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Monday, September 9, 2013

"'Cause yes": A Lesson in Theological Study from my Two-Year-Old

I've an obvious bias, since he is my son, but my two-year-old (Leo) is one of the most adorable children on the planet.  He has big beautiful eyes like his mother, and has an incredible sense of humour.  He's also incredibly headstrong, easily more stubborn and feisty than his two older brothers.

And lately, Leo has developed an interesting way of asserting his viewpoints.  A typical 'conversation' will go like this:
Me: "Leo, please pick up your toys."
Leo: "I don't want to."
Me: "Why not?"
Leo: "'Cause no."
or:
Leo: "I want a cookie for a snack."
Me: "Why?"
Leo: "'Cause yes."
The way in which Leo expresses "'Cause yes" or "'Cause no" indicates that he views that response to be absolutely definitive, as if any further conversation after that response is utterly pointless given that his view has been fully and logically articulated.  In fact, so thoroughly does Leo understand this response to be definitive that Kim and I can actually use it do convince him to do something:
Me: "Time for bed, Leo."
Leo: "Why?"
Me: "'Cause yes."
Leo: "Oh, okay" [dutifully goes to his bedroom]
Obviously, this stage isn't going to last.  He can already tell that his logic doesn't always work with us, and it won't be long before he will require much more extensive reasoning than we are currently providing for him to do something we ask.

I was telling the students in my introductory theology class the other day about Leo's 'logic', and it occurred to me that many of them had in fact experienced theology in school and in church precisely as this.  When I have asked my students in the past about their experience of theology, the vast majority - particularly of those taught in Catholic schools -  talk about how Christianity was presented to them primarily as a set of doctrines and moral rules to be accepted en masse, though without any substantive discussion about their meaning and significance.  Nor was space made for asking the simple, but important, question: Why?

I fear catechesis in my own Catholic tradition frequently amounts essentially to the following:
Church: "Believe and do these things."
People: "Why?"
Church: "'Cause yes."
And the overwhelming response of people in their 20s and 30s, as we all know, has not been to acquiesce like my two-year-old (whose acquiescence is, I know, going to be short-lived), but to reply with a resounding "No!"  And, frankly, who can blame them?

The task of studying theology as an academic discipline is, in part, to open up to students the possibility of asking "Why?" without fear of reprisal or judgement, but with certainty that the
Surprised by love
question will be taken seriously and thoroughly explored.  I am convinced, and it is for this reason that I am and remain Catholic, that Beauty lies at the heart of Catholic theology (though not only Catholic theology); that it is the Beauty of limitless and totally generous divine love which gives meaning and significance to Catholic theology and life.  And although more people are coming to recognize this reality through the example and words of Pope Francis, who has in his short tenure as bishop of Rome made people come to understand what generous love might look like, it also takes careful, thorough, difficult, and occasionally painful theological exploration to understand more thoroughly the intense Beauty of the very simple phrase, "God is love."

It doesn't do simply to tell people what to believe.  Theology must be experienced.

Image - Detail from Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" from www.wga.hu

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