Appendix A: Teaching Christian Faith and Ethics

Proclaiming Christ Today
by Norman Pittenger

Appendix A: Teaching Christian Faith and Ethics

Today it is very important, all would agree, that members of the Church should be taught the Christian faith and instructed in Christian ethics. For it is necessary that the faith of the Church, as this has been articulated during the two thousand years of Christian history in the form of theological statements, should be made known to the people; it is equally necessary that the developed principles of Christian life, in respect to devotional practice and in terms of daily conduct, should be taught. In other words, it is necessary that every effort should be made to create an instructed church-membership and to develop an intelligent interest in the discussion of religious questions. Indeed, it may be well to reiterate that the whole enterprise of Christian education is of quite special importance today if we wish to have an informed laity and if we wish to secure for the preaching office of the ministry that particular place which belongs to it and it alone.

My belief, for what it is worth, is that this teaching and instructing can be done much more effectively in the parish house, in the church hall and the like, at sessions specifically arranged for the purpose, rather than in the course of divine worship. One of my former colleagues has coined the phrase: "every parish a school of theology." This is a sound position, although I should wish to have it read "every parish a school of Christian faith, devotion, and life." What this ought to mean for the working parson is that in the planning of his program for the congregation, some genuine opportunity will be provided for such instruction and that this will be regarded as a normal part of parish procedure. Unless there is both a place and a planned scheme for instruction of this sort in the parish program a real opportunity will be missed to strengthen the members of our congregation. What is even worse, the people committed to our care will be deprived of one of their rights, which is that they be thus informed and edified in the things of Christ.

This is being realized increasingly today. It is one of the remarkable developments of recent years in American Christianity that more and more parishes, of all denominations, are establishing schools of religion, "parish institutes," or special series "of classes," which meet regularly for several weeks or even several months; and these are marked by thoughtful planning and high seriousness on the part of the clergy and on the part of the congregation.

To take a single example, last year I had the privilege of participating in one of these schools in a small university town, where in a parish of about one thousand members over two hundred persons (including a goodly number of interested "enquirers" who had heard of the program through a carefully planned advertising campaign) attended eight night sessions, held from eight until ten o’clock, with a choice among eight different courses, dealing with theological, ethical, historical, devotional, and scriptural subjects. It is of course true that this particular parish had unique opportunities for drawing on experts in the field who are experienced teachers. But however it is to be done, there is something here that greatly needs to be done. The people hunger for such instruction, although often they cannot articulate this need.

Such a parish school can concentrate on one subject for the entire period of operation, with a single session which is attended by all who are interested. Or the school can be divided into smaller groups each with its individual leader, if such leadership is available. Or it can combine the two methods by having first a general session for one hour and after that a number of smaller groups for a second hour. Each of these schemes has its advantages; on the whole the last is probably best, since it provides for a certain variety in the over-all program and makes it possible for those who attend not only to take part in one large meeting where the whole group is stimulated by consideration of a single topic over a considerable period of time, but also to share in special "interest groups" which will give them the opportunity to follow up lines of thought that particularly interest them or to explore problems that are peculiarly relevant to their own needs and concerns.

As the result of a fairly large experience in such work I have come to believe that there are two absolute necessities in arranging a parish school of this kind. The first is that a nominal fee be charged for attendance, although arrangements may, of course, be made for those who cannot afford even a very small payment. The reason for this charging of a fee is quite simple: people tend to value, to take seriously, and to be ready to work at, something for which they must make some payment, however small it is. They tend to regard lightly and to dismiss as of little importance something which costs them nothing. It should be made clear that the money received from such fees will be used for providing refreshments at the close of the sessions or for meeting whatever expenses the school involves -- as, for example, the honorarium paid to a visiting lecturer, if there is one, or the cost of lighting the building and providing extra janitorial service. The other necessity is that those who attend shall be expected to do some real preparation for the sessions, usually in the form of a certain amount of reading in a prescribed book or books. It is perfectly possible to find a book which laypeople can understand, and it is equally possible to limit the expected reading to a few chapters from week to week so that those who attend can get their preparation done before the several sessions. Quite apart from the value that such reading has in itself and in securing intelligent participation in the session -- and this may be considerable if the selection of books and chapters is carefully made -- the fact that such preparation is expected, once again emphasizes both the seriousness of the work of the school and the importance which is being attached by all participants to what it is planned to do.

There is one other point of a practical nature. This is that the pastor who inaugurates such a parish program must not expect that he will have an immediate success, with large and enthusiastic numbers of attendants at the sessions. It is much better, in fact, if he begins in a small way, with a group which is really interested -- and there can be no doubt that such persons can be found in any parish. A small group will itself engender further interest, and perhaps even enthusiasm, if there has been careful planning and a persistent concern for what is important and helpful to its members. The school must not be undertaken, that is, as a brief experiment only; it must be a genuine part of a long-range parish program over several years, with the definite intention of continuing the school so that it will be accepted in time as a normal and expected part of the total life of the congregation. In this way, those who at first failed to show any interest may sooner or later come round to showing it; members of the congregation may begin to develop a habit of attendance; and thus a real start will be made in that highly important and yet very difficult enterprise: adult Christian education. It is inconceivable that any parish should neglect this opportunity; each parish, through its responsible agents, should carefully study its own situation and determine how best it can do the job in this respect.

Now to consider some points which seem to me of quite outstanding importance in the conduct of such a school. First, the method of instruction should be direct but informal. It should not consist in what we might call simply "laying down the law." It should be intended to awaken interest, to stimulate questions, to develop insight and understanding. We all know that sheer didacticism is nowadays regarded with suspicion in secular educational circles; and there is no need to introduce it into our schools of religion. Christianity presupposes, and asks, the free and willing response of those who are taught. It is not authoritarian if this means sheer dictation. Indeed, it is worth noting that "authority" means, as the Latin original implies, moral trustworthiness engendered through deep respect for those who are in a position to know. This suggests to us that in teaching our people about the faith, about theology, about Christian devotion, and about Christian duty, our effort should be not to coerce but to lead. The corollary of this over-all approach is freedom for questions, for discussion, and for the exploration by both leader and hearers of the particular matters that are under discussion. Anyone who has been engaged in teaching is well aware of the fact that there is no surer way to kill interest, and we may add no more certain way to destroy the sense of Christian freedom, than by dogmatic teaching in the worse sense of the term. Furthermore, if by way of preparation for the meeting, some preliminary reading has been done by the participants, if the leader lets them feel that they are not just "lecture-fodder" but part of the whole enterprise, and if there is insistence on something more than being at the "receiving-end," the discussion and the questions and the desire for further exploration will almost inevitably follow.

In the second place, it should be understood by everyone concerned that schools of religion are not like other schools in at least one respect. They are not being conducted with a graduate diploma in view. Hence there is no absolute necessity for completing fully a prescribed topic; there is no need to "cram" the attendants as if they were preparing for an examination paper. There should be willingness on the part of the leader to follow, so far as may be, the direction of interest of those who are present. Very often the leader may find that some point which he has made in his preliminary presentation will lead eventually into what may appear to be a by-path. But if he is imaginative and ingenious, and especially if he has had a little experience in techniques of teaching, he will be able to handle the new topic and yet at the same time keep the meeting going along the general line which has been laid down or prepared. If the leader is not a good teacher, then he had better learn how to be one.

Again, the leader must not let himself be put in the position, and above all he must not himself seek to get into the position, of being simply a giver of "the answers." Often enough he will know that as a matter of fact he cannot give them. He ought to be honest with himself and not easily victimized by that adulation to which some leaders, and particularly some parsons, so readily succumb. Or he may recognize that to some questions there are various possible answers, one of which may especially appeal to a particular person but none of which is final, absolute, and unquestionable. It is far better to admit ignorance, to show openness of mind, than to claim, or seem to claim, omniscience. Above all a leader should beware lest he give the impression that the Church or even God has spoken with infallible authority through his small mind and poor mouth. Such a procedure of leaving questions open is psychologically much more effective than the pretense to omniscience; it also happens to be more honest. Above all, it is in accord with the mind of Christ.

There is a third point to which attention should be given. Of course, we all have our official or quasi-official "authorities": the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, confessions of faith, the creeds, and so forth. We may and we ought to use them to help our people to understand the things they should know and believe, live and practice, "to their souls’ health." But there is more to it than that. What a pastor must desire above all else is that his people may be led to continue their Christian thinking, their Christian praying, their Christian living. The school of religion is not the end, it is only the beginning. If, for example, we have been dealing with some theological topic, in the attempt to present to our people a consequence of the gospel and its meaning such as they are able and ready to understand and accept, we do not want them to stop with our presentation but to go on asking questions and making further explorations for themselves. If we have been discussing with them the principles of Christian morality, we want them to think again and again of the application of those principles to any and every circumstance of their daily lives. If we have been teaching them about the spiritual life, we want them to put into practice the techniques of Christian prayer and to continue in those techniques, growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God as they constantly seek him in their regular daily devotions.

In other words, we do not want our people to assume that once they have attended the parish adult school they are then in the position of having learned all there is to learn. Surely we can never think of Christian teaching about faith and morals, or about anything else, as a kind of closed enterprise, at the end of which the job is done and we have finally got our people "fixed" where we should like them to be. Rather, a school such as I am describing, and, for that matter, all other Christian teaching, is the opening of doors to new depths and heights of Christian discipleship. It is not the sheer indoctrination of Christian laymen in what is sometimes called "definite Church teaching." We should avoid like the plague any suggestion that the Christian tradition has come to a stop, above all that it has come to a stop with our particular version of it or presentation of it. "God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his most holy Word."

In my own experience in such parish schools, made possible for me through the kindness of clergy who have invited me to give them some little assistance in planning or conducting instructional sessions, I have made a further discovery. Often persons who are not Christians, or who are Christians in only a nominal sense, will be happy to avail themselves of the opportunity to learn something about Christianity through attendance at such schools. They may not yet be at the stage when they are willing to commit themselves far enough to become members of an "enquirer’s class" -- valuable and important as these smaller groups are in any congregation. But they do not feel so much "committed" when they are simply attending a series of sessions which have larger attendance and a more general line of approach than the "enquirer’s class." I have known laymen to invite a friend who is or who may be interested; I have known other persons who just "turn up" because somehow an announcement has reached them or they have read about the school in the public press. If the sessions are conducted according to good teaching techniques, if there is a free and open spirit on the part of the leader, if there is a readiness to work together and think together about important things, and above all if there is a friendly atmosphere, such persons are quite likely to be sufficiently attracted to return again and again. In the end they may very well be brought to the point where they are ready to affiliate themselves, perhaps partially or perhaps completely, with the Christian Church. In this sense, we can regard these occasions of instruction as being in their own way an evangelistic opportunity in the parish.

Finally, the most important single aspect of teaching or instruction today is the meaning and practice of Christian prayer. Of course, we need more and better teaching about the systematic ordering of the gospel and its corollaries -- that is, teaching about the faith as a whole. Of course, the parson has a responsibility to help any who will listen to think their way into the grand theological assertions of the Christian tradition, even while he should also help them to discriminate between primary and secondary elements, between central and peripheral aspects, and to learn how to use the Scriptures according to the best insight of modern biblical scholarship. An understanding of the principles of Christian behavior, which are the inevitable consequences of the life in grace as men respond to the gospel of Christ, is also of supreme importance for men and women who must necessarily live in what it is popular to describe as the subchristian or unchristian world of our own day. Nonetheless, the greatest need today is instruction in the distinctive meaning of Christian prayer, and hence in the techniques by which Christians can pray both with the Spirit and with the understanding.

By and large, most earnest Christian people -- and we must here include the clergy as well as the laity -- are not very well equipped in this respect. Altogether too often prayer is regarded as a kind of gadget by which we can secure what we wish from God; it is, alas, a matter of "pestering the Deity with our petitions," to use a biting phrase of Dean Inge’s. One does not deny for one moment either the place or the need for petitionary prayer, when one seriously maintains that this is a very small aspect of the total action of Christian prayer and that it should be kept a very small aspect. How many of our people, indeed how many of us in the ordained ministry, really understand that prayer is essentially what St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. John Damascene, said it is: "the elevation of the mind to God"? How many of us know and practice prayer in the order: adoration, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, and petition? How many of us are informed about the practice of meditation and the possibility of mental prayer? How many of us have even thought that we may be called to contemplative or even mystical prayer? Too many have accepted the popular "neo-orthodox" idea that contemplation and mysticism have no place in the Christian life; on the contrary, they have a real place and an important one; and for those who may be called by God to this particular mode of communion with him, there is a great blessing and a wonderful gift. But quite apart from such matters, is it not true that the vast majority of Christian people today simply do not know that prayer is the very air a Christian must breathe, and that a Christian life without some ordered pattern of prayer is not really a Christian life at all?

Surely one of the things that can best be done in schools such as I have described is the teaching of Christian prayer. It is not without significance that hundreds, thousands, even millions of men and women are turning to the cults, to Vedanta, to Zen Buddhism, to "Unity" and "New Thought," to such inane varieties of religion as Christian Science. This is happening precisely because they do not find in the Christian Church, and from the ministers who represent the Church, sincere, intensive, and intelligible instruction in the ways m which men and women may find the true "peace of God" which will enable them to meet the exigencies and vicissitudes of life with high courage, firm faith, and assured trust. We dare not be derelict in our duty at this point, for if we have failed here we have failed almost everywhere.