Thursday, August 5, 2010
Formation and Experience
Recently I found myself at a paper presentation where the presenter was attending to the category of "experience," specifically, the experience of children receiving the sacrament of confession. As someone who is interested both in children and in this sacrament in particular, I found the presentation very interesting, especially the original research that had been done interviewing children about their experiences.
At the same time, however, I found myself concerned with the use of "experience" as a category in theology. On the one hand, I do think that experience is important to consider when it comes to religion, especially inasmuch as it shapes the practical dimension of how we pass on the faith to our children. On the other hand, it seems to me that the category of experience only becomes meaningful when we consider the category of formation as well.
My mom never liked scrubbing the kitchen floor. She complained about it whenever she had to do it, and when we had to help with this chore it always felt like a punishment. So I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone that I also disliked this chore. My mom always enjoyed reading, and she snuck away to her rocking chair with a book whenver she could. So it may not be surprising that I have always taken an interest in reading and enjoyed it.
Now, I'm not trying here to make a hard and fast connection between formation and experience. It's always possible that children will not share the perception of their parent's activities, especially if the parents make the child feel bad about not living up to expectations or if the parents try to force something on the child in a negative way.
A friend of mine was telling me about her experience of praying the Rosary as a child. It involved her Dad interrupting the Sunday night movie right at the climax to make all the kids pray. Yes, this could give a kid a negative experience of the Roasry. Likewise, her experience of confession was her dad loading everyone up in the car on the first Saturday of every month, and making everyone go to confession. Again, this could make even a faithful Catholic adult have negative associations with the sacrament.
We often live our lives in American society without much attention to how we are being formed by that society. If we are not attentive to our formation, and conscious and intentional about what we allow to influence us, then it will be a mistake to use our experience as a category to make judgments about moral and religious practices. If, however, we are attentive to our formation - trying our best to have a "well-formed" conscience, for example - we can be more confident in occasionally critiquing religious and moral practices.
Going back to the paper presentation, it was fascinating to me that so many children (80%) had positive or very positive experiences of the sacrament of confession in a country where so few Catholics partake of this sacrament. It seems unlikely that a great majority of children would be formed to believe in the importance of this sacrament. As for the 20% of children who had lukewarm to negative experiences, I think it would be important to find out their parents' attitudes toward the sacrament. Do their parents ever go? Are they positive about it? Or was the students' first introduction to it through a class where they were told they would have to go to the sacrament whether they liked it or not?