A radical response to NZ’s religious and cultural diversity


The idea of banning religious instruction and teaching world religions in New Zealand schools is unquestionably an overly-laboured topic today. This is true because religious schools have been teaching world religions for decades, and state schools in New Zealand have never taught religious instruction.

However, there may be an opportunity for New Zealand to step up its game with a more radical response to the nation’s religious and cultural diversity.

     Dr Christopher Longhurst

What if we introduced academic theology into all school curricula, to fulfill our nation’s commitment to teaching an understanding of different religions and cultures in a manner that reflects the diversity of our nation?

What if our schools were places for the study of theology as the intellectual core of the world’s major religions? What if this were done in a comparative way? And what if we looked at how religious messages can be responsibly and contextually communicated through the diverse cultures coexisting in faith-based communities localised at various places across the country?

This could be achieved by introducing two relatively new sub-branches of academic theology into our classrooms, namely, comparative theology and intercultural theology.

Arguably, these contextual theologies are relevant to current educational needs today more than ever because of New Zealand’s high religious diversity, small population, and absence of educational mechanisms in place for social cohesion within our religious and cultural diversity. They might even be able to achieve what our nation sought to do in its 2007 Diversity Action Programme. Good policies on paper are insufficient. Programmes enacting those policies are essential.

Here are some reasons why.

Robert Neville, American philosopher and theologian, in his ground-breaking lecture “Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?” (Harvard Divinity School, 2017), redefined theology as “the intellectual core of religion”. This courageous move has potentially expanded theology outside of faith-based contexts while respecting how its religious types – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, etc., and even non-theistic lifeways are rooted within specific faith-traditions.

Neville argued that any theology whatsoever ought to rest on a basis of comparative erudition. Taught today in classrooms of both state and faith-based schools, this kind of theology would enable students to acquire the ability to know and understand diverse theological beliefs and religious viewpoints. It would produce people who knew what is believed prescinding believing those beliefs. Therefore, it would enable students to accept, or at least respect, the theological differences, and appreciate the similarities amongst the world’s religions. It would also enable them to grasp the truth claims of any faith-content on its own merits.

This is true because, in comparative theology, what is being compared is not the religions, but theological ideas across religious borders. In other words, the subject matter of comparative theology is theological concepts that fall under comparative categories. Neville argues that the judicious use of such categories enables comparisons to be made in such a way that respects the integrity and diversity of all religions, even when its method remains confessional.


The other sub-branch of academic theology which could provide a responsible reply to our nation’s high religious and cultural diversity is intercultural theology. This subject explores the structural elements, forms of expression, and transformation processes around how religious messages are conveyed in culturally-diverse situations. It would let students analyse and understand the inter-cultural and trans-cultural characteristics of religious expressions, and the culturally-diverse manifestations of faith-content, that is, a religion’s intellectual core or theology.

Intercultural theology operates from the premise that there exists in all religions a mix of cultural backgrounds, and the theology that informs those religions must take this factor into consideration. It is based on the principle that the cultural form of the religion is itself the religious message.

In a country like Aotearoa New Zealand where there are people from diverse cultural backgrounds believing, interacting and worshipping together, it is vital that our students understand what is at stake when people of diverse cultural backgrounds practice together the same religion. This understanding is especially important today to help prevent ethnic silos emerging in the religions across the country, as our national identity continues to culturally and religiously diversify.

Both of these contextual theologies are not just important to learning about what New Zealanders of diverse religions and cultural backgrounds believe and practice, they are also essential subjects for fostering the social cohesion needed in such a religiously and culturally diverse nation as ours today. These disciplines provide access to the faith-content of the world’s major religions, and to the knowledge of how that content is conveyed in culturally-diverse ways.

Granted, these subjects require professional educators to teach our teachers and students. Though this is already happening today at the newly-formed Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College of Aotearoa New Zealand, where students learn, not only about what is theology, but also about how theological ideas cross religious borders, and how the faith-content of a religion can be expressed in culturally-diverse contexts.

In short, while our nation’s leaders provide good policies around diversity, we still must implement those policies in concrete and meaningful ways. Comparative theology and intercultural theology in the curricula of all our schools – private, religious and state, and also to various degrees at each level – primary, secondary and tertiary, might help fill that void, because they are effective ways to understand the differences and similarities in religious beliefs and the cultural expressions of those beliefs. This might be a radical response, though it may also prove vital to the social cohesion and harmony which our nation needs today in responding to its interreligious and multicultural tensions.

  • Dr Christopher Longhurst is a Catholic theologian and lecturer at Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College of Aotearoa New Zealand.
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Reader Interactions


  1. Dave says

    The thing about religious instruction is that it has *nothing* to do with studies of world religions. So this response does not in any way address the actual problem, which is Protestant Christian evangelism in secular state primary schools. While Bible in Schools proponents often talk about “religious education” or “values teaching”, these are merely a smokescreen for their real purpose… our primary schools are considered “mission fields” for over-zealous church volunteers who neither respect nor care about the rights of parents and children to be free of their religious views.

  2. Richard Duthie says

    Comparative theology and intercultural theology taught as part of school curricula would not be complete without skepticism taught as well. Students are not puppets. They should not be treated as young empty vessels to just pour in theology of any form without respecting their rights to receive balance.
    Science based skeptical thinking and arguments would be of great interest to students. The rich discussion that classes would contain as students learned all the viewpoints is not only valuable but moral and fair.
    My expectation is that this is the future. Going beyond that into the future even further I expect that progress will really be made when religion, theology and education evolve to separate the numinous from the supernatural and celebrate the beauty of it.

    Richard Duthie
    (Ex-Catholic of very considered atheistic inclination)

    • Matthew Eldridge says

      Skepticism could be part of comparative theology. It could fall into that category of “non-theistic lifeways” that Longhurst mentions which could be compared with other religious and non-religious lifeways.

  3. Jenny Epsom-Nora (Auckland( says

    Finally a sensible approach to doing Theology today. I think this article needs to be brought to the attention of Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s minister of education.


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