Religious education matters

30 Jan 2024

Professor Mirjam Schambeck is the new Chair of Religious Pedagogy and Didactics of Religious Education.

Education designed to combat antisemitism is among Professor Mirjam Schambeck’s main research interests. “We’ve been shocked at how this topic has blindsided us, breaking out in our society in such dramatic fashion,” she says in respect of the Israel-Gaza war. As the new Chair of Religious Pedagogy and Didactics of Religious Education at LMU’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, she researches, among other things, how to equip school and university students, and particularly teachers, to recognize and address the various forms of antisemitism.

Schambeck studied Catholic theology, German philology, religious studies, and philosophy at the University of Regensburg, where she also completed her doctorate in dogmatics and the history of dogma. In 2005, she obtained a habilitation degree in religious pedagogy and didactics of religious education, also at the University of Regensburg. Since 2006, Schambeck has been Professor of Religious Pedagogy and Didactics of Religious Education, first at the University of Bamberg and then at the Ruhr University Bochum. Before coming to Munich in 2022, she was the Chair of Religious Pedagogy at the University of Freiburg for ten years.

After her studies, the Franciscan worked in Brazil and Bolivia, where she ministered to street children, did work in favelas, and lived with an Indigenous tribe in Bolivia. Back in Germany, she established a Franciscan youth club, was an advisor for adult education, and worked as a religion teacher at various kinds of schools.

Professor Miriam Schambeck in front of a bookshelf. She is wearing glasses and an orange costume.

Professor Miriam Schambeck

© LMU/LC Productions

Historical witnesses in virtual reality

Today, education aimed at addressing antisemitism is one of her principal research interests. “During an excursion to Auschwitz a few years ago, I had the impression that young people had taken on board the message of holocaust education,” says Schambeck. “Over the past few years, it’s become sadly all too apparent that I was mistaken. Our education, which is focused primarily on cognition, appears to be missing the mark. We must try to find learning opportunities that facilitate the immersive moment, which is to say, delving into other realities.” In addition, she thinks it is important to expand holocaust education to incorporate other dimensions. It must become clear “that Jewish life is a natural part of society in Germany.”

Together with LMU colleagues, she is in the process of “modeling education processes to tackle antisemitism that are actually able to effect changes in attitudes and behaviors.” In cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications (Heinrich Hertz Institute) and the Film University Babelsberg, the team is planning virtual reality (VR) assisted historical witness projects. “The idea is to design VR applications about Auschwitz such that schoolchildren and trainee teachers can immerse themselves in this subject without becoming overwhelmed,” says Schambeck. “One concept involves additional virtual rooms where people can retire to reflect.”

As an educationalist, Schambeck is also interested in the perspectives of Jewish teenagers. “And so we’ve planned a VR application in which a Jewish teenager shows her room – with the usual teeny posters, but also religious objects like a menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum used in Jewish worship.”

Faith-led instruction versus informational accounts

A second focus of Schambeck’s is on interreligious and interdenominational, ecumenical education. “What’s unique about LMU is that we have a Faculty of Protestant Theology and a Faculty of Catholic Theology alongside an Institute for Orthodox Theology,” she says. “Together, we want to equip trainee teachers to deliver lessons that foreground the commonalities of Christian faith while also taking into account the particularities of the different denominational styles.”

At a joint symposium between LMU and the University of Bamberg to be held in February, participants will discuss the future viability of religious education and how it can be oriented in the direction of interdenominational cooperation (konfessionell-kooperative Religionsunterricht). It is Schambeck’s hope for the future that religious education will not only embrace a Christian denominational cooperation model, but an interreligious cooperation model more broadly. In view of the plurality of religions in Germany, school students must be equipped to deal with this difference. This calls for religious education that allows students to encounter religions from the perspective of believers of that religion. “From a theological perspective, for example, Jews are the older siblings of Christians. And Muslims are the second-largest religious community in Germany.”

Another of Schambeck’s research interests is the future of religious education. “Whether religion classes should be faith-led as they traditionally have been – that is to say, taught from a certain religious standpoint – or based on the objective recounting of facts is a subject of hot debate in our society.” She herself advocates for the faith-led model. “In this way, you’re up front about your positions in these discourses, which is ultimately more democratic.” Fundamentally, Mirjam Schambeck considers religion to be an indispensable subject. “Even just in terms of talking about our deepest beliefs and convictions. Where else is there space for this in our schools?”

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