Elementary School, College, and the Open Road

It was time to write another installment, but I’d hit something of a rut in my research. There’s a public elementary school across the street from the church where during certain seasons of the year I and several others spend our Tuesday afternoons running an after-school Bible club. Desperate for new material but only willing to invest minimal effort, someone suggested I pick out a 5th grade boy and ask him my questions. So I did. One of my favorite little urchins wears Jordans, never sits down, and never stops talking, so I told him to sit down and be quiet. I had some questions I wanted to ask.

He actually listened and offered up a few thoughtful, 5th grade level responses. The others took notice, pausing from creating mayhem to eavesdrop for a minute before mom or dad or big brother showed up to take them home. Elementary student interviews last only a few minutes. But when the two of us finished there was a clamor as a half-dozen 9 and 10 year olds asked whether they could go next. I interviewed 5 of them.

Of the 5 not one believed in the biblical account of creation. They all believed in God, but each was confused in his own unique way in regard to Jesus’ relationship to or identity as God. All 5 affirmed some version of moralism; that being good enough was the only means by which to get to heaven. Their questions for God ranged from “Who are you?” to “Why did my dog have to die?” both of which are quite valid in my opinion. It was not a particularly encouraging experience.

Granted, these are just kids. But they are kids who participate in an after-school Bible club where the good news of Jesus is regularly communicated. These are kids who have at least minimal exposure to the church and the Bible. Yet they are kids who do not view the Bible as particularly trustworthy, do not understand who Jesus is, and have no concept of God’s grace.

These kids will one day grow up to be college students. A few weeks after the elementary school blitz, I headed to the local community college. In terms of beliefs, ideas, and worldviews, is any place more “wild” than the college campus? Except this time I was the one being interviewed. It so happens that the humanities departments of many community colleges offer courses in religion and even biblical studies. Since that happens to be my supposed area of expertise I sent a few emails, made a phone call, filled out an application, and landed an interview.

Very politely and respectfully I was asked whether I think I could teach about similarities across various religions, for example Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. I am confident enough in the uniqueness of what I believe, that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, that it is no trouble to acknowledge that there are undoubtedly some similarities between Christianity and other religious traditions. I was almost apologetically asked whether I would have a problem teaching about less than polite or respectful views of religion in general like, for example, Freud’s assertion that religion is simply the result of “infantile wish fulfillment.” I’m secure enough in what I believe that I don’t mind acknowledging or even pointing out the reality that others disagree and offer various alternatives. Finally I was asked, “Can you tell me about any experience you have had working with individuals with beliefs or from faiths different than your own?” I smiled and asked how much time we had left.

Time will tell whether or not that interview was a success. I have yet to hear back. Thus wearied from my various intellectual pursuits I decided to have lunch…with a truck driver…who happens to be an atheist. Back in town from his latest Midwest swing he dialed me up and we met at the local alehouse. Having had several thousand miles to think since I first interviewed him he had some questions. My favorite was, “How is it that Christians believe we all have original sin, yet are created in the image of God?” If you have never had the opportunity to explain to an atheist why you believe the image of God resides in every human being, including him, I highly recommend it. It’s quite a rush.

In reflecting upon all this it occurs to me that there is a significant danger in assuming too much. Apparently it is not safe to assume that school kids simply absorb the gospel as they’re playing with their fidget spinners and whispering to their friends. They need to have direct conversations about it and be able to ask pointed questions. It’s not safe to assume that college campuses are inherently hostile to religion in general or Christianity in particular. Some are I suppose. But perhaps students are simply bravest among us when it comes to asking questions and professors are simply adept at seizing the opportunities that affords. But we shouldn’t assume. Nor should I stereotype truck drivers as anti-intellectuals! After all, who has more time to think than a trucker making his way across Kansas?

Every single person is created in the image of God. Thus no one is beyond the dignity afforded by the opportunity to wrestle with the intellectual possibility and spiritual reality of his or her relationship to God. But I can’t assume that some do wrestle with such things while others do not. The only way to know, at least that I have come up with, is to ask and listen.