New at Leuphana: Prof Dr Vera Uppenkamp - ‘Religious education is queer’

2024-06-10 The religious education teacher researches poverty sensitivity, educational justice, queer theology and inclusive religious education. For Vera Uppenkamp, modern religious education depends above all on reflective teachers.

Is religious education still up to date?
As a human being, I am more than just numbers and data. The intangible remains. Religious education helps pupils to become capable of speaking and to enter into dialogue about religion and questions of meaning. This is an important developmental task that should be professionally supported. That is why I am in favour of religious education in public schools. Religious education in schools always needs the opportunity to say: ‘Thank you for the offer, but it's not for me.’
In your research, you have focussed in particular on poverty-sensitive religious education. Isn't the Bible per se poverty-sensitive?
In primary school, religious education is often about sharing and helping. Biblical stories are usually told that are more likely to address those who can share and help. In other words, those who are already in a privileged position. I see this as problematic. Poverty affects children's living and learning conditions in many different ways. This is often pushed under the carpet in didactics. I wanted to counter this.
How important is the level of reflection here?
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks of a habitus: a certain way of thinking and acting is so internalised that it is unconsciously carried into every setting - including religious education. This is why we need highly reflective teachers: what ideas and values do I bring into the classroom? I myself grew up in an educated middle-class household and was privileged in many ways. That's why I asked myself: Am I the right researcher for this topic? I don't like to speak for others. In my research, I have chosen an approach that goes beyond the level of self-reflection and uses approaches from marginalised people, such as liberation theology.
What could poverty-sensitive religious education look like in terms of content?
I like the Gospel of Luke. It's very much about social criticism; about questions of money, possessions and distribution. One story, for example, revolves around the question of who you should actually invite to a banquet. Friends and neighbours who can invite me back? Or people who can't show their appreciation? The passage Luke 14:12-14 is interesting because it can be interpreted in so many different ways: On the one hand, it shows that people belong to the Christian community regardless of what they can give. But the passage is also interpreted as hostile towards the disadvantaged. If you read on, the meaning is: ‘Whoever invites the poor will be repaid in the kingdom of heaven. So are the disadvantaged only being used for their own salvation? This passage and its possible interpretations can be discussed in a poverty-sensitive lesson.
You also deal with queer theology in your research. Which biblical passages does this school of thought refer to?
People who speak out against homosexuality often use biblical passages taken out of context for their arguments. A queer theology that only refers to individual biblical passages would be just as wrong. Rather, it is about an overall understanding of the Bible. The book was written within social structures that were different in many respects to those of today, but which also have some parallels. A hegemonic masculinity is consistent throughout, which is expressed, for example, in the designation of G*d as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Queer theology takes a different view of the work of G*d and the biblical testimony about it. In many places, for example, Jesus' actions break with the social norms of the time. He encounters people who are outcasts, sick or labelled as sinners. Based on the understanding of a contextual theology, I understand queerness not only as a gender- and sexuality-related self-concept, but also as an epistemological position. Religious education as a critical and deconstructive practice that reflects normativity is queer for me. If religious education does not want to abolish itself, then it must also be capable of plurality in this respect.
Thank you very much for the interview!

Vera Uppenkamp studied maths and Protestant theology at TU Dortmund University to become a primary school teacher. In 2020, she completed her doctorate on ‘Child Poverty in Religious Education’ at the University of Paderborn, where she worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Protestant Theology from October 2016 to March 2024. Since the summer semester of 2024, she has been a junior professor of Protestant Religious Education at the Institute of Ethics and Theology at Leuphana University Lüneburg. She is on the board of the German section of the European Society for Women's Theological Research (ESWTR).