When ‘Faith-Sharing’ Isn’t

Posted on March 22, 2020

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FAITH WITHOUT DOCTRINE IS NOT FAITH

By Jeffrey Gordon | May 2000
Jeffrey Gordon teaches English at a Catholic high school in Florida.

My first experience with “faith-sharing” occurred at the Catholic high school where I teach English (and where I taught theology as well until my increasingly outspoken orthodoxy disqualified me). The diocese mandated faith-sharing sessions for the teachers in its Catholic schools, and my high school conducted its first faculty faith-sharing sessions at the end of summer vacation, about a week before the students returned. In principle, I can think of no better way for Catholic teachers (whose primary mission, regardless of the subject they teach, is to evangelize their students) to begin a new school year than by sitting down and sharing their faith. Much depends, however, on how one defines one’s terms.

What is faith? And what does it mean to share it? These obvious, even crucial, questions were not posed at the outset of our first faith-sharing session. But five minutes into the session it became clear that faith meant “whatever one felt” and that sharing meant “talking.” So faith-sharing, in this instance, meant talking about one’s feelings.

And what’s wrong with talking about one’s feelings? As we approach the end of what the late Catholic novelist Walker Percy called the Century of the Self, any answer to that question other than “Nothing at all!” seems sacrilegious. At the risk of slighting the Sacred Self, I will suggest that it is important to consider whose feelings get talked about and what feelings get highlighted. Self-knowledge is certainly a virtue; narcissistic self-indulgence is not.

Even if we concede that talking about feelings is both acceptable and beneficial, is it accurate to call such an activity “faith-sharing”? The moderator of our first faith-sharing session thought so. He put it roughly this way: Before Vatican II, in the bad old days of the Baltimore Catechism, faith meant answers to questions about God. Today, faith is more about our own personal stories than about impersonal doctrines. To demonstrate his point, the moderator, with a condescending smile, asked the question, “Why did God make you?”

The hands of teachers raised in the “bad old days of the Baltimore Catechism” went up. The moderator called on one of these teachers, who answered (with the same condescending smile), “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” The moderator’s smile blossomed into a chuckle, as if to say, “I rest my case.”

Had I not been so recently “transferred” from the theology department to the English department, and were not the next logical “transfer” to the unemployment line, I should have liked to defend the Baltimore Catechism to my older and wiser colleagues. Although too young to have been instructed from that much-maligned manual, I did read it on my own when still a high-school student, and I was charmed by the question-and-answer format. More importantly, I remember being struck by the beautiful simplicity of its doctrinal formulations. Herein, no doubt, lay the problem for many of my companions in faith-sharing.

To them, anything approaching simplicity would seem to smack of fundamentalism. No question may have a definite answer — that is, unless the question is one of these: Should women be admitted to the priesthood? Should Humanae Vitae be overturned? Should ecclesial decision-making be decentralized?

During my seven years of teaching theology to teenagers, I would have been thrilled if any one of them had answered the question “Why did God make you?” in a manner that came within a thousand miles of the Baltimore Catechism response. In all that time, however, the most popular answer from my students was the sub-doctrinal and sappy, “‘Cause God was lonesome.”

We are often told that Catholic children used to parrot their “cut and dried” answers by rote, without understanding or appreciating them. But this is to argue like Squealer in Orwell’s Animal Farm — the chief propagandist for the porcine communist regime — who routinely distorted the past rule of Farmer Jones in order to frighten the other animals into tolerating the pigs’ infinitely more deplorable governance in the present (“but doubtless it had been worse in the old days. They were glad to believe so”). My answer is that even if the Baltimore Catechism did not transform Catholic children into adult theologians before their First Communion — oh, dismal failure! — it provided a firm foundation upon which a strong and fully considered faith might be built.

This foundation is lacking today. As one of my high school’s administrators noted wryly, since the Sixties the correct answer to every question in a high-school theology class has been “love.” Perhaps the Beatles really were (as they claimed) more popular than Jesus, but the excesses of the Sixties (“the decade of illusion,” according to British Catholic historian Paul Johnson) and the spiritual hangover of the ensuing decades debunk the still widely shared notion that “all you need is love.” This slogan, a parody of Augustine’s “Love, and do as you will,” failed for two reasons: first, because love was conceived in carnal and sentimental terms; second, because the Beatles (unlike Augustine) possessed no doctrine to teach us how to incarnate love in our daily lives.

Is it absurd to fault the Beatles for their lack of doctrinal acuity? Certainly. But why do so few find it absurd to fault Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger for not being flower children? It’s because these wise churchmen espouse a concept of faith-sharing that differs significantly from that which informed the session I’ve recounted above. For the Pope and the Cardinal, faith has both an objective and a subjective element, and neither can exist without the other.

Faith is a personal relationship with God in Christ, a relationship that is nurtured by prayer and the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) and rooted in the intellectual and moral commitment specified by the teachings of Christ and His Church. Faith is something that we share with others, not merely by telling our personal stories (atheists, after all, have their personal stories) but also by knowing the content of Catholic teaching and witnessing on behalf of its truth. It is no accident that some of the most creative storytellers of this century (Chesterton and Tolkien, for instance) were also passionate defenders of Catholic orthodoxy.

We hear it said repeatedly that “faith is more than doctrine.” In practice, this slogan comes to mean that faith doesn’t need doctrine. But it cannot be pointed out too often that our personal experiences are not to replace doctrine but are to be imbued with doctrine, tested against doctrine, and elevated by doctrine.

In an age all too willing to substitute easy clichés for demanding doctrines, we need to heed the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “True religion consists of these two elements: pious doctrines and virtuous action. Neither does God accept doctrines apart from good works, nor are works, when divorced from godly doctrine, accepted by God.” St. Cyril goes on to say that “the knowledge of doctrines is a precious possession; there is need of a vigilant soul since many there are who would deceive you by philosophy and vain deceit.”

Too many of us today tend to view doctrine as a burden to be abandoned rather than as precious revelation to be cherished and guarded. Still more are so “tolerant” that vigilance seems to them a vice rather than a virtue. These sad facts were brought home to me powerfully during the second faith-sharing session in which I was compelled to participate. This session was attended by catechists from all over the diocese and took place in the parish hall of our cathedral.

After reiterating for us (as a fact) the popular falsehood that the Church hid the Bible before Vatican II, our speaker informed us that he never accepted a speaking engagement unless faith-sharing and storytelling figured prominently in the day’s events. Although the man seemed a sincere Catholic and had some talent as a speaker, his talk soon began to sound like a Syllabus of Progressive Errors.

According to the speaker, Jesus posed many questions but offered few answers. He was a man who told stories, but not a God who promised solutions. The speaker never mentioned why so amiable a storyteller was unable to work things out with Pontius Pilate, the patron saint of all who utter the infamous rhetorical question and postmodern first principle, “What is Truth?” At any rate, the implication of our speaker’s reductionism was obvious enough: We should all become easygoing skeptics and lay aside our arrogant claims to truth.

Clearly, for our speaker, and for the majority of the assembled faith-sharers, Jesus was not the Master who uttered hard sayings and astonished crowds by teaching them “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt. 7:29). Indeed, were he present at the Sermon on the Mount, our speaker would doubtless have chided Jesus for his presumption and ordered the crowd to break up into small discussion groups.

I say this based on what happened that day in the parish hall of the cathedral. Several times we were asked to turn around, find a partner, and consider some question such as “If Jesus were a deodorant, what brand of deodorant would he be?” (I have documentary evidence of this gem, in the printed program.) At the time, I had no answer. But I’m willing to venture now that Jesus would have to be a very powerful deodorant indeed to counteract the moral odor of that faith-sharing session — the stench of faith in decay.

One symptom of that decay, much in evidence that day, was rampant horizontalism. Rarely have I seen horizontalism (emphasis on communion with others at the expense of communion with God) expressed so openly as by the speaker leading us that day.

Making the sign of the cross in order to demonstrate his point, he rightly observed (as he touched his forehead and chest) that all Catholics must connect to God; similarly (when he touched his left and then his right shoulder) he observed that we must also connect to one another. This was the most balanced statement he had uttered all day. Unfortunately, he then went on to deride those Catholics “over sixty” who complain about the boisterous quality of many Masses since the Council. He proceeded to explain that the Mass is only about “this” (touching his left and right shoulders) and not about “this” (touching his forehead and chest).

Would that all advocates of “liturgical reform” were so candid. While our group was spared the experience of such a godless Mass — a mercy for which I was grateful even though I’m 30 years short of being “over sixty” — we were nevertheless fed with the same bad fruit when we were obliged to massage one another’s backs while the speaker paraphrased the Parable of the Sower. (All of the day’s scriptural exercises consisted of paraphrases. The gift of the Spirit traditionally called “fear of the Lord,” for instance, was paraphrased as “awe and wonder.” Evidently, the Bible is still hidden, even after Vatican II).

The seed in the parable, as everybody knows, is the Word of God. But we live in a moment of Catholic history when this Word is endlessly praised but ruthlessly twisted. The Word of God is not my “personal story,” and hence is not mine to share, unless and until I allow God to sow it in the rich soil of an obedient soul. Anything else is lip service. Such obedience can be learned by meditating on the mysteries of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, mysteries whose neglect has everything to do with the current crisis of faith.

Two platitudes, inextricably connected to each other but diametrically opposed to the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, came up again and again during this faith-sharing session. The first was that “only God knows what God’s will is,” and the second was that to share the Faith means to “affirm people where they are.” In other words, God is in His (rather distant) Heaven, and all is right with the world. As C.S. Lewis remarked on more than one occasion, however, God is often closer than we sinners think or wish. And as for the world being “all right,” such a doctrine demands not faith but a gullibility bordering on willful blindness.

At the end of both of these faith-sharing sessions, though I was sitting in a hall full of fellow Catholics, I felt almost as alone as Athanasius in exile. I could only conclude that if the third millennium is truly to be what Pope John Paul II has called “a new springtime of evangelization,” faith-sharing must come to mean more than the pseudo-piety and complacent self-indulgence I saw around me.

Faith once again must mean, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). And sharing must mean telling the Good News in all its challenging and splendid specificity, and forming Catholics who can keep — and spread — the Faith. Faith-sharing sessions more genuine than the ones I have described must be created if the winter of theological liberalism is to yield to the spring of renewed faith, a faith so vibrant that it will banish forever the skepticism that now passes for humility and the vapidity that currently calls itself open-mindedness.

Although I no longer have the privilege of teaching theology to teenagers (at least not directly), I know that they are hungry, desperately hungry, for something more substantial than what they are being offered. What that something is can be seen best by observing the way young people flock to Pope John Paul II whenever he visits them. For he nourishes them with the authentic virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love — not their cheap imitations.

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