Earlier I mentioned that passing on the faith requires an engagement of the heart, mind and will. Given the better educated populace in many parts of the world, it is no longer sufficient simply to repeat theological jargon that young people can memorize. What do the words mean? Why should I believe it? What evidence is there to support the theological claim being made? These questions need to be answered before many young people will be able to accept specific church teaching.
So, for example, in science classes students learn about evolution. This theory is the standard model for describing differences among species and biological development. Yet, it is contrary to some religious traditions. The postmodern young person has a difficult time accepting a religious explanation, if it doesn’t square with science to reasonable degree. Given the Catholic tradition of critical reflection, the church has been able to incorporate the scientific understanding of evolution into its theology, separating out the biological from the spiritual elements. The church speaks to the spiritual elements and leaves the biological element to the realm of science.
We can see this at work in many of the “hot button” contemporary issues.
In a class I sometimes teach on human relationships, we discuss the topic of pre-marital cohabitation. If I attempt to teach that section of the course primarily as a presentation of church teaching, I convince no one. However, I can reach them when I begin talking about the numerous sociological and psychological studies that demonstrate statistically that the odds of a successful marriage are hurt by pre-marital cohabitation. They listen not because I speak with some religious authority but because I speak with the authority of empirical data and statistically significant results.
The situation gets even more complicated when we get to the topic of same-sex marriage. The church has argued that sex belongs in the context of marriage and that its function is to bond the couple together and to be open to children. Sex cannot be separated from this unitive role: relational unity and biological unity. Since same sex relationships lack the capacity for biological unity, the church argues that they cannot be marriage in the Catholic understanding.
There is a clear logic to this argument. However, many young people do not want to see some people who love one another denied the same rights as other people simply because of whom they love. They see the emotional element of the relationship as taking precedence over any biological obstacles. They value fairness. They rail against the prejudice and injustice that is often perpetrated against persons in same sex relationships. They often fail to be persuaded by the natural law argument that underlies the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and simply see the teaching as an expression of the injustice, fear of difference and prejudice that seems to be at the root of so many of the “hot button” issues in our society.
The bottom line is that when passing on the faith you must be willing and able to engage the minds of young people today. A simple reliance on authority will get you nowhere. This demands that you know what the church teaches, why it teaches what it does and can explain it in a meaningful way to your audience.
The third element that must be engaged is the “will”. This is that mental faculty that moves us from thought to action.
Back in Chicago in the 1950’s a Catholic elementary school caught fire. A few students were trapped on the second floor of the building. The fire department had nets with which to catch the children but they had to jump from a second-floor ledge, through smoke that obscured their vision, into the nets below. Many of the children were afraid to jump. It was a leap from a high place into a rescue device that was hard for them to see. They had to trust that they would be caught and based on that trust, make the leap into the unknown.
I use this story as an illustration of the role of the will in faith. When it comes to faith, the will really boils down to trusting God enough to act on our beliefs. Our faith isn’t just a matter of understanding theological concepts or having feelings of affection toward God and other people. It must go past these movements of the mind and heart to encompass the entirety of our lives. It must be manifest in our actions. In John 14:6, Jesus tells his listeners “I am the way, the truth and the life…” These words imply that being a Christian is not just assenting to certain teachings but is living those teachings day in and day out.
An evangelizer is not very effective in passing on the faith if those to whom he evangelizes do not see him living that faith. His words may be inspiring and well-crafted but if the Gospel is not manifest in every decision that he makes and every action that he takes, then he gives scandal rather than evangelizes. Each of us is called and empowered to evangelize because of our baptism. How we do it must reflect the opportunities and constraints created by our circumstances in life. This requires discernment, as we seek our path through life as disciples of Jesus. Part of manifesting the Gospel in our lives is being of service, especially to those who are at the margins of society and don’t enjoy the privileges of the wealthier or better socially placed. Such service isn’t just for the mature and spiritually experienced. Each of us is called to minister to one another from the beginning. So, if we are attempting to pass on the faith to others it is important to encourage the young Christian to be of service to others as their circumstances allow.