Once upon a time there was a bright young first grader who asked her teacher, “what’s the square root of two thousand?”
“I’m not sure,” the teacher replied.
“Oh, OK,” the student said. “Well, if you don’t know the answer, then nobody does, so I’ve decided that the answer is ‘just math.'”
That’s essentially the spiritual journey that Cherise Luter describes in her article, “What Being a Christian Means to Me: Don’t Worry About the Rules; Just Love,” recently shared on Huffington Post. Once Ms. Luter was a troublesome Sunday School girl who couldn’t get an answer to the “big questions” that she asked in class. But now she has discovered, in herself, the answer to every big question one could ponder:
Should guilt be my motivator for righteous living? Just love.
Do I have the right to judge others when I am not perfect? Just love.
Do I have to be preoccupied with getting everyone to think like me? Just love.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Just love.
I suppose that Ms. Luter’s account of trekking through the Fundamentalist Mountains to Love Valley is attractive to those who share the author’s belief that a Sunday School teacher’s refusal to answer a handful of unexpected questions is born from a culture of “righteous certainty — the idea that the Bible is absolute and that questioning its word exposes your lack of faith in it.” But even if that were true (I think the more likely explanation is that her teacher just felt embarrassed for not knowing the answers), I still find it odd that one Christian’s unwillingness to answer her questions convinced Ms. Luter that it wasn’t worth passing those same inquiries onto someone else of the faith.
If this humiliating rebuke she endured had taken place during a first grade math session, certainly Ms. Luter wouldn’t have refrained from asking another teacher “what’s the square root of two thousand” at some point, nor would she have attributed the shame she felt to the righteous certainty of Mathletes. So why does she do this with theology? Why didn’t Ms. Luter’s journey to spiritual enlightenment involve, just once, directing at least one of her questions to at least one other Christian on the planet?
Why? Because the sooner you convince yourself that nobody has the answers, the faster you can start making up your own. And the great allure of inventing your own theological conclusions is that, just as it’s easier to pass a math test if you can make up the answers, it’s easier to be an awesome Christian if you get to determine what it means to be a Christian.
As a child, when she thought that being a Christian meant accepting whatever you heard and not asking questions, Ms. Luter was convinced that she was a bad Christian who might not inherit eternal life. “So I kept quiet, for fear…that God would be mad and I wouldn’t get into heaven,” she recalls. But since determining, based on what she heard God saying in her own heart, that being a Christian means just loving people, what does she think? “Now, I plan on standing before the pearly gates with a list of those I have loved — not a list of rules I haven’t broken. I think God will be pleased.” In other words, Ms. Luter has found peace with God by following the classic template of “being a Christian is not about [insert thing I’m bad at] and is all about [insert thing I’m good at].”
Of course, Ms. Luter’s proclamation is only of comfort if you think you’re really good at loving people, which the Bible pretty clearly says none of us is. But nonetheless, here in Love Valley, her spiritual journey has concluded and she’s finally found a way to put aside all those troublesome questions and be at peace with God.
And this is the great irony of Ms. Luter’s article. Perhaps Ms. Luter was right that her Sunday School teacher was a card-carrying member of the Association of Southern Baptist Question Shamers who couldn’t stand having some kid poke holes in the bubble where she had found peace with God through refusing to dispute His Word. But as gentler and fluffier as Ms. Luter’s post-modern answer of “just love” may sound, she’s doing the same thing, seeking to preserve the bubble where she found peace with God by insisting that “look how good I am at loving people” is somehow a genuine answer to any and every theological inquiry.
But “just love” is not an answer to the question “should guilt be my motivator for righteous living,” any more than “just math” is not an answer to the question “what’s thirty-two divided by eight?”And offering this bubble-preserving, meaningless abstraction as a response to people who are struggling with real, concrete questions about the nature of God, the truth of His Word, and the certainty of His love is just as callously dismissive as telling a little girl in Sunday School to shut up with her questions about dinosaurs because they’re messing up the comfortable bed you’ve made for yourself. In the end, Ms. Luter’s spiritual journey that began in that Sunday School room hasn’t taken her very far. She’s just moved from the student’s chair to the teacher’s seat and ever-so-slightly tweaked the curriculum.
But that’s always how these journeys of spiritual discovery go as long as people don’t understand what the Christian faith is actually about. We’ll always end up back where we started as long as we’re looking to ourselves and not to Christ. Because none of us has earned peace with God, not through our unquestioning submission to His Word nor through our exemplary love of our neighbor. This is, in fact, why God sent Christ into this world, to take us disobedient and hateful sinners and forgive us with His perfect obedience and love found on the cross. So what does it mean to be a Christian? It means that, through faith, Christ has covered you in His forgiveness and salvation. As St John says in chapter twenty of his Gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
At least that’s what I would have told Ms. Luter if she’d asked me what it means to be a Christian. I’m sure that countless other Christians would have said the same thing. So, if you’ve had similar experiences to what Ms. Luter endured in her Sunday School class as a child, please don’t conclude that “just love” is any more of a legitimate answer to every theological question than “just math” is to every algebraic equation. Please don’t assume that no Christian will answer your question if one Christian wouldn’t. Because most of us gladly will.
Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith.