The first time I attempted to teach the Trinity to a classroom full of 9th grade girls, I was completely overwhelmed preparing the lesson. I spent a lot of time grappling for language that would help them understand this central Christian mystery. And I vividly remember the students’ confused stares as they dutifully listened and took their notes while I offered what I thought was a cogent description of Trinitarian doctrine. It was then I recognized that no matter the number of theological degrees I had earned, teaching religion was going to be much more challenging than I ever imagined. Their faces told me I was not getting through, but I had no idea what to say. When push came to shove, I found myself as perplexed by this mystery as they seemed to be. I realized that if my teaching was going to have any impact, I needed to honestly face my own faith questions, questions as basic as: what do I really mean when I profess faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? What do I really believe about the Eucharist? Like Nicodemus approaching Jesus in the dark of night filled with insecurity and anxiety, I had to wrestle with my own doubts and uncertainties as I tried to teach others about the Christian faith.
Obviously this realization was unsettling. No matter the lip service I paid to being a ‘teaching learner’ I found it difficult to overcome the desire to be the one with all the answers or the ability to explain every aspect of Christian faith to my students. But as I settled into my new role and developed deeper relationships with my classes, the ongoing struggle for ways to make the Christian faith accessible became a gift that gently (or sometimes not so gently!) reminded me that while I am unable to fully comprehend the depths and breadth of God, I am called to continuously delve into the mysteries and invite others to do the same. Teaching nurtured my faith life in a way being a student never had, and this led to a growing compassion for my students and their concerns. Engaging my students’ questions allowed me to show them how one can live into a life of discipleship while still embracing ambiguity, complexity, and mystery.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1 St. Paul insists, “Brothers and sisters: Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This call to be ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ offers a particularly helpful metaphor for faith educators. It reminds us of our vocation to tend to the mysteries of this world and of God in all their complexities, and then to offer the fruits of our labor to others. We do not give faith; we help nurture faith. Understanding ourselves as stewards liberates us from thinking we alone are responsible for conversion. It also allows us to be honest and authentic about our personal faith lives and journeys with all their joys and struggles, hopes and ambiguity. Through modeling our commitment to the mysteries of God, we hopefully create a safe environment that invites students to share and deepen their own faith convictions, complete with struggles and questions.
Because God is mystery. Pretending otherwise is an inauthentic portrayal of Christian faith. Of course as faith educators, we are responsible for presenting content as intelligibly and clearly as possible, but we do a great disservice to others and the subject matter if we avoid engaging mystery in our teaching. William Mattison points out in his article “Dare We Hope Our Students Believe? Patristic Rhetoric in the Contemporary Classroom” that neglecting the mysterious nature of faith can lead to two problematic extreme teaching approaches: either “radical disengagement” or “proselytizing manipulation.” Neither approach seems worthy of ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’. Avoiding mystery is hardly an act of faith. We must find ways to welcome mystery into our teaching.
A friend who teaches high school religion recently told me that when she encounters a challenging faith question that she does not know how to answer, she finds herself responding, “Two things: One: I really don’t know! Two: Let’s explore it together.” She discovered that engaging the question becomes the natural entry point into the mystery of faith. What a gift it would be to the church and the world if all faith educators remembered that we are called to be ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ and taught in ways that show students that mystery is not to be feared, but embraced. Because at the end of the day, honestly engaging the most perplexing questions can ultimately cultivate faith in our mysterious, loving God.