College is supposed to be about education, and there are not a few college professors who sincerely believe that the first step towards education is for a student to develop a critical mind, and to do this every obstacle in their students’ worldview that hinders critical thinking must be dismantled. The main obstacle being religion.
The secular educationalist regards religion as at best, a superstitious, immature, Sunday School worldview replete with miracles and supernatural fairy tales, and at worst, a serious psychosis, from which the poor student needs to be delivered.
It’s like the naive freshman needs a secular exorcism.
Unfortunately, too many religious educators and parents play into the secular educationalist’s hands. The parents themselves haven’t been catechized since their confirmation class. They don’t really know (or live) their faith, and they toodle along with the comfortable, respectable form of false religion rather than the challenging, radical form of real religion.
Furthermore, too many religious educators have been content to pass on a highly subjective, sentimentalized version of the Christian faith rather than the bracing, clear and table-turning version found in the gospels. They’ve re-imagined Jesus of Nazareth for American suburbia, emasculated the Son of Man and turned Christ the Tiger into Christ the pussycat.
The secular educationalist thinks the Christian student has been brainwashed into a superstitious, sentimental, unscientific and uncritical worldview…and he’s right.
Consequently, when the Christian student comes to college he finds that his milk chocolate religion can’t take the heat. He hasn’t been taught how to defend his faith, so he falls at the first challenge, and with all the delights of the world, the flesh and the devil on offer at college, it was never going to be a serious battle to start with.
Three Ways to Go
Religion proposes to offer an individual a set of beliefs and moral instructions which will help them in this life and prepare them for the life to come. It is as if parents have packed a backpack for their child’s journey through life. At adolescence the kid naturally wants to unpack the backpack and test the equipment.
If he’s going to be rock climbing through life it makes sense to test the rope and figure out how the carabiners work.
This critical instinct is healthy. However, it is often suppressed by the parents, educators and especially religious authorities because it is expressed as rebellion. The student tests religious truths in an instinctively critical manner, but instead of encouraging the proper kind of criticism, the educator views the criticism negatively and quashes the criticism. The student then reacts with real rebellion.
The student’s inner logic goes like this: “I’ve been given this religion which I’ve been told is the greatest thing in the universe, but when I try to question it, I’m told to be quiet and simply accept. I therefore suspect that it’s not as great as it’s cracked up to be. If the adults can’t take a little criticism, they either can’t defend their beliefs, or they must be scared that it’s all hogwash. That’s why they try to shut me up. Therefore the whole thing must be bosh. I’ve got to find a philosophy for life which works, and if this one can’t take a little criticism it must be wrong.” The practical result of this thought process is teenage rebellion not only in belief, but in behavior.
Rebellion makes the teenager unhappy because he is now frightened of the future. To extend the metaphor, his backpack turns out to be full of second rate equipment. He need some serious rock climbing gear for the challenge of life, and he feels like he’s been given string and picture hangers. The rebellious teenager is desperate for security, for sure guidance and a reliable guide for life. If he feels the one he has been given has let him down that rebellion turns into rejection and his life may take a downward spiral into despair.
The second response to the critical instinct appears to be more positive. When faced with the critical instinct the student declines to criticize. He accepts everything the adults have said, toes the line and remains everyone’s golden boy. This response could be called ‘polite conformity.’ The student has not engaged his critical facilities at all, and has merely taken the path of least resistance. He or she conforms outwardly to the faith, but has not engaged with it in any real or practical manner. Unfortunately, most religious educators have not only been perfectly content with the response of ‘polite conformity’, they have positively encouraged that response.
The problem with “polite conformity” is that it is artificial. The student becomes the typical religious hypocrite—putting on a false front to please the authority figures while all the time behaving in an unchristian manner. This reaction is worse than open rebellion because the student is often fooled by his own façade. He comes to believe that lip service and outward conformity is all that is required, and if he is never challenged to engage his critical instinct positively his religious development will either be stunted or retrograde.
The third way is the most difficult, but also the most authentic. The third way is for the student’s critical instinct to be encouraged. Indeed, the whole educational method from high school upward is built around this critical instinct and uses it as the hidden motor for the entire educational enterprise. In this response, the critical instinct is seen as positive, and the student is encouraged to rummage through the backpack and test the contents to see if they are true and reliable.
Reason and Responsibility
It is the task of the student and the religious educator to embark on a realistic assessment of the faith. For it to be real the religion must be challenged. Questions must be asked. The task of religious educators is not to simply produce ‘good Christians’ who learn to ‘pray, pay and obey.’
Instead their questioning of religion should not only validate the religious claims, but enlighten every subject. Their critical instinct should be fully engaged. The reasonableness and necessity of every subject is verified, and consequently the students are truly educated rather than simply given facts.
Engaging the critical instinct in education also brings the student into a higher level of responsibility. If he is simply learning facts the student is not taking responsibility for his learning. If he is engaging the critical instinct, however, he is automatically taking responsibility for what he learns. As this becomes a habitual way of responding to his world, the student learns in a most natural way how to use his critical instinct in every other aspect of life, and so learns to take responsibility for his thoughts, words and actions.
Youth with a Mission
After intellectually challenging the faith proposal, students also need to test it in real life. The rock climbing novice moves out of the classroom where he learns theory and starts climbing.
Likewise, service projects and mission trips take the faith out of the classroom and the chapel and into the world. It locks the students into two further aspects that are vital for their critical examination of the faith to work. First, through service and mission opportunities they see faith at work in the real world. They experience the life of faith by working with religious and charitable professionals, but more importantly, they realize that their faith can only be real within community. Service opportunities and mission trips force the critical young adult into a community of faith, and the truth becomes real that authentic Christianity is never individualistic.
Much of this wise approach is expressed in the ancient wisdom of the parable of the prodigal son. The wise father granted his son freedom. That freedom was a risk for all, but it was only through that freedom that the son could eventually “come to himself”. The son who stayed at home represents the child who responds with “polite conformity.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, SC. He has served as a high school chaplain and works closely with the Middle School students in his parish school. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com.