Thursday, February 22, 2007

Are We Really Teaching Religion?

In the short booklet Are We Really Teaching Religion?, Frank Sheed provides two prerequisites for the teaching of Religion. First, the teacher must be absolutely soaked in the New Testament. Secondly, he must be similarly soaked in the dogmas of the Church. What a wonderful requirement! Yet, I am inclined to agree with Sheed when he says that most Religion teachers do not fulfill it. Of course, before any teacher can take this “soaking” seriously, he must know what it means to be so acquainted with Scripture and doctrine, and it must be impressed upon him why this is so important.

Sheed explains that a teacher who is soaked in the New Testament “knows what every key chapter in it is about, knows the line of thought of every book of it, could find her way about it blindfold.” It is not enough to pick up the New Testament whenever questions about it arise, or when you need a defense of Catholic doctrine. It is only by reading the entire New Testament, and reading it often, that you can become so familiar with it that you could “find your way about it blindfold.” Religion teachers must know Scripture like the back of their hand! That’s what it means to be soaked in Scripture.

The teacher who is soaked in the Church’s dogmas “knows them in so far as the Church has expounded them.” Furthermore, he is “possessed by them.” To be possessed by these truths is to have “an almost anguished desire” to communicate them to others. It is not enough for him to simply read from the Catechism and go home. He has to actually know with great depth of understanding what it is that he is teaching. The “possessed” teacher knows both what he believes and why he believes it, and he longs with heartfelt desire to share the beauty and the inner-coherence of the faith with others. We must teach as one initiated into divine mysteries.

Knowing now what it means to be soaked in the New Testament and in the dogmas of the Church, we must ask why these prerequisites for the teaching of Religion are so important. Sheed’s defense of the importance of being soaked in the New Testament is simply brilliant, yet I would imagine that few people are familiar with it. He says, first of all, that we must know the New Testament well because, if we give the Word only a cursory glance, then we insult the Spirit who is its author. May we never sin against the Holy Spirit! That is definitely the last thing a Religion teacher would want to do, especially considering how vital the Spirit is to the presentation and assimilation of truth.

Secondly, and as a consequence of the first, if we “snub the Holy Ghost” then we can’t very well count on His cooperation in our classroom. What follows is what I esteem to be his greatest insight on this subject. Sheed tells us that the teaching of Religion is a dialogue between “the Holy Ghost in you helping you to say the truth, and the Holy Ghost in the child helping it to understand what you are saying.” How many of us have ever thought of the teaching of Religion in this way? I dare say such insight is rare. Yet, if more teachers longed to teach as one inspired by the Spirit, and as one attempting to ignite the Spirit in each one of his students, then they would take their task much more seriously and they would consider it of utmost importance to be steeped in the Word of God that the Spirit inspired. What speaks more to the Spirit than a work of the Spirit? What better way to teach in the Spirit than by informing all that you deliver by the Spirit’s handiwork?

As for being soaked in dogma, any dialogue with a skeptic, non-believer, or inquiring mind that is more than five minutes long should reveal to us the importance of possessing a deep and mature knowledge of Catholic teaching. It is certainly good to know what it is that we believe. But, if we can’t explain why we believe it, what it means to believe it, and what the implications of this belief are for the other truths of the faith, then we stand on a precarious foundation. Our faith is liable to be crushed. It waits only for the next question to fall into pieces. If we cannot present the beauty, the inner-coherence, and the “why” of our faith, then there is no way that we can enflame in the hearts of men the desire to know God and to be with Him. Men long, with every fiber of their being, to love, to be loved, and to know the Truth. God’s revelation is meant to fulfill this longing, but it cannot achieve this purpose if it is not delivered by good and faithful men who truly know what He has revealed. “How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14).

Thus, it is in every way essential that anyone who presumes to teach Religion be first soaked, drenched, utterly saturated in the New Testament and in the dogmas of the Church. Yet, before we criticize another for the degree to which he meets this requirement, the question must be asked: “How well do I make the grade?” Once the teacher makes of his own life a model of what is required of a teacher of Religion, then he can inspire other teachers to live similarly and he can properly inform and cause the conversion of his students so that they too will become the high-caliber teachers of Religion that we are all called to be.


Odysseus said...

I teach all subjects in a Catholic school to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I, too, wish all religion teachers, including myself, were soaked in the dogmas of the Church and the New Testament. But I have had to train myself and, while I can't think of specific examples, I am sure I have taught heresy before, simply because there is no one to teach the teacher! Of course, I do a lot of reading, but where is there an authoritative, and trustworthy, figure that can teach masses of lay instructors the authentic and uncorrupted doctrine of the Church?

Amber said...

I have far to go to "make the grade" but it's something worth striving for!

Christina said...

Thorough knowledge of content is best for any teacher, especially when the content is particularly important, as is the case in spiritual matters.

That said, is it better to be soaked or marinaded? :)

phatcatholic said...

I think it's better to be soaked! A marinade just coats the surface, but a soaking gets into the meat ;)

phatcatholic said...

"where is there an authoritative, and trustworthy, figure that can teach masses of lay instructors the authentic and uncorrupted doctrine of the Church?"

He sits on the Chair of Peter, in Rome ;)

Dub said...

I am a secondary high school religion teacher. This year I am teaching the Gospels. I was fascinated by Sheed's thoughts on the power of the Holy Spirit. I have taught many years, yet still have a certain passion when I teach that makes each class unique, simply because I turn it over to the Holy Spirit. I know I have taught a good class when as I drive home I think, "wow, where did that come from".

I also think to be a good example we as teachers must admit openly to our students that we are sinners. St. Paul told us that he hates the things he does, but also admits it is a vicious human cycle. Without sin we would not need Christ. With Christ we receive God's forgiveness and grace, and are free to live our flawed human life as best we can. It is never what happens to us that really matters anyway, it is how we learn through love how to handle what happens to us. That thought puts us all on the same page, the poor, the wealthy, the sick, the healthy, and on and on.

phatcatholic said...

I know I have taught a good class when as I drive home I think, "wow, where did that come from."

I feel ya. There were times when I would feel totally unprepared for a Scripture study I had to lead, but somehow I found the right words, and I often left those meetings with the feeling that the Spirit was at work.

However, we have to make sure that we don't put the Lord our God to the test. We can't make a habit out of being negligent, under the assumption that the Lord will provide. He won't take care of the rest until we try our best. That is why it is so important to be soaked in Scripture and Church teaching.

Pax Christi,

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