Why conversation matters

Whilst on holiday earlier this month I read The Naked Diplomat by Tom Fletcher (2017).  In this book, Fletcher considers how we (all of us) can survive and thrive in the 21st century and advocates what he calls ‘citizen diplomacy’. This resonated with me, because of his emphasis on conversation (2017, p.266). He argues that everyone will


need to be a diplomat and that our education system should enable young people to think about how humanity has managed to find ways to coexist.

Although Fletcher does not mention RE in his book, the role that the subject can play in promoting this citizen diplomacy seems undeniable. Being able to live together and co-exist means understanding one another amidst diverse and sometimes competing beliefs, traditions and ideologies.  Having conversations Fletcher argues, is as, if not more, important than action (2017, p. 266).

I am currently working with the following definition of religious literacy which maintains that:

Being religiously literate is about being able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religion and belief  (See for example, http://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/REThinking-RE-A-Midrash-June-2016.pdf)

Some in the RE community have criticised the use of the term ‘conversation’, but in light of my reading of Fletcher’s work, I believe even more strongly that this is the correct term to use when we are defining what it means to be religiously literate. Conversations it seems to me are key to being able to co-exist. They are essential in diplomacy, they allow us to learn from one another, to share one another’s stories, to listen and also be heard. Conversations are about exchange of ideas; conversations can be deep; conversations are made, we have to work at them. This is all part of what it means to be in an RE classroom.

The etymology of the word conversation shows its roots in terms of living among others. It comes from the Latin conversari, or ‘keeping company with’. There is a sense of longevity, of developing a relationship. Becoming religiously literate takes time and can’t be rushed, it is about developing deep understanding of others.

So, let’s have more conversation.

I highly recommend reading Fletcher’s book. He brings together personal insight and professional wisdom, in an often humorous way.

You can also follow Tom Fletcher on Twitter: @TFletcher

Tom’s website is available here: http://tomfletcher.global

Fletcher, T. (2017) The Naked Diplomat. London: William Collins




Encountering Others: An alternative perspective

My blog site is called Continually Learning, and this summer I have been doing a lot of learning! I’ve been reflecting on what it means to encounter others. Encountering others is a theme in my soon to be submitted PhD so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this for some time (well seven years!). However, this perspective is a little different.

We were lucky enough to go to Borneo for a three-week holiday. As part of this holiday we spent two nights in Iban Longhouses in Sarawak. When we booked the holiday, we had the option of visiting a longhouse for a morning, but decided we wanted to really experience life amongst the Iban people so opted to stay in a very traditional longhouse overnight, camp in the jungle and then stay in modern longhouse for a third night. It surprised us that very few people opt to do this. It used to be fairly popular, in the past backpackers would just turn up at longhouses and be welcomed and provided with a bed for the night. This is rare today, in fact our guides had not led the experience we opted for, for three years.


The Traditional Iban Longhouse we stayed in.

So why was this encounter so special?

Firstly, we were welcomed into the heart of the Iban home.

We cooked in their kitchen, we ate at their table, we slept in their lounge. In the second longhouse in particular we had got to know the tribesman as he had been one of our boatman as we travelled into the jungle. He opened his home to us, we drank rice wine with his family, we prepared food and shared stories. However, this sense of welcome is for all. We saw people from different families continually going in and out of each other’s homes. There was a sense of shared community space, and less a sense of individual ownership.


Our youngest son prepares very long beans at the second longhouse


Our son, Samuel, helps cook dinner


Sleeping quarters in the second longhouse

Secondly, there was a sense of mutual learning i.e. learning from one another.

From our perspective, we were there to experience Iban life, to learn about their culture. We learnt a lot about growing and drying pepper, about traditional crafts, about education and so on. However, we also felt that the Iban people wanted to learn from us. They wanted to know why we had chosen to stay with them, they were interested in our two boys and their education in particular. We became more than just observers, we began to have conversation (if through a translator!) We tried hard to understand one another, and our lives are the richer for it.


The second modern longhouse


A family group eating together and sharing their day in the communal space.

So, if you ever travel to Borneo, stay in a Longhouse. Experience the real, true hospitality of these wonderful Iban communities. And yes, I think we can learn much from this for RE in our schools too.

Do we really encounter others’ beliefs and traditions so that we feel we are sitting in the heart of their home?

When we study religion and belief do we anticipate a sense of mutual learning, or are we just ‘observers’?

These, and many other questions, are ones I hope my PhD thesis begins to address.