Saturday, October 27, 2007

On teaching world religions

The perfectionist and idealist in me will not permit me to simply teach a class in which the units are simply divided among the different great religious traditions of the world. In my opinion, strongly held, such an approach can only do damage to the ideological presuppositions of a high school teenager.

And besides, it would be bad pedagogy.

One thing that I am learning through experience is that teachers are not meant merely, or even primarily, to pass along information to their students. It is not data, but skills that are the most important product of a school. While the skill set involved in a "sacraments" class is limited, especially in a pluralistic environment (my class could legitimately be renamed "sacraments appreciation"), the skill set involved in a world-religions course is more robust. Frankly, there are those in society that can speak intelligently about religion, and those who cannot. The difference hinges on one's factual knowledge, but that is not the only thing. There are at least two others:
  • a willingness and ability to enter into the experience, cares, and hopes of a community belonging to another religious tradition, as well one's own (or the tradition of one's family).
  • a grounding of the knowledge of world religions in a critical and philosophical understanding of religion and truth, which excludes prima facie neither the relevance of any particular tradition, nor the legitimacy of radical fidelity to a single tradition.
The second point perhaps needs clarification. In brief, it might be summarized as the stressing of a relatively recent philosophical discovery: that secularism (in the form of agnosticism, materialism, pluralism, or any other non-practice or non-belief) is not inherently more "objective" in its view of the world's religions than any other religious tradition.

Secularism does not correspond to the absence of bias and irrational belief that popular culture has assigned to it. It is not a "safe haven" from superstition, from unproven and unprovable doctrines, or error, any more than religious belief. Like a religion, western secularism has a foundation of doctrines which are not based on the scientific method; however, unlike religion, secularism is based on the prejudice in favor of constricting all knowledge to the scientific method.

Whether one is biased or not, intolerant or not, fair or not, ignorant or not, has less to do with whether one is religious, or with what tradition they cling to, than it does with how well they have developed the skill set of investigation, exploration, and understanding of religions--not to mention the virtues of patience, empathy, openness, and faith.

To be sure, not all traditions, including western secularism, lend themselves equally well to the task of learning about world religions. Coincidentally, both secularism and Christianity lobby the same critique at each other with respect to this task: neither can ultimately enter into the pluralistic arena with the serious intention of accepting another tradition as being true (at least in a way that would leave their own founding dogmas to be false). Both of these ideological starting points, as well as all others universally, begin by assessing the world's traditions in terms of how closely they represent values akin to one's own. Thus secularism will show appreciation for Buddhism's inherent synchretism, tolerance, and pantheism; while Christianity will appreciate Buddhism's monastic tradition, its relativization of worldly goods, and its ancient philosophical pedigree; but both will find something to disagree with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's the point of the Eucharist?

The Eucharist is the central Sacrament of the Church; so also it is the central unit of this course. Although there is something strange and unpredictable about the Eucharist, (What? A religion in which people eat their God in the shape of bread and wine? Weird!) there is also something perfectly natural about it once we recognize the pattern of God’s relationship with his creation.

God is absolute Freedom and Mystery. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). As William of Ockham suggested, God could have saved us by becoming a donkey if he wanted. God can do whatever, however he pleases. However, this does not mean that he necessarily works in random and unintelligible ways.

That is because we not only believe that God is Freedom, but that God is Love—and if God is Love, then he seeks to relate and communicate with his beloved: Creation, and especially, the Church. All theology would be impossible if God did not love, because if he did not love, not only would there be no revelation, but there very possibly would never have been a creation! Or, if there was a creation, there would be no guarantee that we would be created in God’s image (with an intellect and with freedom), and thus we would not be able to think about these questions in the first place!

The reason for this reflection is to remember that God often works in ways that allow us to understand him as much as our human minds can. Thus God works in patterns, and if we pay attention, we can recognize them. The Eucharist fits perfectly within the pattern that God was showing us for thousands of years up until, and including, Jesus’ life, the Last Supper, and the Paschal Mystery. (What might this pattern be?)

But the Eucharist itself contains the entire pattern of God as Love, plus our own love back to him (represented by Jesus’ love of the Father). The whole God and the mystery of our salvation are present together in a single consecrated food-thing, nested within a ritual that celebrates God’s works. Through the Eucharist, our whole lives can be a total “living-in” the mystery of God. Even though God remains mysterious and infinite and “beyond” us, he still freely lets himself to be closer to us than we are to ourselves. What better way to represent this closeness, than through the act of eating? God is able to empty himself (kenosis!) into humble, material things; even into a single human being; even into food—all for the purpose of filling us with his own eternal life.

Why do we need a Church?

It is impossible to make sense of Christianity without a hearty and complete understanding of Church. Different types of Christianity have different understandings of what “Church” means; however, all Christian ideas of “Church” contain at least part of the Catholic understanding, which traces itself all the way back to Jesus and is consistent with the beliefs of the early Christians.

For us, the Church is not just a group of individuals that happen to agree with what Catholic Christianity teaches. What makes someone a member of the Church is not primarily one’s beliefs (although these are important), but rather, one’s free and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

Why is this an important point? Because until recently, Christians never thought of the Church as something “man-made” (as it would be if it were just an organization of people that agree with each other). No, from the earliest times, Christians understood that at every level, the Church is born from, survives by, is shaped by, is destined towards, and is loved by: God. The Church is, in a way, a Creation within Creation—the baby tree of the Kingdom of God, planted in the soil of the old, broken creation, and nourished by the water and sunlight of God’s Grace.

As Saint Augustine said, “God, who created you without your help, will not save you without your help.” What this means, and what the existence of a Church means, is that God chooses to save the broken world in one, and only one way: through a mutual love relationship with a self-aware, willing, and active community. This would not be true if God simply saved everybody with a snap of his fingers. And this fact—that God gives us the ability to love him, and to be saved by that love—itself is reason to celebrate.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Things to address with students...

  • Need to take notes during lecture. It's not just recommended; it's essential. Can't expect to succeed in college without taking notes, so also in my class.
  • Similarities and differences between the sacraments and ordinary rituals (there is a lot of confusion about a part of the textbook).
  • The meaning of the word "correlate".
  • On the "Fear of the Lord"

Monday, October 08, 2007

The evangelist's frustration.

It really is unavoidable; a modern high school religion teacher is an evangelist of the highest order. Here are a hundred 17-year-olds; now teach them the Catholic faith. What? This job is no garbage pickup; it isn't pulling weeds; this task is by definition unfulfillable. My goal--my job description--is essentially beyond my reach and the reach of any mortal.

It would be one thing if I was only battling against the popular rational arguments against God, and if these indeed were fueled and propelled by an intellectual's search for the truth gone in an atheist direction. But what I have is a severely different monster; a beast composed of a hundred-fold irascible prejudice against religion, a lethargic miasma, an addiction to the bare minimum, a total blindness to a world beyond the narrow horizon of "bored-entertained-bored-entertained-bored". I could plow through the textbook, demand the lowest level of memorization, and succeed only in reaffirming the class's pre-existing stratification into achievers and non-achievers. But in doing so I would only be pretending to educate, thus cheating not only my students and myself but the very diocese that hired me.

How do I teach religion? I take for granted that faith is something which is not mine to dispense. But how to proclaim the Gospel in an atmosphere choked with the idealogical smog of pluralism and materialism, the pathos of presumptuous, blithe uncaring; of aloof, invincible indifference? "You want me to care? Make me." The words hang as an unspoken but heavy and real challenge, which, unanswered, muffles my voice into oblivion. Every Friday the disappointment, and every weekend the question returns, "How to cut through, how to cut through, how to cut through?"

I have confidence that my prayers will not go unanswered; and I have not forgotten how vital they are, but for this moment I am left to struggle a little longer, without answers, without epiphanies, without reassurances, and I am left only the task before me, which is grading papers.

How to I teach religion?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Trying to memorize the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

We Uphold the King's Crown to Find Perfect Freedom.

Wisdom Understanding Knowledge Counsel Fortitude Piety Fear of the Lord.

(Edited to suit my monarchist leanings).