If you've ever wondered how little you know about God, then you should talk about God to a group of ten-year old boys. Describe the infinitely complex God with an acronym. Explain salvation with a word search. Give them free reign to ask questions. Children are great sparring partners. You don't know as much as you think, I promise.
Over the last four weeks, I sat around a table with a group of cub scouts who have put aside their pinewood derby to hear something about God. Here's what I've been reminded: Christians aren't born; they're made. Christianity is as strange as it is comfortable. It's irrational and commonsensical. It describes, prescribes, and upends. God lies just beneath the surface of everything and everyone, but we don't realize it until we've been given eyes to see.
I've also learned that children are terrible theologians, contrary to popular belief. To be fair, they'd also make terrible surgeons and lawyers. We’re mistaken when we assume that knowledge of God comes completely naturally. Theological wisdom is earned alongside wrinkles from restless nights of wrestling with God and community. Now, that's not to say that kids don't occasional surprise us with tidbits of profundity and delight us with even greater cuteness. Take this for instance: we were reading the Lord's Prayer when one of the boys lifted his head from the Bible to exclaim that he 'hallowed' out a pumpkin on Halloween. Not exactly. Though, it's a great pun. I told him that he made the pumpkin 'hole-y,' not ‘holy.’
Language is a terrible, confusing method for communication. It informs as much as it misinforms. But it's the best we've got.
Now, how do I explain holiness to a boy who hasn't learned fractions or read about the Israelites exodus from Egypt?
Some theologians have suggested that becoming Christian is like learning to speak a new language. Christianity shouldn't come naturally and it's unintelligible unless you've learned the lingo. Part of what it means to be holy, after all, is to be set apart. Do we know the language? I’d estimate that most Christians are semi-fluent at best and often illiterate. The problem is that many Christians have forgotten the language of faith. Worse, we’ve traded the language of Christianity for a distorted language that's shaped by culture and country instead of Scripture and tradition.
Christians cavalierly toss around a whole host of churchy words that sound familiar, but are as foreign as Greek (because they kind of are). Here's a working list: salvation, reconciliation, sin, justice, righteousness, born-again. All of these words sound like the kind of thing Christians should say, and often say, despite having any idea what these words actually mean.
We're saved without knowing what we’re saved from (or for). Or, suppose the congregation is lowering a body into the ground and someone hugs you and says, "peace" (and not 'God's got another angel in his choir'). That word is meaningless unless you’ve been trained to know that Christ has created peace between everything on heaven and on earth. Or, imagine someone says to you, "I don't believe in God." Who is God? It's significant to understand which God you believe in and which one they don't. It’s likely that you don’t believe in their god, either.
Words have the power to create, to bring the dead to life, but are meaningless if they're not used and understood within a community. How can we speak and understand without a shared vocabulary? We can't. And if you can't explain your vocabulary to a ten-year old, then you don't know the language.
I spent one of the sessions with my scouting disciples learning how to pray (which is Christian-speak for 'talking to God') through the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys asked me about the word 'kingdom.' I told him to think about Lord of the Rings. What were the kingdoms like in that story? Now, consider this kind of kingdom: a boy tells his father he hates him, runs away from home, and takes everything his father owns. He wastes it all on riches (or a Nintendo Switch) and good food (or pizza). He's broke and homeless when he finally wanders back to his father. His father runs out to meet him on the road and embraces him with a hug and a kiss.
God's kingdom is like that.
Though, I still catch myself thinking that the kingdom of God will be inaugurated by William Wallace riding in on a white stallion. God's kingdom is only sensible in relation to a particular story, a larger narrative, and a rich tradition. We need to spend a lot of time reading Scripture, worshiping, and conversing with more fluent Christians for our language to become second-nature.
Does this make the church a members only club, excluding others with their esoteric language? Not necessarily. It's a statement about the way that language actually functions. When I was in high school everyone told me, 'Sniders talk the same.' We have the same cadence, mannerisms, and sarcastic flair. Here's what's even stranger: words have nuance and a variance in their meanings. The word 'maybe' actually means 'no.' ‘Good job’ can also mean ‘I love you.’ And the word 'sure' is closer to 'I'd love to!' I was never surprised by our linguistic similarities. After all, we lived together. If you spend enough time with the Sniders, you might start talking like one, too.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever master the language, anyway. And this why we should become like children. Part of what it means to be a child is to admit that we don't know how to talk. Luckily, children pick up new languages pretty quickly. They are imaginative, willing to be wrong, and gracious enough to laugh at their folly. In other words, they're usually teachable, which is not often true of adults.
Here’s the point: language helps construct a reality. Our entire lives will change when we learn to speak like Christians. There's a grammar to the faith that's been developed throughout years of study and proclamation, misspeak and correction. In the Christian syntax God is always the subject and we are but a letter in a word. Grace can be an adverb that modifies every movement in the sentence. And there are plenty of commas for us to pause in silence before another phrase is written. If we are lucky to be a part of a phrase, it will placed in the company of millions of others all over the world.
One last thing:
"Open your Bibles to the very center," I told the group of smiling boys.
"To the book of 'Plasma'?" one kid asked.
It's actually called the book of Psalms. Be careful with those poems. If you read them enough, your life might become one of them.
It can happen almost anywhere—debating with your spouse about where to eat or reading an article about the job satisfaction in a particular line of work. It’s the rush of anxiety that life carries too many choices. Most recently, my child said, “I died” after playing a video game on the iPad, and it was enough to make me rethink everything I know about my life and the way I’m living it. Kierkegaard (under the guise Haufniensis) pictures a man standing at the edge of a cliff who has a chilling fear of falling. More terrifying still, there’s an impulse that he might actually want to jump. Dread and angst rise to the surface. Such is the ‘dizziness of our freedom,’ whether your in the grocery choosing between whole wheat and white or choosing whether and how to exist.
It’s freedom, says Kierkegaard, that’s intricately connected with our anxiety—we have infinite numbers of decisions, complicated today by a strong case of FOMO (fear of missing out), and a vast sea of avenues to becoming a true subject and a realized self. He goes on to say that this dizziness of freedom is part of the human condition. The Judeo-Christian tradition expressed it through the tale of Adam and Eve who are bestowed the possibility of eating forbidden fruit, initiating an awareness of good and evil. It’s the ambiguity of freedom that predisposes and causes the sin.
Child psychologists know that excessive toys and trinkets produce overly anxious children. Simplify their lives, they say. No paralysis. It’s too bad that we grow and graduate from a curated number of trinkets to an abyss of possibilities. There are ways, of course, to mitigate or deflect the damage as we grow older: Steve Jobs wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers every day. I mindlessly frequent the same coffee shop to avoid deciding between the plethora of good pour overs on Haywood Road. Less benignly, some shut off decision completely by living entire lives running from the anxiety of choice, mindlessly following whatever shepherd is loudest while never questioning the customs, social conventions that are handed down.
But Kierkegaard thinks that’s the wrong instinct. We lose our humanity when we only throw pills at the anxiety or avoid it at all costs. One day you’ll be driving in your car when you come to the realization that you’ve been living a lie—that your existence is masquerading as a life—and you’ve never actually chosen to really live and die for anything.
It might be counterintuitive, but Kierkegaard says to embrace the anxiety; it’s the disease and the cure.
“One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever,” writes Kierkegaard. But there is possibility, and it’s the possibility that makes us human—we have the ability to decide our lives and to become a self. He goes on to say, “If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” One must deliberately enter into it and look for the generative possibilities. We alone have the possibility to pursue a specific life, seek a particular adventure, choose among the endless avenues—take a leap of faith and become a true subject.
And until you make that choice, or act on a defining commitment, there’ll be paralysis or aimless wandering at best. At the worst, existential despair (conscious or unconscious) and a sickness in your spirit.
And that’s a gift.
And maybe this is why anxiety is so central to Christianity: it’s about choosing the persons we want to become before the world chooses for us. It’s the catalyst for assuming a proper relation to the Eternal—or, at least the prerequisite to our recognition of our absolute need of it. We take the leap away sin and discord into the kinds of creatures that we were created to become. Then, in an instant, literally the ‘eye blink,’ there’s a moment when the eye opens and eternity intersects with temporality. “In the instant, [the individual] becomes aware of the rebirth, for his previous state was indeed one of ‘not to be.’” The haze of confusion burns away and there is subjective clarity. This moment of vision bestows a defining commitment, relativizing all others, endowing a true identity.
To live is to be anxious, but it’s your choice on how you harness it. Ignore it. Follow the herd. Or, find a defining commitment and enter the strain between who you are and who you might become.
For “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
Next time you find yourself standing at the edge of a cliff, don’t freeze or take a step back. Choose to take the leap into personhood. Do it every day. Or better, open your eyes to the moment of transfigured vision—assume a posture of being and an orientation of the mind that is shaped by Jesus Christ, God incarnate.