~ By Joanna Harader
“Wow! I sure was fed some crap theology when I was a teenager.”
I came to this realization while going through an old chest full of letters, notebooks, and other papers from my high school years. (I won’t share the specifics of the crap theology, because one person’s crap is another person’s sustaining truth, and arguing theology is not my intent in this particular blog post.)
Camp booklets, mission agency newsletters, my own angst-ridden journal entries, Bible study handouts, and other miscellaneous church-related documents revealed a fairly sizable gap between a lot of what I was taught then and what I believe now.
Looking through all of those old churchy papers, I was struck by how my teenage faith formation experiences were somehow both vital and trivial to my current faith. A lot of the theological content didn’t stick. Much of the biblical interpretation differs from what I now understand the Bible to be saying. I have no memory of ever reading, writing, let alone believing much of the stuff I found in that trunk.
But I do remember many of the people whose names were on those papers. I remember the Sunday School teachers and the camp directors. I remember the pen pals from camp who assured me that they were so glad to have met me and were praying for me.
I remember feeling the presence of God with my youth group, on retreat, and at camp.
So now, as a parent of teenagers, I am a bit torn. On the one hand, I believe that theology—what we believe and teach about God, Jesus, the Bible, the church—is vitally connected to how we live as people of faith in this world. I want my children to be taught what I consider to be good, healthy theology. It is important.
Except that what seems to have been most important in my teenage faith formation is having been around people who loved me. Even people with bad theology who loved me. What I long for is that my children will experience this same depth of love within the church.
The intellectual content of my current faith was not formed by those booklets and newsletters and worksheets. It was formed by my parents and my mentors and my own reading and struggles through high school and college and seminary and beyond.
But the emotional content of my faith is rooted deeply in all those messy and theologically crappy papers in that old chest. I was fortunate to know the love of God through the love of the people teaching me about God. Not everyone has that experience of church. But everyone should.
It’s a bit of a relief, to think that my children might just turn out OK even if they are fed some theology that I don’t particularly agree with. And that they might just turn out OK even if some of the theology I’m feeding them turns out to be less than perfect.
It’s a bit of a burden, though, to think that how I treat them—and other teenagers I encounter—will lay an emotional foundation for their adult faith. When my teenagers have teenagers of their own and look through their trunk (or electronic archive) full of churchy papers, how will they feel when they come across my name?
I pray they will feel the deep love of God.
Some of us will have a hard time passing on the faith when our current theology is “developed” beyond the point of faith. When we tell our Children that the Bible doesn’t mean what it clearly says, it is hard to pass it on as truth. When I see some of the theology from our “educated” leaders and pastors, I wish that they would return to their childlike faith in a powerful God who is capable of forgiving our horrible sins and redeeming a broken and fallen world, rather than a fix-it faith that is focused on godless peace, unwholesome love and Unitarian-themed dribble.
This article on teenage belief is well charted in Marcus Borg’s last book before his death, Convictions, which details his own journey through the “misunderstandings” of faith in pursuit of a deeper faith. It is an excellent, easy-to-absorb book that explains his own struggle with his initial belief in the literal versus what is a deeper truth within the Bible, its intentions, and its guidance and rootedness in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, which pertains to our whole life. A great book to encourage all, no matter at what stage of faith development.