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Foundational Faith: Catechesis as Architecture

By Alex Fogleman

What does catechesis do? What are we trying to accomplish in teaching new Christians the core elements of the Christian faith? It’s often said that one of the main purposes is to establish the foundations of faith. And that’s quite true. But we may too quickly pass over the significance of that all too common metaphor.

What are the foundations of faith? In what sense is the Christian life like a building, and what sort of building materials are called for in catechetical instruction?

There is more to the architectural metaphor than we might first guess. And to see how this is so, I want to highlight the close association between memory and building metaphors in classical and biblical thought, before looking at some of the resonances in early Christian catechesis.

A Classical and Biblical Foundation

In her extraordinary work on the medieval “culture of memory,” Mary Carruthers reflects at various points upon the importance of architectural metaphors for meditation and Scripture reading (see esp. Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture [Cambridge University Press, 1990], pp. 43–45).

On the one hand, medieval monks inherited a tradition from Greco-Roman philosophy and rhetoric that understood memory as a kind of building or storehouse — a thesaurus or treasure chest — where information could be kept safely and used in timely situations. A well-ordered memory was akin to an ably constructed house. With one’s mental house in order, a prodigious mind like Thomas Aquinas could have access to the breadth of Scripture and the Fathers at a moment’s notice, able to dictate to three or four different scribes at once.

On the other hand, monks also had recourse to the rich Pauline language of Christ as the foundation, paradigmatically laid out in 1 Corinthians 3:10–17:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master-builder (Gk. sophos architecton; Lt. sapiens architectus) I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

This Pauline text, Carruthers comments, “gave license to a virtual industry of exegetical architectural metaphors,” securing its central place in medieval religious literature (The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 [Cambridge University Press, 1998], p. 17).

The architectural metaphor funded the basic medieval structure of reading Scripture — the various spiritual senses being “built” upon the foundation of the literal. But Carruthers points out that the building metaphor was, for St. Paul, “a trope for invention, not for storage.” That is, having a solid foundation is what led to creative work. “From the beginning of Christianity, the architecture trope is associated with invention in the sense of ‘discovery,’ as well as in the sense of ‘inventory.’” Paul lays the foundation and others built upon it. But the foundation is what makes further building possible.

Carruthers adds: “the foundation is not to be confused with the completed structure. It is the ground, but not the key: it ‘authorizes,’ in the medieval sense, by initiating and originating further construction” (ibid., p. 20). The foundation is the place where one does the creative work of invention, or edification. Memory work, then, is much more than information recall. The goal is not simply to have a good memory. The purpose of a good memory is what it allows you to do.

Foundational Catechesis

The building metaphor from St. Paul found an especially comfortable setting in the teachings of early Christian catechists. I know of no better example than St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Procatechesis (ca. 350s), an address given to those on the verge of joining the ranks of the baptized:

Consider with me the catechizing to be a building. Unless we dig deeply, and set the foundation, unless we join the structure of the house together with a sequence of chains, that no gaping hole be found, and the building become unsound, there is no benefit from our former work. But it is necessary that stone follow upon stone in sequence, and corner fall into place with corner, and that our excesses be shaved off, so that the finished building may arise. In such a way we are offering you stones, as it were, of wisdom. It is necessary to hear the things concerning the living God. It is necessary to hear the things concerning judgment. It is necessary to hear the things concerning Christ. It is necessary to hear the things concerning the resurrection. And many things are spoken sequentially, which are now being delivered as a seed, but then will be offered as a harmonious whole. But unless you connect them as one, and remember that what is first and what is second, the builder might build, but again the building will not have a solid foundation. (Procatechesis11)

Catechesis, for Cyril, is about laying the foundations — providing stones of wisdom. But it is not only giving the catechumens good stones. It is also helping them to put the stones together rightly, to construct them into a harmonious whole with smooth edges and solid joints. The work of catechesis is about making those connections between the various building supplies that make up the core elements of the faith.

I imagine the individual clauses of the Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments to be the various stones that, if not assembled well, can easily lead to a kind of disfigured faith — one thinks of Irenaeus’ famous analogy of Scripture as a mosaic: what was initially arranged as a beautiful image of a king is, in the hands of his Gnostic opponents, rearranged to create the image of a dog or a fox.

St. Augustine also appeals to the Pauline architectural language in his catechetical works. In one of his sermons on the creed, addressed to catechumens, he begins:

The Symbol of the most sacred mystery, which you received all together, and have given back today one by one, contains the words in which the faith of mother Church is solidly based on the firm foundation which is Christ the Lord. For no other foundation can anybody lay, besides the one that has been laid, which is Christ Jesus. So you have received and given back what you must always retain in mind and heart, what you should recite in bed, think about in the streets, and not forget over your meals; in which when your bodies are asleep your hearts should be awake. (Sermon 215.1)

St. Augustine references here the ancient practice of “handing over” the creed. In the ancient Church, catechumens were not permitted to write down the creed but were to commit it to memory as it was “handed over” (traditio) by the bishop, to whom they would “return it” upon baptism (redditio). Augustine implies that memorizing the creed is akin to laying the “foundation of Christ.” But clearly the kind of memorizing Augustine has in mind here is not what we think of today. Committing the creed to memory should go beyond mere rote and should transform our way of being — even when we’re asleep.

Seen in light of the classical memory tradition and the Pauline language of Christ as the foundation, we can see how important the work of catechesis is to establishing the groundwork of faith. Doing the difficult work of setting forth the clear connections and connectivity of the faith is what allows for the possibility of creative Christian action. The work of memory is about more than mere rote. Yes, it begins there, but it does not end there. Forming the memory structures in catechesis is like a key that unlocks the entire faith. When the foundation is set, it establishes the conditions for a lifetime of faithfulness and holiness.

Alex Fogleman is director of the newly founded Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis and a doctoral student at Baylor University.


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