Gilbert Highet’s book The Art of Teaching has proven to be an excellent guide for me as a teacher. It’s practical and simple, drawing on the best teachers in history. It’s not marked by that soulless, “scientific” educational philosophy that devalues classical learning, but is rooted in a robust vision that educates the whole human person. Theology teachers need a book like Dr. Highet’s but particularly about the art of catechesis.
While many academic theologians will not admit this, theology is, in part, catechesis. Like an art, it requires vision and skill. Unfortunately, many theology programs do not educate students in a clear and consistent vision, leaving students confused about the nature of theology and its basics. This is representative of the fragmented state of much academic theology. Additionally, there is no apprenticeship a student can undergo to learn from the very best catechist. They’re thrown into the classroom without much guidance. The art of catechesis in the context of our secular age is difficult to acquire. It requires great knowledge and charisma but also pedagogical skill and a sound educational philosophy.
Unlike teachers who are often preparing students for a standardized test, the theology teacher presents and inducts the students into the whole of God’s eternal design, reaching its fulfillment in the person of Christ (see John Cavadini). This is a big task, akin to formation (beholding and becoming the ideal form)—true pedagogy. Catechesis since Vatican II favored experience-based models (e.g., instead of learning about cows, go milk one). While this model was not entirely bad, many students have finished their religious education not knowing the basics of the faith. We need to focus our efforts on bringing content (lecture) and experience (seminar) together, giving the students content that illumines their experience and letting them soak it in through discussion. However, the primary mode of teaching we should use is the tutorial (guiding the students to a desired end through conversation and guided questions). However, many catechists do not know how to do this well. But in this blog post, instead of focusing on classroom method, I would like to outline basic rules a catechist should follow to teach well.
A theology teacher needs to have faith. I have a hard time understanding why an unbeliever would want to teach theology; it doesn’t pay that well. However, to my surprise, I have met some. Avoid this by praying and thinking from the heart of the Church with the Scriptures as your guide.
Opposed to a sitting theology not animated by prayer, Hans Urs von Balthasar called for a “kneeling theology” in which one meditates upon the Word in receptive, ongoing dialogue, dwelling in the form as it gradually unveils itself. This is a humble stance, animated by charity. Theology is faith seeking understanding. The faith cannot be bracketed. It belongs within the context of faith. Students intuit this. They want their teachers to be sons and daughters of the Church, sons of the Son, and lovers of God, for, as Balthasar says, “Lovers are the ones who know most about God.”
Strive for holiness. Your students will only find the Church and the Gospel credible if they find the Spirit of Love in you. Don’t be a fake. A disciplined prayer life is essential. Really delve into prayer and not for the sake of appearances. If you are immersed in the Spirit and a student has a question about the faith, he “will teach you that time what you should say” (Luke 12:12). Also, constant prayer will help you avoid intellectual arrogance. Often teachers want to be admired as the most knowledgeable teachers in the school, and they pursue theology for ends other than better knowing and loving God. Nevertheless, you need to know the subject, and devotion is not enough.
2. Don’t resent the Church
Many theology teachers constantly complain about the Church. The Church has many issues, and we have all been hurt in some way by a member of the Church , but never forget that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7). Many saints have been hurt. However, they never led people away from the Church but closer to its Head, (i.e., Jesus Christ). Love the Church as your mother.
3. Know and like the subject
It’s not enough to know what the Church teaches; you need to be able to grasp the whole of the Christian faith, gathering various doctrines into a unified whole. You need to understand the fundamental order of things (i.e.. grasping first principles). While I was a student, I had well-meaning, devout theology teachers. They wanted to deepen the faith lives of their students. However, they were not well-read and discursive in theology. They did not care to read much theology. Knowledge is not everything, but it is very important because students want intelligent, thorough answers to their questions. Thus, constantly reading and reflecting are necessities if you want to teach high school.
Read the writings of the great masters, not the work of second-rate theologians. If you’re a beginner, reading popular works is okay so long as you move onto the treasures of the tradition, even the works of first-rate theologians you might find to be wrong. Read Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Origen, Dante, Bonaventure, Scotus, Balthasar, Schleiermacher, Dionysius the Aeropagite, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Plotinus, Hegel, Newman, Scheeben, the Cappodocian Fathers, and so on. Find a good companion to these great texts. You will not understand the depth of Aquinas without a proper guide. Go get the education that’s required to know the material. You cannot give to others what you do not have. Good catechesis begins with you.
4. Always be a student
While pupils must view the teacher as a master of the subject, they must see them as a perennial student of the discipline. As already mentioned, you need a superb understanding of the discipline, but there’s always more to learn. Your tireless work to know the discipline and perfect it will encourage others. A teacher is always a student. I once asked Dr. Matthew Levering, a master theologian, how he is so prolific and knowledgeable. He said that he has always viewed himself as a student. He simply wants to communicate what he learns. He never tires of asking questions and trying to find answers. If students see you as the master student, they will want to join you in the quest.
5. Know and like the students
Many teachers dislike their students. They take don’t an interest in them. Many teachers complain about their students, and sometimes their complaints are legitimate. However, that anger can make you resent your students, preventing you from effectively forming them.
Get to know your students and their interests. They’re interested and concerned about something. Find that out and use it in your class. That’s a good way to introduce them to theology: bringing their experience to bear in the faith. The first day of every class—in addition to giving the students a pop quiz on the Creed to gauge how much they know the faith—I have the students write down their top three interests. This gives me a clue as to what analogies and images to use when I present the content. Most of the students think the faith doesn’t have anything to say to them, but once you get them thinking more deeply about the things they like, a spark goes off that will light the fire and awaken their longing for God, inspiring in them wonder. I hope they see the world like children again. Unfortunately, the utilitarian education they have received since childhood has robbed them of wonder. Education is for the sake of college, career, and life skills, and the world is there to be controlled. But if you help them see education as an introduction to reality, a reality that is beyond them and worthy of their love and attention, ultimately finding its center in Christ (the Logos), some will follow you as their guide into his mystery. Do not expect all to do this. Many will be hostile you, upset that you’re not giving them what they expect of a religion class. Yes, you must teach them the basics of the faith, but you must be able to give the few who have been kindled with the fire of philosophy the riches of the tradition so as to encourage them to continue in their pursuit of wisdom.