I had this idea that my book Catholicism Pure and Simple could be used as a text book for eighth grade confirmation class, so I’ve been trying it out on the eighth graders in our parish school and they are loving it. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter on the existence of God. I start with the religious instinct in human beings and build up the argument for God, Jesus and the Catholic faith from there.
Have you ever stopped to consider how strange it is that human beings are religious?
We’re told that humans are the most highly evolved form of animal life. We are rational beings. We can think and speak and write and read and reason and argue. We can do experiments and think logically and work out problems with our vast intellect. It is said that we are the most amazingly intelligent and rational animals the world has ever seen.
But at the same time the vast majority of humans are religious. On the one we are rational and reasonable. On the other hand we believe in a spiritual world inhabited by invisible beings. We say that each human has an invisible dimension called an eternal soul. We read books we believe are inspired by angels or by God. We build temples, mosques and churches, discuss theology, light candles, pray and believe in heaven and hell and miracles. We’re rational, but we have this religious instinct, and it’s curious. It’s strange. We’re not just apes. We’re apes longing to be angels.
I don’t mean that everyone goes to church every Sunday, or that all people everywhere believe in God and practice a religion faithfully. I just mean that no matter where or when they have lived, the vast majority of human beings have acted on a gut-level instinct that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that someone else is “out there.”
Some would argue that this strange religious instinct is a leftover from our more primitive stages of development, and that to be purely rational is to be more highly developed. But what if it were the other way around, and our religious instinct and spiritual capacity is the higher form of development? Maybe dealing rationally with the physical world is the more primitive part of us, while the capacity to interact abstractly with an unseen realm is the highest point of our human development. After all, who is more highly developed–a person who understands and appreciates something as “irrational” as music or someone who is deaf and dull to the joy of music?
Perhaps the religious instinct unlocks the true mystery and glory of humanity.Maybe the ability to pray and worship is mankind’s highest accomplishment. If so, where did this religious instinct come from? It seems to be a universal human capability. Human beings respond to their world in a religious way instinctively. In times of danger they cry out for protection. It times of need they ask for help, and in times of peace and plenty they pause to give thanks. When faced with the awesome force of nature or the miracle of a new-born child, they instinctively look beyond themselves to a greater power. This shared religious instinct is one of the things that sets humans apart from the animals. A wolf might howl at the moon, but he doesn’t worship the moon goddess. A dog might roll over and play dead, but he does not kneel and pray for the dead. A gorilla may play, but he does not pray.
Human beings, on the other hand, do this religious thing. In every society and culture from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, people have told stories about gods, built temples, established rituals, and honored men and women they thought were above the others because they were heroically holy.
It’s easy to think that religion is the last vestige of a primitive society, but in the modern world religion is as popular as ever.The signs of this religious instinct are everywhere. We may have satellites and cell phones, jets and laptops and amazing engineering and marvelous communications, but still we gather to worship God and turn our hearts toward heaven.
Travel across the world and you find that all the greatest monuments and buildings have religious purpose. Everywhere you come across temples and shrines of every shape and kind, from Stonehenge to St. Peter’s Basilica, from a simple Baptist church to the temples of Angkor Wat, from the ruins of a makeshift shrine in a cell at Auschwitz to the Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, or a Buddhist pagoda. Look further and you will see a range of institutions, charities, hospitals, schools and colleges all started, maintained and funded because of the religious instinct.
Eight graders are smarter than you think, and I’m sad to see that so much catechesis at this level is still done with puppies and kittens and coloring books. Well, not literally, but the faith is dumbed down.
Confirmation candidates are at a turning point in their lives. They will soon be facing all the vital questions about their faith, and they need more than rote learning based on only on the church’s authority. They also need to question their faith in a creative and positive way, and I’m delighted to see that Catholicism Pure and Simple is helping my eighth graders do that.
As a result I’m planning to write a workbook that goes with the text and provide a week by week curriculum with reading and discussion questions.
Now all I need to do is find another ten hours in the day…