September 2, 2014

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Thinking Out Loud 04-10

Good Question

When John Calvin agreed to return to Geneva after his first failed attempt to lead its church, he returned with a requirement that the church teach the catechism he had written to its youth and children. Obviously, Calvin understood the importance of a good youth program. But there's something more here that we might have missed. This Reformer who was willing to sweep away anything he believed to be unsound steadfastly retained and resuscitated an educational method that can be traced in various forms back to Socrates: the venerable Q&A.

When we read through the Geneva Catechism, we are immediately struck by three things: (1) the sophistication of the answers placed in the mouths of young people and children; (2) the conversational tone sustained throughout as though the minister (or author, in Calvin's case) is engaged as a peer with a twelve year old; and (3) the confidence reflected by the questions asked. The first two points are worthy of reflection, but today I want to focus on the third point, the particular kind of confidence reflected by the questions of the catechism—a confidence in the truth of the gospel and the claims of the Christian faith upon our lives.

In one of Flannery O'Connor's last-published short stories, entitled "The Enduring Chill,"[1] we meet a young man who has returned home to die (or so he believes). He is arrogant, pretentious, intellectually proud, and impatient. He decides he wants to see a priest, but not just any priest. He pictures in his mind the dramatic interest of his end-of-life conversations with a well-educated priest, a person of culture as well as religion.

To his irritation, the instead of an urbane, worldly, sophisticated, and slightly cynical Jesuit (the priest of his imagining), the priest who actually arrives at his bedside introduces himself as follows: "I'm Fahther Finn—from Purrgatory." And, instead of responding to the "dying" young man's questions about the literary merits of James Joyce, or the significance of myths behind the world's religions, the priest insists on asking the questions: "Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers? . . . You don't eh? Well you will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to Him. Do you have trouble with purity? . . . We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it. Mind, heart and body. Nothing is overcome without prayer. Pray with your family. Do you pray with your family?"

By this point the proud young intellectual is almost fit to be tied. He isn’t having the kind of conversation he has imagined. And at the suggestion that he should pray with his family he shouts, "God forbid . . . My mother doesn't have time to pray and my sister is an atheist."

The simple priest responds, "A shame!  . . Then you must pray for them."

The conversation only becomes more tense from here on out as the young man attempts again to steer toward the comfortable shores of the arts, saying, "The artist prays by creating," to which the old priest responds, "Not enough!  . . If you do not pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul. Do you know your catechism?"

Here the young man feels on firm ground. He doesn’t need a catechism. He is an intellectual, an artist, free to experience the world and form his own opinions of it.

"Certainly not!"

The priest moves on relentlessly, not justifying, not explaining, just walking through the catechism.

"Who made you?"

"Different people believe different things about that," the young man replies.

"God made you," the priest says. "Who is God?"

"God is an idea created by man," the young man answers.

The old priest knows better. "God is a spirit infinitely perfect," sighs the priest. "Why did God make you?"

The young man starts to deny the premise, but the priest cuts him off. "God made you to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next."

Exasperated, the priest at last says, "If you don't apply yourself to the catechism how do you expect to know how to save your immortal soul?"

"Listen," says the young man, "I'm not Roman."

"A poor excuse for not saying your prayers," the old priest says.

"I'm dying," says the young man.

"But you're not dead yet," says the old priest.

After a turn in the conversation, in which the priest instructs the young man on how to receive the Holy Spirit, the old priest leaves. The last thing the young man hears the priest say, however, is a comment to his mother: "He's a good lad at heart but very ignorant."

What strikes me most in this wonderful, sad, and funny story is the confidence of the priest. He knows that the questions received in the catechism—fashionable or not—are the real questions at the very heart of life. The old priest standing beside the young man's sick bed, tenaciously asking questions the young man brushes aside, reminds us of what faith looks like and the contribution it can make to knowledge. Questions like some of the great questions in the catechism remind us that sometimes going deeper means asking tried and very true questions, whatever the preoccupations and distractions of contemporary culture may say about what matters most.

A member of a congregation I served told me the story of her niece who, in her first philosophy course in college, reflexively responded to the professor's (perhaps rhetorical) question, "What is God?"

She answered immediately, "God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

The answer amazed the professor who asked, "Where in the world did you come up with that? That's brilliant!" To which she responded, "The Westminster Shorter Catechism." A recovery of confidence for the church might begin when we remember that the cloud of witnesses is on our side, and they are not silent.