The Place of Doctrine in Catechesis


Many people interested in the renewal of catechesis want to move beyond the stereotype of catechesis as "mere" cognitive knowledge. It can't just be theory or head knowledge, we might say. And yet, catechesis is stubbornly doctrinal. The problem it seems, isn't with doctrine or truth per se, but with the kind knowledge with which we approach truth. Benjamin Espinoza and Beverly Johnson-Miller state the problem well:

“Although evidence exists that the contemporary church suffers from biblical and theological illiteracy [for instance, Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy], the more alarming concern is perhaps the lingering Enlightenment influence of the recent modern era in which the Christian faith was reduced to objectified knowledge. It is important that in our efforts to restore meaningful and widespread theological engagement we do not fall into the trap of limiting Christian formation to rational argument” (“Catechesis, Developmental Theory, and a Fresh Vision for Christian Education,” 19).

Without belittling doctrine as propositional truth, can we articulate a goal for catechetical teaching that takes doctrinal teaching seriously but doesn't fall into the Enlightenment trap? 

Andrew Louth provides the terminology for just such a move in his description of the ancient Greek work, theoria. Distinguishing this term from words like "consideration" and "understanding," Louth characterizes theoria as “union with, participation in the true objects of truth and knowledge. It bespeaks....a feeling of presence, of immediacy” (Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, 3). 

Theoria thus encapsulates the notion of understanding (i.e., theory, intellect, truth as proposition), but within an experiential, participatory understanding of truth. We know the truth from being in union with the God who is truth.

Catechesis needs such concepts—if not the language—in order to say why we spend time working through doctrine at all, which at least for some has become a tainted word—a word for elitist, out-of-touch ivory tower academics. Some of the backlash against doctrine is related to the kind of pragmatist obsession in modern education—the only reason to learn something is to be able to do or make something. But there is a genuine theological sense in which knowledge and love are of one piece. Recovering the unity between love and knowledge is central to the catechist's task.

So doctrine is more than "head knowledge." It is part of life with God and life in God. It is sharing the mind of Christ. Casting such a broader vision for how we come to know truth and the value of teaching doctrine is essential for recovering one of the convictions at the heart of catechesis, namely, that catechesis involves teaching the content of the faith. But in order to teach doctrinal truth in such a way that we move beyond rote memorization or indoctrination, we need something like the ancient concept of theoria to re-aim our teaching toward union with God in Christ.