I was six months pregnant when I walked across Fuller Seminary’s commencement stage in 2012. Underneath the cap and gown, my mind and body felt full: the former with all the theology I’d read to complete my master’s degree, and the latter with anticipation for my forthcoming life as a mother.
After graduation and before my first daughter was born, I had a dream of propping her up on my lap to look at an ABC board book that began with Augustine and ended with Zizioulas. This was, I think, my psyche’s way of creating some continuity from one chapter of life to the next. But as all new parents can attest, babies don’t work like that.
Arriving a little past her due date at just past 3 a.m., my firstborn was a healthy, pink tornado that ripped through my orderly and cerebral life. Then three years later, my second daughter, Olivia, was born.
For an exhausting decade, my husband and I have juggled two kids and two full-time jobs with little time between sending emails and changing diapers (and then Pull-Ups and big-girl britches) to read theological texts.
I’ve got what many call the “mommy brain”—I’m a whiz at detangling bedhead hair, getting slime out of the carpet, and making Razzle Dazzle Berry Smoothies, but I’d be hard pressed to describe the variety of atonement theories I learned about in Systematic Theology II.
Yet even if I had remained in tiptop intellectual shape, explaining the Christian faith to my daughters would likely be just as mind-bending as it is now.
Why? Because children make for a unique audience, quite unlike what you’d find in most seminary classrooms—they are simultaneously “religious” and “secular.”
They are religious in the sense that cognitive and developmental psychologist Justin Barrett’s work has demonstrated, which is chiefly that the structures of children’s minds make them prone to belief. Belief, in this sense, is the perception that reality is full of meaning and order and that a superagent (God) is in charge of it.
For instance, the other day my six-year-old Olivia was scratching a mosquito bite when she lamented, “Mom, why did God make mosquitoes?”
I’ve taught her enough to know that creation is God’s idea—he’s in charge of it and gives it order—so the idea that the instigator of this itchy torture might be the product of a random, cosmic accident in the universe is the last thing in her mind.
But that also means she’s left to wonder why God would allow such merciless vampires to exist in the world—to reflect on what good they do or what meaningful purpose they embody in his creation.
Incidentally, I told her I’d have to get back to her with the answer to that question.
But kids are also secular in the sense that they know nothing of religious dogma or the rules of faith until we teach them to adopt those beliefs—which means no question is beyond the pale. This makes them refreshingly innocent and persistent tire kickers, unafraid of appearing heretical or irreverent.
Fielding my girls’ questions about faith has been a delightful and harrowing part of parenting. I try my best to take them seriously, factoring in their developmental stages and working within the limits of concepts and vocabulary they possess. But frankly, no rubric totally prepares you for the random connections they can sometimes make.
The other day, I was driving the kids home from school when Olivia asked me, nonchalantly, whether Jesus wears undies. For a few seconds, the only sound was the tick of my blinker. “Yeah, probably linen ones,” I finally managed. (After all, he still has a human body.)
My daughter took in this information with a nod and continued staring out the window.
In the past, she’s asked me how Jesus could “live in the clouds but not be made of them.” And while some might dismiss such inquiries as ignorant or ridiculous, they become a bit more interesting when placed in a theological light.
Her questions might in fact be seen as an imaginative poke at Christ’s dual natures—a simplistic way of trying to reconcile his humanity and divinity. Such a doctrinal conundrum took hundreds of years to sort out before meriting an official orthodox formulation at the early church Council of Chalcedon.
Now, some might say that discussing Jesus’ underwear amounts to dangerous, extrabiblical speculation, a pop culture syncretism that could harm our kids. And while I share concerns about erring toward heterodoxy, I disagree that such conversations are dangerous.
The creeds, the rules of faith, and Scripture itself are meant to be our guardrails. They keep us from skidding off the path of God’s self-disclosure, and we are wise to stay within their constraints. But as any seasoned artist will tell you, constraint fosters creativity, and creativity is a vital aspect of theologizing—especially with little children.
I believe that if we are to reach the next generation with the good news, we can’t present it to them through adult formulations of doctrine and formal “Christianese.” We must meet them where they are and present the faith through Spirit-inspired improvisation.
In Surprised by Scripture, and more comprehensively in Scripture and the Authority of God, N. T. Wright reflects on the different ways conservatives have approached biblical interpretation. He grieves that “evangelical” studies of Scripture have “so often meant a closing down of scripture reading rather than its opening up.”
Against those who want to declare that we’ve already arrived at all the Bible has for us, Wright argues that no generation completes the task of studying and understanding God’s Word. “Each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up, not simply to look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition,” he writes.
Theologizing with kids, or with any honest seeker for that matter, is like a live theater play performed with sensitivity and regard for each context, each audience. And in some cases, it might mean discussing the Messiah’s knickers.
Now that my kids are a bit older, I’m left with the feeling that I never really graduated. I might have a diploma on my wall, but I’m still very much a student. And that’s partially because, as it turns out, “momming” is a kind of seminary in itself.
And one of the best things about that is seeing how children integrate and relate faith into every aspect of their lives. Watching them wrestle with theological questions reminds me that the mystery of faith is a gift from God, not merely the product of reason alone.
Certainly, this earnest, whole-life approach to discipleship is something Jesus must have seen when he told his disciples to “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Katherine Lee is a poet and a mom who is currently writing a memoir that traces the ways that motherhood was defined by the women in her family. Her master’s in theology has informed these pursuits in surprising ways.
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