Posted by: Dan | August 11, 2006

Catechesis-Praxis-Theology: Examining the Christian Academy

I have often been struck by the way in which the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, in a very Pauline sort of way, expresses a longing to give his audience adult “solid food” instead of the “milk” that is reserved for infants (He 5.11-14 — cf. 1 Cor 3.1-3). Previously these verse have always stood out to me because I think that contemporary Christian teaching often persists in giving people (especially youth) milk even though they are longing for — and in desperate need of — solid food.

However, as I was reading through Hebrews this time, I was struck by the reason the author provides as to why his audience is not ready for solid food. Solid food, the author argues, “is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” The author of Hebrews suggests that serious theology is only comprehensible to those who have been shaped by a constant and disciplined praxis (Paul basically makes the same point in 1 Cor 3 when he notes the faulty praxis of the Corinthians and realizes they are still not ready for solid food).

Quite naturally this line of thought leads me to the emphasis within liberation theology which suggests that theology is reflection upon ecclesial praxis. As Gustavo Gutierrez argues in We Drink from Our Own Wells: “Discourse on faith is a second stage in relation to the life of faith itself… Talk about God (theo-logy) comes after the silence of prayer and after commitment.” However, Gutierrez notes that this is not to say that theology is altogether a separate and later stage; rather, he is simply emphasising that theology must be rooted in praxis.

Of course, in order to engage in any sort of Christian praxis we do need some basic teaching — infants do need milk — and that is why catechesis is so important. But, although it is a good first word, the catechism is not the last word on Christian living or on Christian theology. Catechesis empowers new Christians to begin to engage in the ongoing disciplined praxis of the Christian community, and it is only from this place that serious theology can be born and can become comprehensible. Any theology not rooted in praxis is inherently problematical. And this is why theology is never simply repeating verbatim the traditions, doctrines, and creeds of the Church, as though such things exist as the timeless Word of God. All theology, doctrines, and creeds are contextual and any attempt to remove these things from their concomitant context and praxis is misguided and dangerous.

It is this recognition of the crucial importance of praxis to both doing and understanding theology that should cause us to question theology as it is done and taught within the Christian Academy. To suggest, for example, that a person has a firm grasp on the notion of cruciform suffering love simply because one can put together a well-written paper on that topic would strike the liberation theologians (and quite possibly Paul and the author of Hebrews) as absurd. Apart from the praxis of cruciform suffering love, one may very well have little idea of what cruciformity actually means, and one should be more than a little hesitant to risk speaking authoritatively on the subject (this actually ties in well with advice that Tom Wright gives to preachers: do not preach what has not become a part of you!).

Therefore, if Christian education is to be both truly Christian and truly educational this element of praxis must be restored to the curriculum. Those who study theology must be intimately involved in the radical lifestyle to which their theology calls them. Thus, to continue to example from the previous paragraph, if we are learn what cruciformity is we must not only read about the subject, we must come to experience cruciformity — and what better way to go about doing that than by journeying with the crucified people of today? If I am not concretely involved in loving my brothers and sisters, my neighbours, and my “enemies” then it doesn't matter how articulate or well researched my paper on the topic of love is — chances are I don't really know what I'm talking about.

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