Perhaps it is of interest to Pray Tell readers to get a window into how my thinking continues to evolve about teaching liturgy to undergraduates. (I’ve been doing it for 20 years now.)
This fall I’m teaching “Christian Worship” to undergraduates at the College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University. The first Christian theology course required of all students at CSB/SJU is an intro; the second requirement can be in one of several areas of Christian theology, such as liturgy in my case.
Openness. Over the years it has become increasingly important to foster an attitude of openness and of respect for all students, no matter where they come from or where they are in their search for meaning and purpose. It’s become clearer to me that we’re not in Christendom (where everyone is Christian), nor are we in preconciliar ghetto Catholicism (where all the students are Catholics church-goers). My task is not to rage against the forces of history and strive to reconstitute what is forever gone. It is to present the content of Christian theology, and give witness to my own Christian convictions (and doubts), as a resource for students of all beliefs and levels of interest to make use of as they wish. Clarity with the students about all – and about expectations and standards – is helpful. For the first time this fall, I put together an introductory PointPoint to show the students. I’ll share it with you: CW Fall 2018 Intro PowerPoint
Paperless. I’m perhaps one of the last people in the Western hemisphere to make this move, but I’ve moved almost entirely online and stopped using printouts unnecessarily. For the first time this fall, I didn’t hand out the syllabus – it’s online. I don’t need to print out the roster to take attendance – our online learning management system Canvas is the place to do this. “Handouts” are projected on the screen, then posted to Canvas for students. It still feels funny to walk into class without a stacks of handouts. (I still print out my class plan though. And I think I’ll print up and hand out quizzes when we get to that.)
Putting meaning and values up front. I used to do just one introductory class, then dive into the course content – history, theology, etc. I now spend six class sessions at the beginning of the semester on questions of meaning, values, purpose of life, how people’s beliefs differ, how people arrive at their beliefs, how people can be inspired and challenged by those with differing beliefs. Students do polls and studies (not scientific, but impressionistic) in which they interview CSB/SJU students not in the class about their beliefs, their worship practices, why they do or don’t go to church, what they get out of worship, what aspects of Eucharist are important to church-goers, and the like. Students are asked to interview one atheist (it’s hard to find one on campus though so I allow them to ask anyone they know, or to do a google search to find a first-hand account of an atheist) to learn more about how people have arrived at this stance. We do exercises on what Christians can learn from atheists and agnostics, and vice versa. Students are assigned articles and studies in correlation with these assignments. My hope is that this context at the beginning of the course will help students to be interested in and to appropriate the content of the rest of the course.
Texts. I use three primary texts, which are supplemented with many other resources:
- Gail Ramshaw, Christian Worship: 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals.
- Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (out of print, reprinted with permission).
- Robert LeGall, Symbols of Catholicism.
Ramshaw is an excellent introductory text. It does something that is hard to find in theology textbooks: it is rooted in Christian faith, but presumes nothing and is accessible to students of all faith backgrounds. It is ecumenical. I will tell students that it is mainline, perhaps slightly left-leaning (which judgment perhaps says more about me than the book), to help them make their own judgments about the material. Cooke is thoroughly Rahnerian: existentialist rather essentialist, starting with human experience (including experiences of faith) more than with neoscholastic categories. LeGall is a bit traditional(ist) in his Catholicism, and his book provides beautiful color images and poetic reflects that provide an aesthetic entrance to his topic.
I really think about content and assigned texts in terms of Rahner and Von Balthasar. I see value in both. I find that more Rahnerian approaches are well-received by students, and they appreciate beginning with very human experiences of relationship and meaning. But I harbor concerns that such an approach, in the hands of latter-day followers of Rahner, can degenerate into overly subjectivist anthropocentrism that falls short of confronting people with the full reality of the Gospel’s claims. (I have a good bit of Barth and Von Balthasar in me.) I consider the LeGall book to be more Balthasarian – it simply asserts the beauty of the message on its own grounds, “from above” as it were. The reader is invited to contemplate something which is perhaps foreign, but also alluring. The danger here, I suppose, is that the message is made to seem archaic or irrelevant. It’s a risk worth taking, and I’m curious how students receive the LeGall text, including the assignment to spend time contemplating the glossy color images.
Moral Therapeutic Deism. I find Bernard Cooke’s Rahnerian project to be compelling, and he has helped me think more deeply about my own Christian convictions and attempts to worship God worthily. But I can’t decide whether his approach is the way to make sense of sacraments in our day, or whether it is rather a coping mechanism for those (like me) who grew up in the Catholic ghetto which gave them their commitment to Christianity, but are on the lookout for a contemporary rationalization for their convictions once they’ve seen their classical and neo-classical presuppositions collapse. If it is the latter, then Cooke is just the thing for older Catholics but useless for young, searching, faithful Christians. I don’t think it is that, and when I’ve used Cooke before I have found him engaging and helpful for young Christian (and other) students. But I harbor some concerns that students’ appropriation of Cooke will reinforce a loose, flabby Moral Therapeutic Deism. So why not take on the topic directly? This semester, for the first time, I’m doing a unit on MTD. We’ll discuss what it is, why it seems appealing in our cultural context, what its strengths might be, and why it is problematic from the standpoint of orthodox, liturgical, sacramental Christianity. My hope is that this unit will help clarify students’ thinking, and to make clearer what is at stake in the claims made by the Church that God in Christ is acting – powerfully and effectively – in the Church’s sacraments.
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Each class is unique, and it is always interesting to see each semester what the group dynamics are like this time. It turns out that the group of young people I have this semester are all Christians, all coming from church-going background, 2/3 Catholic and 1/3 Protestant, almost entirely Lutheran. (I invite students to share this information anonymously if they wish, but never ask them to identify their personal beliefs unless they choose to. Almost all of them do so freely.) Because so many in this class grew up attending Sunday Mass plus weekday Mass at Catholic school, or Sunday worship plus mid-week Praise and Worship, the class as a whole grew up attending worship more than five times a month on average. Now, as college students, their average is about half that – in several cases, because churchgoing Protestants do not have Protestant worship available to them on campus and choose not to attend Catholic Mass. So: they are much, much more church-going than most young people in the U.S. They also seem extraordinarily interested in the topic of Christian worship and ready to learn about it and discuss it. I look forward to a great semester! We start Ramshaw on Monday.