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Theological Notebook: End of the Week; Jesus and Catholicism Classes

I'm tired as I come to the end of the week. Mari wanted to go check out a burlesque show tonight, but I had to draw a line as to what depths of New Orleans culture I really wanted to get involved with. Besides, after teaching until 4:30, office stuff after that, walking my bike home from campus so that I could continue a conversation and see some of the Halloween-decorated mansions on St. Charles with Minoo (Tim, my Chair's wife, who is from Iran and was talking about the Revolution and the last year's unrest) as she walked home from her own class, I still then had to go out and run errands. So, after grocery-shopping and stopping by the pharmacy, it was around 7:00, and I was actually more inclined to take it easy for the rest of the evening, old-style New Orleans jazz-and-girlie shows notwithstanding.

I was interested to discover from the student in my Jesus class that they found the first reading in our primary theological text – Christoph Cardinal Schönborn's God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology – to be quite readable. In fact, many of them said they found it far easier to read than the book we had just finished, Jaroslav Pelikan's classic Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, which, to be honest, really surprised me, since I never even thought to ask about how readable they found that one. I just took it for granted that it was quite accessible. The plan in this class, after our reading of the Gospels themselves, is that we read a historical/cultural text on Jesus – Pelikan's text – and then a primarily theological text, concluding with a text written more as a spirituality exercise. In this way, we would look at Jesus through a variety of approaches, all of them in serious, substantial, well-researched volumes. Last year, when I taught this class, however, I thought that the weakest link in my series of texts was my theological one. I used a good, Catholic volume on Christology: Gerald O'Collins, S.J.'s Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus. The text in itself was good: solid work, perhaps a bit dry in its presentation, at least for undergrads, but it was a bit too much over their heads.

This is the problem with the theological text in general for this class, I fear: the students aren't very familiar with theology as a discipline, and so finding a text that both is serious in its academic and theological depth, but which is also accessible to them – that's a tough balancing act, I've found. My students last year acquitted themselves very well with the Christology text, but even with me helping them over the humps, it was a bit too much heavy-going, I judged. So I looked around for a new text for this year, eyeing this one by Schönborn in particular, which I'd read a good review of somewhere, and which I had been able to look through after Mom cleverly gave it to me as part of a Christmas present set of books. I'll have to check in with the students about the sheer readability of the text a few more times as we go through the work, of course, but I'm kind of hopeful that I've finally found the right "mix" or "balance" for an undergrad class of this sort.

Our first reading from the text was a "Praeambula Christologiae" – a "preamble to Christology" that set up the explicit context of what it has been in Modernity that has made Christology or Christian faith difficult, which is the sort of head-on approach that I myself kind of favour: tackling the problems as an organizational method rather than dancing around them and trying to present some sort of picture of the faith or of theology as an unmarred or unproblematic whole, and perhaps only then turning to confrontational issues. So he organized his discussion here around three "pillars" of Christianity in their sources in Scripture, the Tradition, and experience, while looking at related crises of Modernity: scientific, historical and existential. He won't be addressing these consistently throughout the text itself, he wrote, which would make a different, more apologetic sort of text, but he did want to set these up as contextual concerns to be remembered and taken into the discussions of the main body of the text. And the students seemed to respond rather positively to this first reading, which was interesting and encouraging to me.

My Catholicism classes have entered a more "spirituality" portion of the course, and this week looked at sacramental spirituality and the seven official sacraments of Catholicism. Discussion moved in different directions in each section, based on the interests of the students who spoke. One student who has been very enthusiastic about the course, who was stunned to discover the depth, complexity and serious engagement of actual theology (having only known "religious education" in his life before), today asked me after the course about whether he ought to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation (one of our topics today) before perhaps going to Mass this weekend, which he was thinking about doing for the first time in years. I had to laugh a bit as I confirmed with him firstly that he'd been raised Catholic and had ever had First Communion or such before. This kind of "clarify and verify the basics" comes from memories like teaching at Saint Joe's in South Bend, where I was serving as a Eucharist Minister during one of the monthly all-school Masses, to one day have a student appear at the head of my line who I fully recognized as a Jewish kid, who, seeing the look of surprise on my face, whispered, "I thought I would just try it out." And so he did. Not entirely kosher, I suppose, but also not the sort of thing you're supposed to make a real fuss over as a minister, as we saw the other year when Bill Clinton very publicly and cluelessly made his way into a line at Mass.
Tags: books, christology, class-catholicism, class-jesus christ, friends-loyola era, jesus, students, theological notebook

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