Sunday, August 26, 2007

Christianity, an inherently rebellious religion

In its theology of the history of religions, Christianity does not simply take the side of the religious person, take the side of the conservative who keeps to the rules of play of his inherited institution; the Christian rejection of the gods signifies much rather a choice to be on the side of the rebel, who for the sake of his conscience dares to break free from what is accustomed: this revolutionary trait in Christianity has perhaps far too long been hidden...
Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, pp. 21-22

I believe there is a basic problem at the heart of any standardized religious curriculum, and this is that it is standardized, and thus, for possibly a large minority of students, bordering on irrelevant. This is a challenge specifically for religious ed--not science or math--and the reason why is not difficult to figure out. Science, math, and English--these courses have no trouble presenting themselves to students as vital skills, tools for the good of their own future. History, literature, art--these course have no trouble presenting themselves as enrichment, producing a well-rounded, knowledgeable citizen.

Somehow in the mix of it all, religion and theology gets bound up with the accusation, in some students' minds if not on their lips (or being reflected in their art classes), that religion is being "crammed down our throats."

I have a special sympathy with this sentiment, having attended a public school myself and thus never having been required to work so many hours studying a faith that I was not yet one-hundred-percent-sure about yet. I know that there is an awkwardness about studying the Catholic religion with the same seriousness as English literature or science. Students are under no illusions about the pluralism of the religious landscape (if only they were under fewer illusions about the pluralism of the scientific landscape!)

Other high school disciplines are liberated, by the consensus of society, to roll along without having their fundamental principles challenged. Students--even rebellious ones--do not raise the objection that we are "brains in a vat" or that history is a manufactured illusion, in order to challenge the dignity of their history teacher's subject. Never mind that history (as my cherished high school history teacher reminded us) is interpretation, and thus is incontrovertibly pluralistic.

Still, no discipline's pluralism is as obvious to a teenager as that of religion, and so no other discipline is going to have religion's share of challenges to a teacher's right to teach (or at least, his right to teach unimpeded by hecklers). Add to this the scurrilous motivator that is resistance to those immediate standards of behavior that only the religion curriculum dictates, and you have a potential tsunami to deal with.

The solution to this distinctive feature of standardized religion curriculum, as I stumbled upon as part of my Spring seminary internship last year, is to have a "remedial" course. I call it "remedial" only in the most literal sense; a standardized school religion curriculum is going to bleed doubt out of the wound of societal irreligion and pluralism. This wound begs for treatment.

Of course, there is no need to describe the situation in such dour terms. What we are really talking about here is not the lamentable waywardness of modern culture, but a discipline which openly calls out for the kind of critical thinking which all the other disciplines lamentably take for granted.

At my high school it is not required that one be Catholic; but we do stress the values of sincerity of heart and (what I endearingly call) a fierce determination for truth. What I can personally allow is that a student pass my course without feeling compelled to join, or re-join, the Holy Catholic Church. What I cannot allow is that this student do so without seriously, laboriously asking the question of why? And to learn to apply that question, with as much vigor and heat, to his/her secular opinions as to Christian doctrines.

I am already in talks to establish a Speech and Debate team next year, if I manage to survive that long. That would be first priority. But in all the free-time of a sick man, I can't help but visualize something more original. A club--not a class--dedicated to the singular purpose of asking and investigating contentious religious questions with the aid of a teacher. A place where nothing is crammed, but everything is made available, and no un-researched opinion is allowed to live longer than it takes to check out a book from the library. The club could generate a file--the memory of the club--so that new members can explore the work of past members and build on it. What would we call it? Doubter's Den? Too insubordinative. Wanderers and Finders? (I liked the idea of "Wanderers", but then I think of how agnostics twist Tolkein's quote to mean that it's ok to wander without finding anything). Truth Seekers Club? I dunno, I dunno.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Update to the "Items of Technological Concupiscence" list

My first paycheck should be coming in the mail today (I hope I hope I hope), and while the vast majority of it will undoubtedly evaporate into monthly bills and basic necessities, whatever's left can go into my exciting "Technological Concupiscence" savings account. These are a few of the conveniences I eventually hope to be able to afford thanks to a modestly professional career.

  • The Buddy 125 Series Italia

    It's about time Genuine Scooters came out with a decent color of their popular scooter. Because, I mean, really--pink? orange? cream? Only the black "Buddy" was acceptably demure, though it gives the distinct impression of "trying too hard to be cool"--not to mention that I fear the effect of the southwestern sun on black plastic.

    Earlier this year, Genuine released the red Buddy, which is undeniably awesome, but it loses all of the "retro" appeal. So, the first item on my list (and my first priority, since I do in fact need a transportation update) is the beauty pictured above.

  • The HTC Shift

    This super-small computer officially replaces my concupiscence for the Fujitsu p1610, which hasn't had an update in a long while, and, anyway, is too big. I don't know if HTC consorts with supernatural beings for their product designs, but ever since the original Compaq iPaq (their invention), they seem to be consistently years ahead of their competition. The "Shift" is their first Windows PC, and happily it will have an option for Windows XP instead of Windows Vista. But it can also dual-boot Windows Mobile. Which means that I can have the functionality of both a very large "Pocket PC" or a very small PC.

    If you'd like to see more, there's a long product demonstration done by an only slightly creepy Australian guy here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Tired of Jesus being crammed down your throat?

Would you prefer that atheism be slipped into your drink?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Planning the Sacraments class, part trois

OK, so I wasn't quite thinking clearly last night, since I was thinking I would have two semesters to teach the class. HA! One semester for me. So I guess that means I need to do some more aggressive abbreviation here.

On the bright side of things, I learned what class I'm going to teach next semester: World Religions! But since my background is in philosophy and theology rather than religious studies, who could blame me for teaching the class like a "philosophy of religion" course? I'm seriously considering devoting half the class to discussing the matter of religious plurality itself, rather than simply doing a survey of religions. In particular, I want to explode any notion that "the religions" (a meaningless phrase) are a buffet, displayed side by side for our perusal. Such distorts not only the individual traditions but the notion of religion itself.

All right, so I need to rethink the semester... First, let's get specific about exactly how much in-class time I have. Spreadsheet time!

What can I say, I'm awesome with the spreadsheetin'.

Now, let's bring up an even further condensed version of my outline from last night:

  • Sacrament & Liturgy
    • Sacrament - History and Meaning
    • Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    • Liturgy
      • Grace and Prayer
      • Church and Salvation
  • For each Sacrament:
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history/ritual and symbols
    • Practicum (?) and significance
  • Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    • Iconoclasm
    • Naturalism
    • The analogical imagination
OK, now let's expand the middle part to include all of the sacraments:

  1. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning
    1. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    2. Liturgy
      1. Grace and Prayer
      2. Church and Salvation
  2. Baptism
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  3. Confirmation
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  4. Eucharist
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  5. Penance
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  6. Anointing of the Sick
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  7. Matrimony
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  8. Holy Orders
    1. Its particular origin in revelation
    2. Its history/ritual and symbols
    3. Practicum (?) and significance
  9. Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    1. Iconoclasm
    2. Naturalism
    3. The analogical imagination
This is ridiculous. OK, let's try the Catechism's trick, and use the traditional three groupings:
  1. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning
    2. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity
    3. Liturgy
      1. Grace and Prayer
      2. Church and Salvation
  2. The Seven Sacraments
    1. Sacraments of Christian Initiation
      1. Baptism and Confirmation
      2. Eucharist
    2. Sacraments of Healing
      1. Penance
      2. Anointing of the Sick
    3. Sacraments at the Service of Communion
      1. Matrimony
      2. Holy Orders
  3. Challenges to the Sacramental Imagination
    1. Iconoclasm
    2. Naturalism
    3. The Catholic Response: The Analogy of Being

OK, I like this. Now I can gauge how much time I'm going to need for each lesson:

  1. Introduction, Syllabus, Procedures, Maybe early start on lesson 2.1 - Week 1
  2. Sacrament & Liturgy
    1. Sacrament - History and Meaning - Week 2
    2. Sacraments as the Work of the Trinity - Weeks 3 & 4
    3. Liturgy - Week 5
      1. Grace and Prayer; Church and Salvation - Week 6
  3. The Seven Sacraments
    1. Sacraments of Christian Initiation
      1. Baptism and Confirmation - Weeks 7 & 8
      2. Eucharist - Weeks 9 & 10 (Mon & Tues)
    2. Sacraments of Healing
      1. Penance - Weeks 10 (Thurs & Fri) & 11
      2. Anointing of the Sick - Week 12
    3. Sacraments at the Service of Communion
      1. Matrimony & Holy Orders - Weeks 13 & 14*
    4. Sacramentals - Week 15
  4. Challenges to the Sacraments
    1. Iconoclasm - Week 16
    2. Naturalism - Week 17
    3. The Catholic Response: The Analogy of Being - Week 18
  5. Review for Final - Week 19 (Mon & Tues)
All I can say is BAM.

* - Week 14 is a very short week because of Thanksgiving. Rather than decide which of Holy Orders and Matrimony I want to give the short shrift, I'll teach both in a single lesson with a single quiz. This will allow me to illustrate their complementarity and how each life images eternal life in its own unique way. Woo John Paul II (and Christopher West!)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sacraments lesson planning, part deux

OK, let's start simple and then get specific. What all the outlines have in common is that they cover two topics:
  • Sacrament in general
  • The seven Sacraments
There are certain common sense subheadings we can put in here, so let's do that:

  • Sacrament in general
    • The meaning of "sacrament"
  • The seven Sacraments
    • Baptism
    • Confirmation
    • Eucharist
    • Penance
    • Anointing of the Sick
    • Holy Orders
    • Matrimony
Let's take this and collapse the seven sacraments into the subtopics that will be common to all of them.

  • Sacrament in general
    • The meaning of "sacrament"
  • The seven Sacraments
    • The Sacrament's particular origin in revelation
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its relations to other sacraments
    • Its ritual and symbols
    • Its history
    • Significance to daily life
    • Practicum
All right, now let's expand a bit on Sacrament in general

  • Sacrament & Liturgy in general (Judging by the Catechism it seems I can't very well separate these two terms, though they will need to be distinguished.)
    • Historical development (from mysterion to sacramentum)
    • Definition
    • The Trinity
    • The Paschal Mystery
    • Grace/Prayer
    • Significance for action
  • The seven Sacraments - for each:
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history
    • Its relations to other sacraments
    • Its ritual and symbols
    • Significance to daily life
    • Practicum
OK, I think I've over-expanded a bit, especially when you consider that the second "part" of the above outline is multplied 7x. Let's pare down some topics here.

  • Sacrament & Liturgy in general (Judging by the Catechism, it seems I can't very well separate these two terms, though they will need to be distinguished.)
    • The origin and meaning of the word, "sacrament"
    • Sacrament in Salvation History (incl. Trinity/Paschal Mystery)
    • Leitourgia: The Participation of People in the Work of God on Their Behalf
      • Prayer, Grace, and Salvation
    • Significance for the Christian
  • The seven Sacraments - for each:
    • Its meaning/purpose
    • Its particular origin in revelation
    • Its history/ritual and symbols
    • Significance to daily life/Practicum
  • Conclusion - challenges to the sacramental vision (or "Don't let bad ideas limit your spiritual destiny!")
    • Protestantism and iconoclastic piety
    • Modernity and nature's glass ceiling
    • What they have in common
    • The analogical imagination

The last section is a kind of a "bonus" section; although I don't expect to be able to cover everything that quickly, there's always the off-chance I could wind up with extra time. In any case, my teaching books say to always prepare more material than you need; I am first applying this advice at the annual level.

The order of subjects is, I think, logical. A part of me wishes there were more symmetry between the four points of the first and "second" sections. However, their present order allows me to tie them together quite neatly. When I finish discussing the word "sacrament," this provides a perfect lead-in to differentiating between pagan vs. Christian understandings of the word--hence revelation comes into play. I believe Grace deserves its own section here; it is such a poorly understood topic and so important to sacraments.

In the case of the seven individual sacraments, I felt that starting with a straight-up "here's what it means" would be easiest simply because students are used to that approach. But then I want to take things more "chronologically", moving from the seeds of each sacrament, its fulfillment in Christ, its growth in the Church, and finally its particular fullment in saving you.

Finally, a note on the section on "leitourgia": The second and third sections of the first block form a nice antipode; first we talk about God's side of things (the Paschal Mystery), and then we talk about ours (the liturgy). But even while we talk about "holding up our end of the eschatological bargain", we also negate it at every step. Thus, (and I don't care who hears it), I'll warn my students that the word "liturgy" does NOT mean "the work of the people." Even in its more ancient, secular use, it designated works done on behalf of the people. Enter Grace and Prayer, and I get a perfect opportunity to disabuse any students of the notion that we earn any part of our salvation.

Teaching about the Sacraments

I have begun preparing this class in earnest. Looking over the school calendar for the year, I have about 175 class sessions to cover everything a high school student should know about sacraments. That equals 35 total "weeks", but that doesn't account for the fact of Mass days and Rally days, which reduce class length to 40 minutes and 32 minutes, respectively. Thus to be on the safe side, I will imagine that I need to cover the material in 30 50-minute sessions.

Or another way I could look at it is: I actually have 37 "weeks" if by that we mean Mon-Fri periods where "most" of the days are teaching days, although some of them have as few as three days in them.

How I divide the course material, of course, depends on what the course material actually is. An initial look at my resource reveals the following:

  • The course textbook.
  • The Catechism + footnotes to source material; the Documents of Vatican II; Denzinger's Sources of Catholic Dogma;
  • Seminary handouts from Sacraments courses.
  • Seminary bibliographies
  • The Internet
  • The ASU library
To get a sense of how the course material should be divided, I compared the table of contents of the course textbook, the Catechism, and the list of course objectives given to me by the school.

Sacraments: Course Objectives

  1. The Catholic Sacramental Vision

    1. Sacramental awareness

    2. Grace

    3. Symbols and rituals

    4. Prayer

  2. Christ and the Sacraments

    1. The Paschal Mystery

    2. The Incarnation

    3. The Church (+ models)

    4. Death – Resurrection – Pentecost – Sacraments

  3. History of sacrament and Sacraments

  4. Sacraments and human life

  5. Symbols and rituals

Textbook TOC

  1. “Sacraments: encountering the sacred”

  2. “Symbols: doorways to the sacred”

  3. “Rituals: meaning in symbolic actions”

  4. “Prayer: worshiping in word, in act, and in silence”

  5. “Jesus Christ and the Church: sacraments of God's love for the world”

  6. “The Sacraments in History: changing church, changing sacraments”

7-13. The Seven Sacraments

*. “Conclusion: the sacrament you”

Catechism TOC

  1. The Sacramental Economy

    1. The Paschal Mystery in the Age of the Church

    2. The Sacramental Celebration

  2. The Seven Sacraments of the Church

    1. The Sacraments of Christian Initiation

    2. The Sacraments of Healing

    3. The Sacraments at the Service of Communion

    4. Other Liturgical Celebrations

How do I organize this jumble? I've been thinking about this for a while. What the course objectives are asking me to do is to survey a heaping ton of material in a short time. But perhaps I'm moving too quickly. What are my hopes for this class? How do I plan to inspire my students to care about this "object of study", these "sacraments"?
  • I hope that my students develop their sense of the sacred; the fact that the liturgy is God's tearing open the veil that separates this world from the spiritual world; that in the Mass and all the other sacraments, Jesus Christ--made present by the Holy Spirit--is the Father's perfect victory over, and transformation of the world. He is revealed and made known, and we are gratuitously permitted to take part in his, the everlasting worship of the Father, together with the Holy Mother of God, the saints, and angels.
  • I hope that my students gain a proper understanding of the visible elements of rite and symbol; how the sacraments are indeed the historically-conditioned and culturally saturated outer manifestations of the sacred Mysteries. Yet their form and appearance are not, therefore, our plaything, as if history belonged to us more than it does God. Precisely in their historicity they are the God's sanctification and purification of history and culture (Just as Christ's humanity sanctifies and purifies our humanity). Thus the first determinant of rite and rubric is neither a sarcophagus filled with other men's prayers (whether ancient or medieval), nor the passing fancies of historically ambivalent modernity, but rather something else entirely (will get into later). Thus I want to communicate that many sacramental forms are subject to development in continuity. Newman to the rescue!
  • I hope my students learn not only that the sacraments are sacred but how; I would like to reveal to them the drama which is made visible for them who have eyes for it. I would like them to not only see, but experience how Catholic worship is not amorphous "praise" or disorganized, ephemeral affections; but it is patterned, structured, complex, dramatic; the re-incorporating of the present into the singular drama of eternity. We are not just telling God how much we like him; we are presenting ourselves as bodily participants in the Crucifixion that saved fallen humanity and reversed the progress of sin and death that even now threatens to push us individually over the threshold of delusional despair. (Huge breath).
So now I feel like I can answer the question: how do I organize this mess?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Harry Potter musings

I'm about halfway through Order of the Phoenix right now, and I have some thoughts.

  • If I remember correctly, this was the book people were criticizing for being burdensome, over-full, and disorganized... and though I do agree, I'm finding it pretty enjoyable anyway. When I saw the movie-version of Prisoner of Azkaban, I thought that the film improved the story by its omissions. I read a film review of Order of the Phoenix that said the same thing about it. So I'm looking forward to seeing the movie in hopes of getting a tightened, just-what-you-need-to-know version of the tale. I don't care about Fred and George's joke shop.

  • Rowling uses a tactic a little too often. In many, if not most scenes, there is something that is happening repeatedly in the background. This repetitive background "noise" is described in detail once (just one example, the screaming portrait of Sirius's mother), and again in less detail, and again in less, until the scene continues with periodic interruptions of "Oh, and the thing happened again". It's an amusing trope, but like the repetition-for-signifiance that was abused in Batman Begins, when a technique ceases to be transparent, it's time to stop using it.

  • When I was studying in Louvain, Fr. Denis (Yes, the same mentioned below) once said without blinking that Harry Potter was a Christian allegory. At the time I didn't really take him seriously, either because Father can say a lot of things without blinking and it's impossible to tell whether he's kidding; or because there is no good story which is not impervious to Christian allegorizing. Leastwise, literature has a lot more transparent "Christ figures" than Harry Potter, who lies, breaks rules, and has a temper.

    Reading Order of the Phoenix, though, there are a couple of themes that might be uniquely significant to Christians. One in particular is how difficult it is to make people believe something which is, to us, so plainly true. I revel especially in the contrast between the two "sides". The Order not only believes the true thing, but is thus compelled into absolute seriousness, seeing the world as it is--as a cold war of the forces of good and evil over the spirits of the indifferent. The Ministry/Daily Prophet is vicious in its opposition to this view, seemingly more out of concern for politeness than anything else. I don't know about Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, but I've never seen a stronger figure of the last two Popes than Dumbledore. Happily, the forces of ideological politeness (or "illiberal liberalism" as it is called by Fr. John Neuhaus) cannot demote the Pope in the same way they demoted Dumbledore.

    I'm sure the Christian meaning is deeper than all of this, but that's enough for one bullet point.