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Conservatism and the Art of Catechesis

The word catechism has fallen out of usage in American vernacular, but it remains an important concept. It refers to “a series of questions, answers, or precepts used for instruction in pedagogical situations.” To understand our current situation as a nation, we should return to an understanding of this term. Catechesis (or, the teaching of the catechism) at its core means the inculcation of ideas, beliefs, and patterns of life through the engaged teaching of the uninitiated into a system of thought or practice. This inculcation is usually through rational means, but it can also occur through the use of imagery, emotions, and artistic expressions. Catechesis is most important in the realm of faith since the truth claims of religion decide how one lives life, but it remains vital in other areas as well.

Consider the question of origins—one of the most profound questions which we all must answer at some point in our lives. Are we merely material byproducts of randomly formed organic material? If so, are we capable of living lives of true meaning? Alternatively, are we embodied souls imbued with meaning and value? How you answer these questions is vitally important to how you see the world, but all too often, we are not conscious of the process through which our worldview is formed. Frequently, our view of the world is merely the sloppy accretion of all the emotions, ideas, and sentiments we encounter in our personal experience and in our exposure to culture.

As Aristotle pointed out, there are several methods that a proponent of an idea can use to persuade his audience: Logos, pathos, or ethos. Logos refers to the use of logic to convince a person of the truth or falsity of an idea. Pathos is an appeal to emotions or passions to convince. Lastly, ethos uses the credibility of the speaker as a means to persuade. In an ideal world, the logical merits of a proposition would be the deciding factor for its acceptance or rejection. Then the credibility of the speaker would serve as a further evidence of the worthiness of the idea, and emotional appeals would merely be the icing on the cake of the argument. However, all too often emotions are the deciding factor in our conclusions.

Consider the rapid shift in our societal views surrounding same-sex marriage over the last decade or so. While some of the change came from reasoned discussions (logos), the shift in attitudes had far more to do with the use of pathos and ethos than it did with the application of logos. Popular culture, most notably TV shows and movies, positively portrayed homosexuality a nd same-sex marriage for decades before the change occurred. Since politics is downstream from culture, homosexuality was then normalized and recognized in legal arrangements.

Regardless of your political persuasion, this cultural change was quite an achievement. This example illustrates how cultural appeals are much more effective when they go directly for the heart strings rather than using reason alone. This has been proven by neuroscience in the case of music. If you play a spoken audio track to a person that holds opposite conclusions from those on the audio track, it may take thousands of times for the tack to convince them out of their current opinions. However, if you set that tract to music and play it for them, it may take only dozens or hundreds of times for it to convince them. Artistic expression too is a part of catechesis. We are whole persons with emotions and reason, so it is quite normal for emotional appeals to persuade us of the truth of ideas. While emotions should never be the sole method of persuasion, they are the most potent tool of the catechizer.

But one tragic truth that conservatives and peoples of faith must face is that we have failed to catechize many of our young into the values of Christianity and Western civilization. Several denominations of the Christian faith still have formalized methods of catechizing those new to the faith. Yet, it is all too clear that many of these efforts are not achieving the results one would hope they would. Catechesis cannot be achieved through memorization only. To truly know the quadratic equation requires more than merely being able to state it from memory. One must be able to use it to solve a problem. In the same way, a worldview is not understood merely by a teaching of the answers to questions of doctrine. One must be able to use logic to explain where the answers come from and why they are better than competing answers to the same questions provided by alternative worldviews.

Also, the catechism of a worldview requires the initiate to have a grasp of not merely the logos of the system but also of the ethos and pathos that animates it. As I said at the outset, we are all being catechized whether we know it or not. Media and entertainment is most adept at catechizing through the use of pathos. If conservatives are to convince those of other persuasions, they must begin to use all three of these persuasive tools more effectively.

The conservative’s ethos must always be one of grace and winsome good-humor. Our logos must be air-tight and well thought out. Finally, our pathos must capture the irrevocable truth that we are emotional as well as rational creatures. We must use stories and art just as skillfully as the tools of logic and rhetoric. Hollywood has demonstrated the enormous power of art to catechize the passion of the young and we must learn from their example. However, in our attempt to use art to teach the true, the good, and the beautiful, we should avoid the easy temptation to create parallel realms for Christian or conservative art in which the threshold of excellence is lower than it is in the broader culture. As C.S. Lewis instructed us, we should not seek to have great Christian minds proliferate “Christian” works only. Rather, we should have Christians excel in every academic, political, and cultural domain by creating excellent work that is inextricably shaped by their worldview—not merely a dogmatic attempt to use art or letters as a heavy-handed teaching device.

We should not lose hope in the power of the Christian and conservative imagination to catechize a new generation. It is just this system of thought that gave us the bounteous heritage of art, culture, letters, and political institutions that we in the West enjoy today. This heritage will bring forth new life once again, but only when the pursuit of excellence for the Glory of God and the good of man becomes our driving inspirations once more.