Identity Issues

For my first post, I thought I might talk a little bit about my job as a high school teacher and how it relates to my graduate theological education.  I have never thought of myself as  a teacher.  I didn’t grow up thinking I would teach, and I couldn’t have guessed even a few years ago that my first job would be as a high school teacher.  But now that I am a teacher and have taught for a year now, it feels like a really good use of my talents and passion.  But I still struggle a lot with what exactly I am trying to accomplish.

If you are familiar with Catholic high schools, you might notice that some identify the faith related departments as “Theology,” some as “Religion,” or “Religious Studies.”  Given the amount of time I spent in graduate school studying theological method and terminology, the distinctions being made here are immensely important.  The school where I teach identifies our department as “Religion,” and my job title is technically, “Religion Teacher.”  The argument that corresponds to this selection is that the purpose of such a department is to make a student more religious.  A Catholic school takes responsibility for its students’ spiritual and religious development, and it assumes a Catholic faith tradition as its starting point.  Quite simply, a department that labels itself as “Religion” aims to make its students better Catholics.

A smaller number of Catholic schools have a “Theology Department.”  (I find a larger number of Jesuit schools make this identification; the coincidience is not lost on me).  In my job search last year, I found descriptions on the websites of “Theology Departments” usually possess the phrase “theological study” or some equivalent.  These descriptions put their departments solidly in the Christian history of “faith seeking understanding,” the Anselmian description that marries faith and reason.  These departments identify spiritual and religious development as an explicit goal of their teaching, but what they add is the idea that faith is a topic to be studied, to be analyzed and parsed with the fullest range of one’s intellect, rather than something to be transmitted from the teacher to the student, like a math equation or an historical fact.

At the crux of these terms is the important difference between theology and catechetics.  Catechetics is the teaching of faith; it explains what exactly the doctrine states and attempts to demonstrate the truth of that doctrine.  A Catholic catechesis program entails teaching the content of Scripture and Tradition.  Theology, however, presumes a starting point of faith commitment (and a deep knowledge of its contents) but seeks a deeper level of understanding.  Theology applies one’s intellect to the contents of faith, pushing its boundaries and perhaps critiquing its conclusions in the committed search for truth.  While it seems obvious to me that part of my job is catechesis (even my Catholic students are largely ignorant on the contents of the Catholic faith), it is even more obvious that the outcome of my teaching is more closely aligned with the intellectual goals of a Theology Deparment rather than the religious ones a Religion Department.

One of the reasons for this difference is that at least half of my students are not Catholic.  Most are non-Catholic Christians: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.  How, then, can I teach students who are not Catholic how to be more religious in a religion they do not profess?  And to be honest, I find the term “Religion Teacher” very flat.  It lacks the richness and depth of the term “theology,” a word that evokes the wisdom of the Church fathers, the diligence of medieval monastic scholarship, and the faithful criticism of modern academics.

What I feel is a more accurate description of what I do is teach the contents of Catholic faith so that students can intellectually grapple with their conclusions and evaluate their own faith life in light of those conclusions.  For Catholic students, the results often compel students to grow in religiosity.  For non-Catholic students, those evaluations infrequently result in any formal conversion to Catholicism, but they might grow in the faith life of their particular tradition (organized or not).  It feels like a misnomer to call this process catechesis or even religious education, but rather a combination of theology, religious education, and religious studies (studying a religion from outside that particular tradition).

Most of my contention with the term “religious education” and the goal of “making better Catholics” comes from an experience I had during at the end of my second semester teaching.  In a formal setting, a diocesan official asked me if I thought of myself as an evangelizer, and my classroom as a locus for evangelization. Given that he knew the demographics of my school, he was referring specifically to the fact that most of my students are Christian but not Catholic.  Evangelization is a complicated issue I will pick up in another post, but the overwhelming conclusion I gained from this interaction is that I could not answer “yes, I do understand myself as a Catholic evangelizer, seeking to defend the faith and convert non-Catholics.”  But I could not answer “no, not at all” as that could not have been the appropriate answer for a “religion teacher.”   And that is the duality I am trying to grapple with here, the interplay between theology, religion, and catechesis, bearing in mind the audience I teach and the stated goals of my department.  I’m not sure how that should translate into a job title, but “Religion Teacher” does not seem accurate.

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15 thoughts on “Identity Issues

  1. One of our clocks is really wrong…

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    I particularly struck by your comparison of teaching mathematical equations or historical facts to religious instruction, and the contrasting of all of those with theological study. What discipline results when one “analyze[s] and parse[s] with the fullest range of one’s intellect” mathematical facts?

    • It’s a rather disparaging comparison, I’ll admit. I think what I was trying to get at their is the problem of depth vs. breadth and teaching content vs. skill. A frequent discussion among high school teachers is the problem of “transmission teaching,” ie: the teacher is the holder of knowledge and she merely transmits it into the brains of students. For obvious reasons, this type of teaching is widely criticized, but the pushback I frequently hear from math/science teachers is that the sheer amount of content those classes cover require this type of teaching in order to make their students successful and competitive. Quite simply, they argue that don’t have time to worry about critical thinking or research skills; they have to leave those to a college education in order to make their students college material. Religion class doesn’t have to contemplate this sacrifice; I can linger in a topic, particularly if I think it will teach a skill, or dabble into a little bit of history, psychology, and sociology, as they might relate to theology (I have an admittedly idealistic idea that theology is more interdisciplinary than a lot of other high school classes). I’m certainly not naive enough to think my students are using the fullest range of their intellect in my classes, but the lack of restrictions I face as a religion teacher at least gives me hope to think its more possible in a high school religion class than in many other high school science or math classes.

      • I don’t really understand why your math/science colleagues don’t feel the same way you do. High school chemistry teachers used to ask my undergraduate advisor what content they should teach in order to prepare students for his college classes. His standard response (after 30 years of teaching undergraduates) was, “Teach them anything, so long as you don’t make them hate chemistry.”

        Perhaps I just have a similar learning style to you (per your response to Mary below), but I really don’t like the “transmission teaching” model of instruction. In math and science I think we are overly focused on needing to know all the facts. While some knowledge is certainly necessary and proper, my response to the claims of your math and science teachers is this: If your student never takes another class in math or science, what is most important? That your student remember how to solve every equation, or that your student understand that science and math are tools they can access and use in their lives? That your student remember any single piece of knowledge, or that your student walk away with any single life tool?

        Which is a long way of saying, I wholly support the way you are trying to push your students and your job, and think that the main distinction between religion/theology and other disciplines is the tidy linguistic (thanks MF!) distinction between the fact-based and thought-based of instruction.

        • Luke, I completely agree with you. The one point I would make is that the school where I teach is a firmly college prep program. We know our students will continue their education after us. I think the idea is–make the students competitive for college, and they can do critical thinking classes there. So I’m glad you don’t believe in transmission teaching. If high school sciences can’t get to it, we know college level professors will. (Not a perfect solution, but a compromise).

  2. Carmen–
    I like this layout of your different options. Do you see Catechetics as a prelude to theology, as something to be engaged in simultaneously, or neither? You say that theology presumes a deep knowledge of the contents of a faith tradition, but as I understand it, one of the problems of your job is that your students either have never been told or have been misinformed as to the basic contents of Catholicism. I mean, all the “is it a sin if…” has a lot more to do with the ways they’re seeing Catholicism engaged in than with the actual contents of Catholic doctrine (which, if I have heard you correctly, is not ACTUALLY “all sin, all the time”).

    So I guess what I’m asking is: Can you actually teach theology here? Is there room for theology when so much has to be catechetics? On the other hand, can you afford NOT to teach theology?

  3. Generally, catechetics is understood as a prelude to theology. But I’m pretty committed to the idea that my students are mature enough to critically analyze the standard doctrine I teach (an idea which not all high school religion teachers share). Not every student nor every topic lends itself well to this assertion, but I guess I feel that by junior or senior year, the time for catechetics has passed. I cannot simply convince them of the truth of the doctrine (or maybe I just am ill equipped to do so) because of their emotional development at that age (they are so fantastically opinionated!). They are certainly not capable of the depth of theology done in colleges or grad schools, but perhaps, baby theology.

    One of the overwhelming conclusions I reached after only a few weeks of teaching is that I teach as if students learn exactly the way I do. And I learn best by questioning and being very critical (thank you, graduate school). It certainly is a problem I am trying to rectify so as not to alienate other types of learners, but I honestly believe that teaching them to be critical is the best thing I can do for them, even if it results in a crisis of faith. Faith without critical analysis will not serve an intelligent adult for very long.

    • ” I honestly believe that teaching them to be critical is the best thing I can do for them, even if it results in a crisis of faith.”

      Absolutely! You’re preaching to the choir here. So what you’re saying is, if they haven’t learned all the finer points of doctrine, it’s less important that they catch up in that than it is that they forge ahead into inquiry?

  4. I don’t know much about the finer distinctions between theology and religion, but I will say that their linguistic origins are extremely different. As far as I understand it, theology, from the Greek theos (god), and logos (argument, study of, etc.), means in English exactly what the Greek roots suggest it does. Religion, on the other hand, is from the Latin religio, which originally meant ‘duty.’ The meaning eventually became ‘duty towards the gods,’ which is obviously where we get ‘religion,’ but its basic meaning is still ‘obligation’ or something similar. I’m pretty sure that in Lucretius (who was, admittedly, an Epicurean) it has a pejorative meaning. ANYWAYS. Even the root meanings of the words support your desire to be a theology teacher rather than a religion teacher (which, yes, totally falls flat. I much prefer being a Classics teacher to being a Latin teacher (as much as I do, in all seriousness, love Latin grammar)).

    Also, re: your comment to Mary, I am terrible about assuming that all my students will learn the same way(s) I do. It’s really bad.

    • I did not know that! (Or, more probably, I forgot.) Do you know where/when it made the change to being “duty toward the gods”? Or when it started being used to denote what we’d term “religion” today? As I understand it, the concept of religion we work with today is largely an Enlightenment (or Modern?) concept, but I don’t know whether the term was kicking around before then.

      • This is fascinating, MF. I love knowing etymology! Thanks!

        Mary, you were reading Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” a few years ago, right? is that where the religion as an Enlightenment concept comes from? I have heard that before but never quite knew its origin.

        I think part of my thoughts outlined above can be traced to the connotations of “religion” and “theology.” Let’s be real–the idea of being a teacher of “duties” rather than “spiritual/intellectual searching” is far less exciting.

        • Well, a) I got about ten pages into Durkheim before other work took over (it’s still on my shelf. I’m going to read it…some day.) and b) I haven’t actually read that anywhere, either. It’s one of those ideas floating through the ether that people like to point out but I haven’t seen fully established anywhere. But most of what I’ve read both in ancient and modern religion would support that dichotomy.

          Definitely more exciting. Not to mention that I find the idea that the content of a religion consists of the duties it places on one pretty terrible. (As I think you would agree.)

  5. Carmen,
    In re-reading this, I’m wondering about whether you would make a distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic students in terms of what you, personally, think is appropriate/important for them to learn. In a world where you were totally in charge of religious education (and what a glorious world that would be), would you teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently in your school? What about in an explicitly ecumenical theology department? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?

  6. Carmen, this is a well done post. Hi to you and Mary both — between this and Esther, the blog has auspicious beginnings (heck, I even teach the Old Testament and needed some of that Esther insight).

    A few questions: is your school teaching the new USCCB framework? What are your thoughts? If not, what’s your curriculum? How do you balance this religion/theology thing institutionally?

    Our department just started the new framework, and while I could write pages about its strengths and weaknesses, one of the transition hurdles we’re definitely feeling is the amount of catechetics and apologetics built in… we have long (and haughtily) considered ourselves teachers of THEOLOGY, in the same way you described. Catechetics and apologetics were underemphasized in our previous curriculum, so we’re struggling to change our “ways” and figure out whether we have to leave out some theology to fit in this new stuff. On the one hand, that sucks. It’s good to do theology. On the flip side, I can understand the Bishops’ desire for uniformity and catechesis: even our Catholic students are woefully ignorant of the faith, meaning we were sometimes reaching too far where it wasn’t fruitful (e.g., can you teach Dulles models of the Church to people who barely know what the bishop is?). Now I find myself struggling to keep things together in a class where some people are ready for theology and some are just learning what the word “supernatural” means or that Israel and Persia are parts of history.

    I look forward to your thoughts on the Catholics / non-Catholics question. Peace!

  7. Hey John!

    Our department is implementing the USCCB framework year by year, starting now with the freshmen year class, so 3 years from now, we’ll have it totally implemented. I also have quite a few opinions about its strengths and weaknesses. One of its strength is obviously the basic primer in Catholic doctrine. It definitely isn’t an equal playing field of knowledge in my classes with such a large number of non-Catholic students. But you’re definitely right–there is a certain amount of catechetics and apologetics built in, which is what makes the freshmen class particularly challenging to teach. And I’m not entirely comfortable with that amount of apologetics given that we swear up and down that you don’t have to be Catholic to be a student here.

    I teach juniors and seniors, and I’m always intrigued by how much they are capable of when compared to freshmen and sophomores. I think what makes theology possible is their burgeoning maturity, (and the fact that my students are so incredibly opinionated), so I’ve actually started to think a little bit about the idea of teaching the freshmen year course in their senior year–that way it could be a little bit more like a systematics course rather than apologetics.

    Mary asked me a good question in one of the comments…about my ideal religious ed curriculum. I’ll probably write my next post about that!

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