had a religious tradition, albeit one different from their own. Why not celebrate that more, they ask us? Be clearer about that identity, not more equivocating. I suspect those prophetic voices know that it is easier for their son or daughter to learn more about his or her own religious tradition when there is a religious framework in the school, as opposed to the absence of a framework. These powerful and compelling voices join with the deep needs of our world today in calling us back to a serious re-engagement with our nature and mission as Episcopal schools.

That is not to say in any way that the task is easy, nor that a clear understanding of our religious identity as a school can come without abuse or misunderstanding. It does mean, I believe, that we should not automatically assume that the obstacle theory is the best way to prepare our children, in our schools, to be citizens of a wider and more complicated world. A clearer sense of where we start from, in this all-important task of learning from our religious differences, is a far better option than dismissing it as too difficult to maintain. Curiously enough, embracing the uniqueness of our mission as Episcopal schools is a more fruitful starting place for welcoming religious differences in our world than viewing that uniqueness as an obstacle!

1. Eboo Patel, Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 17.

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., is executive director of NAES.