These collections are the fruit of two 2004 conferences held within a month of each other at Boston College and the University of Southern California. They cover generally the challenges and possibilities of communicating religious faith and identity from one generation of Americans to the next. In Handing on the Faith, the faith in question is Roman Catholicism; Passing on the Faith is about all three “Abrahamic” religions. The two books can appear, at first, to be different in at least one other way. Handing on the Faith seems very much occupied with describing and worrying over an American “cultural catechumenate” that is up to no good and to which the church must somehow respond. Passing on the Faith is mostly focused on “success stories.” As its editor, James L. Heft, writes, the book describes “how three religious traditions can pass on to their next generation a robust and vital understanding and practice of their faiths.”
In the end, the contrast between hand-wringing and high-fiving may not come to very much. In addition to all the success stories in Passing on the Faith, there is also a lot of concern about cultural circumstances that challenge the communication and formation of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim identity-including the circumstances of religious diversity and pluralism, which the authors of the Handing on the Faith largely put to one side. And while it is true that the latter collection gives far less attention to hands-on models of handing on, it does include Bishop Blase Cupich’s fine report of a diocesan-wide transition in western South Dakota from a “catechesis of schooling” to “church-based formation.” A traditional CCD-classroom approach tends to isolate faith formation from a parish’s life of worship, from families, and even from the hearts of those being formed. It also builds comically false expectations. As one catechist put it, “I am afraid that we have led parents to believe that it is possible to drop their child at the church for religious education, run to the dry cleaners, the bank, and the grocery store, then come back an hour later and pick up a Catholic!” Bishop Cupich’s account of parish efforts to expand and nurture responsibility for handing on the faith, both within and between different generations, gives us reason to hope that things are changing.
There is in both books a kind of consensus view about what religious believers are up against and what they should do about it. On this view, the “cultural catechumenate” of late liberal capitalism has commodified religion, making it, in William Dinges’s words, “a toolkit of sacred wares for selectively constructing a personal spiritual identity.” Identifying who you are, spiritually or otherwise, is for Paul Griffiths a matter of “branding.” Appeals to “self-discovery” or “self-invention” promise us complete freedom to fashion and refashion ourselves among like-minded people. But such appeals also make it difficult to explain to young people that there is such a thing as “a community of truth”-and that this sort of community is different from communities of taste. From this perspective, the I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious mentality betrays an anti-institutional individualism bordering on narcissism. Christian Smith argues that an “internal secularization” has also taken place within religious traditions and institutions. According to Smith, “moralistic therapeutic deism”-a system of belief in which God functions as a problem-solver who wants us all to be civil and happy and to feel good about ourselves-increasingly shapes the lives of American teenagers as it infects, “colonizes, feeds upon, and decomposes” its traditional religious “hosts.”
The second part of the consensus view endorses “countercultural” activities that communicate a particular way of life rooted in ancient traditions of religious practice. Catholics who hold this view insist that members of the church should become more familiar with the distinctive language of Christian faith, a language that gives one access to an alternative culture. Those who learn to speak this language discover that the world finds its full intelligibility in the light of Jesus Christ. And the importance of this language also reminds us of the narrative character of Christian witness: its sacred scripture is the story of salvation, embodied in worship, and modeled in the lives of the saints. In his excellent Afterword to Handing on the Faith, John Cavadini writes that “handing on the faith means first and foremost handing on the practice of the faith in its sacramental and liturgical dimensions and in the virtues that they form.”
This position is now very common in both academic circles and journals of opinion. It is the position of those who criticize political liberalism, individualism, and mass consumerism for promoting a false universality, for alienating people from their historical and social contexts, and leaving them alone with their “free choices,” vulnerable to collective powers that manipulate their desires and self-understanding. There follows from this critique a call for a robust commitment to the kind of community that seeks the good and the true within moral and religious traditions. And from this call to tradition there follow certain defensive strategies, ways of explaining how being “countercultural” does not make one an uncritical sectarian.
There is a story about a group of old friends who become so familiar with each other’s jokes that they need only designate them by number. “Four,” someone says, and the others erupt in laughter. One day a newcomer witnessing the hilarity is surprised when someone says “twenty-seven” and is met with dead silence. “What happened?” he asks, and someone answers: “He didn’t tell it right.” What makes Handing on the Faith and Passing on the Faith valuable is the way a group of writers committed to this consensus view seek to tell their familiar story right-right in nuance and refinement and detail. We of an older generation who are interested in transmitting our faith to the young (and who find ourselves asking, “How can we possibly meet them ‘where they are’ when they are...there? And where, after all, are we?”) would do well to imitate the careful zeal of these writers.
But while Griffiths is right to highlight the influence of secular culture’s “deforming pedagogy,” Cavadini is also right to insist that such a critique must not fall prey to “pride and its derivatives-trimphalism, clericalism, smugness-all of which threaten to destroy the good” that roots the critique. “This requires genuine humility before the goodness we find in the world, even if...that goodness is flawed.” Christopher and Deborah Ruddy (in Handing on the Faith) and Brother John of Taizé (in Passing on the Faith) reflect on how the work of Christian communities involves acts of discrimination that will confront disordered desire while at the same time helping to awaken our deepest longings.
Christians should concede that their own command of the language of faith is hardly perfect. Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us that “taking the creed seriously” may “prove to be a scandal first of all to Christians.” Formation through immersion in traditional practices and understandings leads to a situated faith, but never a settled faith. Nor does such an immersion preclude openness to the wisdom of other religious traditions, and Peter Phan’s stimulating essay in Passing on the Faith presents one case for a “dual religious belonging” that is compatible with-and, indeed, deepens-a “robust Christian identity.” Phan is aware of the danger of syncretism-of toolkit religions in which “spirituality,” uprooted from practiced communal belonging, becomes a matter of taste.
Even the success stories in Passing on the Faith sometimes raise a similar set of concerns. “Congregations that get it,” claims one contributor, attract young adults who want to “feel valued” and enjoy “being moved,” who value “choice,” “connection,” and a “sense of ownership.” But the same Jewish, Christian, and Muslim congregations are evidently also after what Diane Winston calls organized religion’s “gold standard,” a traditionally authentic, hospitable, and animating life of learning, worship, service, and prayer. Again, handing on faith today demands that discriminations be made, discriminations that rightly value personal appropriation of, and accountability to, the truth, but also reject the trappings of a consumer-style subjectivism. A living language of faith must communicate the distinction between the personal and the merely private.