Often in a Friends school classroom, “the majority of people in the room are not Quaker, and there is no expectation that they should be.” But as Tom Hoopes of George School says, the Quaker ethos is present in the conversation.
I am very clear in a public context that I never say, “I teach religion,” because I have learned in my life that that’s a conversation stopper. For most people that I encounter in the United States of America, they hear that as, “I participate in indoctrinating people in the correct way to think in terms of the cosmology or the metanarratives of religious philosophy.” It couldn’t be further from the truth at a Friends school. That is not what we do. In fact, when I say to people, “I teach religions,” they say, “Oh wow, that sounds cool!” I’ve heard people say when I say I teach world religions, they say, “Oh that was my favorite subject in college, I loved that,” and it’s a conversation opener. And that’s what we’re doing at Friends schools, we’re opening the conversation, we’re not closing it.
Teaching Religion in a Friends School
I’m Tom Hoopes. I am a member of Valley Meeting in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I teach at George School, a Quaker international boarding school, and this is the George School meetinghouse.
For me as a teacher, my goal is to create an energized, safe space for students to get in touch with their own ideas but to encounter the ideas of other people in the room and other people from other times and other spaces, either through a text or through the internet or some other device that I share and I want them to be alive in the present with what’s real for them.
The Quaker Ethos
Quakerism is a wonderful container to have conversations around the edges. I often say that Quakerism is a great religion for people who are entering religion for the first time or for people who are leaving religion.
So we have a lot of people who are excited about Quakerism because they’ve thought of themselves as agnostics or atheists and then they encounter this tradition that permits that possibility but also invites exploration of the mysterious and doesn’t block out experiences of transformational or paranormal possibilities.
And then there are other people who have come from very doctrinal or creedal religions and they have felt oppressed or controlled by those traditions and Quakerism gives them freedom. Great, welcome!
So we have a tremendous mix within our community, and that’s a mix that we also have in our classrooms because at Friends schools, the majority of people in the room are not Quaker, and there is no expectation that they should be—and more often than not, the teacher is not Quaker either. So what we’re doing is we’re having a conversation that is possible because of the Quaker ethos of acceptance, tolerance, universality, and openness to the unknown.
Creating Safe, Discursive Space
This is not a situation where there’s a catechism or a planned method of instruction so that you get the right answers or the right information. It’s quite opposite, actually. What we are doing at a Friends school is we are creating safe, discursive space for people to ask into the sublime, into the mystical, into the beautiful, into the mysterious. And it turns out that everyone has had that experience. We’ve all had dreams. Are dreams real? Are dreams religious? Are some dreams religious? Are no dreams religious? In fact, what does it mean to be a person who is in touch with a dimension of reality that we can’t measure or see? It means to be fully alive, so let’s talk about that.
Exploring Our Identities
And at the same time, I am very happy bringing in the language of scientific cosmology and what some people call atheism because that belongs in the room as well. So when I tell them that when I was young, I identified as both Quaker and atheist, I see their eyes get wide, like, “Oh that’s a thing? Like, I’m allowed to be that?” Sure! What are you, what’s your truth?
And then suddenly I hear a polyphony of different identities around the room and suddenly now we’re talking, because, “Well I’m Jewish and Christian?” Well, theologically speaking, how can you be both? Well it doesn’t matter, let’s not interrogate that question. Let’s honor that that’s your truth and let’s talk about what that means to you. Which stories speak to you? Which parts of those traditions have meaning for you personally, and why is it important that you honor both of those traditions when you were asked what religion are you? And let’s welcome all of that and stumble forward.
Learning from Rich Traditions about Our Own Experience
I want students to leave my class saying “That was fun!,” because it is fun actually. It’s fun to realize that you are having some dimension of reality that you know is true validated by somebody else and then you find out that there are rich traditions that offer different narratives, different names, different colors, different stories, different energies to exactly the stories that you personally have had. Wow, that’s cool! Now turn to the person next to you and talk about your experience and listen to their experience and notice if there are similarities or differences.
And now let’s come back to what we were talking about. Maybe we have a text from the Bhagavad Gita that says something really profound from a couple thousand years ago, and now let’s look at the Gospel of John, or the Gospel of Thomas even! Or maybe we’ll look at something from Deuteronomy and say, “How does this compare to your dream? What do you love?”