Open discussion: Teaching the faith

Evangelizing — making converts — is one thing; educating them is quite another. Catholic converts often have bad things to say about RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a lengthy period of instruction in the Catholic faith preceding full entry into the Church, the quality of which varies from parish to parish but which is often shot through with nonsense, sentimentality, and occasionally heresy. Having spent a few weeks now in the shoes of an instructor, I regret my own bitterness toward those who instructed me, who I now see are thrust into the impossible position of having to abstract roughly two thousand years’ worth of Christian insight into approximately three dozen 45-minute chunks and relaying them to people who are so often products of their time and culture — that is, aggressively ignorant and Philistine almost to the point of being ineducable. Worse still, so many are functionally illiterate that a return to the historically normative (and superior) model of catechism-based education would probably be counterproductive.

I’m sure Protestants and Orthodox have their own horror stories to share, but I’m more interested in the success stories. How, having won potential converts, do we proceed to educate them effectively, and turn them out into the world ready to live authentically Christian lives?

21 thoughts on “Open discussion: Teaching the faith

  1. We ought to make it much, much harder to become a communicating Christian. In the early centuries of the Church, when Christianity was exploding across and beyond the Empire, it generally took three years of catechetical instruction and spiritual discipline to qualify for Baptism and confirmation.

    The Essenes had the same threshold for full membership. We probably got it from them; indeed, we may just be them.

    The three year catechumenate should be – and back in the day, was – like spiritual boot camp. The old self was torn down, methodically, by ascesis and severe spiritual direction from a drill sergeant – i.e., a deacon – to make way for metanoia. Such a boot camp could suffice to demolish the modernist mental habits of the latter-day catechumen.

    The more difficult it is to profess a faith, the greater the faithfulness of its adherents, and the greater its appeal to likely prospects.

      • If you google “are the essenes the christians?” you’ll get a lot on it. My main source was Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, by Gabriele Boccaccini.

      • Okay…that was freaky.
        I googled it and got a lot of new age, revisionist, and sometimes outright anti-christian diatribes…heck even a wicca website had an article on the essene and Christianity!
        Sorry Kristor, but I have never really been into biblical shcolarship on that heavy of a level, so I’m completely lost. Apparently Jesus was not so special and was just doing/teaching what the Essenes did? Huh? I’m sure that’s not what you mean, but I’m rather confused.
        Guess I’ll just leave this up to those who know more about it.

      • Hm, yeah, same. Well, this is one of those notions that attracts a lot of attention from alt history anti-church nerds.

        The basic scholarly argument rests on the fact that the vibrant and extremely conservative Essene sect seem to have disappeared from history at the exact moment that the Church appeared, and that many Essene practices and beliefs were present also in the Church: monasteries and lay congregations led by overseers – bishops – a priesthood, intense interest in resurrection, etc. The speculation is that the Church began among a coterie of Essenes, and succeeded in converting the rest of the sect, moving on from them to Pharisees like Paul, and to the God-fearers.

      • Sorry about this comment being a couple of days late, I was sidetracked by the holidays.
        Thanks for that information Kristor!
        I guess my follow up response is to ask whether or not this would negatively impact the Faith, should it prove to be true? Is there a downside to this argument? And is it even a real and serious argument to begin with, or another attempt by some to hijack the Faith and make what they will of it?
        Like I said I have never been this deep into biblical/ancient hebrew scholarship (my area of study is the Medieval Era, Europe), so I wouldn’t know.
        What make you of this, Kristor?

      • I don’t think Essenes are a problem for Christians. As far as I can see, they were people who were “prepped” to become Christians. They disappeared because they all, very naturally, became Christians. I think of them as analogous to the tinder one lays in place when starting a fire.

      • Yes, exactly. I don’t believe that the discovery that Christianity is a development of Essenism would be a problem for the faith, any more than it is a problem for the faith that it is a development of Israel more generally, or that Israel in turn is a development of paganism and shamanism. That there are many Near Eastern religions in which the king or hero or son of God (“Dionysos” = “Begotten Son of God”; “Adonis” = “Adonai”) is sacrificed and reborn each year does not vitiate the truth of the Gospels. On the contrary.

        The argument for an Essene influence to Christianity is indeed serious, and there are serious scholars on both sides – or rather, all sides. The religio/political situation in First Century Palestine was incredibly complex, and there seem to have been many schools and bitterly contesting factions even among the Essenes. Just like today, right? Shoot, take any monastery of more than two monks, and you are going to see some faction. But what this means is that there were probably any number of ways that the Essene current might have joined with, or generated, the Christian current in Palestine.

        What’s interesting to me is that those who do try to use the many similarities between the Essenes and the Christians to buttress an argument that the early Church was nothing like the later Church are generally either objecting to a risible caricature of what the Church of every age actually teaches, or promoting a risible caricature of what the Essene scrolls actually taught, or both.

    • Re “In the early centuries of the Church, when Christianity was exploding across and beyond the Empire:”

      Theodosius (see the Codex Theodosianus XVI 1.2) and Charlemagne (see Capitulatio de partibus Saxonaiae) promoted forced conversions. The Teutonic order had a papal license to wage perpetual war against the pagans and used this to launch annual crusades against Lithuania. Consider also the inquisitions in Spain and Goa. Philip Jenkins has described how the violent fifth-century church settled its disputes in his book Jesus Wars.

      Kristor’s advocacy of a religious boot camp with “severe direction” strikes me as horrifying, if not cultish, but an improvement over the use of the sword.

      There is no evidence that Jesus or his immediate followers engaged in forced conversions. In the New Testament conversions were often immediate (see Matt 4: 18-20, Acts 2:41, and Acts 8:26-40) but without severity.

      None of this is to disparage the importance of Christian instruction and education.

      • Who said anything about forced conversions? Enrollment in the ancient catechetical schools was voluntary, and admission thereto much coveted.

        If it really is Good News, people will want to hear it.

      • Are you arguing that Christianity was solely or largely spread by the sword? As for your examples of conversion by the sword I contend that they do not support your thesis.

        Re the Teutonic order, it was originally set up to protect Christendom from ferocious pagans who constantly raided and barbarically slaughtered missionaries. It was at least (initially) defensive in nature. The Order did devolve and become worldly before becoming secular during the Reformation. But this still does not really help your thesis because when the Order was at its worst it was because it was attacking other Catholics.

        Re Spain, the Inquisition as tool of conversion was actually fairly limited in application and it ought to be read in the wider context of the Reconquista. Also one could point out that many of Spain’s world wide missionary activity was not forced at sword point. In Mexico for instance mass conversion began after the Marian apparition at Guadalupe.

        The Catholic Church is (and has been) against forced conversion, yes even during the Dark Ages where for example we have Pope Leo’s famous admonishment against forced conversions. I and the Church of course recognize that this principle has been violated many times: the Church, to the extent it is a human institution, can sin. To use these relatively scattered instances of conversions by the sword to support what I take to be the Mormon view of history I think also betrays how Mormonism really is an offshoot of American liberalism. I would note with some irony how many other modern ideologies notably feminism have also to a great extent appropriated this way thinking. A clear cultural example of this being Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci Code. It is an easy argument to employ to score some political points.

      • I am not arguing that Christianity was solely or largely spread by the sword, though sometimes it was, more often that we care to think. My thesis is not anti-Catholic, but universal. It consists of two parts. First, religious persecution is a bad idea, whether practiced by pagans, Muslims, Christians, Communists or whomever. Second, we should pay attention to how religious intolerance shaped history and how it still shapes current events, including the severe persecution of Christians in the Middle East today.

        Christian schools may have been voluntary, but their rivals were often outlawed. Paganism was crushed by severe decrees, their rites banned, their property seized, their texts destroyed, and their symbols smashed. One wonders if the Church felt a need for an unlevel playing field or if it felt it was getting its just revenge.

        The Crusades were deeply woven into the fabric of the Medieval Western Church for centuries. They have been wrapped in a warm memory of chivalry, piety, bravery, and honor, virtues which no doubt existed, but which mask the brutal aspects of the Crusades. The associated massacres are well documented. None of the victims of the Crusades, the Jews, the Muslims, the Byzantines, the Russian Orthodox, the pagans, the Albigensians, Cathari, Waldenses, and various groups labeled heretics, thought the Crusades were a good idea or a noble extension of New Testament Christianity or represented Good News. The brutality and aggressiveness of the Crusades were far out of proportion to mere defense or the goal of securing peaceful access to pilgrimage sites.

        As for the Reconquista, the Jews and the Muslims remember the aftermath of the Reconquista much differently and less pleasantly including the massacres, persecutions, forced conversions, and expulsions. My Jewish co-worker can trace her family back to Spain. The Jews found more tolerance among the Turks. The Spanish eventually forced the Portuguese to expel their Jews, many of whom had fled from Spain. Many also fled to Holland. My own genealogy has a hint of a Portuguese-Jewish connection with perhaps a Dutch connection, but I haven’t been able to trace it.

        Islam, too, had rulings against forced conversions, but Christians have little problem seeing where Islam compromised itself on that score.

        None if this is to say that modern Christianity behaves this way. There was the Papal permission of torture in 1252, but the modern Popes and Bishops are decidedly against torture. Aggiornamento.

        Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, changed its mascot, formerly a mounted Crusader, “as a matter of principle,” according to College President Duane Litfin. “I came to realize that those [Crusades] were not very happy episodes in Christianity. They are not something we want to glorify.” This is neither a Mormon observation, nor a liberal one, Wheaton College being a distinguished conservative Protestant institution.

      • All well and good, notwithstanding the fact that it is a one-sided, liberal view of history, especially wrt the Crusades, which were a riposte; when the First Crusade was launched, it had been only a few years since the Saracens had at last been expelled from Italy and Sicily, and that after the loss of lion’s share of Christendom. Europe barely survived the Moslem onslaught; it was Christendom’s last redoubt. To understand what the Crusaders were fighting against, you really should read Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

        Be all that as it may: is it not clear to you that talk of forced conversions is a total threadjack? This is an open discussion of catechesis, the *opposite* of forced conversion, and you want to focus on forced conversion. It is as if we had decided to discuss how to make Mormon missions more efficacious, and you insisted on talking about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

        Why don’t you tell us what you think about the subject under discussion, OK?

      • Kristor,

        I can see how you might feel this way, but right in the original post is the matter of explaining “roughly two thousand years’ worth of Christian insight,” which presumably includes some of its most famous and important phases, including periods when severe pressures put on non-believers, to put it mildly, which can account for the explosive growth that you brought up. You took the thread into a look at history. You were the one seemingly wanting to go back to those days by referencing them.

        Virtually all converts will have at least some ideas about the Crusades. They are much better known and historically influential that the Essenes, which you brought up. What were they (the Popes, the clergy, the laity) really thinking at the time? Should we still think the same way?

        This subject is surprisingly close to my personal situation. I am part of the Sunday School team assigned to teach our new members class, precisely relevant to the subject of the original post. Last week we baptized a lovely lady with a strong Islamic heritage. Her extended family, as is not uncommon in such situations, has disowned her, but she is strong in her new faith. The thought of subjecting her to three years of “ascesis and severe spiritual direction” (your proposal) before she would be considered a full communicant struck me as horrifying (see my original comment).

        There may be well over 200,000 Muslims in the Bay Area, considerably below the number of Catholics, but comparable to the number of Jews, and more than the number of Episcopalians. This is the new mission field, right in our backyard. How would you explain the Crusades to a new Muslim or Jewish convert? And wouldn’t you feel just a tiny bit uneasy if you heard your local mosque subjected its new converts to a three-year “spiritual boot camp” where “the old self was torn down, methodically” to “demolish” “modernist mental habits?”

      • Surely it is permissible, and edifying, to discuss those parts of Christian history that have no very proximate relation to the phenomenon of forced conversion, without discussing forced conversion. I mean, let’s say we wanted to talk about Meister Eckhart, or transubstantiation, or the Pilgrims, or any number of other things, and you were to say, “Well, but we can’t discuss that without dealing with the notion of forced conversion; surely that is important.”

        Catechesis is not forced conversion. The thread is about catechesis, not forced conversion. Sure, catechesis is related to forced conversion, if only because everything is related to everything. And sure, forced conversion is an important subject. But not every discussion about Christianity needs to be aobut forced conversion, nor must every discussion about Christianity even take account of forced conversion.

        How would it seem if every time anyone wanted to discuss any aspect of Christianity, I were to chime in and say, “Well, but what about monothelitism? We can’t omit to account for that”?

        You find the idea of three years of catechesis horrifying. Fine. Don’t bother with it. No one is forcing anyone to do it – or did. Back in the day, when Christianity was a persecuted minority and to be baptised was to court martyrdom, a seat at a catechetical school was an extremely coveted opportunity, completely optional, and the Church was growing by leaps and bounds. What’s the problem?

        How would I explain the Crusades to a Moslem proselyte? As a riposte, following quick on the heels of a desperate and successful parry that succeeded at last in ejecting Moslem invaders from Italy and Sicily after a war of 300 years, during which the Saracens had controlled large swathes of territory. That’s what it *was.* It’s like explaining the Anglo-American war in the Pacific during WWII to a Japanese: it was a riposte, a response to an aggressive attack.

      • Leo,

        I agree that we should talk about such things. I just find your view of history to be generally wrong.

  2. There is great wisdom in what Kristor writes.

    At my church, an Orthodox Presbyterian Church, those wishing membership must go through membership classes. Upon completion of the classes, the applicant is interviewed by the session (i.e., the presbyters: the ruling elders and the teaching elder(s), a.k.a. pastor(s)). If the applicant is determined to be ready, he will come before the congregation during church services and be asked the following questions:

    (1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

    (2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?

    (3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

    (4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?

    (5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

    Upon answering in the affirmative, the applicant becomes a member. Baptism follows, if necessary.

    This, however, is not the end of it, but only the beginning. After this, the new member should not only attend services, but also Sunday School, where we systematically cover the Westminster Catechism, which, as Alan Roebuck observed, “has authority only by virtue of being a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, the Bible being the supreme (and only inerrant) authority on every subject about which it speaks.” Of course we cover other topics as well, such as the Ten Commandments and church history. We continue our growth as Christians through other means as well, such as Bible study and book study. Finally, home visits (based on Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Acts 20:17–38), in which some elders (teaching and ruling) visit each member’s home, are another integral part of the Reformed tradition.

    Which is all a long-winded way of saying that successful education continues long after conversion and membership. Ongoing education must be a part of every Christian’s spiritual life, and while there is no substitute for reading the Bible, that can, and should, be supplemented by other meaningful activities.

  3. What we need are Christian education programs designed for catechumens of low, normal and high intelligence. We wouldn’t use these terms, of course; and catechumens in the high-intelligence program should undergo supplementary exercises in humility; but the result of mainstreaming all the catechumens in a single class is that half the catechumens are bewildered or half the catechumens are bored. I think this is especially true in the Catholic church, which still maintains vestiges of the parochial system and therefore may have more motley recruits. I’m not advocating perfect segregation. The eggheads in particular need to learn simplicity, and a good place to begin is by listening–really listening–to folks who are naturally simple. But there should also be an opportunity for the eggheads to break away and, say, hash out the fine points of the Chalcedonian Creed.

    We should also recognize that many catechumens are interested in learning only what they are expected to believe and how they are expected to behave. A very small amount of explanation why goes a long way with these folks. These folks are naturally credulous and we shouldn’t try to turn them in to skeptics. In fact I would try to insulate them from skeptical catechumens because skepticism is contagious and often incurable when it spreads to folks who are naturally credulous. As for the skeptics, we should answer their questions but we should not allow their doubts to become the principal topic in their catechism.

    Egghead or simple, credulous or skeptical, all catechumens should be given more instruction in how to lead a Christian life. Ultimately, we are taught by the Holy Spirit, and it is by our conduct that we open or close ourselves to his ministrations. I’m still waiting for useful instructions on how to pray, how to conduct private devotions, how to prepare for public worship.

  4. I doubt classes, good or bad, are the critical thing. Non-eggheads learn by example, imitation, and apprenticeship. It’s easy for us to forget this. If you want somebody to believe in the Real Presence, then going up for Communion in flip-flops and holey shorts and popping the Host into your mouth like a potato chip isn’t doinitrite. Having peaceful, sweet Granny, whom you have never heard blaspheme, bash you in the mouth when you do is probably more important than some learned disquisition on the Ten Commandments.

  5. The situation that Christians find themselves in and the trying circumstances that we are called to face naturally call forth ideas about how we might protect and strengthen the body of believers.. It is quite logical to think that what we need are better grounded and more serious converts. I always think of the polluted, blind and blemished sacrifices mentioned as being offered inappropriately to God in the book of Malachi as analogous to spiritually blind, dumb and diseased of mind half converts being offered to God as though anything that gives lip service is pleasing to God. Doesn’t scripture say that we are to offer ourselves up as living sacrifices holy and acceptable to God? How can we offer up anything less?
    It doesn’t horrify me at all to think of a sort of probationary period of three years for catechumens and I actually find it strange that someone who cares about the things of God would think so. As one who feels protective and jealous for the health and life of the church there is a part of me that naturally wants to get strict and disciplinary. Yet , please excuse the trite nature of the following, all things in moderation. It was pointed out above that many conversions presented in the New Testament were sudden and immediate and this is also true, although I am sure they required instruction afterwards. But it points to something else as well namely that the faith does not consist in the embodiment of worldly knowledge and education alone or even primarily but the reception of the divine gift of the Spirit which makes us wise and gives us new hearts which thereafter control and guide our learning process. Otherwise how could slaves, women and uneducated men of the time become Christians? Our holiness does not depend on learning tradition either but on the reception of the Spirit which cleanses us. Holy tradition is the effect of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit is not the effect of tradition, as Jesus similarly spoke of the Sabbath. The Spirit is the life giver of tradition. Honestly I think that the kind of teaching that is given to most Christians today in such a setting is probably more detrimental than anything, for it is often not rooted in the power of the gospel but in the wisdom of men with a Humanist gloss and it results in the lame and blind and blemished being offered to God as his converts. So while I am for more catechism, I think we need renewed bold teaching style unashamed and unapologetic because that teaches as much as anything. What people recognized and commented on about Jesus was that He was one who taught with authority. I think it is worthy considering the possibility that there should be a probationary fellowship with the understanding that though admitted as a member on good faith they can and will be stripped from a person with the understanding that they do not have a right to the name or fellowship and they are giving up a certain amount of autonomy to the Lord and are agreeing to deny themselves in this way. If they fail for whatever reason, they may try again at a later date but they have no right or liberty to the name. I think just this understanding alone would help both us and them to understand the reality of what we profess a lot better. I think Jesus deserves no less and so do we. I am so glad to hear of a woman from a Muslim background confessing Jesus as Lord.


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