“I prayed, and understanding was given me;
All good things came to me along with her.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging.
It is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction.”
Wisdom of Solomon 7:7,11,13-14
It was the early fall, no air conditioning in the room, and we were already wading through some pretty dense stuff not an hour into our first class session in that upstairs conference room. “Philosophy and Religion” did seem, to my advisor at first, an odd way to kick-off my freshman year in college, but I was all for it. She couldn’t stop me, she said, and it’d at least knock off one of my two philosophy core requirements. Plus, she reminded me, once I officially declared myself a Religious Studies studies, I wouldn’t be meeting with her. (“They’ll clean up this mess,” she seemed to imply!)
The professor was an older man, ‘Crean’ was his name, I believe, and he meticulously opened and set on the conference room table in front of him a travel alarm clock. I guess it was to make sure that his ramblings — brilliant, but rambling no less — didn’t carry us too far over the hour and a-half time allotted.
“We’ll begin with Thomas Aquinas,” the professor began after some very brief introductions. He gave us a bit of biographical information on the 13th century Dominican philosopher and theologian and introduced us to the term Summa Theologica — or the various competing ways to transliterate the Latin. I was wowed by the idea that one could, literally, summarize theology.
To be fair, I was already awed that one could, well, do theology. I had a long way to come.
In my evangelical high school, mere months prior to this seminar, I had a wonderful time. I pretty much majored in goofing off and playing football and dreaming about girls — sometimes, actually dating one. It was a lovely high school experience: the Chicago Christian High School, though not actually in the City of Chicago itself, was connected to the Dutch-immigrant Christian Reformed (CRC) and Reformed (RCA) churches in America. I learned about Calvin and I learned the bible. And, right, I learned about girls and football and having fun. I really had a great time, and I’m especially grateful to the ways in which my parents really stretched their household budget and raised me and my brother and sister with the Christian values of education. In our close-knit home church and community and family and, add to that, our high school, it was expected that you would be a Christian, that you would love God, and you would feel loved by God. It was the days of late-80’s and early 90’s evangelical pop Christianity, carried through by an appealing soundtrack of rock ballads that sounded a lot like singing love songs to your high school sweetheart — only, this time, the Son of God. It was an awesome, heart-warming, emotional experience.
The problem was that if you didn’t feel loved or if you were having a bad day or if you didn’t feel the capacity to love there wasn’t much more there. It was a pretty thin veneer of formation, and looking back I’m not so sure I’d call it ‘faith’ formation. Maybe indoctrination. Maybe belief inculturation. I suspected, even at the time, that faith meant something far deeper, something much bigger, something more profound than simply loving and being loved. Under their pretty basic platform was an even more basic idea — God gave us the bible, you see, so we should learn it, and know it, and believe it. That’s that.
But Thomas, Thomas Aquinas was different. Sure, it was pretty dense and hard to slog through, but Thomas didn’t talk about feeling or even a whole lot about love, and there was no rock ballad accompanying the pages. They were Aristotelian logical equations; honestly, I didn’t know what that even meant, let alone who Aristotle was. Reading Thomas was an exercise of the mind and it was deep, provocative, probing, profound.
According to St. Thomas, I learned, one could prove, yes, prove that God exists, using five fairly self-explanatory proofs. They made sense to me but, more than that, the entire way he went about thinking, yes, thinking about God connected the dots between science and the more ethereal matters running through my mind; between math and belief; between what I felt was lacking in my own relationship with Jesus and what I never knew I could ask or wonder or imagine. Thomas’ way of thinking helped pull together in me things I once thought entirely disparate and disconnected — the love of God being more important, I was taught, than venturing outside of the predictable patterns of my Truman Show-esque faith community.
But here was a way to think, to truly think. Here, in Thomas, was a way to understand that this world — my own brain and my body no less — are not (completely) marked by sin, not entirely cut off from grace. No, the whole created order of which I am a part is not only a gift but also a signal, indeed a symbol that points to a gracious God who wants to be in relationship with us. Yes, a God who loves us and who wants us to love Him but, even more, a God who wants the fullness of our lives and hopes and struggles and dreams and thoughts. The God who knows me more intimately than I, even, know myself. And the God who, knowing me, still wants me. All of me.
Sometimes, I’m afraid, we tend to forget what we’re really practicing, and what the content of this faith really means. I know I forget it from time to time. Just the other day, a wonderful leader in our congregation said we need to have a conversation with the Sunday School teachers and other interested parents and grandparents and folks about Christian formation. She and others hope to stem this creativity into a youth group. “She doesn’t want to come to Sunday School any longer,” this leader said referring to her granddaughter; “We need to find a way not to lose her.”
I’m not faulting this idea; in fact, it’s a great idea and I’m especially glad to be part of a Christian community, such as ours, that’s strengthened by such dynamic leaders. We will have that meeting, and it’s going to happen after worship this coming Sunday, Feb. 1. (You should come if you’re so inclined or interested!) We are going to create a youth group and build upon the successes and growth we’ve had with Sunday School / Christian formation at St. George’s. No, we’re not going to rest on our laurels and think we’ve perfected the enterprise of forming people, let alone our children and youth, into what it means to “grow into the full stature of Christ.”
But the one caution we also need to have, if only in the back of our minds, is that this isn’t about ‘keeping them’ or letting them have fun or have a good experience of church. Whether faith in the living Christ will be formed in one’s inner being is not at all contingent on whether they, the kids or, for that matter, a given adult, wants to come to church, wants to participate, wants to learn. Those simple desires and surface matters-of-the-heart will come and go and, frankly, they go all too quickly. They go when times get hard or when someone doesn’t feel loved or, because we all have bad days, they’re not able to love, not that day at least. Those are the moments when that ethereal and life-altering truth, no less than faith in the living Christ, can slip away and go, and go all too quickly.
Because we are really talking about knowing God in one’s inner being, and being known — and loved — by that same God. We are talking about intimacy, which requires vulnerability and which requires knowledge and, yes, which also requires that strange warming of the heart, to borrow Wesley’s phrase. We are talking, through and through, about friendship with God, which is the fruit of wisdom, and that is what gives birth to a lively faith.