TEACHING UNDERGRADUATES TO APPRECIATE THEOLOGY IS A BALANCING ACT
“One, two, three … pedal!”
With my right hand on the back of the bike seat, I accelerate from a brisk walk to a slow trot. Moving this way requires me to bend over in a way that’s surprisingly uncomfortable — resulting in significant pain in my lower back and legs.
The bike was the big gift this Christmas. Not just any bike; this is the Hello Kitty pedal bike. Ella had been cruising around the neighborhood on a scoot bike for more than a year. When December came and talk turned to wish lists, the Hello Kitty pedal bike rose to the top.
This presented my partner and me with a dilemma: The bike Ella wanted came with training wheels. And Ella, we knew, needed those training wheels. Yet four-and-a-half years of raising her helped us to know that, in her imagination, she would jump on the bike on Christmas morning and immediately keep up with her older cousin.
So, do we leave the training wheels on and risk a disappointed daughter on Christmas morning? Or do we take them off and risk a trip to the hospital Christmas afternoon?
The training wheels stayed on.
Having overcome her initial unhappiness by promising her that as soon as she was ready, we would take the training wheels off for good, it’s now time to deliver on that promise. So I bend over, in no small amount of pain, and begin to run alongside her.
“Dad. Dad. Dad! Don’t let me go!” I keep running — curved over in that convoluted and contorted way, tweaking my back, struggling to guide her around the other families at the park. She keeps saying, “Don’t let me go,” even as I poise to take my hand away and let her propel herself, all the while running right beside her to catch her if — when — she loses her balance.
In the midst of the sweat and stress of this moment, it occurs to me: This is who God is; this is what God does. God runs alongside us, accompanies us in our fear and anxiety and need. At whatever speed and in whatever position necessary, God labors to be beside us, ready to catch us in love; and yet, God waits, hopes, longs for that magical moment when we’ll catch our balance and ride off on our own.
“Dad! Don’t let me go!” Ella keeps saying this even as she begins to get it. She repeats this mantra without noticing that I have in fact let go, and that she is riding on her own. When she realizes this, she panics for an instant, and then she takes off. Pumping her legs, off she goes, accelerating away from me, riding her bike on her own, smiling and squealing with delight.
“Dad! Don’t let me go!” has become, “Dad! Watch me go!”
I stop, straighten up and watch in wonder. Look at her go.
This is the God I want the students in my Introduction to Catholic Theology courses to encounter.
The God who, in the first creation account in Genesis, looks upon all creation and proclaims it good; and, after the appearance of human beings, “very good.” The God who, in all three synoptic Gospels, announces, “You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The God who, rather than being the bearded judge in the sky, is imagined by St. Paul as the “One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
The One who is running beside us, holding onto us and allowing us to hold on until “Don’t let me go!” becomes “Watch me go!”
The God who, Richard Rohr argues in The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, is not a “Supreme Monarch” or “Critical Spectator” but instead a dynamic flow of loving relationships, a “relentless outpouring force that is the divine dance.”
The God whose very nature, according to theologian Catherine LaCugna, is “to seek out the deepest possible communion and friendship with every last creature on this earth.”
Many of my students, however, are not interested in considering who the God is that they do or do not believe in. Instead, they often see Introduction to Catholic Theology as a hoop to jump through, perhaps even a burden to bear, until they can get on to what they myopically believe to be real business of their education.
For them, who God is and what God is or is not like is not a pressing concern. Many of them are the “nones” who are “on the rise” — the one-third of all college-aged Americans that the Pew Research Center reports do not identify with a religious affiliation. Others were raised in, and still identify with, a faith tradition, yet essentially relate to higher education as a commodity, a credential they are purchasing with the goal of maximizing short-term return on investment.
In an effort to meet students where they are, and to entice them into an appreciation for the richness and relevance of theology as well as an expanded understanding of the true purpose of higher education, I start with a question: “Does everything happen for a reason?”
In my years of working with and teaching college students, I’ve learned that a clear majority respond affirmatively — everything, they say they believe, does happen for a reason.
This phrase resonates with college students in a deep way. After all, by the time they reach campus, they most likely have experienced at least one mild or moderate disappointment, perhaps one that felt crushing at the time, but which eventually yielded to something better that they never could have imagined. Perhaps it was the loss of a good friendship or the end of their first romantic relationship. Maybe a physical injury necessitated the premature end of participation in a beloved sport. As a way of interpreting my students’ lived experience, “everything happens for a reason” seems to have a lot going for it.
Mild and moderate challenges, however, are not the only kind. Even before graduating high school or during their time on campus, some students face much more severe misfortunes. The divorce of their parents. The death of a grandparent, sibling or friend. A debilitating mental illness.
And what about tragedies? A loved one suffering for years with cancer before dying much too young? Hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters? The extreme poverty that plagues so many people across the globe? Does anyone really want to say that such things “happen for a reason”?
When I put these kinds of questions to students, they often backtrack. A little. They agree it is impossible to know and inappropriate to suggest that there is a reason for the pain and suffering caused by extreme events or circumstances. Yet, the majority are unwilling or unable to adjust the phrase in order to craft one more consistent, more comprehensive, more reflective of the inherent complexity of life. No matter what potential calamity I describe, many students hold fast to their faith in “everything happens for a reason.”
But “everything happens for a reason” is a safety device, not dissimilar to those training wheels Ella didn’t want and didn’t think she needed. I tell my students that, if they are to truly get what they are paying for, if they really want an actual education, they are going to have to take those training wheels off — they will need to ask hard questions without the comfort of tidy, pre-packaged answers. They are going to have to rediscover a bit of the freedom and verve they had as new bike-riders, and take a risk.
“Does everything happen for a reason?” might then lead to, “Who am I? What do I want? What is the purpose of my life? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do I act like a selfish jerk, even to the people I love most? Is there anything more to life than what I can see, hear, touch and see? Why and how should I invest in a world that breaks my heart?”
Every commencement season prompts me to pause and reflect about my students. When I watch them walk across the graduation stage to receive their diplomas, I am sure they are ready to meet the demands of the marketplace. I am less certain they realize how much more is involved in living an extraordinary life.
In his recent book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf writes, “The right kind of love for the right kind of God bathes our world in the light of transcendent glory and turns it into a theater of joy.” Seeing my students in their caps and gowns, I can’t help but wonder if they have developed such a love for such a God, so that they might go out into the world alive to, and rejoicing in, its transcendent splendor. — Michael Lovette-Colyer ’13
A version of this essay ran in the Huffington Post.
Illustrations by Greg Shed, based on photography by Barbara Ferguson.