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Timothy Larsen: Religion is wasted on the young

A simple question from his son prompts a Wheaton College professor to contemplate the significance of childlike faith.

istock/Christopher Futcher

September 11, 2012

Recently while I was cooking in the kitchen, my junior-high-school-student son was reading one of his fantasy novels in the living room. He shouted over a question: “Do evangelicals have monks?”

(I am a professor at Wheaton College; by “evangelical,” he meant “our kind of Christians.”)

A corner of my professional life happens to be taken up with the problem of defining evangelicalism, so my mind was immediately racing with thoughts: In what sense are some Catholics evangelicals? In what sense are some nondenominational Protestant experiments in communal family living monastic?

But instead of offering my son these nuanced thoughts, I kept the bacon from burning and simply shouted back, “No!”

So far so bad, but then he asked with such genuine curiosity in his voice, “Why?” I reverted to a painfully crude dichotomy between withdrawing from the world versus serving in the world -- a view I would not have accepted from one of my students.

Children do this to you. Being a college professor is fun, because you get to problematize and nuance the cartoonish views of your students. Being a parent, however, means that you have to do the hard work of sketching the rough draft that someone else will someday take gleeful delight in lampooning. Worse, your own children might foster their emerging adult identities by smugly seeing through the inadequacies of what you taught them while focusing on food preparation.

Part of what makes all this so unfair is that children absorb and process information in ways that are not conducive to subtlety. Truth be told, at a certain stage (which my elementary-school daughter might still be at but my son certainly is not), children are great literalists.

When I was growing up, my mother was a Holiness Pentecostal from the Appalachian Mountains who in no sane scheme could have been viewed as theologically liberal. Still, I remember being shocked as a child by her eviscerating approach to God’s word when she suggested that the biblical prophecy might not mean that the moon would actually be transformed into blood, but only that it would take on a reddish hue.

Once on a family camping trip, I was displeased to discover that toast was the only option for breakfast. I protested that “man shall not live by bread” and was annoyed to be treated as a wit rather than a theologian.

I recently ran into a woman who had taught me Sunday school as a child and was disconcerted to discover that she was not the simplistic thinker that as an adult I have taken her to be. I suspect that I had projected onto her the limitations of my own young self.

Perhaps when we think we are criticizing the narrow thinking of others, we are sometimes really just exposing the narrowness of perception of our past selves.

It occurs to me that it is precisely the fact that we are intent on teaching religion to the young that makes faith such a prime site for rebellion when emerging adults construct their own identities. As a peer reviewer for a publisher, I recently read the manuscript for a book that was an intellectual attack on Christianity. What struck me was that the sources for the skeptical views the author was commending were leading scholars, while the Christian beliefs were presented through recollections of what the author had heard various people say during his childhood.

Perhaps the most visceral reaction is the one that is rooted -- unconsciously or otherwise -- in embarrassment at our younger selves. This is hauntingly captured in the chorus of a Susan Werner song: “I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school / I’m sorry about Jesus and all that.” The fact that we enacted our faith in goofy ways as a teenager, however, should not discredit Christian belief as an adult option any more than the fact that we expressed our romantic desires in a cringe-worthy manner should permanently rule out love.

Christ calls us to become like children again. Counterintuitively, part of what this might mean is that there comes a time to get over our mocking, knowing, puncturing phase and learn to be true grown-ups. This is the maturity that once again allows us to proclaim truth in all simplicity, to be like children. To say it another way, true grown-ups can parent.

My students are often Christians who are old enough to mock mercilessly the people that gave of their time sacrificially to disciple them when they were young but who are not yet mature enough to be able to disciple others. I often find them quick-off-the-draw-ready with a forceful and sophisticated critique of most any traditional religious belief or practice.

They can be sadly flummoxed, however, by a simple request to explain what is true. If I wonder, “What are some problems with the doctrine of the atonement?” hands fly up all over the room, but if I straightforwardly ask, “What is the gospel?” the room falls strangely silent, and I find myself staring at rows of students quietly avoiding making eye contact.

To sketch what the gospel is would be to risk a rough draft that someone else would get the joy of critiquing; it would be to express a childlike faith; it would be to do the work of parenting.

I have therefore increasingly made it my self-imposed task to help my students find their way to their mature identities in a manner that does not make their parents and childhood teachers and pastors the foil in the process. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that they should simply accept what they have inherited unaltered. More and more I have come to value those who model how to no longer hold to the exact version of faith they grew up with while still finding ways to be grateful for and affirming of the community of faith that raised them.

The monologues of Garrison Keillor and novels of Chaim Potok strike me as welcome and useful in this regard. Keillor left the Brethren for more mainline forms of Christianity, but in a story like “Gospel Birds,” he is able to evoke the spiritual beauty and power of the faith of his father and mother.

The drama of Potok’s “The Chosen” is not a rather banal, secularist quest to leave Hasidic Judaism behind but rather a fascinating, faith-filled one of how to take it with you on the inside while shedding some of its more visible limitations and restrictions.

Or, complicating my answer to my son, one thinks of Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” who learns from Father Zossima that his true calling is not to be a monk in the traditional sense but rather to “go forth from these walls, but … live like a monk in the world.”

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur spoke of a “second naiveté.” Jesus said we need to be born again. A truly mature faith is one that -- having imbibed all the critiques and traced all the nuances -- is not afraid once again to risk childlike simplicity.