Friday, June 25, 2010

Patristics Chick at VBS, Part 2 -- "Yes, Virginia: 10-yr olds care about the homoousios!"

People in the MDiv program like to laugh a bit at us MTS (Masters of Theological Studies) students. While MDiv's have the reputation for just wanting to hug and "be in the trenches with the people", MTS's have the reputation for being a bit too scholarly, socially inept, and maybe a bit less "Christian" than those who have a more pastoral vocation. There was a story in our satirial blog, The Depressio, entitled "Students Tried Too Hard In Field Ed" which depicted a student locking a kid in a closet to represent Jesus' time in the tomb and trying to let the Sunday School poppets wrestle with the rather unsatisfying ending of the Gospel of Mark. When I was getting advice from my mentor about applying to the more ministerial ThD program, he recommended doing some "ministry". And he seemed slightly worried that I might do something crazy, like, well... trying to teach 10 year olds about the consubstantiality of the eternal Logos with the Father or the hypostatic union and the ultimately heretical nature of Nestorius' two-subject Christology. ("Hey kids! Can you say 'apokatastasis'?") Well, to be honest, I was a little worried, too.

I love theology. I'm more in love with God when I think about divine impassibility and divinization soteriology and inter-Trinitarian relations than when singing praise songs and hearing Bible stories about how "God so loved the world" and all that. So, I'm exactly the sort of person who could make all kinds of grave ministerial mistakes, like trying to market theosis to a Western post-Augustinian, post-Reformation world. Or trying to tell kids about how the Son is homoousios with the Father at VBS.

However, the latter is exactly what I did.

Here was the situation. My academic mentor happened also to be the Bible story leader at VBS. When I was volunteering to help, he told me the lesson was the parable of the sower and joked that it would be like our Early Christianity intro "on steroids". I instantly had visions of him tying the parable of the sower into a lengthy discussion on grace and bringing in Origen's interpretation of how the rain falls on the just and unjust alike and so the hardening of pharaoh's heart as a result of grace is really because pharaoh had hardened his own heart and so the "rain of grace" just runs off. I am sensible enough to know he wasn't going to tell 5-10 year olds all that, but I acknowledged that fact with a slight pang of regret. Still, all during the lessons I kept waiting for him to bring up baptism.

On the last day of VBS, my mentor had another engagement to lecture and couldn't make it. So the pastor filled in for Bible time. He pretended that since it was his first day, he didn't know anything about the story. He kept messing up parts and making the kids correct him. Some of them got pretty into it, giggling and groaning and yelling "no!" when he said things like, "A sower went out to swim..." But a few of my older kids were just not amused.

My autistic kid summed it up at once: "He really does know it, but he's going to keep saying wrong things just to be silly." And one of the ten-year-olds who goes to the church said wisely, "He's a pastor. He can't fool me -- he knows this story." So, most of them were playing along, but some of them were sitting there kind of rolling their eyes indulgently.

And I get that. When I was young, I'd usually try to play along, but those sorts of things drove me up a wall. To be fair, they got to review the key points of the story. That is, they've got the "earthly narrative" down pat. They know the seeds don't fall among "hot dogs" but among "thorns". And these are good things to know.

The problem came up when he started reviewing the "heavenly meaning" of the parable's "earthly story". This part was exceedingly short, in my MTS opinion. But I must admit I didn't hear too much of it. His first question was: "So who does the sower represent?" Some kids called out "God" and others said "Jesus". And my little ten-year-old corner got feisty.

Kid #1: God IS Jesus. They're the same thing.
Kid #2: Nunh-unh! Jesus is a person! God is up in the sky, like... he's God.
Kid #1: [looks at me] God is so Jesus... isn't he?
Jen: Well, Jesus is God, but God isn't the same thing as Jesus. It's not like God is sometimes being Jesus and sometimes is being God. Jesus is God's Son and so he's the exact same kind of thing as God, just like you are the same kind of thing as your parents. You're people like your parents and Jesus is God just like God his Father is.
Kid #2: OK.
Kid #3: If Jesus is God's Son, then is God Jesus' real father -- like really?
Kid #1: Then who's his mom?
Kid #4: Mary's his mom.
Jen: Well, Mary's his mom when he was born as a person, as Jesus. You know how you have a birthday, the day you were born?
Kid #4: Jesus' birthday is Christmas.
Jen: That's when he got born as a person. But Jesus is a person AND he's God. So as God's son he was always around just like God is and he never had a time when he "got born". And because he's God just like God is, he didn't have a mom. We need moms and dads because we're people, but God isn't like human beings so he doesn't have his Son the same way people do. But when he became a person too he got born as Jesus and then he had a mom.
Kid # 3: But his dad is still God. Because it wasn't Joseph.
Jen: Right. And that's how Jesus is a person and also still God.
Kid #1: Ohh! I get it now.
Kid #2: [nodding wisely] That makes sense.

Their last comments almost made me laugh, because of course it doesn't make "sense" -- these are the major mysteries of Christian doctrine. It took the Church centuries to be able to articulate it, and we still don't know the "how" of it. But after that, at least they were no longer using their modalist and adoptionist ideas. I had managed to give them something that was orthodox that they could grab hold of, be satisfied with, and grow with. It was the happiest moment of my entire week and it felt like a little gift to me, the cheese at the end of the maze.

I felt a little bad about having this discussion while the wrap-up of the lesson was happening, but we had about six kids that were paying attention to this and wanted to know. And we were quiet. They were asking the questions and they were listening for answers. The thing I've learned with these kids is that you'd better take every opportunity you've got because the moment is gone in a second. The pastor finished recapping the heavenly meaning in the minute that we'd spent talking and then the youth helpers had them playing "Simon Says" (this was a recurring theme). I figure six out of nineteen kids asking about key items of the faith was worth bending propriety.

The incident has made me think a lot. There are several things.

1) Having a darned good handle on theology is important for ministry. Period.

OK. Let me hedge a little -- it's important for a lot of ministry. I'm not saying that people can't be ministerial unless they have theological training. One of the things that bothers me about the MDiv's is that they seem to equate "ministry" with "being pastoral". And one of the things that bothers me about some MTS people is that they seem to think that being stringently orthodox is an end in itself, for everyone. (I don't quite agree, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.) You can sing, play an instrument, sweep floors, give money, hand out food at a soup kitchen or a whole lot of other things that help the Church without having theological training.

However, if you're going to teach, preach, or counsel, I think solid theology is desirable. And I think it might be even more desirable for teaching kids. I'll admit that I'm congratulating myself a bit on the answers I gave. It wasn't perfect. But the point is: I wouldn't have been able to give those sorts of answers before this year. I read a good bit of theology, including some of the key stuff on "Arians" and the hypostatic union, in the year before I started in the Div School. Back then, I probably would have gotten a bit too geeked out, gone into the history, maybe even said the word "homoousios". Partly, I would have just gotten too excited and I would have been saying it more for myself than for the kids; I didn't have enough of this in my life to miss out by "dumbing it down". And I wouldn't have had the familiarity to be able to "dumb it down" into 8-10 yr old speak. I'd only scratched the surface. I knew homoousios. I didn't see the full and rich tapestry of issues behind it.

Before last year when I was reading theology, I might not have noticed that their comments were straying out of the corral. Or I might not have cared. I didn't get so hepped up about Jesus because I disliked the whole "me and my Jesus" trend -- the Christology that produces those macho T-shirts for men which show crosses and iron nails and thorn crowns dripping blood and those WWJD bracelets and which makes women get alternately weepy and happier than otters on Prozac at retreats and Bible studies. I was into the Father and the Spirit. I was working on a way to dispense with Jesus altogether. And that's because Jesus was human and because all these Evangelical sorts are way more interested in themselves than in God and so focus on Jesus almost to the exclusion of any idea of the Son before the incarnation (another rant for another time). I might have just said something like "God isn't Jesus, but Jesus is God." I'd be willing to bet that most regular people would hear "God is Jesus" and say either "God is Jesus' Father" or "Yes, Jesus is God."

2) I will never let anyone ever again tell me that people don't care about these things.

I think the reason that adults don't want to hear about it is that they've heard something enough that they're absolutely sure it's right. They don't mind hearing what they've always heard and nodding along, but they don't want to investigate or hear something new. Kids, on the other hand, are used to not knowing everything. If they get in a disagreement, they might actually ask and try to learn. At a certain level, kids are able to be more invested in finding out what's right than in being perceived to be right. These kids cared. They might not know all the reasons why it matters, but they care whether Jesus is God or just a guy or what.

3) The obverse of the first contemplation: ministry is important for theology.

Let me be clear here: the content of one's theology should never depend upon human situations. I'm sure this is very controversial and a whole lot of people will revile me (if they were to read my blog, which most people don't, so I'm safe). And I still think that, as a hopeless patristics geek, I will still have "private theology time" where I go as abstract and complex and "ethereal" as I possibly can -- partly this is what I need to do to fulfil the Shema and love God with my whole mind. And partly it's just crazy fun that makes life enjoyable while I'm waiting for the eschaton.

But if this sort of work is what I'm born to do, if it's a true vocation, then I'm meant to do it with reference to something beyond myself and beyond the 20 or 30 other patristics scholars in this country (OK, I'm understating. But only slightly.) Therefore, I need there to be a proportion in my life. So much of the Christian life is grounded upon our theology -- or it should be. I've come to the conclusion that a lot of our teaching ministries in the church are less effective than they could be because they aren't based on a very deep theology. The problem is that people who are good at practical things are often impatient with abstract thinking. And the people who are good at abstract thinking aren't good at (and often just hate) thinking about the practical. There's a presumed "trickle down" from scholars to Church, but I don't think it's working so well -- at least not in my field. And I'm becoming more and more convinced that there are actual "practical" things that need a healthy dose of historical theology. For this reason, I think many of us who are doing the "abstract" have a serious obligation to be thinking of the "practical" and to frame our research questions with some sort of relevance to what is actually going on in the Church, what's happening "in the trenches with the people". Ideally, we should write about it. But even if we can't write for general audiences with practical ideas and suggestions, we need to be looking for the implications for the concrete and practical.

Let's say we're working on the Christological controversies and the debate between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria. Historically, how did the reasoning of the time support or make difficult the orthodox formulation? Is there friction between the formulation and our current "grammars"? What about post-modernism? Is there an epistemological conflict between the two or is there a way of reconciling them? What does this mean for how we articulate this today? A lot of people are just dropping Chalcedon and I think that's wrong. What is motivating this trend? What needs are we trying to fulfil in people by dropping Chalcedon? What will we then lose? What is it in Christianity that makes this formulation integral? How does its loss affect how we teach? How does it affect our imitation of Christ? How does it call into question the hope of the resurrection? What does this then impact? How do we articulate the aspects of Chalcedon which are, in fact, spiritually gratifying? How do we present the values and orientation implicit in the Chalcedonian formulation in a way which makes clear their relevance to our lives in this day and age? What of the needs behind the rejection trend are legitimate? What are the logical errors or failures of piety which prompt the rejection of Chalcedon? And how can we correct for this? Is there some human need that we've been neglecting in presentation of doctrine or in ministerial praxis, a lack which then makes the rejection of Chalcedon attractive as a means of meeting the need? How then can we meet those human and spiritual needs by means of a ministry that grows out of the Chalcedonian definition? How can we teach Chalcedon in a way which invigorates and is spiritually nourishing?

[-- This is my problem. I feel like it's really important to do this. And I have a sense of what it is that I want to do to join the practical and the abstract. But I don't really have the words and can't manage to articulate it. But I just know that good, deep theology can help people!]


  1. Jenn, I think you stand on the fallow ground for building a bridge between the "feel good" Christianity (which I think we have today in the Protestant churches) and the emerging Faith that is being formed and in a birth process. In the Roman Church tradition, we say the Holy Mother the Church's mandate is to preserve the Faith as it has been handed down. Holy Spirit, working in the hearts of the laity, inspires new expressions of Faith. The priesthood is caught right in the middle of this "birth-soup", representing the tradition, yet responding to the needs and inspirations of the faithful. (This is my "distillation" of my convert classes in the 70's.)

    I think that Absolute Truth will always defy concrete expression because of its character as ultimate Mystery, but theology (as I understand it) being the study/science of God must be grounded in it, or the Power of the church's teaching is lost. So, I agree with you.

    You are tenacious and passionate and articulate, and intelligent. Go for it, girl! You'll find the words, and I have no doubt you WILL build a new bridge of faith-articulation for the 21st century.

    Love in Christ,
    Linda Long

  2. I'm jealous that your VBS included explorations of the heavenly meanings of Bible stories and parables.

  3. Hey. This is an interesting post.

    I'm curious; why do you place a significant importance on the Chalcedonian definition? Why not the definitions of Ephesus I or Constantinople II?

    Do you consider the "Chalcedonian formulation" the end-all-be-all of Christology because it gave a conflict-settling answer, or because Western Christian theologians of the past few hundred years have simply SAID it was the conflict-settling final statement on Christology?