I teach a theology course that studies the Catholic understanding of the development of character. Because my university requires every student to take two theology courses as part of the core curriculum, a good number of my students wouldn’t take a course like this unless they had to. They may be sort of interested in thinking about their character, but with all the pressure to prepare for their projected career field, they probably wouldn’t sacrifice a slot in their schedules if they didn’t have to.
At the beginning of the course, I ask the students to write a short essay response to each of the following three questions:
- Who is God?
- What is the world? (i.e., the universe, all that exists)
- What is the human being?
The first time they answer these questions, they haven’t studied anything in the course yet. The answers tend to range from what you might expect from typical Sunday school students to confessions of disbelief as to the existence of God, purely physical conceptions of the world, and individualistic, self-determining notions about the human being. I call these essays the “Foundational Principles Essays.”
Over the following 16 weeks, we do a lot. We study the Christian doctrine of creation, closely reading Genesis 1–2 alongside ancient creation myths as found in the Babylonians and Romans, as well as modern creation myths such as you might find in Apple commercials. We see how in the Judeo-Christian imagination, creation comes about only because God wills it, that the cosmos is described in terms of a temple and ordered towards an ultimate end of worship in fullness of God’s presence. We see how the human being is not only the image and likeness of this free and gracious Creator, but also purposefully formed from the good earth and animated in the most intimate way: through the sharing of breath. We see how original solidarity precedes Original Sin, how speech first communicates blessings before curses, how trust and transparency are natural while deception and self-consciousness spoil this created goodness, and ultimately how the person of Jesus as encountered in the resurrection appearances narratives shows himself as the redemption of all that has been spoiled.
In short, God is free and gracious, the world is God’s good creation, and the human being is the union of intentionally formed earth stuff and donated breath. In the light of the Resurrection, it is all seen as good and redeemed as good. This is the foundation of human life.
That’s the first third of the course. In the second third of the course, the students examine the complexities of communication and intention, or how lying, manipulation, and deception make human community impossible. Heaven, by contrast, is truthfulness itself, where lying, manipulation, and deception are driven out so that true and everlasting peace is given (see Rev. 21). The personal question that arises from this is something like “What do you love?” We may say that lives we love truth and goodness and joy and community or even God, but in practice, do we? Are we attached to our own ways, the ways in which we reconceive the world in our own image, in love with the little mini-dramas that we wrap others in unawares? Do we really love that attempt at control, after all? In the Christian diagnosis, the answer to those questions is “yes.” Yes, we love our own fabricated ways, and so we must be liberated from them.
So we study the stages of mystical ascent, from the purgative stage (separating from the old way) to the illuminative stage (slowly and habitually practicing a new way) to the unitive stage (where we learn to love what we previously didn’t). St. Francis’s transformation shows all three of these, though perhaps it is easiest to see the purgative in him. St. Benedict’s monastery is a prime example of the illuminative, while someone like St. Thérèse of Lisieux shows what the fruit of holiness is: to desire what your beloved desires, which she shows to mean loving in the way in which Christ, her beloved, loves. She wills to sacrifice for the sake of others. In the Christian view, that is the highest potential for human life.
If that end is the deepest and ultimate Christian desire—to become the sort of person capable of bearing the cost of love—the question then becomes, “So how will you live?” If you want to become such a person, how do you get there? The simple but demanding disciplines of solitude and community are central. Solitude is far more than simply being alone, while community is far more than simply being with others. Both are practices of presence, of rapt attentiveness, of the focus and commitment of oneself. The practice of leisure—as, for example, Josef Pieper describes it in his classic text—gives a glimpse into what solitude both demands and affords. Similarly, the Works of Mercy are the prescription for those who must, as Dorothy Day puts it, “subordinate our impulses … And live as though we were actually members of one another.”
I should repeat that this is an academic course. It is not Sunday school. It is not faith-sharing. What we do is study the Catholic understanding of the development of character: of who the human person is and what the human person is called to become. The students are not required to buy in to this vision, but they are required to study it and seek to understand it. What they end up seeing is that it is a coherent vision.
At the end of the course, the students are asked to craft a final draft of their “Foundational Principles Essays.” When compared to the final drafts, those first drafts from 16 weeks prior don’t always appear to the students as wrong as much as they read as rather vague, abstract, and imprecise. This is just as true for those who are the products of Catholic education as it is for those who have never had any real religious upbringing. What I have come to see is that the foundational principles on which most young people just happen to build their lives lack substance and form. Those principles are themselves not unlike the indeterminate stuff that is in need of God’s order at the beginning of Genesis.
The differences in the final draft are sometimes dramatic and sometimes quite subtle. I revel in the subtleties of slight shifts. For example, one student wrote “I still don’t completely believe in God as a caretaker figure.” I know just how much that little word “completely” means here. This is a student who came in with a totally mechanical view of the world and a view that God, if there is a God, is at best a distant and uninvolved figure. From her theological study, though, those assumptions were ever so slightly troubled. That word “completely” is the signal of that.
What is most beautiful of all, though, is that, by and large, the responses that the students write at the end are far more coherent than the ones at the beginning. They see how the belief in who God is and what the world is and what the human being is are all related in the Christian understanding. Even without necessarily making an act of faith themselves, they have learned to articulate that coherence in their own words, and they claim that articulation as their own.
Like I said, this is the kind of course that students at a Catholic university would not necessarily take unless they had to. A core curriculum that requires theology courses ensures that students engage inquiries like this. In the landscape of higher education where a technocratic paradigm is becoming more and more pervasive, this kind of education is a reminder of what university education was meant to be in the first place: the cultivation of young minds towards a coherent and well-informed view of the world and of human beings. It was meant to be about examining and solidifying foundational principles, and then engaging the project of developing not just skills for the marketplace but indeed personal character.