Temple, Synagogue, Church, Mosque

A comparative study of the pedagogy of sacred space

Kim de Wildt

Interviewer: And why is it important that students gain this knowledge of Islam? Why should they know this?

Mosque-pedagogue: Because there is a lot of rudimentary knowledge. Rudimentary in the meaning: the knowledge about Islam is reduced to the five most prominent religious practices. […] And of course, I for instance was asked the question, did you also hear; such questions: why do women pray in the back? Why do women wear headscarves? Well, to these, I would say, peripheral phenomena the Islam gets reduced and people do not know the complete picture, what does it mean to believe in God? What does this actually mean in Islam? […]

Interviewer: And you let the children assume these prayer positions.

Mosque-pedagogue: So that they can experience what it is. Because one sees it, and that is interesting. One sees this in other religions as well, that have also specific bodily postures. And I think, one should mimic that, so that they know, what do they do and what is it like when I stand there. The foreign becomes revoked because of this experience.

These interview abstracts are part of an interview I conducted with a female mosque-pedagogue after observing a guided tour in a mosque with a class of school pupils in the city of Bonn. These abstracts make insightful that the pedagogue has diverse aims and because of this initiates these mosque tours and that these aims influence her choice of themes and methods. This is usually the case with regard to all sacred space guides, or sacred space pedagogues, but their aims differ greatly between the diverse confessions and religions. One of the grounds for these differences is the fact whether or not the religion in question is a majority or minority religion.

In this paper I would like to provide some insight in the world of sacred space pedagogy, on the basis of some examples, in order to clarify the diversity of forms and contents and the underlying aims. In our religious and cultural heterogenic German society there are, besides the long practice of church pedagogy, increasingly more initiatives of other religious communities in Germany, who want to open their religious buildings to the wider public. In order to understand our contemporary culture, not only knowledge about our Christian-Jewish heritage is needed, but also knowledge about the religious transformations in society. That our society is in a long ongoing transformation process becomes exemplary visible when one for instance looks at sacred spaces. Whereas once these were the Christian centres of our communities, in our current society the topography of sacred space has altered drastically. The meaning that sacred spaces once represented drastically changed for contemporary people. Sacred spaces no longer are the concrete and spiritual centre of life, but become more and more peripheral phenomena. Despite this fact religion still remains a matter of interest: non-Christian sacred spaces, such as mosques, spring up in the cityscape. This is not uncontroversial: the demolition of Christian churches as well as the erection of mosques is often accompanied with extreme societal emotions. In these cases sacred space pedagogy could provide a meaningful contribution to tolerance and respect among religions. The bodily experience of Christian and non-Christian sacred space does not only increase our understanding of religion, its status and meaning to us as citizens in our society; experiencing sacred spaces can enhance our understanding of our societal culture as a whole. Sacred space pedagogy can enhance this understanding of our culture as a religiously plural culture in which the religious traditions in her built diversity can function as a key to our culture. Current scholarly knowledge does not speak of dechristianization of society but more often of religious transformation. Sacred space pedagogy makes this transformation a bodily and concrete experience, because it takes this religious plurality into account.

There is little scholarly literature on what actually happens during these non-Christian sacred space tours and which goals are pursued. Because of this I have been, for some time now, conducting a comparative study in the practice of sacred space pedagogy at the seminar of liturgical science at the University of Bonn. This project is based on sacred space tours with school pupils in the houses of worship of different religious communities in North Rhine-Westphalia. The basic assumption of this study is that sacred space pedagogy can provide religious education in our multicultural society in an experiential way, because it not only focuses on the transfer of knowledge of non-Christian religions and in this sense can provide an important societal contribution to societal cohesion.

As already stated several questions are examined in this project in order to gain insight into the field of sacred space pedagogy. Firstly, by means of participant observation I try to examine what actually takes place during the different sacred space tours. Which forms and methods are used by the sacred space pedagogues? And which beliefs are discussed during a sacred space tour? The aim is to find out which differences and similarities can be identified, for example in a sacred space tour in a Hindu temple or in a mosque. Furthermore, it will be addressed what the focus is of this pedagogical approach: the student, or the sacred space? Does the sacred space pedagogue for instance mainly focus on architectural knowledge, such as the style of the building or the building's history? Or is the focus more on the learning process of the student with questions like: How do you experience this space? Or with methods such as practicing certain prayer postures? Secondly, by means of interviewing the sacred space pedagogues, it will be analysed what motivations, goals and expectations they have: Why do they do this work? What do they hope to achieve? And last but not least: How is this achieved?

Until now, in 2013 and 2014, four observations took place: one in a Catholic church, one in a Hindu temple, one in a synagogue and one in a mosque. The church tour in the Bonn Minster church was carried out by two female church pedagogues, two teachers were present and 30 students of a Catholic secondary school for boys. The group was divided into two groups and each group was accompanied by a church pedagogue. In the Dortmund Hindu temple there was a male temple guide and a female temple guide, three teachers and three classes of a secondary school. Again, the students were divided into two groups and each group was accompanied by a temple guide. In the Cologne synagogue there was a synagogue guide, a class teacher and 35 students of a secondary school. In the mosque in Bonn there was a mosque pedagogue, a class teacher and 25 students of a comprehensive school. Following the observations I conducted about an hour and a half lasting interview with the sacred space pedagogues.

After a detailed comparison between the observations I noticed that the sacred space pedagogues all made use of a wide range of different methods. In this restricted space I cannot discuss all the elements of the individual observations, but I will describe a few examples below.

The first results of this study show that a whole range of various methods could be observed. In the Hindu temple, the approach was very knowledge driven: almost every altar, its resident deity, as well as the associated symbols were explained in great detail. Thus, the guide was very graphic, but a real experiential exploration hardly took place because the class just listened. Also, a lot of details about the temple architecture were explained. At the church tour, however, one can really speak of an exploration: for instance a threshold ritual took place; each student individually rang a bell, and following this, entered the church. Before, they were instructed to remember what they first noticed upon entering the inside of the church. The mosque tour can also be described as an exploration: here the students became acquainted with the prayer room by exploring the room on their own along with a work task: filling in a gap in the text on the topics of mosque architecture and prayer. Also, the body was very much involved when the students were invited to mimic the Islamic prayer postures. The synagogue guide also conveyed a lot of information, but this was on the basis of the questions the students themselves asked.

The interviews partially confirmed the observations, but also partly refuted them. Firstly, the various reasons why the sacred space pedagogues do the work they do stand out. The church pedagogues consider their work as a way to bring students (again) in contact to their faith. The church pedagogical approach can thus be regarded as an approach which starts from an intra-Christian perspective. This was also evident during the observation: the students participated in ritual-liturgical actions such as the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, which can be classified as a mono-religious act. The non-Christian sacred space pedagogues do this work in order to make the majority society more aware of the minority in order to overcome prejudices. In the mosque tour an interfaith perspective was noticeable, when the students mimicked the physical way of prayer, so that they themselves could physically experience these prayer positions. During the synagogue tour as well as during the temple tour the respective religious traditions were compared to Christianity in order to illustrate the religion under consideration: so here a more multi-religious perspective was adopted.

In all of the four interviews, the sacred space pedagogues stated that their goal was not only the transfer of knowledge, but also formation: they do not only want to work on the cognitive level, but also want to challenge the emotional and the experiential level of the student. Moreover, there was a concern to make the experience interactive and not like a purely academic lecture. Despite this holistic aim, this aim was not always, except in the church and in the mosque, optimally achieved. The applicable methodology in a sacred space exploration should be focused on the sacred space itself, as well as on the students and the relationship between these two, because space is not something given, but will ultimately always be determined by this interaction, the lived relationship between people and space.

Initiating affective and holistic methods is not always easy. In the interviews, a hesitance was present and I was constantly made clear that one did not wish to proselytize. When one for example prays with a religiously diverse group of students this could, understandably, lead to rejection. Nevertheless, it is possible to make use of for instance interreligious methods or learning with all the senses, so that the learning experience is not simply imparting knowledge, without wanting to convert pupils. Successful religious education is increasingly hampered by the fact that fewer and fewer adolescents themselves have made first hand experiences with religion. In order to really understand what religion in relation to the own identity means and what it represents in today's multi-religious society, it is necessary to be able to make first hand experiences with religion. Sacred space pedagogy can be understood in this regard as 'best practice' because it enables this experiential and holistic form of religious formation. The latest scientific evidence suggests that learning processes are stimulated in rich, authentic learning environments. These authentic learning environments allow for learning with all the senses as well as learning with ,head, heart and hand’. Sacred spaces of the diverse religious traditions in our society are outstanding examples of such rich and authentic learning environments. Despite the increasing virtualization of space, which can be understood as an enhancement and added value in almost all human areas, the bodily experience in a concrete space, and especially in a sacred space, enables these forms of education and can thus provide a contribution to mutual respect.

This project is not finished yet: Observations of sacred spaces and interviews with sacred space pedagogues of other denominations and religions need to take place. One of the objectives of this project is to provide a guide for sacred space pedagogues that offers accessible and practical in-depth knowledge, as well as holistic and experiential methods for a student-oriented sacred space exploration.

Artikelnachweis: https://www.theomag.de/94/kdw4.htm
© Kim de Wildt, 2015