Secularism and Biblical Studies

I think there’s a general perception that Biblical scholars have a secular worldview. I know that when I first began thinking about graduate programs, that was my expectation. My undergraduate experience was in a religious studies department at a public university, and while many or most of the students had a religious background that informed their studies, it was clear to me then that we were expected to check those at the door, so to speak, and approach a religion from the outside in. For me, with interests (at that time) in the formative periods of Judaism and Christianity, that wasn’t hard (perhaps surprisingly?). It was clear to me that even if we thought of the same texts as sacred, my religion was not the same as that of second Temple Jews, or even of the early Christian communities. My little cousin looks astoundingly like his grandfather but is clearly a different person.

[Now that I think about it, that was kind of a strange situation to be in—many public universities don’t have a religious studies department at all. I’d like to talk with my professors there about how their teaching is influenced by the type of program it is, whether they would teach from a different perspective in a different situation, and whether they have to tread carefully with the constant spectre of the state breathing down their necks. But I digress.]

I think that this perception becomes a stigma, even. The Bible is a career to you, and you spend your whole life picking it apart and de-sacralizing it, so to speak. How can you possibly take it seriously as a religious text? (Your mileage may vary, however—I’d be interested to know whether others have the same sense.) The question of how such a thing is possible is a great topic for another day. The point is that it is the case; the more I get to know others in my field, the more I realize that most of us do have some sort of faith commitment.

And yet– and yet—we’re still expected to check those at the door. It’s not that we pretend they’re not there; we just don’t really talk about them. We talk as if they didn’t inform our every thought; as if they didn’t matter. This is less true in theology departments, as I’ve since learned—there’s more of a space, in classrooms and conversations, to be more than a brain with legs. One of my great memories from [mystery program] is of the last ten minutes of a seminar class dealing with canon formation. We’d spent the past two and a half hours taking the canon apart, looking at how canonical choices were made, asking ourselves, “What is a canon, anyway?” and coming exhaustively to the conclusion that really, we had no idea. (That also is another post for another day.) Finally one man—an Episcopal priest, and a very good one, as it happened—sat back and said, “Okay. So what do I tell my congregations about this?” And suddenly everyone started talking at once. This was a fascinating intellectual question, but also a serious challenge to faith. What did it mean to be part of a “religion of the book” if we couldn’t decide on the nature or the content of the “book” in question? And we all really wanted to talk about that; and in that place at that time, we could.

Those kinds of conversations are rare in the classroom; and my experience so far has been that people want to have them in private but need a real atmosphere of trust before they’re possible. For me, this blog is a place to make that possible—hence the insistence (however illusory) on privacy; I want it to be very clear that these are not the things I am publishing or teaching. This is a separate space.

So, now we get to the question: is this a good thing? Isn’t this fragmenting of ourselves completely artificial? Isn’t this insistence on an “outside-in” attitude toward religion just a holdover from the Modern period? Aren’t we just placating the atheistic god of Science, trying to be a science (which we’re clearly not—don’t get me started on the “social sciences”) in a vacuum-sealed world cut off from our essential humanity?

And I would say: “Yes, it’s a good thing,” but with footnotes. Yes, we should check our beliefs at the door (but we should also realize that that’s impossible). Yes, we should insist on critical distance from the text for ourselves and for our students (but we need to have so much patience with students for whom that comes hard). Yes, we should keep the “public” conversations—the papers and the conferences—on the “secular” level (even though secularism doesn’t exist in the way it was originally conceived). And here’s why: that is the only way (that I can think of, anyway) we can all have a place at the table. That’s the only way I, the then-nonbelieving child of a low-church Episcopal priest, could have fallen in love with this field with the help of a Jewish convert professor and a deeply committed Catholic friend (who, incidentally, ended up studying Hinduism, in large part because he didn’t feel able to maintain that critical distance). There needs to be a safe space to talk about how your work informs your faith; but we also need the space in which we talk about the work itself to be safe. It can’t be okay, for example, for Jewish scholars to be the targets of proselytization at conferences. As I see it: for now, at least, secularism is like a language that’s foreign to all of us; but it’s the only language we all speak.

(That’s what I think these days, anyway. I’d like to know what you think.)

What to teach?

In the comment section of my last post, Mary asked me these questions:

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? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?

I’ve been mulling over this for the past few days, as I have been lesson planning for my current classes.  I teach juniors a yearlong course called Morality (which is so fun to teach) and seniors a semester course called Social Justice (which is also fun, but the students find it personally and academically challenging).  But this week, I also gave a presentation to freshmen religion classes on the school’s service learning program and why we do service, so I spent way more time than I usually do with our first year students; all of these facts together have certainly influenced my ideas in this post.

The first thing to say is that I would under no circumstances teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently from one another.  What is challenging about teaching both demographics isn’t lack of familiarity (Catholic students are often just as ignorant about the intricacies of doctrine as non-Catholic students are) or even diversity (I enjoy hearing about what diverse faith traditions my students uphold; often the discussions we have where a non-Catholic speaks up gives a great opportunity to dig into the point deeper, a clear case for the fruitfulness of ecumenical/interfaith dialogue!).  What is challenging is that I simply have to pretend that I teach all Catholics.  In my last post, I pointed to this problem, as my department is a religion department and such a department seeks to make “better Catholics.”  It seems to me that the best way to avoid this issue is to opt for the “theology” model of teaching, rather than the “catechetical” model.  It would not solve the issue entirely, but catechesis attempts to demonstrate truth, rather than search for it, and it is that “I already have the truth, you just need to accept it” presumption that makes it difficult to teach non-Catholics.

The second thing to say is yes, there is a core of religious education all students should have; ideally, a well formed high school curriculum should prepare a student to speak intelligently on the Catholic faith tradition.  The questions that remain then are: what is the essential material necessary for a clear understanding of the Catholic faith? And more importantly: how can that information be presented in age-appropriate fashion?

My basic idea is as follows:

First year–Liturgy: Sacraments and Saints
Sophomore year—Bible: Old Testament and Jesus
Junior year—Morality: Fundamental theological topics and Moral Decision Making
Senior year–World Religions and Catholic Systematic Theology

I’ll start with Junior year.  Junior year is absolutely the perfect time to teach Morality; the topics discussed are incredibly necessary for today’s teenagers.  Students are just about 15 or 16 years old and beginning to face serious moral decisions; as a result, they enjoy the class a lot and delve into the issues deeply.  Additionally, I found last year that the first few months of Morality are the perfect time for a short overview (about one quarter’s length) of fundamental theological topics as they relate to Morality: Jesus as a moral teacher, the Church as a moral guide, sin, anthropology and conscience, etc.

Sophomore year, as a precursor to Morality, is an excellent time to teach Bible.  One year is obviously not enough time to teach the Bible (I’m sorry, Mary), but I think it’s a time when they are growing a little more serious and are capable of understanding things like biblical criticism and myth in a more sophisticated way.  I also think ending the sophomore year on Jesus is a good set up to Morality.

Senior year is really interesting; students are willing and able to handle more depth.  I think it’s incredibly important to teach World Religions during the senior year, as the students head off to college and beyond.  But I think senior year is also the perfect time to teach a genuine theology class, preferably a class that does theological method and a run through of Catholic Systematics.  I say this because a lot schools opt to teach a yearlong Catholic doctrine course to freshmen.  It is understood as a primer that sets all students, Catholic or non-Catholic, on a level playing field of Catholic literacy.  However, I think this idea is not entirely age appropriate; freshmen are not ready for intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I think a class that seeks to educate on Catholicism would yield far richer fruit when taught to seniors.

So, then, what are freshmen ready for?  Given especially that all students won’t be Catholic, how can a freshmen year course in a Catholic religious education department capture their attention?  To answer this question, I had to reflect personally and ask: what spoke to me in high school, and made me think that being Catholic was something I ought to consider?  The answer is definitely not “doctrine” or even “theology.”  The answer is definitely liturgy.  Most people are not interested in faith because they checked a Bible out of the library and read it cover to cover; most people are interested in faith because of an experience, a community, or a ritual that spoke to them on a deeper level.  Saints and sacraments are two of the most compelling and interesting aspects of Catholicism and they are ideas that can be taught with great ease to a variety of grade levels.  If the goal of a freshmen year religion course is to get students to engage with their faith in a deeper way and to start a conversation about what makes Catholicism interesting or special, liturgy seems like the perfect entry into that discussion.

As I conclude this post, I am painfully aware that I have been teaching for less than 2 years, and I teach only two of the 4 classes offered by my department.  I don’t presume to think that the curriculum I’ve outlined here is superior for any reason, but they are my ideas for what I would like to see taught (and to teach) in high schools.

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.