Manipulating Catechesis: A Note of Caution


As one who thinks and writes a lot about catechesis, I was delighted to read Zachary Jones’ recent article, “Catechesis as a Weapon against Racism.” In it, Jones makes the salient but easily neglected point that racism is a cosmic as well as terrestrial force, a battle over what it means to be human as well as police regulations, pay scales, or policies. Without suggesting we can neglect the earthly strategies of policy changes, he proposes that the church wage war against racism at the theological level—looking specifically at the doctrine of the Imago Dei that one finds in Scripture and expressed neatly in the catechism. Jones writes: 

“If we want to see racism die, then we must see the idea that we are equal sharers of dignity because we are made in God’s image become the predominant perspective in our society. This can only come if we as local parishes, as family units, and as individuals take it upon ourselves to catechize and be catechized under the authority of God’s Word.

The “war on racism,” he goes on to say, “is a catechetical war on our sinful nature.”


In this post, I want to echo and amplify a point Jones makes in connecting catechesis with opposing racism, before sounding a small note of reserve. For while I certainly agree that catechesis can be a powerful “weapon” against racism, I want to resist framing catechesis as a tool for addressing particular social issues. Using or manipulating catechesis as a way to deal with a particular (contemporary) crisis runs the risk of subverting the very function of catechesis, which is to preserve the tradition and initiate new members into the divine mysteries to which it bears witness. (To be clear, Jones does not mean anything like this; in reading his piece, I thought it was a point worth raising and responding to.)

I take it as given that racism is a spiritual and social evil to which Christians should be opposed. I also agree that catechesis has something to contribute to Christian life amidst a society that is fracturing over politics, racism, police violence, and a dozen other issues. 

The main point to consider, however, is that racism cannot be addressed sufficiently within the current conditions of our modern social imaginary. A defining feature of modernity, as Charles Taylor and many others have pointed out, is the bracketing of transcendent values from public life. According to the modern way of thinking, one may hold private beliefs about the supernatural, but when it comes to enacting “real change,” we are only dealing with the world of pure nature. And yet if racism is a spiritual as well as a social evil, then modernity, as Ken Myers has recently noted, does not have the metaphysical capacity to address human personhood and racism. We will always be limited to addressing the problem in secular terms within a “social order that guarantees unresolvable antagonisms.” 

Enter catechesis. Catechesis, as Jones well notes, puts us in touch with the living God through a focused reflection on Scripture. As such, catechesis does much more than summarize doctrine, prayer, or Christian morals while leaving the modern worldview intact. Catechesis induces us into a new conception of reality—an alternative metaphysic. Catechesis is a primary site in which we receive the “faith once handed down” and are united to the communion of the Saints by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way, catechesis guides Christians into a comprehensive framework for envisioning and inhabiting the world “in Christ” as God’s good-but-marred-but-redeemed creation. Catechesis, in short, induces one into a radically new form of existence—an ontology in which all of creation is saturated with the presence of Christ, for “from him and through and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).

Being drawn into this new kind of existence provides the metaphysical framework for recognizing racism as a theological and not simply cultural or social ill. Here, however, is where the note of caution comes in. For while it is tempting to view catechesis as a way to address a particular contemporary issue—whether a theological or ethical one—this practice turns catechesis on its head. Instead of catechesis serving to bring people into the life of the Spirit, catechesis becomes a tool to serve one’s own agenda. 

It has no doubt been a feature of catechism writers throughout the ages to organize the contents of a catechism in a way to address particular topics. One cannot and need not pretend to escape one’s social location. In the sixteenth century, for example, Lutheran catechisms sought to inculcate an anti-Catholic view of grace, law, and the sacraments. Calvinist catechisms, meanwhile, echoed the anti-Catholic convictions while guarding against Lutheran views of the law. Roman Catholic catechisms followed this pattern, reinforcing anti-Protestaant views. 

Centuries later, evangelicals in the eighteenth century also organized the content of their catechisms to shape a particular view of salvation. Indeed, catechisms could be framed not around the topics of Creed, Prayer, and Decalogue but according to a particular order of salvation—beginning with the sinner’s miserable condition and ending in repentance, conversion, and leading the new life. In all of these cases, no one intends the catechism to be a single-agenda tool—addressing just one or two key issues. These catechisms address the “whole” of Christian thought and life but do so with a particular “bent,” a certain angle. 

So far, probably uncontroversial. Indeed, don’t we always do this—adjusting the unchanging claims of Christian truth to speak to particular times and places? Isn’t some kind of manipulation unavoidable for speaking contextually to our particular circumstances?

At the same time, it is easy to see how the writing of catechisms, in the wrong hands, could go in a more sinister direction. Indeed, this was exactly what happened in the antebellum south with so-called “slave catechisms.” In Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination, he cites several such catechisms that were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, in a catechism written by the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones (1804–63), we read about how slaves are to behave towards masters:

Q. 37: When Negroes become religious, how must they behave to their masters?

A. The Scriptures in many places command them, to be honest, diligent and faithful in all things, and not to give saucy answers; and even when they are whipped for doing well, to take it patiently and look to God for their reward.

Jennings goes on to show how the use of catechisms facilitated an intertwining of doctrine and practice that sought to “civilize the slave and secure slaveholding by means of the text. . . . The Bible was read within racial difference, and racial difference was read into the Bible” (Jennings, Christian Imagination, 240). 

While we might rightfully cringe at the possibility of such a twisting of the catechism, I am suggesting that when we think of catechesis as a tool that enables us to address our particular agendas, we run the risk of mirroring this very practice. If one group of Christians can massage the catechism to generate an anti-Catholic or conversion-centric understanding of Scripture, what is to prevent another set of Christians from manipulating the catechism to curate a racialized reading of Scripture?

All this is to suggest that, while catechesis can be a powerful ally against racism, it won’t do simply to think that we “know” the right answer about the meaning and purpose of human life and then to reorganize the catechism to fit our views. What is needed—as, again Jones highlights—is a deep habituation in the Scriptures and the metaphysical framework it offers (granting that you assume, as I do, that the Bible does indeed offer a metaphysic). It is this kind of imaginary, I would suggest, that enabled the antebellum Black Church, despite the efforts of catechists like Charles Colcock Jones (and many others, unfortunately), to perceive their emancipation from chattel slavery as a typological figuration of the Exodus, and thus a participation in Christ’s liberation from every enslavement to death.

To be sure, I think smart Christians today can have a lot to contribute to the discussion about race, as has been observed on these pages. However, when it comes to thinking about how catechesis fits into these discussions, I want to caution against the temptation to manipulate the teaching of Christian essentials with an aim to generate Christians opposed to racism. That is—or should be—a side effect. But it is not the goal. The goal of catechesis, again, is not to organize Christian teaching to serve our agendas but to have all of our agendas and lives ordered to the mystery of Christ. 

For these reasons, I agree that catechesis is an absolute essential for our time—hence why I direct an organization called the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis. However, understood rightly, catechesis will serve in the battle against racism by dealing with the basic theological and metaphysical conditions that render racism unintelligible. It is to this task that I commend my brothers and sisters in the work of catechesis.

Published on

November 19, 2020


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