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How to hand on the faith in the 21st century? Answer: Teach as Jesus did
The brilliant social philosopher Charles Taylor has explained how the Western world once presented sociocultural conditions—what could be described as a strong corporate identity—that favored religious belief. The village required all to believe. A nonbeliever might bring the wrath of God on everyone. Atheism was unknown, except among elites. Up until about 1800, faith in God and the belief in a spiritual realm pervaded daily life.
Ours is a secular age, as Taylor says, in which sociocultural conditions actively discourage faith. The culture we inhabit today celebrates self-sufficiency. Religion is no longer counted on to keep evil forces at bay or to lend legitimacy to civil authority. Insofar as most people advert to God at all, they are likely to do so in the form of a “therapeutic deism” (the term coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers), in which God is not unlike Santa Claus. Even within Christian churches that seem to have some success in retaining their youth, research indicates that young people often embrace a “nice guy” image of God, who comforts and consoles, can be called upon as needed, and makes no demands on their daily lives except that they, too, be nice.
To be sure, there are some strong restorationist sentiments among Catholics. In religious education, the sentiment is loud (more than large) to “just teach the catechism” or some such doctrinaire presentation of the faith. Many imagine that returning to the memorized question-and-answer format that dominated Catholic catechesis for some 400 years will infuse young people with a faith commitment. Certainly, there is a place for memorizing core prayers, Scripture, formulas of faith, and moral codes. But regressing to a Q&A catechism—or to any doctrinaire didaction of Christian faith—will only leave us worse off. What is urgently needed is an approach to religious education that is effective in the context of our time.
The day was when the world’s great religions were identifiable with geographic areas where they abided entwined with local cultures. Trends in communication, transportation, and migration have changed that. Now the ashram and mosque that were once “over there” are on the same block as the local church and synagogue. Throughout the 20th century, we assumed that economics was the fault line in and among societies (socialism or communism versus capitalism). Now the public variable with the most political and social import seems to be religion. And all the great religions have the capacity to promote both life and death, love and hate, peace and war. So much depends on how and to what end we teach them.
People need to be educated in their own faith traditions and to be encouraged toward interreligious understanding and respect. As Jesus reminded, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). The first responsibility of religious educators is to form people in their own particular tradition, in a way that enables them to embrace the universality of God’s love. Rote memorization of doctrine won’t achieve this, but there is an approach that I believe will: I call it the life-to-faith-to-life approach. It involves inviting people to bring their lives to their faith, and their faith to their lives. It is the way Jesus taught.
Whether crafting a formal lesson, facilitating a faith-sharing group, or carrying on the conversation of faith in the home, religious education must begin with an issue of real interest and relevance to participants’ lives. It should seize on what the late educator Paulo Freire called a “generative theme,” that is, a concern sufficiently pressing to engage people in learning. The subject might be friendship, say, or the burdens we carry. After reflection and conversation on this topic, participants need to have ready and persuasive access to the relevant Scriptures and traditions of their faith, raising up the life-flourishing truths and spiritual wisdom of their heritage. Then the dynamic must move back to life again, inviting participants to take and make these truths and this wisdom their own, to appropriate the faith into their lives and make decisions in its light.
All the disenchantment of our age will not obliterate the innate human disposition toward the spiritual or the religious. The 17th-century French scholar Blaise Pascal summarized it well: “There is a God-shaped hollow in the human heart that nothing else can fill.” This is what impels communities of religion to hand on their faith to the rising generations.
Thomas H. Groome is chair of the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and the author of Reclaiming Catholicism: Treasures Old and New (2010). His essay is drawn and adapted by permission of Harper Collins from Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples (copyright © 2011 by Thomas H. Groome).
Read more by Thomas H. Groome