Forgotten Catechesis

I attended a debate on Sunday evening with our church’s college kids. The two philosophers in the debate threw out jargon incomprehensible to most of the people in the audience, which is why I will forever remember the excursion as “that time I taught modal ontology in Olive Garden.” The debate itself was whether one should believe in God. The champion of theism was a bit lacking, and he spent too long making the wrong sorts of arguments (never bring a rationalist to an empiricist fight), but he did a decent job of explaining the classical proofs for the existence of God. But the whole thing has me thinking. Neither presenter could accurately represent biblical scholarship in terms of doctrine or textual criticism. The audience couldn’t follow what was going on, on stage without a few philosophy classes under their collective belt. It seemed to me everyone involved needed more education.

I might be biased, but that’s my approach to life. The realm of education is my natural habitat; being back on a college campus was, for me, like tossing a beached whale back into the ocean. My view of my ministry is framed in terms of catechesis: my job is to teach the people in the pews everything I know about Jesus because that knowledge creates and strengthens relationship. I’m very passionate about learning and about teaching the faith, and I think this sort of discipleship/catechesis is something lacking in many of our churches today. We’re pretty good at evangelism and worshipping together on Sunday morning, but we’ve largely failed to teach people much beyond the basics. The high (and rising) rate of biblical illiteracy is a sad testament to that fact.

Beyond church things (Bible, theology, and church history), however, we also fail to teach people a great many other things. Philosophy is one of those omissions. Instead of teaching people how to think, we prefer to teach them what to think. Unfortunately, most of the “what” comes with an agenda contingent on its setting. Christian schools, for example, have vastly different curriculum than public schools for things like biology, human origins, and sex education. Colleges can be even worse depending on the instructor. But very, very few schools of any educational level require courses in critical thinking, logic, or epistemology. In a post-industrial information age where the sum of human knowledge is accessible through a device most of us carry around in our pockets, we have become obsessed with facts, not methodologies, with memory, not intelligence. Thus our educational standards reflect our cultural priorities.

Let’s go one step further to look at the facts we seem to value. I have nothing against the STEM fields (I’m the lone humanist in a family of scientists and engineers), but they can’t be the only things on the table. Even if you mistakenly believe there is no intrinsic value to literature or that no truth about humanity is to be gained from poetry, we can all agree grammar and rhetoric are necessary skills not covered by a STEM-only education. This is to say nothing of the fundamental worth and benefits of music, history, etc. A thing need not fit some rubric of practicality to have educational merit.

If we must have only the practical and practicable taught, however, let’s cover our bases. There is a great need for trade and vocational schools. Not everyone needs to go to university — nor should they. Many other employable skills are out there, skills we need someone to have — and those skills must be acquired, and therefore they must be taught. And not just taught as an alternative to college, but promoted as proper and worthy fields in their own right. Part of that statement is tied to our need and the practical nature of those trades, yes. But another part is tied to the sense of self-worth of those in those fields. A welder, small engine mechanic, or plumber is not a second-class citizen simply because they lack advanced degrees. They are still human beings equal to any other.

In short, there are many, many things we need to be teaching, both within the walls of the church and without. We cannot propagate a false equivalency between memory and intelligence, between knowing what to think and knowing how to think. And we certainly can’t afford, as a society, to prioritize the “what” above the “how.” That road ends in auditoriums filled, not with rational human beings waiting to learn, but with automatons waiting to be programmed.

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