I received some good thoughts from a friend in response to my last post.
First, he noted that one of the difficulties of counter-catechesis in American life is that American spheres of formation often have a perceivable endpoint. For politics, we can vote. For capitalism, we can consume. For patriotism, we can support/serve.
Second, he briefly mentioned the difficulty of the Benedict Option — particularly, that it is often seen as a version of escape and the relinquishing of influence in our communities.
To the first response, I understand and agree, to a point. Old-school systematic catechism also perceived (and perceives?) an endpoint. My first memories of church, before we scooted over to the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions, are from St. Luke-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles, LA. I can specifically recall some of the older children starting to go through catechism, and before we moved to the charismatic church a few miles away, I assumed I’d go through the UMC catechism too (and was excited about that!).
But the whole point of that catechism was for confirmation within the church. After those classes, one becomes a full-fledged member of that local body, and of the United Methodist Church.
There was no such system, as far as I was aware, in any of the following churches we attended. Most of them were charismatic or Pentecostal, but all of them focused on inner, experiential change with a focus on right belief. That focus rarely came with systematic teaching or discipleship. Instead, it was simply assumed that serious members of the church attended Sunday school and services on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Adolescents attended youth group. Children attended “kids’ church” — but to my recollection, there was no systematic basis for teaching the tenets of the faith.
Here is where the difficulty comes in. On one hand, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic mix of traditions I grew up in recognized something essential. That is, spiritual growth is relational and ongoing. Confirmation/catechism can, in some cases, miss this point. The danger is that it can assume completion of catechism and baptism or communion are the “final steps” of the process. Then, spiritual growth (or discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever your tradition calls it) is stunted. This leaves a gap in the formation of character, which can be filled by some of those spheres mentioned above (politics, consumerism, individualism, patriotism, etc.).
So, in one sense, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic traditions get it right. There is little desire for a systematic catechesis because of a fear that it seems like there is no more to do after it’s complete.
On the other hand, my assessment is that the traditions without a systematic catechism have done very little to replace it with a robust alternative. Instead, we have relied on emotional appeals and a heavy emphasis on personal devotion in the form of “quiet time.” (To clarify, I don’t think we ought to divorce spirituality from personal devotion or emotion — those can be important parts of spiritual growth.)
What, then, are we left with? Christians without a deep foundation of theological and creedal understanding. And again, what fills in these theological gaps? The spheres of politics, patriotism, and consumerism. And in some sense, we could argue this is even more dangerous. Because when this happens, those spheres distort the emotions and the personal devotion of the Christian, and it becomes really easy to conflate American ways of life or political commitments with what Jesus seems to ask of his followers.
So maybe what I’m talking about is two-fold. For those churches that already offer a systematic catechism, we need a more robust and continual discipleship which continues to form the character and worldview of its members. For those without a systematic foundation in Christian theology and thought, we ought to start providing a catechesis based on the creeds.
I still think my initial point in the first post is true — we need a strong catechesis, coupled with a continual discipleship.
What I’m not sure about is how many people will actually be willing to give their time to this. It’s much, much easier to continue to adhere to the systems in which we have already been catechized. The pull of American politics, consumerism, individualism, and the like are strong. Maybe that’s why Kierkegaard was so stringent about the fact that the mob is untruth.
The Benedict Option
I was going to respond to my friend’s concerns about the BenOp here, but I’ll leave that for next time. This post already got a little longer than I anticipated.