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Sunday School Theology Revisited

Sunday School Theology Revisited

The more time I spend in theology graduate programs, the more I think that I had it about right when I was in Sunday school. Besides wishing that a particularly long seminar might be interrupted for juice and cookies, and desperately wanting to have “nap time” in the middle of lectures, there was an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry in Sunday school that I miss as well. Really, if you think for a while about the sort of questions kids ask during those tender early elementary-age years, you’ll realize that some of the most pressing questions come out of mouths with loose baby teeth. Here’s an example.

While I was in Seminary I heard of a Sunday school teacher who was stumped with the question, “God was there before the world was made, but what was there before God was made?” While this question is perhaps answered easily enough (of course, nothing made God, God has always existed) you can’t blame the teacher for getting tripped up. This simple question, runs particularly deep, is still widely discussed, and has been seriously treated by some of the greatest minds of the ages. Aristotle, Aquinas, and other greats have all turned their brains to contemplate the question of Causality: tracing the origin of the universe back to some original and uncaused cause. Discover Magazine, recently featured, basically the same question on its cover: What was there before the Big Bang? So, we can see that the Sunday schooler is not only in good company with this type of questioning, but, by asking about the nature of God rather than just the nature of the universe, has actually surpassed Discover Magazine in getting to the heart of the question.

Other Sunday school questions abound. Jesus told the disciples to suffer the little children to come unto him, so now Sunday school teachers must suffer the many questions that come unto them. But still, while I’m sure many of the questions posed by little tykes are complete nonsense, many more hit on key issues. One of the perennial questions is the old “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” The reasons for asking are probably innocent enough; mere curiosity about how Cain found a wife when there were only supposed to be three people living on the earth. But again, this type of question touches particularly deep issues in theology and biblical studies. First of all, it asks, how are we supposed read the Bible. What kind of document is it? And what kind of answers we should expect from it? While I won’t really get into this issue, it’s enough to say that the answer is a lot more complicated than most Sunday school teachers are prepared for. By asking as simple a question as “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” the Sunday schooler has touched on a major issue – and one that deserves honest consideration. So, while I think the Bible is trustworthy, we certainly can’t explain all its intricacies with felt cut-outs.

There are even more areas broached by childish questions. Questions like, “Can God make a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it?” or “Will my dog be in Heaven?” deal with Perfect Being Theology and Eschatology, respectively. But more than that, there is a tone to the questions, which is so right. Being cross examined by a room full of second-graders, plagued by questions of minute detail or worse, and the perpetual “Why,” it is easy to forget that kids aren’t asking questions the way older people often do. In graduate school, when I ask a question, I may be testing the professor to see if he gives a sufficient answer. If not, I can jump in with a brilliant retort. Certainly teenagers often ask questions that amount to insults. Questions like, “What if I don’t?” and “Who gave you the right?” are more than rhetorical devices; they are miniature acts of defiance with question marks after them. But when kids ask questions, it is for the amazing reason that they actually want to know the answer.

G. K. Chesterton, writing about the book of Job, compliments Job on his intellectual curiosity and honesty. Chesterton writes that Job asks about the meaning of the universe, “not because he wishes it be caught out, but because he really wishes it be justified.” Reading a lot of contemporary theology, I hear too many writers who ask “How could God allow so much evil in the world?” but never want to listen to any response. These writers seem to want to “catch God out” with their questions – each unanswered question acting as a further justification for their own case against God. Thinking back to Sunday school, it is nice to remember a time when we had enough curiosity to ask any question, and enough humility to listen to the answer.

[Felix Tallon is a postgraduate student at St Andrews University in Scotland, and is a graduate of New Life United Methodist’s Sunday school program.]

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