Our semester begins next week. I’ve been chipping away at updating my syllabi, staring at the texts we will be reading together and imagining the incredible distance I will have to reach to help my students grasp the text. Imagining the infinitely further distance between all of us and the Trinity.
Many of my students will have never been in a church, ever. Dear God – and that’s a prayer – dear God, how am I supposed to describe Christianity’s innermost secret. That is one of the meanings of the Greek word mysterion, which is the word used for what the West calls the sacraments. Ancient Christians used to refrain from exposing “the mystery,” leaving that only to the baptized to know. The mystery is God, and God in Christ. Here I am, divulging the secret from the start.
But the Trinity remains a secret even to those who have the eyes of faith, and without those eyes the Trinity is only ever an interesting theory. A possibility or perhaps a dream.
Practically speaking, I’m not terribly worried about whether they’ll “get” anything from the demanding theological texts I’ve assigned. I keep notes on what we discuss, and I only test them on what I think they understand, pushing hard where they are close to something larger. We do not even remotely approach the depths of the theologians we read. I do not expect them to. Just surviving a passage from Augustine and piecing together some kind of accurate general statement is enough of a challenge.
Students are very bad readers. They are quite literal most of the time, and never know what part of a text is important and what part isn’t. This is especially so in religion. It’s all about God, so, isn’t it all important?
But that is what theological learning is for: not merely knowing something, but also knowing how to figure out what is important in something.
I always tell students that, while I am a believing Catholic, I do not require faith from them. I tell them that I do not even believe that I am able to give them faith. That is God’s work. I am almost defiant about not trying to convert them to a damn thing. But that is the unsettling appeal: I fiercely love this thing, love it enough not to need to prove it to anyone else. And I don’t hide my ferocity.
Sometimes I imagine that the classroom is like this safari, this dangerous tour through foreign land. I am their guide, even protector. They have to learn to trust that I won’t let them drown, which is a trust that must be earned. So we wander along and I show them a lion, a terrible and beautiful thing, and I show them how to stand under his teeth. Always play-acting, in a way. Acting like a Christian and a theologian to help them understand. They may watch or they may join me, mimicking my movements or perhaps deciding the lion must be dead.
And what a Christian theologian does, I insist to them, is ask questions. These are the dangerous things I teach: how to ask good questions, especially about religion. How to cut to the marrow. This, I repeat, is what theology is especially good at doing, since every question is possible to it, any question at all. The answer may well be “No,” but we may ask.
I do not know what else I could give them, realistically speaking, other than this manner of “choosing out” what is most important and asking about it. And most of them won’t learn it. It requires too much practice to learn all at once.
I know they won’t retain most of it. I tell them, even, that there will be a day when they forget my name. But I believe in a God who poured riches upon everyone, and I am bound to him and by him to do no less. I must give the few coins that I have. Maybe they will come to these mysteries again. Maybe another class will light up something I referred to but never made them learn, or something we never saw together at all. Or, probably, they will have a dim memory of religion that was not awful.
Rather defiantly, I am thrilled by the wilds again and again. Repeating the gestures – teaching the Trinity again, reading the texts again – and arriving at what is always new. I will have fun with or without my students, dammit, and I’ll try not to begrudge them. God doesn’t.
And I am bound to do as God does.
It is chaos those first weeks. I am at my most excited, having forgotten how stubborn students can be. They are at their least excited, dead certain everything will be horrible and the readings are too hard and they’ll fail and it’ll be horrible, just horrible. I’d like to think I charm them into learning otherwise, beguiled by the goodness of theology and my unremitting kindness. Probably it is much more like I cheerfully shove them into the jeep and pretend they’re excited until they are.
God, it’s so impossible. Teaching the Trinity to students who haven’t even heard the word. Dear God – and it’s a prayer.
Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding.
– Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion (11th century)