Saturday, October 16, 2010

Questions and Catechesis

“If churches do not aim to help children, youth and adults become sensitive, compassionate persons who possess the knowledge, attitudes and capacity to act responsibly alone and institutionally in relation to the changing needs of society, we will have failed our children, ourselves - and God . . . To facilitate the development of this kind of persons, the community of faith needs to meet at least three conditions: first, shared meaningful celebrations . . . second, reflected-upon experiences . . . third, opportunities for political and social action.”
- John Westerhoff

This is the Quote of the Month for the October 2010 LCMS Youth Bulletin. I had some difficulty parsing it out, so I went to the source. Westerhoff was ordained UCC, but currently serves in the Episcopalian Church. He has an article online that is quite revealing, and explains much of what this quote is about: Church Education for Tomorrow. It’s well worth the read as an exposition of the quote above. While the quote itself is not found in the article, all the notes are present.

What does this mean for us? It simply begs the question: Whatever happened to “As the head of the household should teach them in a simple way to his household”?

Luther was frustrated with his people: "[M]any see the catechism as a poor, common teaching, which they can read through once and immediately understand. They can throw the book into a corner and be ashamed to read it again" (LC, Preface:2, Kolb-Wengert). We relate to that in our own way. “How do you get rid of bats in the belfry? Answer: Catechize and confirm them and you’ll never see them again.”

The problem isn’t that the material itself, or that rote memorization is antithetical to faith-building. Quite the opposite in fact. One could just as easily say that memorizing basic Math facts is useless—until that faculty is needed in daily life. Technology aside, the ability to compute mathematically will not absent itself from our various vocations. Every time, in every place, 2+2=4, and 5X5=25. When that fails, whole systems will fall apart. We learned those basic facts through rote memorization, and then we learned to apply them. We believe in them. They are, if you will permit me, the lex orandi, lex credendi of arithmetic. The same is true of the catechism. Luther explains:

Besides, catechism study is a most effective help against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts. It helps to be occupied with God’s Word, to speak it, and meditate on it, just as the first Psalm declares people blessed who meditate on God’s Law day and night (Psalm 1:2). Certainly you will not release a stronger incense or other repellant against the devil than to be engaged by God’s commandments and words, and speak, sing, or think them [Colossians 3:16]. For this is indeed the true “holy water” and “holy sign” from which the devil runs and by which he may be driven away [James 4:7]. (LC, Preface: 10, Kolb-Wengert)

Furthermore, Luther saw no such thing as delaying catechetical study until a child was in puberty. For him, the catechism was for “children and for simple folk” (LC, Short Preface: 1, Kolb-Wengert). “It teaches what every Christian must know. . . Therefore, we must have the young learn well and fluently the parts of the catechism or instruction for children, diligently exercise themselves in them, and keep them busy in them.” (LC, Short Preface: 2-3, Kolb-Wengert). This is faith bearing fruit through catechized vocation.

It begins first in the Divine Service, for Luther’s admonitions regarding the catechism and its use starts there.

We have no small reasons for constantly preaching the catechism and for both desiring and begging others to teach it. For sadly we see that many pastors and preachers are very negligent in this matter and slight both their office and this teaching. Some neglect the catechism because of great and high art ‹giving their mind, as they imagine, to much “higher” matters›. But others neglect it from sheer laziness and care for their bellies. They take no other stand in this business than to act as pastors and preachers for their bellies’ sake. (LC, Preface, 1, Kolb-Wengert)

And again:

O bishops! What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office [James 3:1]? May all misfortune run from you! 5 ‹I do not wish at this place to call down evil on your heads.› You . . . insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care at all whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of God’s Word. Woe, woe to you forever! [See Matthew 23.] (SC, Preface: 4, Kolb-Wengert)
According to Luther, pastors and preachers who do not know their catechism should “have nothing given [them]to eat, but [they] should also be driven, baited with dogs, and pelted with dung” (LC, Preface: 13, Kolb-Wengert). That’ll get your dander up! Yet he backs his words by God’s own command, Deu 6:6-8,

that we should always meditate on His precepts, sitting, walking, standing, lying down, and rising. We should have them before our eyes and in our hands as a constant mark and sign. Clearly He did not solemnly require and command this without a purpose. For He knows our danger and need, as well as the constant and furious assaults and temptations of the devils (LC, Preface: 14, Kolb-Wengert).

This is an example for the family, as pastors are to be in their parishes. So Luther commends this responsibility to the head of the household: “Therefore, it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and see what they are learning from the catechism” (LC, Short Preface: 4, Kolb-Wengert).

Yet in the above-mentioned article, Westerhoff, critical of the catechetical method, writes:

Characteristically, Christian faith was understood in terms of nurture, which functionally corresponded to a gradual process of schooling. Church educators proceeded to develop a program of education that moved from baptism through instruction to confirmation—or, more accurately, to institutional initiation. At the same time evangelical Protestant churches, also enamored of the “schooling-instructional” paradigm, described personal conversion as their purpose and designed educational programs that used instruction to move persons to an early faith commitment. Neither side could affirm the other’s purpose though both depended upon the same paradigm. Both, I contend, have made a serious error.

The error he contends is that this is merely “institutionalized incorporation” into religion. It is not mature faith. And here is the key: “The Christian faith by its very nature demands conversion. We do not gradually educate persons to be Christian. Of course, conversion can and indeed often has been misunderstood and overemphasized, but that does not justify our disregarding it as one necessary purpose of Christian education.”

What Westerhoff misses is that faith is Sacramentally given in Baptism and nurtured in catechesis (as well as the Word preached, Absolution, and the Holy Supper). This is according to Christ’s command that the church is to be baptizing and teaching (Mt 28:19-20) to keep all that He commanded. This is not imparted as if a history lesson, but according to the work of the Holy Spirit through human agents. Catechesis is teaching. Luther writes, “So a person who does not know this catechism could not be counted as a Christian or be admitted to any Sacrament, just as a mechanic who does not understand the rules and customs of his trade is expelled and considered incapable” (LC, Short Preface: 1, Kolb-Wengert). Conversion is not a learned experience; it is a given. It is given by the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not struggle in order to say “I believe.” The opposite is true, as the Third Article confesses.

Westerhoff’s answer to Luther’s form of catechesis is

Persons need to be nurtured into a community’s faith and life. There is a basic need for religious experience. But persons also need, if they are to grow in faith, to be aided and encouraged to judge, question and even doubt that faith, to be given the opportunity to experiment with and reflect upon alternative understandings and to learn what it means to commit their lives to causes and persons. We must never depreciate the important intellectual aspect of Christian faith. Only after a long adolescent struggle with doubt and an honest consideration of alternatives can a person truly say, “I believe.” And only then is a person enabled to live the radical political, economic and social life of the Christian in the world.

In other words, it is not enough that the devil has his “darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you.” (LC, Lord’s Supper: 82, Kolb-Wengert), Westerhoff encourages a dance with the devil in order to arrive at a hearty, heartfelt “I believe.” So much for lex cedendi, lex orandi! Let’s not forget something here. Lutherans don’t run from the struggles of doubt; rather, we embrace them as life under the cross. The Lord disciplines His sons, and struggles and doubt are a part of that. But to be “encouraged to judge, question and even doubt that faith” is not what makes Christian growth. When a Christian faces the doubts that come as they may, he places them in the wounds of Christ where they belong and simply says, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief (Mk 9:24). He doesn’t go seeking them intentionally.

It is through the struggles (tentatio), being constantly driven to the cross, and ever living out the life of Baptism that the faith matures. This is sanctification, is it not, and it is not an outgrowth of intentional head-butts with the devil. Sanctification is the Holy Spirit’s own working out of faith in Christ in and through us. Even our feeble confession “I believe” is wrought within us by what the Holy Spirit has given, not through what we have done by what we have come through. One who is baptized is never alone, but is a member of the Body of Christ, His Church. Of this growth in faith our confessions say

So, until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit abides with the holy congregation or Christendom [John 14:17]. Through this congregation He brings us to Christ and He teaches and preaches to us the Word [John 14:26]. By the Word He works and promotes sanctification, causing this congregation daily to grow and to become strong in the faith and its fruit, which He produces [Galatians 5]. (LC, II, art. 3: 52 Kolb-Wengert)

I’m not as smart as Dr. Luther. Never will be. So I take his advice to heart. He used his catechism daily, thinking himself as a child in need of it that often.

I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly. These dainty, fastidious fellows would like quickly, with one reading, to become doctors above all doctors, to know all there is to be known. Well, this, too, is a sure sign that they despise both their office and the people’s souls, yes, even God and his Word. They need not fear a fall, for they have already fallen all too horribly. What they need is to become children and begin learning their ABC’s, which they think they have outgrown long ago. (LC, Preface: 7, Tappert)

He gives this advice to us all:

Look at these bored, presumptuous saints who will not or cannot read and study the Catechism daily. They evidently consider themselves much wiser than God himself, and wiser than all his holy angels, prophets, apostles, and all Christians! God himself is not ashamed to teach it daily, for he knows of nothing better to teach, and he always keeps on teaching this one thing without varying it with anything new or different. All the saints know of nothing better or different to learn, though they cannot learn it to perfection. Are we not most marvelous fellows, therefore, if we imagine, after reading or hearing it once, that we know it all and need not read or study it any more? Most marvelous fellows, to think we can finish learning in one hour what God himself cannot finish teaching! Actually, he is busy teaching it from the beginning of the world to the end, and all prophets and saints have been busy learning it and have always remained pupils, and must continue to do so. (LC, Preface: par. 15, Kolb-Wengert)

If God has so much to teach us in the catechism that we have not yet learned, then what I am wondering now is: Instead promoting a man who encourages youth to doubt what He has given, shouldn't we instead make better use of our own precious resources, which begin in and retain the things of God?

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