CathBlog June 27: Learning at the foot of Christ

Drasko Dizdar urges the contemporary Church to go back to basics and rediscover Christ’s original intentions.

The church, if it is to be true to Christ’s mission, needs to rediscover its original identity as a school – a community of disciples sent out by their Teacher to live and die as he taught them, by his own example.

In our own day, we are seeing the final demise of Christendom and the ways of being church that went with it: feudal, clerical, imperial, cultural, conventionally “religious”.

But diocesan and parochial structures and models of church have become so entrenched in the minds and memories of most Catholics (and not only its institutional leaders) that we still operate as though these structures came from Jesus himself.

They did not. They came from imperial Rome. They developed and belong in a feudal world.

They are not immutable absolutes. And they no longer work in aiding the mission Christ passed on to his disciples of bringing ‘good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, a time of the Lord’s favour’.

The pre-Constantinian apostolic church did not refer to itself as a ‘religion’ because it did not think of itself in conventional religious terms.

Conventional religion is, literally, what ‘binds culture together’ (religare, to bind back) through the agency of ritual, myth and law.

It has nothing to do with any ‘god’ that is not a mythic projection of our fears, a force just a little bit bigger, a little bit more violent and vicious than we are – certainly not one who ‘empties himself’ and gets himself crucified as an outlaw.

Conventional religion is ‘God on our terms and in our terms’.

And that’s exactly what Christianity is not: Christianity is the school of disciples of a crucified man revealing God on God’s terms … and in terms that beggar the human imagination.

Since Christianity is not a religion in any conventional sense of the word, the early Church refused to use conventional religious words to speak of itself. It spoke rather of itself as ‘the way’, a movement; an ecclesia, literally of those ‘called out’ (ek kaleo); a ‘philosophy’, a search for wisdom; an apostolic (‘sent’) fellowship (koinonia) of disciples (‘students’) – a school.

But if Christendom failed to be a ‘peripatetic school of the Lord’s disciples’, has the Catholic school fared any better? Or has it also compromised with the prevailing culture?

Has it become little more than a cheapish form of ‘private education’?

Is it in danger of becoming nothing other than a hothouse for cultivating society’s ‘most precious resource’, the pampered offspring of the middle classes, objectified as ‘resource commodities’, to ensure its survival?

Following Christ has never been about ‘bringing together faith and culture’.

That’s a conventionally religious enterprise. The attempt to integrate Christianity and culture is what we once called Christendom, and Christendom is dead. It was killed off by its cultural host: ‘the Empire, or as we have come to name it, the secular state.

The Catholic school is authentically Christian and Catholic only when it is committed to the transformation of human beings in the way that Christ himself went about it: not by bringing faith and culture together, not by contributing to social cohesion or forming well-functioning members of society, but by living and teaching a challenging new way of being in the world, even to the point of incurring the wrath of the old way of being in the world, the dominant culture.

The Catholic school has an opportunity to renew the post-Christendom church by bringing it back to its origins. And this is more than a pious hope.

Most people’s contact with the church in our own time is no longer through parishes but through Catholic schools.

But instead of aping the secularist agenda of dominant culture and accepting its culture-maintaining curricula with uncritical naivety, the Catholic school must rediscover and embrace Christ’s mandate to be a transforming cultural agent, a prophetic voice, and a catalyst for radical ‘conversion’, for a ‘change of mind’ (metanoia) which begins to see the world with the mind of Christ.

Its task is not to inform compliant consciences, or even to form good citizens, but to be a means of transforming them into free, faithful and flourishing human beings.

Dr Drasko Dizdar is a member of the Emmaus monastic community, and a theologian with the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office.

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