a hermeneutical-communicative concept of teaching religion

Herman Lombaerts*
1. State of the art
Through international contacts and professional
visits, it is remarkable that in European universities
(Birmingham: J. Hull; Essen: R. Englert; LouvainLa-Neuve: B. Wiame; Rome: F. Pajer; Nijmegen:
van der Ven, A. de Jong, J. Janssen; Paderborn: N.
Mette; Munster: Comenius-institut, C.H. Scheilke,
D. Fischer; Tubingen: F. Schweitzer; Frankfurt:
H.G. Heimbrock) just as in Australian universities
(Catholic University of Australia, Sydney: G.
Rossiter, P. Malone) and American universities (St.
John's University: M. Warren; New York
University: G. Moran) an analogous diagnosis is
presented regarding the impasse wherein the
teaching of religion and philosophies of life now
find themselves at present. In a similar way, the
changing relationship of society and religion
(implications of the separation between church and
state), and of philosophies of life in general, is
invoked as a decisive factor for the development of
a new system of learning for the subject religion.
The relevant studies in relationship to this topic are
summarised around three pivotal points:
1. The juridicial, ecclesial and pedagogical status
of religion as a subject in secondary schools
and its legitimation;
2. Students as subject of the learning process and
their active involvement in the planning of the
3. The hermeneutic-communicative model as the
main hypothesis for research in this area.
Status and Legitimation of Religion as a
Subject in Secondary Schools and Higher
At the end of this millennium, the societal
discourse of religion as a subject of the curriculum
has flared up fervently. To legitimise the course,
its organisers no longer can appeal to the same
arguments of the past. In today's contemporary
society religion no longer has a generally
acknowledged over-arching function. F. Pajer
(1991) has gathered from 25 countries thorough
and nearly comprehensive information on the
situation of religion as a subject in schools in
Europe. He has brought together comparatively
the notable differences and was able to develop a
structural analysis therefrom. In his prognosis he
states that the course will slowly outgrow a monoconfessional status so it could organise itself with
regard to inter-religious dialogue and the
confrontation with non-Christian religions and areligious philosophies of life (Pajer, 1993).
1.2 Students as Subjects of Religious Instruction
The recent developments in Practical Theology and
religious education theories assign a central place
to the subject of the learning process.
promoting the person as a whole, young people are
able to acquire a personal competence on matters
such as religion and philosophies of life (Mette,
1994, pp. 156-177; Lott, 1997). In that sense, the
learning subject can test the plausibility of religious
articulations on the basis of one's personal reality.
This option is associated with the idea of
Modernity and forms a key concept in the modern
pedagogical frameworks of J. Dewey, G. A. Coe, in
the USA, of Decroly, Claparède, Ferrière and
others in Europe (Schweitzer, 1995). The recent
fragmentation and individuation have accelerated
the need to concentrate on the subject  in
dialogue-with-others, with all the obvious risks
involved (Beck, 1992). The full consequences of
this orientation are, for the moment, not, or
insufficiently integrated in the teaching of religion
and the education of the young (Roebben, 1996).
This is apparent from, among others, the search for
identity and, linked to that, the survival strategies
like fundamentalism (Keupp, 1997), occultism
(Streib, 1996) and syncretism (Drehsen, 1993).
Although, from the point of view of theology this
shift can be clearly found in the texts of Vatican Il:
the believer him/herself is given a wider space and
responsibility to value the faith tradition and to
further develop its significance (Wiederkehr,
1994). The idea of the self-conscious subject in
Modernity, namely the self-determination of one's
destiny, maturity, the power to decide for oneself,
the responsible use of freedom and independent
judgement are likewise made to bear on the beingsubject of believers within the church. At this, we
emphasise that the experience of contemporary
society is a constitutive element of the becomingsubject and for the development of the qualities
related thereto within the faith tradition. It is
therefore from this thesis that the need for an
“hermeneutics of experience” arises (PemselMaier, 1994).
1.3 The Hermeneutic-Communicative Model
In hermeneutics, one deals with the understanding
of the meaning and significance that verbal and
non-verbal actions have as meaning for people.
Gadamer’s influence on the development of
hermeneutics, with the so-called 'hermeneutic
circle', is already well-known. From a theological
point of view, Schillebeeckx puts the emphasis on
the hermeneutics of experience.
This should
precede the hermeneutics of tradition.
hermeneutical question is especially involved in the
relationship between theory and praxis. The
perspective towards the future, characteristic of the
faith, breaks through Gadamer’s hermeneutic
In the theory of teaching religion, hermeneutics
was initially integrated as textual hermeneutics: to
understand ancient texts from within their contexts
and drawing them into our present context. In this,
it was deemed possible to make the meaning of
biblical texts accessible for our times and to reverse
the impasse that has arisen. Teaching religion then
became 'teaching as explanation', as the 'actualising
interpretation of ancient texts in the society and the
existential life context' (Zwergel, 1995). Ricoeur
likewise concentrates on textual hermeneutics, but
he drew in especially the metaphorical dimension
that lies enclosed in texts. Ricoeur refers to the
dialectics of alienation by taking distance and to
the experience of alliance (solidarity). Reflection
is an interpretation of reality by means of a
mediation (in contrast to a philosophy of the
immediate). A renewed hermeneutics arises from
the interpretation of symbols, thanks to an
encompassing communication. Some experts in
religious education make use of the most recent
publications of Ricoeur in order to give shape to
the hermeneutic-communicative model (van der
Ven, 1998; H. Streib, 1998).
The 'didactics of correlation' seems to have ended
in an impasse (Englert, 1993).
Young people
today no longer know the Christian tradition; in
consequence, they can no longer “correlate” it with
the human experience; hence, the didactics of
correlation has become irrelevant. If 'didactics of
correlation' were an hermeneutic category and not a
didactic procedure, then this diagnosis wouId be
attributed to a didactic interpretation of
'hermeneutics'. A certain misunderstanding lies in
the 'interpretation' of what young people today
really know, in contrast to what they are presumed
to know (Boschki, 1998).
Does religious
education theory really take to heart the human
situation? Do we know how young people and
children build up their religious reality (or
philosophy of life)? Do educators work perhaps
with too restricted models in order to interrelate
experience and faith tradition to each other? Is
tradition dealt with too hastily?
In this line of thought, a different research tradition
has developed gradually in the religious education
theories. As already mentioned, Catholicism has
intentionally integrated the (modern) idea of the
subject and acknowledged the determining
influence of the experience of contemporary
society for the believing identity.
Protestant experts in religious education state that
the work of interpretation concerning the faith
tradition is to be linked with the work of
interpretation by the students themselves about
aspects of religion and philosophies of life
(Schweitzer, 1991 & 1995). This work of
interpretation (whether made explicit or not) by the
students is a key concept of the learning process.
Within the communication of the class group, a
group discourse arises about being involved in
religious faith attitude (the manner in which
utterances of different students connect to each
other and represent a group rhetoric). Here,
‘hermeneutics' acquires a broader meaning. Every
student, every educator, every believer, every
group or every faith community develops a specific
hermeneuticcommunicative model, the manner in which
students deal with faith is a matter of a reflexive
learning process (meta-reflection) and a condition
for a 'process of appropriation' (reception). With
this a form of faith or religion is meant that, due to
a 'personal thematisation' students take on an
independent stand in comparison to the interests of
a factual transmission of religious traditions, and
even precedes it (Gossmann, 1993). In this selfthematisation, young people are not so much
interested in the understanding of religious or
Christian 'realia' than in the world that surrounds
them and the concrete experience of their lived
relationship to that environment. This environment
thus also contains the 'everyday' religion; that is,
meanings that the subject develops for oneself.
This author pleads for an hermeneutics of
appropriation instead of an hermeneutics of
transmission. This shift creates new opportunities
for putting the personally developed meanings in
confrontation with the historical tradition and its
cultural diversity as a condition for learning to
internalise a documented and argued standpoint.
Both the theoretical as well as the empirical study
of the hermeneutic model enjoy a growing interest
in the entire field of Practical Theology and of the
theory of teaching religion. In this sense,
Schwetizer speaks of an hermeneutical educational
theory. The subjective identity of the learner, the
choice of 'plausible learning contents', of
'successful learning', all take a central place in this
perspective. The daily life of the target group,
their presuppositions as regards the interpretation
of (aspects of) religion and philosophies of life, on
Journal of Religious Education 48 (4) 2000 3
the one hand, and the contextually bound
successful learning, on the other, need to be drawn
in with each other (Schweitzer, 1997).
2. Contributions to Recent Developments in the
Recent starting points for this perspective are
related to the influence of society upon the
reception of religious traditions by young people
(Lombaerts & Boeve, 1996), the development of a
religious educational model for a self-directed
professional formation of teachers of religion
(Lombaerts & Roebben, 1998) and the possibility
of making religious contents accessible in today's
context (De Mey & Roebben, 1997).
development of a religious education concept with
a focus upon the class group and the development
of learning processes in connection with the
personal positions of students are at present
experimentally introduced via the website godinet
[http://www.kuleuven.ac.be/godinet] (Lombaerts,
Roebben, Ginneberge, 1998).
H. Lombaerts' (1995 & 1998) action-research 
inspired by systems thinking  on school policy
and on the development of the confessional identity
of schools and of religious education has
demonstrated that the set-up of schools with regard
to their societal environment is a determining factor
when drawing up a confessionally inspired school
policy and when drawing up a new concept of
religious education.
The research of B. Roebben (1995) on moral
education among young people can also be linked
to their formation in terms of religions and
philosophy of life (Roebben, 1996 & 1997) and to
their critical initiation into faith communities
(Roebben, 1999). In his doctoral dissertation, B.
Roebben argues for a comprehensive approach to
moral education whereby special attention goes to
stimulating the moral personal consciousness of the
adolescent who must (learn to) make responsible
choices in a complex context of individualisation
and pluralisation (Roebben, 1998a). Young people
understand themselves particularly as authors of
their own moral and religious biography and they
want to question religious traditions as regards their
plausibility and legitimacy (Roebben, 1998b).
Research in this perspective intends to concentrate
on the need to re-construct young people's ability to
receive religious traditions in a personal way, also
geared towards narrative and interreligious
dialogue. These are two areas for special attention
in the recent developments in religious education
theories and Practical Theology.
More in particular, there is need to investigate what
the recognition of the learners as subjects, and the
mutual involvement of learners and educators will
entail. Moreover, the concept of learning contents
should be re-thought out of an encompassing
theory of learning, in connection to the
developments within the cognitive structuring
theory of learning and the concept of a strong
learning environment. In this regard, the concepts
‘plausible learning contents' and 'hermeneutics of
educational processes' demand critical clarification.
A religious education theory of successful learning
of religion and philosophies of life should strongly
be imbedded in the contextual realities of both
learners and educators. Moreover, the integration
of religion as a school discipline in the evolution of
schools today demands special attention. Through
a changing politics of school education, the
restructuring of the institutional framework of
education and the professionalisation of both
education as well as of school policy, a new
negotiation presents itself to all those involved in
order to integrate the model for the theory of
teaching religion in the present school and its
involvement in macro-society. More specifically
and in connection with the theoretical study, the
following hypotheses need to be tested:
3. Proposal.
3. 1 Goals
The project primarily poses three central goals:
to develop a fundamental theoretical model for
the theory of teaching religion, identified as an
hermeneutic-communicative model, that is
linked to contemporary macro-societal
developments. This first goal seeks to answer
the question: which theoretical model in the
field of teaching religion can sufficiently
respond to the contemporary challenges?
to describe accurately the conditions and the
limitations of this model on the basis of an
empirical investigation on the group discourse
of class groups and its management in a group
centred learning process. This second goal
aims to answer the question: which conditions
and limitations are to be respected in order to
introduce this model into the institution of the
to set-up a fundamental scientific foundation
for the theory of teaching religion in local
settings and to provide an original contribution
to the international discussion of this
the 'group discourse' regarding religion,
philosophy of life, values and lifestyle is
clearly recognisable in the present class group
for the subject religion in secondary education
and in higher education;
a strongly developed culture of dialogue and
communication in the religion teacher and a
competency for authentic communication
among the learners are attainable in the present
circumstances wherein religious education
takes place;
the acknowledgement of the dialectic character
of the so-called 'group discourse' guarantees
that relevant learning contents can be
identified in order to realise a meaningful
hermeneutic learning process for the students;
the hermeneutic-communicative model for the
theory of teaching religion is situated in a
mutual dependence between the school culture
and the learning environment that goes along
with it.
The final report aims to include:
 the description of a systematic and
theoretically well founded model for the theory
of teaching religion that, on the one hand, goes
beyond the loss of function of current models
at present and, on the other, integrates
critically the recent theoretical innovations;
a detailed account of the empirical
investigation which indicates to what extent
the theoretical starting points of the
justifiable and delineates which conditions and
limitations are imposed upon the model by the
macro, meso- and micro-social context to
which it is intended.
the development of initiatives for further
research and the description of the logical
conclusions in terms of policy and the
implementation of the designed model for the
theory of teaching religion in schools. The
delineation of attainable goals and the possible
evaluation of achievable results can play an
important role here.
The point of interest of this project is new, namely
the development of a fundamental theoretical
model for the teaching of religion in schools that
situates the generation of the plausible, relevant
learning contents concerning a theme on religion or
philosophy of life in a group discourse, and offers a
theoretical framework for developing, in
connection to it, an hermeneutical learning process.
For the learners, the conceptual model for the
theory of teaching religion means creating
favourable and efficient learning situations in
relation to the present context. The hermeneuticcommunicative model draws in the macro-societal
changes and the micro-processes together in the
class room. The socio-cultural network which
young people are taken up in their families, with
their peers, and in society lies at the basis of
differences of interpretation and conflicting
standpoints regarding themes on religion and
philosophies of life that are made available in the
school situation. By recognising the class group as
learning group, the learning process situates itself
in the first place within a social interaction.
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*Professor Herman Lombaerts is a member of
the theology faculty at the University of
Leuven, Belgium He enjoys an international
reputation as a scholar in religious education
Contemporary Issues for Australian Religious Education
Dr Maurice Ryan, Editor
Senior Lecturer, Australian Catholic University  Qld
Contributing authors include:
Sandra Carroll, Marian de Souza, Dan Donovan,
Barry Dwyer, Kathleen Engebretson, Graham English,
Joe Fleming, Peta Goldburg, Chris Harris,
Kevin Lawlor, Terence Lovat, Gabriel Moran,
Graham Rossiter, Maurice Ryan, Kevin Treston,
Anne Tuohy and Louise Welbourne
This book brings together a number of leading Australian religious educators to present their research and
reflections on the present state of religious education in Australia. The book provides scholars and
practitioners in schools, parishes, diocesan offices and universities with a rich selection of material with
which to further their work. A broad range of interests has been surveyed in this collection. A number of
contributors reflect on issues of schooling and classroom curriculum. In addition, specific chapters focus
on parish and family religious education. Attention has been given to historical topics in addition to
current research on spiritual development among young people and adults. As well as a concentration on
the context of Australian religious education, a chapter by Gabriel Moran offers an international perspective
on issues raised by the various authors.
As a whole, this book provides a comprehensive, focused and contemporary rendering of Australian
religious education. Readers will find ample resources for guiding policy formulation, further
research projects and the practice of religious education in the home, school and parish.
Available February 2001
Phone 02 4782 2909
PO Box 624
Fax 02 4782 5303
Katoomba 2780
Email socsci@ozemail.com.au
240 pages, 240x150mm, ISBN 1876633220 , Softcover, Price $38.50 Include GST
Journal of Religious Education 48 (4) 2000 7