Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Religion Returns to Russia's Public Schools

After years of government sanctioned atheism, religion again returns to the public sector in Russia. And this time it is the public school system. How life has changed in the nearly two decades since the collapse of the old Soviet Union.

With roughly half to two-thirds of Russians identifying themselves with the Orthodox faith, one should not be surprised to find this faith at the forefront of the effort to reintroduce religious instruction into the new curriculum. However, it is not without some adjustment. Clifford J. Levy in the New York Times writes:

The new curriculum reflects the nation's continuing struggle to define what it means to be Russian in the post-communistic era and what role religion should play after being brutally suppressed under Soviet rule. Yet the drive by a revitalized church to weave its tenets into the educational system has prompted a backlash, and not only from the remains of the Communist party.

The new emphasis on religion in the schools comes largely at the urging of church leaders. They claim that after years of the enforced atheism of communism, Russians are out of touch "with a faith that was once at the core of their identity." However, the courses, these leaders insist, are not so much religious as cultural.

Opponents, though, raise concerns of what impact this new instruction is having on the constitutional separation of church and state. They see the efforts as proselytizing for members, not instructing in the humanities.

In many ways this has the ring of deja vu for any American who has heard years of similar rhetoric from those who are unsettled even by seeing a child or teacher pray in a classroom, or by Bible study groups independent of the daily instruction. Opponents point out that Russia is a multi-ethnic, pluralistic nation and they are fearful of alienating the large Muslim minority (10-15%).

Levy then writes: "The dispute came to a head recently when 10 prominent Russian scientists, including two Nobel laureates sent a letter to President Vladimir V. Putin, protesting what they term the 'growing clericalization' of Russian society." Interesting how their reaction was not just to the presence of religion in the schools, but in society as a whole.

All this is familiar ground to those of us in the U.S. who 'enjoy' a radical separation of church and state contrary to the intents of our nation's founders, who only wished to avoid a state-sponsored religion. Admittedly it is difficult to integrate religion into a secular public school curriculum, although there are text books that are written for that purpose. Unfortunately, in attempting to avoid all references to religion, especially in history, we rob our children of a true view of the past.

Russian leaders would do well to remember their past and not eliminate it from the instruction of their children. To understand Russian history, especially since 1000 AD, one must understand the mission and work of the Orthodox church. Yet as one who is not Orthodox, I understand the need to maintain the fine line between informing and proclaiming.

Perhaps the Orthodox church realizes a weakness in its own catechesis. While the liturgy is beautiful and was responsible for sustaining the church in those oppressive times, formal instruction of the young and old alike outside of the liturgy has never seemed to be an emphasis of the Orthodox. Maybe they need to reexamine this weakness, and begin to teach again.

To do so, however, will require a different way of thinking. The State is not responsible for providing the place and opportunity to teach the Faith. They once enjoyed such privilege under the czars. And then with a whole generation of being underground, the Word was largely silent from the public square. They must re-evangelize the country and learn, like the Lutheran forefathers of our church, that a new model is sometimes needed.

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