A religion teacher today faces students schooled in both scientific methods and vague understandings of what is meant by the spiritual. Students often exhibit a strange mixture of hard-headed empiricism and naïve superstition. When I suggest to my students, for instance, that reality includes the intangible, which can be glimpsed in the light of faith and reason, they nod in agreement and confess their belief in the predictions of Nostradamus, about whom they have seen a documentary. For them the intangible means the realm of fortune-telling and ghosts, to which they are willing to give assent because of the “empirical” evidence offered by television and the Internet.
In such an atmosphere, teaching religion requires familiarity with a range of subjects seemingly unrelated to those covered in the religion textbooks. Teachers of religion need to be able to explain the distinctions between different kinds of knowing, the various ways human beings arrive at truth claims, the type of understanding proper to the spheres of science and religion, and the relation between mystery and faith.
Too often both textbook and teacher simply assume that students understand what is meant by the term God. I have seen many student texts intended to be an introduction to Catholicism that use the word God from the first page to the last without once attempting to explain just who or what they are referring to. As John Haught states in his aptly named book, What Is God?, “Unless there is some common ground of reference when people speak of the divine…it seems pointless to speak to them of the divine at all.” Unfortunately, for many students God-talk is pointless.
Five years of teaching high school religion have led me to concur wholeheartedly with the suggestion made by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton that adults, including religious educators, need to “develop more confidence in teaching [adolescents] about their faith traditions and expecting meaningful responses from them.” This suggestion, from their book Soul Searching (2005), is backed by interviews and surveys of more than 3,000 teenagers regarding religion and spirituality. Among other findings, the authors contend that most teenagers, even those in Catholic schools, have an extremely poor understanding of the most basic concepts and beliefs held by their particular faith traditions. While Smith and Denton do not lay the entire blame for this situation on the shoulders of religious educators, their suggestion that adults attempting to communicate the faith to adolescents need both confidence and high expectations certainly challenges those of us whose job it is to teach and transmit the Catholic faith to our students.
Before high school religious education can be reinvigorated, then, the confidence with which educators themselves speak of God must be built up. Their education must go beyond a passing knowledge of terms and formulations of doctrines to include a fundamental and rigorous analysis of such concepts as meaning, truth, belief and knowledge, as well as the ways in which human beings arrive at these concepts in the first place. In other words, we need to place philosophical theology at the heart of educating both religion teachers and those they serve.
Most students in fact have already formed their own basis for belief or unbelief, and in both instances their implicit “philosophies” are cobbled together from some of the worst God-talk popular culture has to offer. In this sense, there is no question that students are up to the task of philosophical reflection about God. The problem is that this reflection is taking place without the direction and input of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
For the last several years I have begun my classes with a lengthy unit on the doctrine of God. I have introduced students to thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner and Elizabeth Johnson. We have looked at what we mean by God from several perspectives, like the analogy of being, the logical movement from creation to creator in natural theology and issues of gendered language. I have had to work hard to translate this material into vocabulary, examples and conceptual models that my students are able to understand, and they have consistently risen to the occasion. After all, these same students are also taking courses in geometry, chemistry and world history. If they can master the Pythagorean theorem and the complex interaction of chemical substances, they are up to the task of understanding the relation between freedom and transcendence, and the need to use analogical language when speaking of God.
In these times of worry over the loss of the Catholic identity of both secondary and higher educational institutions, such explicit use of philosophy in the service of understanding faith also serves to highlight the Catholic roots of religious education. The inextricable link between faith and reason is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic tradition. When students understand that Catholicism has a rich history of encouraging and using reason to approach mystery, they begin to overcome their sense that intelligence and faith are antithetical. They also begin to understand the distinctly Catholic take on issues like evolution and biblical literalism, issues fraught with conflict for many other Christians. In an age that often conflates knowledge with scientific empiricism and faith with uncritical fundamentalism, it is important to provide students with a Catholic approach to understanding the complexities of the “God question” that enables them to give meaningful responses to questions about faith.
Recently I witnessed an example of what can happen when students have engaged in the challenging process of thinking about God. A transfer student from another Catholic school arrived in my sophomore Scripture class several months after we had completed the unit on the doctrine of God. As I was explaining that ancient Israelite cosmology viewed the universe as composed of three tiers, with God residing above the dome of the sky, one of my students raised his hand to say that technically this could not be correct because God is infinite and cannot therefore be confined to a single space; that would place a limit on God, who transcends all limits. The transfer student raised her hand in confusion, and I attempted to explain what the other student was talking about by mentioning that God has no body. Still confused, she said that she had always thought of God as being like Hercules, “but real.” Several students then tried to explain to her that God is not a “thing,” but rather the act of existence itself from which all “things” proceed. Though the transfer student remained confused, and I suggested she see me later, this was one of those moments teachers dream about. My students had actually listened, understood and were able to communicate that understanding in response to live questions.
A Personal, Relational God
None of this is to suggest that religious education should focus solely on the philosophical comprehension of God. In fact, if this intellectual understanding is not followed by a presentation of the personal, loving and gracious God of revelation, then the philosophical aspect might do more harm than good. Addressing the reasoned basis for faith in the God of revelation is only one component—albeit an extremely important one—of a faith education that seeks to form students as whole persons: mind, body and soul. Liturgy, prayer and service are equally necessary if students are to deepen the understanding they have begun in religion class. Nevertheless, if we truly desire to form a generation capable of facing the problems and promises of both the church and the world, we must make the ability to give a reason for the hope within them (1 Pt 3:15) a necessary precondition.