We are learning how to live, how to walk, how to speak, how to love until we breathe our final breath. We continue growing up even as we are growing old. The way of life is also a way of continuous catechism.
Catechism might be understood as formalized instruction in the doctrines of the church for young people preparing to take communion or for new converts to the faith. On a very basic level, catechism is simply a manual of instruction that may include some forms of memorization that help a person entering into the life of a new community, a new field of work, a new language.
Think about learning a language. We must learns words, how words from sentences in the given language, what words are appropriate in a given context, how to articulate the words in a way that native hearers can understand, how to understand the language whether written or spoken. In a sense, learning a language is a catechism that may require formal instruction alongside of massive amounts of informal application. The formal instruction fails without real world application. Speaking, listening, and reading in a context can be an ongoing learning process. In fact, native speakers of a language continue to learn vocabulary words as they continue to engage in new cultural pursuits.
We are not simply learning a language or a job skill or a religious doctrine, we are learning how to live. We will keep learning how to live until we quit living. Some people will learn patterns of living that are destructive in various ways. These patterns may lead to broken relationships, unforgiveness, inability to change, or other expressions of living that limit our capacity to love and live in fullness of joy.
Torah is a way, a lifelong catechism. The ancient Israelites were told teach their children and rehearse Torah (God’s instruction) when they sat down, walked in the way, lay down, and rose up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The king was expected to read and rehearse Torah all the days of his life as a way of training him in wisdom.
18 “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)
The nation rehearsed the law during significant events (Deuteronomy 4:5, Joshua 8:30-35, Nehemiah 8:2-8), through parent-child engagement (Proverbs 6:20), through traveling instructors ongoing (2 Chronicles 17:7-9), through the wearing of tassels (Numbers 15:38-39), and more. Teaching and rehearsing the law was an ongoing way of life (Psalm 1). The regular repetition and meditation upon the Law and participation in the ritual ceremonies trained the mind and body in the way of God’s wisdom, the way of love.
Within our temporal and spacial limitations, we are continually learning the shape of love in relation to God, God’s people and God’s creation. This learning is also a turning toward relationship (metanoia), a shaping, a forming of the whole person into the way of God’s life and God’s love. This ongoing catechism is way of living in the flexibility of love that remains fully and truly love whether speaking from a mountain or hanging on a cross. Jesus unveils this constant, faithful love in a range of settings and relationships from a marriage celebration to a meal between friends to thousands of followers to a heated debate to a trial for his life. The same Spirit of Love is revealed in each moment.
We are learning how live, how to be Spirit led people in every context of our lives, even in our final breath. Torah is the steady, ongoing training of the heart by the Spirit through the Word into the shape of love. In the school of love, the school of the Spirit, the Teacher can use every situation, every aspect of our creation (including all of human culture) to teach us, train us, catechize us. He exposes the patterns of culture that lead to death while pointing us to the way of life.
In his book, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology, Matthew Myer Boulton discusses how Calvin sees the Christian life as a life of paideia, of education by the Spirit. The Spirit of God works through the Word, worship, believers, and prayer to shape the heart of the believer and to restore our sense to behold Christ in all things. He writes,
Thus in Calvin’s view, the role of the Bible in Christian life is not only to disclose “the true God” within its own pages, but also to act as a kind of clarifying lens through which disciples may come to see God all around and within them, and indeed to recognize themselves and the whole world as “living likenesses” of God (1.5.6). Seeing through Scripture, we might say, disciples may learn to see creation more accurately and vividly as the graceful work of God, from the starry sky above to the most mundane details of daily life below. Likewise, listening through Scripture, disciples may learn to develop “ears to hear” creation more perceptively as a divine symphony, thereby retraining and retuning their aural attention and insight. And so on.
We are learning how to see, how to hear, how to speak, how to walk. We are learning how to live and how to love. While we do grow in stature and wisdom, we always remain under the teacher and in submission to the body, that is in submission to one another.
Image by Steve Garfield (used by permission via Creative Commons).