As a graduate of a “Great Books” college that uses a seminar method of instruction, I have always looked for ways to incorporate discussion into my high school courses. One year, when I was teaching “Classical Literature,” I was able to run the classes primarily in this way. The burden of the discussion was on the students, and my role was to guide the discussion, and keep them on track. Principally because of the excellence of the students, the results exceeded my hopes.

But most of the time, I teach courses in religion. We read texts that lend themselves to discussion—C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy—but there are catechetical truths that the students have to know. It is largely artificial, and contrary to the discussion method, to lead the conversation to a predetermined result. What role can discussion play?

I have found that probably the most fruitful use of discussion in religion is exploring the assumptions that ground Church teaching, assumptions that are often held only in a confused way by students, if at all. In many cases, those assumptions are simply denied. For example, before I would teach the “ten commandments,” I would discuss whether moral judgments are facts or opinions. Most of the students believe that they are opinions, because they see morality as an area of disagreement. When I ask them if science is not factual when experts disagree, the student response is that there is an experimental standard to judge those facts, and that there is no such standard for morality. At that point, we read C.S. Lewis’s “Illustrations of the Tao,” the appendix to The Abolition of Man. Lewis shows a profound agreement on the precepts of morality, e.g. “do not kill,” “do not commit adultery,” “do not steal,” etc.

Not only do I provide them examples of moral agreement, but also we talk through examples of moral disagreement, e.g. cannibalism, human sacrifice, widow burning, honor killings, etc. On the one hand, these provide difficulties for a universal moral law, which need to be addressed. On the other hand, there are always people within these cultures who oppose these practices, and not merely from some “Western” influence. This latter group provides difficulties for the view that morality is merely the result of culture and upbringing.

In its pure form, the “seminar method” has the goal of open-ended discussion, of not coming to a set of predetermined results. That’s why, no doubt, this method works best in the area of literature, where differing interpretations are part of the very richness of exploring a great literary work. A completely open-ended discussion in religion, however, risks the student simply not taking the subject matter seriously because of basic, unexamined assumptions that the student brings with him.

At times, the only way a “good” discussion can happen is if the teacher is more than a facilitator. Perhaps, at the end of the discussion, the student who denies the moral law will still deny the moral law, and the student who doubted God’s existence is still unsure. Fine—no discussion can “make” believers. But they have to walk away with the sense that there is something compelling on the other side, with which they may not agree, but recognize as having a rational foundation.

At this point, someone might make the following objection: “Your account of your own methods shows that you do not believe in the seminar method at all—the discussion you allow is just a means for moral and religious indoctrination.” Even if I concede the point (yes, as a religion teacher, I do engage in moral and religious indoctrination), I have come to the conclusion that seminar method, quite apart from whatever philosophic commitments the teacher may have, is necessarily indoctrinating. Indeed, it can be one of the subtlest forms of indoctrination there is.

The very choice of books to read, the very questions that are asked, cannot be carried out in some “value free” way that bypasses definite philosophic principles. The very principle that as a teacher, “I will let students form their own opinions, and I will not make judgments about them,” reflects a philosophic view about teaching and learning. Arguably, it neglects the permanent reality that teachers form students by their example, by what they say, as well as what they don’t say.

A student who is not given answers, at least to wrestle with—even rebel against—easily can lapse into a form of intellectual agnosticism. He feels there are no answers, since no one seems to have the authority or confidence to propose any. Paradoxically, in the name of “open discussion” and “questioning all views,” the moral or religious “agnostic” in such a program is never brought to question his own assumptions, since moral and religious authority is considered dubious or unreasonable from the very start.

Let us admit that all forms of education, even those which use a seminar method, presuppose some view of the purpose of education, and the value of the subject under examination. Religion is perhaps more explicit about its task of “indoctrination” in a way that other subjects are not. Nonetheless, religious “indoctrination” does not prevent students from coming to their own views and articulating their own positions.

For example, just recently my students had a very lively discussion of the Church’s teaching that “it is never licit to do an intrinsically evil action that good may come of it.” This discussion was possible because we had familiarized ourselves with the Church’s position on this principle. It also demanded that I as the teacher “take a side,” because many students felt passionately that the Church was wrong to forbid all immoral actions when some good such as human life was at stake. My defense did not prevent them from retaining their own views.

Indeed, the discussion made more clear the differences between the Church’s view and their own. This would not become evident if I did not “side” with the Church and defend her position. And the discussion allowed the students not only to try to articulate their side of the issue, but also to see the weaknesses and possible inconsistencies of their view. If they remain “consequentialists,” they will do so with at least an awareness of the fundamental alternative.

In the foreward to his translation of Rousseau’s Emile, Allan Bloom remarks that “If books are to be liberating, they must seem implausible in the half-light of our plausibilities which we no longer know how to question.” This principle can inform the use of discussion in a religion class. Church teaching is authoritative, and students must have a clear understanding of what the Church teaches in a religion class, just as he must receive the Periodic Table in an authoritative way in a chemistry class. At the same time, the teaching of the Church should not “end” discussion—rather, it should provide the beginning of one. Indeed, if the teaching of the Church is to be compelling for many of our students, they must be encouraged to question the very “modern” principles they have imbibed from the culture around them. And this can lead to very rich discussions indeed.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Rabbinical Discussion” by Jacob Toorenvliet (1640-1719), and is in the public domain.

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