Catechesis Then and Now: The Reformation and the Secular Age

Catechisms aim to be instructional, not polemical. But at the same time, no catechism is non-contextual. Never written in a vacuum, they emerge amidst some particular circumstances or challenges that shape their writing. 

In an interview last year for Comment magazine, Tim Keller and James K. A. Smith discussed the challenges of catechizing in the current North American climate. In it they addressed how catechesis differs today than in the Reformation.

In the age of the Reformers, when many of the key catechisms emerged—including the Heidelberg, Westminster, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Prayer Book Catechisms—the context was medieval Europe. This was just what people understood to be “the world.”

As these catechism-writers sought to explain the faith and shape a particular reading of Scripture, they did so against or amidst these emerging confessional dynamics. So a Reformed catechism was designed to guide its readers against a Lutheran view of the Eucharist, for example. And Roman Catholic catechisms guarded against Reformed views of grace, etc.

But Keller makes a crucial point, at once obvious but also easily overlooked. Today, the "world" in which we live is not medieval Europe. It’s what Keller, following Charles Taylor, calls "the narrative of secularism."

Now, I don't think you need to buy Taylor's particular genealogy of modernity to grant Keller's point (but it's certainly worth grappling with). The point is that the primary task of catechizing today is not first to guard against Transubstantiation or Anabaptist views of civil government. The point is to shape a reading of Scripture that guards against secularism. Or if “against” is too strong, to catechize with a much fuller knowledge that something like secularism is the air we breathe.

For Keller, the primary area in which catechists and catechism-writers need to work is in shaping the interpretation of Scripture to guard against secularism (this is part of the impetus behind the New City Catechism he’s involved with). He points, for example, to the way in which we've come to view the human person (drawing on Taylor's notion of the "buffered self," the idea that the individual person is impervious to any "outside" forces, good or evil) and a valorization of rationality devoid of faith commitments as the surest way to truth. These, he finds, are some of the more pervasive ideas that Christians today encounter as they seek to make plausible the principle claims of the faith.

This is not to say that the confessional issues don’t matter. We'll still imbibe the anti-Catholic, or anti-whatever teaching of our tradition, but the more pervasive problem, Keller thinks, is not Protestant amidst medieval Catholic but Christian amidst secularism.

This, to me, goes a long way in explaining why one can be catechized using one of the great Reformation catechisms, and still completely absorb the sort of expressive individualism that is part and parcel of the secular age, or the idea that truth is really only known through the rational skepticism.

At the same time, I also wonder if this account too neatly skirts around the fact that some of the anti-sacramental catechesis has contributed to the very kind of secularism we inhabit today.

This can occur at two levels. On the one hand, as Reformed catechisms in particular stressed the non-Catholic view of the Eucharist, for instance, it codified a non-sacramental, more “flattened” view of the world at large. The Roman Catholic catechism, responding to this, and not to the larger rift of nature and the supernatural underlying it, tended to emphasize not a better sacramental theology but a more literal identification of Christ’s presence with the bread. That is, the analogical nature of the sacrament can get lost in both ways.

But on a more important level, I think, a kind of de-scaramentalized catechesis occurs when catechesis gets reduced to a transmission of information, rather than an introduction into mystery. This is evident in the fact that the first thing most people think of in the word "catechesis" is a text containing dogmatic information, rather than a theological practice designed to guide one into a way of life. When we think of catechesis as a merely passing along a set of data that needs to be memorized, rather than an induction into life with God, then we’ve already succumbed to some of the more detrimental features of secularized catechesis.

For a secular age, then, a more necessary form of catechesis is thinking in terms of training sensibilities and intuitions, as much as head knowledge. The better we are able to see the interweaving and overlapping of cognitive and affective “knowledge,” the more likely we will be able to imagine the task of catechesis in our current climate.

Keller and Smith's whole interview is well worth reading for thinking practically about what this might mean.