Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Closed Systems

One of my older sister’s first jobs after college was as a teacher of religion at a Catholic high school. She was only a few years out of Yale with a degree in Religious Studies, and a convert to Catholicism. She had no background in education but she felt her knowledge of the subject matter and her deep conviction in her faith would be enough.

She learned a lot.

I think there was quite a bit of culture shock for her as she confronted kids who had never known anything but Roman Catholicism. Their homes, their church communities, their schools, their social circles. She came face to face with what it meant to be culturally Catholic. It wasn’t necessarily the same spiritual core which had drawn her into the faith.

It was more like a closed system where no other points of view were considered. Conversely, one might also say it was a supportive environment where it was safe to be Catholic. I make these comments as a second hand observer, not as a judge and jury.

Something that has been on my mind the last few days is an anecdote from her old teaching days. It was very important to her that her students understand that God’s love is a free gift. She would often write on the board, in large letters:

How can we earn God’s love?

Then, underneath:

We can’t. It’s a free gift.

Before every test she would remind them that this was the easy-peasy extra credit question that they could rely on. On every test she would ask them:

How can we earn God’s love?

And, without fail, she would get to-do lists from good Catholic children.:

Go to Mass.
Go to Confession.
Say the Rosary.
Know the catechism.

She found this incredibly frustrating. How could these young people, who had the benefit of a lifetime of learning in the Catholic Faith, be unable to grasp what was, to her, a basic tenet of salvation?

It was the culture in which they were raised which was at loggerheads with this one simple question. She was asking them to do something which was counter intuitive to how they had been taught to be Catholic. In every situation there is something you must do to be good.

Why is this on my mind? I wonder if raising children in closed systems runs the risk of shaping young people who can only think one way, and do not know how to react in the face of other cultures, other ways of thinking. I do not mean to claim that I can extrapolate from one anecdote to make a blanket statement about anything.

But I just wonder.

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