Book Review: Will There Be Faith?

Whenever I engage in conversation with my catechetical colleagues, certain questions and themes arise again and again:

  • What would catechesis look like if it followed the pedagogical model used by Jesus?
  • What if we sought to not just teach about the faith, but help the faithful (both young and old) learn from and be transformed by our rich Catholic tradition?
  • How can parents be more intentional about passing on the faith?

Thomas Groome’s new book, Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples, seeks to answer these questions by proposing a life to Faith to life  model for catechesis and Christian religious education.

By life to Faith to life Groome means a  methodology  that begins with the life experience of the faithful, invites them to consider that experience in light of the wisdom and practices of the Church, and then to bring those new insights back to their lived experience. This intuitive, praxis-based approach builds off of Groome’s earlier body of work in the field of Christian religious education.

Groome’s aim is to take catechesis away from the strict classroom-based model that has became  prevalent  in many places in the Church. This model, although popular, has led to the compartmentalization of catechesis. As Groome writes:

The emergence of denominational schools, Sunday schools,’ and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) all greatly enhanced the effectiveness of religious education. The disadvantage, however, was that they removed the family from its central position as educator in faith and gave the impression that the school — of whatever kind — could educate better than and instead of parents. Even the Church helped to convince parents of this schooling paradigm. As a result, most parents still assume that if they simply take their children to a parish program, say one hour a week for about thirty weeks a year, it will make them Christians.

Groome’s life to Faith to life approach seeks to re-integrate faith formation into the lives of the faithful by beginning not with the dogmas and doctrines of Christianity, but with the lived faith experience of the people to be catechized.

Groome quotes liberally from the General Directory for Catechesis  (GDC) in making his case, pointing out that catechesis “bridges the gap between belief and life, between the Christian message and the cultural context” (n. 205) and “one must start with praxis to be able to arrive at praxis” (n. 245), to give but two examples. He also utilizes the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35) to demonstrate Jesus’ use of this approach. By beginning with life experience as a tool to draw people into conversation about the faith, Groome honors the GDC’s commitment to catechize as Jesus did. (Cf n. 143)

At the same time Groome affirms the need for good doctrinal content to the proper formation of the faithful, including catechisms and curriculum guidelines.  By starting with life experience Groome is not proposing a radical “I’m OK–you’re OK” relativism; rather, he proposes using life experience as the starting point for introducing how our Catholic faith provides a framework for living as a disciple of Christ in our particular historical, social, and cultural contexts.

All this would be well and good as a theoretical discussion. Fortunately  Will There Be Faith?  shines in its outline for implementing the  life to Faith to life  model in a variety of settings. Groome lays out strategies for parishes, schools, and families  for putting the life to Faith to life  approach in to action.  Groome even has positive things to say about devotional practices for families:

After Vatican II, such popular practices fell off, and for so good reasons. Many had become exaggerated devotions, sometimes with a dash of superstition, there being a fine line between faith and magic. Vatican II made a successful effort to recenter what should be at the core of Catholic faith: Jesus, the Bible, Mass, the sacraments, and discipleship. Now, however, almost fifty years later, we might return to some of those old devotions, informed by better theology and without exaggerating their importance to the Faith. We need some such personal and family-centered practices. They are powerful ways to nurture and sustain people in faith. They educate. The key is for families to choose ones that will be meaningful for them, so that they are likely to practice them regularly.

My only correction to this passage would be to add that such a revitalization of devotional practices — in light of the Second Vatican Council — is already  occurring, spearheaded by young Catholics who are rediscovering them with joy.

Unfortunately Groome’s approach will be overshadowed for some people by his  use of inclusive language and praise of liberation theology — which is a shame, because these issues are not intrinsic to the life to Faith to life approach he outlines. Groome goes out of his way to avoid gender-based pronouns for God, including such phrases as “God calls us to Godself,” a phrase I can’t imagine being written by anyone except an academic theologian. His uncritical praise of liberation theology is especially disappointing since Groome points out that all metaphors for Christ’s work, if taken too literally, end in error — yet he never points out such boundaries on his metaphor of “liberating salvation.”

That having been said, I would encourage readers to look beyond these secondary issues to the heart of Groome’s approach, which offers a promising vision for Christian religious education. Will There Be Faith?  merits multiple readings — especially the last two chapters in which he lays out his total vision for the life to Faith to life  approach. I look forward to reaping the fruit of this book for years to come.

Disclosure: I  received  a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.