Dissemination vs. Discernment in Catechesis

Last night, I caught a moment of Nate Silver's Fresh Air interview. He shared that according to IBM, 90% of the world's data has been created in the last two years. After fumbling around a distinction between knowledge and data (are videos of cute kitties real knowledge?), Nate explained how discernment is the critical task of education today. Information abounds, but how do we know what to believe?

This is why catechesis is essential to our life as Christians. In the ancient church, catechesis was a process of discerning one's calling and life as a Christian. It length varied from 40 days to 3 years, but consistently included mentoring, conversation and teaching on Christian beliefs, rigorous prayer, rituals of initiation (baptism!) and a commitment to ongoing instruction. Catechesis wasn't indoctrination, trickle-down education, or memorizing the Five Chief Parts (questions and answers!). Catechesis was the beginning of a family relationship between the believer, the church, and God.

Tim Keller recently announced the release of "The New City Catechism." Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this. In the announcement, he affirms the relationality of learning, but frames the relationship between the teacher and learner in a hierarchical manner. Some people have knowledge. They will disseminate it to others:
The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. It creates a true community as teachers help students—and students help each other—understand and remember material. Parents catechize their children. Church leaders catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones.
Discerning truth doesn't seem to play into the educational pedagogy behind the creation of the catechism and students don't shape or help the teachers, parents or leaders. At least, it not in Keller's presentation of it.

This mode of disseminating facts via questions and answers that someone else has created doesn't work for most people. It especially doesn't work for our brothers and sisters in poverty and pain. They don't need someone who is educated and resourced (in a particular kind of way) to write their questions for them. We each have our own questions based on our own experience. We need the wisdom of the church to walk us through the ways God has answered the questions of the people through the person of Jesus Christ and the history of the people of Israel. We need help filtering faithfulness from funk.

The problem with a question and answer format proposed here is that it presumes to ask our questions for us. It offers definitive, even irrefutable responses in a world filled with a plurality of opinions and options. If I disagree with this "irrefutable response," I can simply go on and create my own set of "irrefutable responses." The challenge for the church today is finding a way to offer discernment and wisdom for the broad spectrum of people in our churches and denominations without claiming to speak the questions and without claiming the ability to answer questions satisfactorily for all people.

As a person who thinks about the church and her people regularly, as someone deeply concerned about the most faithful practices of forming disciples, I have to pause and ask if 16th century catechetical models are the best, most faithful practices for today. I have to wonder if the questions of someone else (who is likely more educated than me and the rest of us) will push me deeper into relationship with others and with God or if they will simply register as "more minimally information" on my radar. Not because the answers given aren't full of truth, but because the mode of learning isn't transformational.

1 comment:

Melissa Anglim said...

As always, you are thoughtful and articulate. Miss hearing from you. Please send your mailing info. - Most gratefully, Harper