This week, my friend Kara invited me to join the Facebook event “Show Them a Theologian,” by changing my profile picture to a picture of a theologian. The idea is to exhibit the great diversity of theologians in the life of the church – and also to have fun finding people who enjoy the same theologian, or trying to guess whose photo they are displaying.
I am terrible with decision making, and so I devoted a few hours this weekend to trying to decide what theologian I would show, and what that would mean, and then I thought of maybe posting a new theologian every day and writing a blog entry on each one each day, and that made me super exhausted, so I didn’t do anything about it. But my idea for my first featured theologian stuck with me, and so in honor of her birthday, I am writing about the least well known of my favorite theologians: my daughter.
When we think of theologians, we tend to think of people who write or have written piles of books about who God is and why that matters – and we only count authors of “popular” books if they have also written scholarly books and papers where they use Greek words like “homoousios.” But anyone who spends time thinking about God and how God relates to the world is a theologian. And that includes children.
I am surprised that we don’t, as a church, devote more attention to the idea of children as theologians, given that the humility of children is held up by Jesus as a state that we are all to strive for – and that he further says that we are to welcome children, and in welcoming them we welcome him. Which we might take to mean that when we spend time with children, when we truly listen to them, Jesus will reveal himself through them – we may receive new insights into God and God’s relationship with the world through the children. That is, in some six year olds, we may discover a theologian – one whose thoughts about God change our own conceptions of and relationship with God.
In many cases, it has been my daughter’s questions about God that have spurred me on to explain things that I had long taken for granted, and in the process totally rethought the answer. Other times, my relationship with her has unfolded deeper insight into my relationship with the one that Jesus taught us to call Our Father. And as a toddler, her hymnic mondegreens often were more apropos than the original texts. But her assertions about God – naive assertions that do not carry decades of baggage, and that come from taking the liturgy at its word – assertions that come from taking seriously God’s love for all creation – these are the most arresting. Her theology – her contemplation of and working conclusions about God – has made me a more careful – and more joyful! theologian.
Every night, we sing hymns as a family as our way of praying together before bed. Not too many months ago, Hannah interrupted us in the middle of the chorus of a hymn with a shout of, “that’s not true!” Brian and I were startled. He stopped playing piano, and I stopped singing. She had never rejected a hymn on theological grounds before – preschooler peevishness was the usual reason, with tired and cranky a close second. And the hymn was one of my favorites: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I had first sung it at Highroad, a United Methodist church camp in Northern Virginia.
It took me a couple of seconds to put on my game face, feign nonchalance, and ask, “What’s not right, sweetie?”
“They will know we are Christians by our love! That’s not right!”
“But… I think what the song is trying to say is that when we know how very much God loves us, when we know all Jesus taught us and did for us, that we are filled with love ourselves, and…”
She became impatient with me. Sometimes I am a slow student! “BUT! Jewish people have love, too. And Muslim people, and… and… Hin… Hin… OH! [trying to think of the word ‘Hindu’, I think, and then getting frustrated] You can’t say, ‘know we are Christians by our love,’ because we are not the only people who have love. Lots of people love, and God loves everybody!!”
Now that she mentioned it, the song did sound exceptionalist in a way that opposed my own beliefs. I agreed with her every objection.
As I ruminated, her Dad suggested, “That’s right – I have known a lot of very loving people who are not Christians. And I have known some Christians who had a hard time loving other people. But maybe the song is trying to say that for us people who are Christians, what we believe about Jesus helps us to love more people better than we could have without Jesus’ help.”
That was an extraordinarily good answer, but Hannah is not quick to give up. She issued her final word, “Then the song should have said that! Let’s sing ‘Joy to the World’ instead.”
So we did.