Where does the Religion Classroom Begin?
Cultivating Religious Literacy at Home, School, Church and World
During Advent 2018, my 10-year-old—“Kiddo”—asked a series of specific questions that kicked off a 3-hour re-examination of a fundamental question at stake in the “religion as education” landscape: where does the religion classroom begin?
A quick scan of a park, Facebook, the gym, LinkedIn, or even Tinder spotlights the place of education in social interaction. Whether it’s someone wearing their school colors or selecting the drop-down option declaring they graduated from the school of Hard Knocks, education is one of many ways people gage how to interact with one another. Do we know the same people? What can we talk about? Is this going to be a conversation or confrontation?
Kiddo’s questions started off simply enough: How is Jesus the Son of God?
I was excited to respond, figuratively popping my professor collar in the sweats-only zone called the kitchen table. Before I could finish my age appropriate scaling of ‘Intro Christology for Kiddos,’ she switched gears and asked: How did Mary get pregnant? My pause caused Kiddo to clarify with a request that my explanation be “from science.” This was clearly based on our sex-talk, which had started two years ago. So, if babies come from an egg and a sperm, then how did Mary get pregnant?
The Catholic-Christian world in which Kiddo has been raised declares perpetual virginity for Mary the mother of Jesus. Most adults fixate on the perpetual aspect of her virginity. Kiddo focused on the sperm, creating a litany of questions so scaffolded that I was not sure what her final, most punctuated question would be:
Could Jesus have been female?
If sperm have x and y options, then couldn’t Jesus have been female potentially?
Did God select Jesus to be male by implanting Mary with only y-sperm?
If conception was through the Holy Spirit, did the Holy Spirit rape Mary?
She had synthesized conversations we have had for the last two years about anatomy, sex and gender, reproduction, consent, sacraments, Trinity, Bible, sin, and forgiveness into a string of theological questions that took the early Christian Church centuries to hash out, but with a modern starter-scientific lens. This is the generation before us today. If we are not ready to answer their questions, then we need to be.
So where does the religion classroom begin?
This is possibly an odd question to pose in a community of pastors, priests, and ministers, and not religion teachers or professors per se.
I was told when I got to graduate school at a seminary that “home is supposed to be the first church.” This puzzled me at the time because—like many—I had experienced home as the first experience of religion, but not church … and not ecclesia. My “culture-Catholic” parents made sure to pass on the practices but did not pass on our faith. How could they? They had been taught that asking questions about God that were too complicated were disrespectful.
Across every space I have entered for ‘religious educational purposes’—church, seminary, university, bar (Yes. Check out a Theology on Tap for details.)—there has been a cathartic moment where people, of their own volition, reveal that their lack of knowledge about religion feels like—here is the most common word I’ve heard—a void.
Whether those people are students training to serve religious communities, ordinary folks in the pews, or they have no religious affiliation, there is a “void” described where something should be located.
To paraphrase the most generic description consistently I’ve been told, it is if other people have access to something that was not given to them. For those given the opportunity to make their own decisions about religion, when parents have walked away from religious upbringings or religious cultures, complicated feelings of being denied the thing rejected by their parents surfaces for some. For others, there is gratitude for the freedom to decide but a melancholy about what has not persevered for the sake of that freedom.
The more I talk with people of all types, including my undergraduate and graduate students, the more I become convinced that there is a yearning for knowledge about religion regardless if one chooses to be “religious.”
So where does the religion classroom begin? This differs from my comments about home as the first church. Religious education is no longer the sole domain of religions. Let’s be honest, it hasn’t been for the majority of nonreligious adherents for quite some time. Pastors, priests, and ministers need to retool for the questions at hand.
What do you tell the 10-year old girl that wants to know, flat out, whether the Angel Gabriel raped Mary? In all earnestness, she is asking because she’s counting on you—as Kiddo put it—to tell her the truth so she is not fooled.
The plain truth is that the distance between the religious and the non-religious is collapsing. The seminary and the university are not so far apart anymore in the earnestness about understanding religion as a cultural phenomenon brought into these spaces. The expectations between the pew and the desk are maybe closer then we perceive. Discussions have reemerged among lawmakers in select states about teaching Bible in a public primary and secondary schools.
Certainly, questions at the intersection of church and state around these efforts are of course important. Religion and nonreligious liberty must be maintained.
Still, I could spend a lifetime arguing over how religion could be taught in public schools alongside world history, literature, or language courses without needing to proselytize. As a significant feature of the culture we all share, education on religion has a place in public schools. It just might not be the place that is currently espoused by those trying to put it there, which leans hard into cultivating the practice of religion—Christianity in particular.
After a lengthy, point-by-point discussion of the biblical story, Kiddo arrived independently at the position that since even God asked permission via Gabriel before entering Mary, then rape is more than a crime against a particular person or humanity in general. It is a crime against God. What I took away from witnessing Kiddo attempt to reconcile separate conversations, years apart, is that she spotlighted something churches and scholars, myself included, often fail to see: even God will not enter a woman’s body without her permission.
This doesn’t resolve the “virgin birth” question, but it does open the more important issues—the issues that matter to people today, Kiddo among them—that it is critical that the church and its ministers—those in the classroom, the pulpit, and at the kitchen table—be able to engage.