Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Memory Tricks in the Catechism

In memorizing the Small Catechism (go here [-- PDF alert]; old translation here) with my kids on Sunday, we came across the explanation of the fourth petition:

Give us this day our daily bread.

What does this mean?

God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all the wicked; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

One very practical feature of Luther's catechism is its ease of memorization. And as a sign of how Luther loved children it has all sorts of little hand-holds for flustered memories to grab hold of. In the Ten Commandments, for example, every explanation begins "We should fear and love God that . . . that . . . that . . ." As I tell my kids, Luther's giving you that crucial extra second to try to remember what comes after the "that" -- use it! And, no matter how painfully the recitation of the Creed's explanations went, every child on Confirmation Day can have perfect three-point landings three times in a row by concluding with a big smile, "This is most certainly true!"

Which brings us back to the list above. Lists are hard, but Luther has made this list easy and a support for life-long meditation. First of all the first ten items are all in the form of pairs: food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and animals, money and goods that go neatly from the most "primitive" and intimate needs to the most external and dependent on civilization. This is also easy to remember because the kids already went through much of it in the first article of the Creed (on God the Father and creation).

Then we have four classes or orders of social life, taken from Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter: husband/wife, children, workers (servants in the old translation), and rulers (magistrates in the old translation). Note here, the rulers as people are distinguished from government in the abstract which comes later along with weather. The implications are quite interesting: in the three household orders, devotion/piety alone are thanked, as if to say, to be a good husband, wife, son, daughter, master or servant it is simply sufficient to be pious, devout, and fear of God -- no other virtue is demanded. But to be a good magistrate -- well, let it never be said that Luther regards a magistrate being Christian or not as a matter of indifference. If we pray to God to be made thankful for a truly devout Christian magistrate, then when we have it that is necessarily a good thing. Later on, children may learn about "wise Turks" but here, at the foundation, they learn that they, and we, should hope for and be thankful when high officials and rulers are devout Christians.

But note, while piety alone is needed to be a good parent, child, or servant, for a ruler, something else is needed: faithfulness, which is exactly the character we are to prize in a neighbor ("faithful neighbors"). Here "faithfulness" is the characteristic virtue of non-familial relations, of the civic sphere. The ruler is in part like a father, but in part like a neighbor, a nice solution to the conundrums that wracked England's political life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So having dealt with the four types of structured human relations (husband-wife, parent-child, employer-worker, magistrate-citizen), we then deal with two states: good government and good weather. This is an easy pair to remember because each one has the word "good," and both are things that fall down on us from above, which we can prepare for one way or another, taking advantage when good and taking shelter when bad, but which ultimately we cannot control: good government is like good weather. It is also notable that faithful and devout rulers and good government are not necessarily the same -- Luther has no vain repetition here. Circumstances may make government bad when the ruler is faithful and devout, or vice versa. Both are good, and the combination of both is a great gift of God.

Next comes the four qualities in life we should be thankful for, each of which is in part something internal and in part something external: peace, health, self-control, a good reputation (honor in the old translations). This is arranged in ascending order of how much control we have over it in our living: some over peace, more over health, and most over self-control and honor. Or we can see it as the two states that feel comfortable and sometimes degenerate into sloth -- peace and health -- are placed first, while the two that are somewhat "highly strung" and may cause tension -- self-control and honor/reputation -- are placed after.

Finally we conclude with the general, unstructured human relations, good friends and faithful neighbors. Observe the difference of "good" and "faithful" here. As noted already, "faithful" -- meaning doing one's duty in an impartial fashion -- is the virtue of the civic realm, between people bound by obligations, not by particular friendship. "Goodness" however is something we receive from others that pleases us personally (and what is good government or good weather to a farmer may unavoidably not be such to a banker). We all should be thankful for friends who love us for being ourselves and also for neighbors who will do their duty us no matter who we are.

Question: if you could teach your children all this, why would you not want to?

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