I want to begin with where I began as a Christian learner and then move to where I am now and then end with a proposal for this fall.
Margret Mitchell, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School in speaking of models of learning in the study of religion compares two venues of production—the factory and the workshop. I won’t say more about her remarks except to say that she dismisses the idea of religious education having as its goal to produce an assembly line product. And she elevates the idea of religious education as providing a broad set of skills for examining the subject.
The model of Christian education with which I grew up was very much the “factory assembly line” approach. This was especially true during my confirmation instruction—three years of three hours a week, Saturday mornings. The central focus of this enterprise was learning/memorizing the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg_Catechism). This 16th century document consisting of 129 questions and answers was considered to be a summation of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy, right doctrine, the Truth. There was no mention by our pastor of any other catechism or any context for our beliefs. Indeed, I remember more than a few disparaging remarks about Christians of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholics. Fortunately, my best friend was Catholic so such religious bigotry found little purchase on my heart/mind.
Here were the questions to be asked and the answers to be given. And after learning these and being examined before the congregation, one was then qualified, perhaps even worthy, of becoming part of the congregation and of receiving Communion as such. I cannot tell you, DR, how contrary to the teachings and life of Jesus I find this to be. For a number of reasons.
First is it the reduction of faith—which is a relationship of fidelity and affection between the believer and the Divine—to the holding of a limited number of tenets, beliefs.
Second is the error to assume that right belief (in the sense of intellectual tenets) somehow makes one worthy of being part of the church, the community of followers of Jesus, the One who welcomed sinners, children, outcasts, religious zealots, all. Jesus reached out, invited others to community; my home church and its pastor erected a barrier. And a meaningless one at that. This reduction of the relationship of faith to an intellectual accomplishment of sorts creates a stumbling block for those of limited intelligence but who may well be “great of heart.” Who could possibly think this is in accord with Christ?
Third, this exercise tends to truncate the growth of understanding of Christianity, its Scripture, its history, its variety, etc. Though not essential, an increase in knowledge often leads to an increase in tolerance, understanding, acceptance—Christ-like attributes—in addition the necessary virtue of humility, born of an understanding that one does not have THE truth and that others who hold different beliefs/opinions are not only in error but not in a right relationship with God. Ignorance is a fertile ground for bigotry.
Fourth, memorization and regurgitation ill-prepares one to live in a religiously pluralistic society unless one is willing to wear intellectual blinders.
So what form should Christian education take?
I believe it should prepare the Christian to be a lifelong learner, not just a lifelong believer. It’s first purpose is to inform.
It should give to the Christian an understanding of his/her context—the context of his/her own life, the context of the history of Christianity, the context of world religions and world history, the context of the present cultural/social milieu. In other words, the person of faith as a learner needs to first understand where he/she is, the source of some of his/her assumptions, beliefs, myths, etc. And the intellectual influences operative in his/her life. This can be as simple as a brief overview of Church history, a survey of world religions, a look at contemporary Christianity and an examination of one’s own “faith journey.”
These contexts also provide opportunities for conveying some of the basic information about Christianity, in general and in particulars regarding denominations and the local church.
It should give the Christian the tools for continued learning. First and foremost in this regard is helping the Christian understand that knowledge is not a threat to belief.1 It has been my experience—lo, these many years—that the more I know about some aspect of my faith, the more I appreciate it, admire it and receive from it. It should provide the tools for further study—information about commentaries, dictionaries, video and internet resources, etc.
And most importantly, it should provide for the Christian an encouragement, an enthusiasm for learning at whatever level and to whatever degree he/she chooses.
Having said all of this, Christian education needs to be put in perspective with regard to Christian practice. As I wrote in my opening paragraphs, defining Christianity primarily as an enterprise of the mind reduces it, limits it, to less—I believe far less-than either Jesus or Jesus’ Jewish ancestors ever understood a life of faith to be.
That one’s practice is enhanced, enabled and encouraged by learning is nearly universal in disciplines. Musical theory helps performance; knowing the rules of the game helps playing; understanding the mechanics helps operate the machine, etc. But learning is not necessary for practice.
Learning also enhances relationships—which is finally what Christianity is. Knowing something about human development, psychology, emotional dynamics, etc. helps us in relationships with everyone from family to stranger. Knowing how children develop helps us as parents. Knowing the issues for aging adults helps us as caretakers of parents. I’d even toss in the necessary of knowledge for being a pet owner or raiser of livestock.
It’s these two ends—the enhancement of practice and relationship (with God and neighbor) that Christian education serve as a means not as an end in itself. Every aspect of teaching in the church should be considered and evaluated in light of these two closely intertwined concerns—one penultimate and one ultimate. In other words, Does this learning lead to greater faithfulness in the Christian life of love of God and neighbor. If it does not do so clearly and directly, then its implementation and/or continuance really needs to be questioned.
1 The anti-intellectualism that pervades much of Christianity, especially toward the conservative end of the spectrum is one of the tragic legacies of early 20th century Fundamentalism and the (unnecessary) conflict between Creationism based on a literal reading of Scripture and the data-based theories of Science.