Catholic schools and commitment to truth
May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
My senior synthesis classes are just a week away from ending. I’ve taught the class the last two years. As the name suggests, the class is for seniors. It’s the last required theology course that our students take, our last chance to get them on the road to Skylar. Most people are initially puzzled by the name, and I could offer thousands of words discussing what it’s about.
But I’ll spare you that soliloquy to give you the short version: the Synthesis class requires students to write a paper explaining what they believe and why. The paper is guided (each section is methodically and slowly completed) and it’s broken into four chapters. In chapter 1, students discuss their formative experiences; in chapter 2, students research and present answers to the philosophical or theological questions that chapter 1 raises; in chapter 3, students respond to their chapter 2 and provide their own statement of belief; and in chapter 4, students answer the question, “What now?” That is, in light of the insights achieved in ch. 1-3, what will they do and who will they become?
In addition to the paper, there is a second half to the course. The second half is a kind of general introduction to faith and to some of the main teachings of Catholic Christianity. In the materials I assign, I try to answer the question: How does someone move from unbelief to belief, especially from a total denial of the divine to a daily profession of hope in the God of Jesus Christ? Given those questions, and given the age of the students, the class allows us to delve into some heavy stuff. And as we read and discuss, my perceptive students go right to the material that matters. They ask questions about the nature of God, His relationship with humans, the response to suffering, free will, the reason for existence and many more. Class conversations soar into fundamental questions of philosophy and theology.
In the course of these conversations, I’ve realized why it can be so difficult for students to embrace organized religion.
Students in high school are starting to sense the thrilling adventure that is education. High school, in some measure, is the dawning of the academic mind. On the threshold of adulthood, high school students confront varying theories and historical figures; they are reading about wars, conquerors, belief systems, gods, physical laws, inequalities, theorems, proofs, characters, motivations, plots . . . and doing so while navigating the often brutal terrain of teenage social life. It is fragmenting and distracting, often overwhelming — like being dropped into the middle of a foreign city.
Students, I have seen, want to wrestle with what they are learning, and they want to do so freely and without the belief that their speculations are meaningful only if they resemble a preconceived framework imposed by a teacher or textbook. They are explorers, and things they had never heard of, nor thought of, are visible. It all entices, it all beckons, it all calls to be experienced and explored. To commit to one particular religion is, for them, to give up the journey. It is to accept a restriction that seems arbitrary in light of the number of other belief systems that look so tantalizingly authentic.
For public schools, this open-endedness does not pose much of a problem. Public schools do not rest on any preordained theories about the way the world is. Public schools are institutionally committed to the idea that truth is what you make of it. But consider the position of a Catholic school and more particularly a Catholic religion teacher facing young men and women at this point in their lives. A Catholic school presupposes a certain account of humans and history as the truth of all truths. A Catholic institution proceeds upon the conviction that certain issues, or certain potential points of confusion, have already been decided. A Catholic school cannot be indifferent to the question of God and to the nature and moral responsibilities of the human person. A Catholic school cannot say to students, “Believe in whatever you want; it’s all up for grabs.”
This, then, creates a challenge. We have to sympathize with our students’ context; we have to value their beliefs and appreciate their excursions into the world of ideas. Students don’t want to be told they are wrong; they don’t like thinking their worldviews are incorrect. Students often find claims to religious exclusivity to be insensitive, sometimes even an attack on other people or cultures — or themselves. So a Catholic school has an especially fine-tuned task: to persuade students of the paradox that what to them appears exclusive or arbitrary is actually the very ground of their freedom, to show that committing to the truths of revelation does not limit their intellectual exploration, but enriches it. To show that what might seem provisional and limiting is actually universal in scope — or, shall we say, catholic.
Posted by Matt Emerson.