It is well recognized that religious leaders and religious communities throughout the world can play a very important role in influencing the values and behaviors of their constituencies. We see more and more initiatives among religious communities to address together issues of global concern.
One such example is the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC), established by the Arigatou Foundation in May 2000. The GNRC is a network of religious organizations and people as well as of other organizations and individuals working for the well being of children around the world. The network was launched after long involvement of the Arigatou Foundation in child rights issues.
Ethics Education for Children is an initiative of this interfaith network to foster children’s moral and spiritual development in promoting value based and quality education for children and young people within the framework of the child's right to education as stated in the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
The Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children, established 2004, wants to promote interfaith learning and ethics education serving our communities and society with resources towards peaceful living, where respect for the other and dignity for all human beings are priorities and overarching concerns.
Anxious to further a genuine cooperation between people of different religions and cultures, the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children engaged a group of scholars, pedagogues and educators from different religious traditions as well as from secular traditions in different cultures to develop a resource kit for interfaith learning and ethics education, that would be useful in different cultures and educational settings.
In this group of people from different cultures, religions and convictions working together to develop a resource for interfaith learning and ethics education, we learned a lot from each other. We engaged in an interfaith and intercultural process ourselves using the methodology we are proposing for the resource kit. In fact, our own process of exposure, exchange and interaction is the most important example of the success of the methodology we want to promote for interfaith learning and ethics education. We came to appreciate our different traditions realizing that diversity enriches us. This thrust inspired the creation of the resource kit
We believe that an overall approach to the value of human dignity laid out in values relating to the other such as respect, empathy, responsibility and reconciliation will empower and strengthen the embracement of social values leading to a commitment to justice, human rights and building democratic relationships.
So, what is then the impact we are hoping for …..?
There is beauty and wonders in creation. Life is a miracle. Every human being has an enormous potential to enrich life and to make life a blessing for all. Yet, we also see a world developing that is increasingly in the grip of violence and war, poverty and injustice, alienation and loss of meaning of life.
Can our children be empowered to change this trend; to bring out and celebrate their innate ability for love and compassion; their intrinsic inclination towards justice and fairness? Can we, as people of different cultures and religions, work together to further ethical values in our children towards a just and peaceful tomorrow?
Since time immemorial religion and culture have been the vehicles to transmit values from one generation to the other. Religious traditions have been and continue to be the fiber that keeps us linked to the past, present in the here and now and open to the future. The education that is intrinsic to the very concept of religion and culture has sustained humankind and needs to do so also today and tomorrow. But our time is different. We live as Abraham Joshua Heschel said it in a time, where no religion is an island. This reality needs to inform the transmission of values as we find them in our religious and cultural traditions.
Another linked insight that we increasingly have come to realize is that education cannot be limited to a one-way transmission. Children are not only objects but are living their own life, where teachings every day are tested in a complex reality. Educating implies listening. We need to be attentive to the very concept of “educating” children. There is and has always been the temptation to try to mould the children in our own image, to pass on to them ‘our values’ as if they could all be contained and presented in a sealed box, to make the children become what we want them to be rather than allowing them to flower into what they already are and are about to be.
In one sense our children do ‘belong to’ us; we bring them into the world; they are in our care. Yet, we do not own them; they are individuals in their own right, ready to blossom into what they would become. Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet reminds us of this truth:
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, "Speak to us of Children."
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you,
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday ……
We are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, we are given the gift of children, they are in our care; we have the responsibility and the opportunity to accompany them as they grow into adulthood; if we do not pass on the values of life, they would look for them and might be given values that might not enhance their life positively. At the same time, we do not want to impose ‘values’ that curtail their freedom to engage life as they find it, learn from it, and to form their own values. This is a delicate task, and yet we owe it to them and the world that we take on this calling with a sense of accountability, discernment, and humility. For children too have a lot to teach us. “Unless you become like one of these little ones, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”, said Jesus to his disciples.
Religious traditions are intended to help in this process. However, religions are a complex reality. Much of the teachings in religious traditions are intended to inculcate and foster ethical and moral values in peoples’ lives. However, as sociological realities and established institutions, religious traditions sometimes function in ways that have contributed to the divisions in the world. Relationships between religious traditions have a history of mutual rivalry and alienation from one another. It seems that religious traditions are not per se equipped to integrate constructively religious plurality As a result some people question whether religious traditions indeed are the sources to which we can look to build ethical values in children. As religious people, we are faced with the challenge to take on board the reality of children today, which is an interfaith reality.
Therefore, learning processes within all religious traditions, especially in relation to children, need to pay attention to four dimensions of responsibility:
First, all religious traditions, while fostering the faith and values of their own community in their children, must ensure that they are taught and learned in ways that respect others, and the ‘otherness’ of others. A child that does not learn to relate to others who believe and act in different ways is ill equipped to live in a religiously and culturally plural world.
Second, religious traditions need to make conscious effort in their teaching practices to lift up the religious and cultural values in their tradition that promote openness, honesty and compassionate attitude to other human beings. These need to be instilled in children from very early age.
Third, while recognizing that religious traditions are different from one another, we also need to look for commonalities and overlapping values that would provide the basis for people to act together on common concerns. We need to teach and practice our faith in ways that demonstrate our common humanity and mutual inter-dependence with all others.
Fourth, today we also emphasize the concept of ‘inter-religious education’, learning not in isolation but in inter-relation with each other. Children not only need to know and appreciate their own faith but also need to have an informed understanding of what others believe, and the commonalities we share both as a human community and as those who struggle in different ways to deal with basic issues of life.
Life does not discriminate by culture or faith. Irrespective of which culture we come from or which faith we belong to we all share some common experiences – birth, death, joy, and pain. We all share the quest for answers to certain existential questions. In the face of these challenges, religious teachings seek to promote value-centered codes of ethics, and each tradition seeks to transmit these values and ethics through its religious instruction, interpreted into religious life.
The conviction that we can indeed affirm our common humanity and work towards common ideals in relationship to one another has been already demonstrated on several issues. This happens when groups of persons representing number of religions, cultures and value systems come together, locally or internationally, to put down together some of the common convictions that should guide the relationship of communities across all barriers.
The first moral document of this kind is the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This declaration, written more than 50 years ago has been used by many groups and countries around the world that are trying to live by its moral vision and trying to get others to live by it as well. It is important to recognize that the concept of ‘rights’ has also been developed in many ways. The idea of ‘basic needs,’ often defined as food, clothing and shelter, for instance, has been expanded to include survival, (which includes food, clothing, shelter etc,) but also well-being (physical, mental, cultural and spiritual), the right to identity, and the capacity and the freedom to choose.
The more recent “UN Convention on the Rights of the Child” has become the point of reference to all who seek to realize the rights of children. It seeks to protect the rights of the child in many ways. The commitment of working Towards a World fit for Children is placing child rights at the cutting edge of the global struggle for human rights, to be ensured as a matter of moral and legal obligation. It is therefore not surprising that the UN Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. In the years since the CRC was adopted, the world has seen some concrete results for children.
Another moral document is the more recent “Earth Charter.” The Earth Charter is directed to the moral rights of nature, and tries to guide human behavior in relation to nature. It is a synthesis of values, principles, and aspirations that are widely shared by growing numbers of men and women in all regions of the world. The principles of the Earth Charter are based upon contemporary science, international law, and the insights of philosophy and religion.
These are only examples of many other commonly agreed statements that have been made, locally and globally on many issues that affect our common life as a human community. When we think about children we should recognize the significant work that has already been done to enhance their lives by the UNICEF and UNESCO. Advocacy for children has a long and significant history.
The intention of the Interfaith Council in developing a methodology and pedagogy of ethics education is a contribution to the pledge of UNESCO member States in the Declaration of Principles of Tolerance and the recently adopted Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, with the intention to make citizens open to other cultures, respectful toward the other, and capable of resolving differences in a peaceful way, affirming that cultural diversity must be considered as a “common heritage of humanity”, and its “defense as an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity.”
In other words, we already have demonstrations that the human community can come together despite their differences to work towards common ethical and moral goals that would regulate, facilitate and inspire their life together in the paths of justice and peace.
Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children
13 December 2005