Teaching Sunday School, Pt. 2
Wow, I forgot that this blog was part of an aggregator (sorry, Main Street Plaza). I kinda thought my words were just flying off into the private, digital realm of the Internet. Silly me, nothing on the Internet is ever private. If you're reading this, please understand that I'm pretty much approaching this as a rant flying off into teh intarwebs. Make of it what you will (along with the constant grammatical mistakes where my fingers fly a little bit ahead of my brain). If you have questions about my teaching Sunday School, go ahead and ask them and I answer them as best as I can.
Well, continuing the posts about my teaching of class, I'm not sure what anyone else is expecting. I'm not even sure what I was expecting when I started. Part of me wanted to teach these kids critical thinking skills and an approach that would lead them to understand how non-divine the Bible is. Another part of me still wanted that “Mormon Pride” of being an awesome Gospel Doctrine teacher: to fill these kids with what they would feel was the Spirit of God and would lead them to be good Mormons.
So far now, about halfway through the year I think I'm still somewhere in the middle of things. I don't believe that God, if He (or She, or They) exists, really cares much about my little old classroom, and I doubt that “the Spirit” people in the LDS Church claim to feel is anything more than a good feeling. Thus, it's something of a fool's errand for me to teach in such a way that my class can “feel the Spirit”. But that doesn't mean that I don't know the process, the intonation, and the subjects that would cause my class to feel, for themselves, that “something special” was being taught. I can't say that I've avoided it. There have been some weeks where, after class, the kids will tell me that they “felt the Spirit really strongly.” I always smile to them and thank them, because from them it's really a sort of praise and it'd be pretty rude to shoot that stuff down. But in the end, I've tried to keep away from the emotional theatrics and I don't think anyone has minded.
I've also not been able to keep things in a purely secular sense. As a Gospel Doctrine teacher, I “team teach” with another teacher. We take turns with a lesson every other week and assist each other on the other week. I've had a few different “team teachers” and I know well enough that while the 16-17 year olds I teach are open to simply learning for learning's sake, my team teachers are actually the people that I need to watch myself around. Each TT has, at different points, come up to me after class and mentioned that they're grateful for the historical and linguistic knowledge I bring to class, but that we need to prepare these kids spiritually as well as mentally. Usually this comes up after I say something that, while unnoticed by the kids, catches the attention of the TT in an uncomfortable way. “The author of Mark says...” “Well, we shouldn't be surprised to find this here; remember that the author of Matthew is a very Jewish Christian and loves the Law of Moses...” “The gospels are not histories, they're testimonies and tracts. We shouldn't be surprised that they tend to use history as a tool to tell their story and bend it to fit their purpose when they want to.” (I should note that each of those comments was made in response to a question from the class, by the way. I'm not one to make waves for the fun of it.)
In the end, I seem to have adopted a middle road of radical ecumenicalism. The kids know (and have commented to be about it, positively) that I'll make use of other Christian religions to make my points often. For myself, if we're talking about the Christian New Testament, then we shouldn't behave as though people only started trying to figure this stuff out after 1820. There have been two millennia of Christians and they have wrestled with their texts for countless centuries. In my class, those debates count. We've talked slightly of Pelagius, Augustine, and Original Sin (for a while they knew what the word “Semi-Pelagian” meant). We'd discussed Luther and the roots of the Protestant Movement. We've discussed modern Christianity's approach to the Trinity, as well as Mormonism's bastardized version of what “those Christians” believe.
In fact, that was probably the first time when I thought that I could keep doing this job. It was only a few weeks after I had started, and I was still trying to get into the swing of things. I'd established my preparation methods: look up the scriptures in the manual, read them, prepare my own lesson based on the scriptures read, and (finally) look at the LDS Sunday School manual to see what their recommended lesson suggested. Usually I covered many of the same points, but my own preparations avoided a lot of the “LDS-ness” that the manual seemed to convey. The lessons were fun, but I was still struggling with my purpose, as a closeted non-believer, in teaching a class that was supposed to be about “Gospel Doctrine”. Just the mental masturbation about being flattered as “so smart” by everyone wasn't going to cut it (and it's not that I'm smart —– I'm not any smarter than plenty of other people within or outside the LDS Church —– I'm just more well-read in archeological and theological materials and have good retention of what I read).
The lesson was on the Baptism of Jesus. I started off by mentioning that this is one of the parts of Jesus's life that everyone, whether Christian or not, believe occurred (well, assuming you believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed, but I have little patience for Jesus Mythicists, but that's a question for another time). I went over the “Criterion of Embarrassment” for a bit (not by name, of course, because that's a mouthful), but I mentioned that few people felt that starting off your gospel by having Jesus receive baptism from someone else really put Jesus in a good light, but actually made him seem somewhat subservient to John. Then we got to the baptism, and I pointed out the various accounts from Mark and John (pointing out that they were probably the only unique authors, since Matthew and Luke were pretty much re-writing Mark for their Gospels). As we started to move away to the next point my TT (team teacher) stopped me.
“We should also point out that all three members of the Godhead are present here.”
Me, uncomfortably knowing where this is going, and trying to keep it within the text: “Yes, they are. We have God the Father speaking from heaven, God the son (in John, at least) in the water, and God the Spirit as a dove appearing. This is the beginning of Jesus's ministry, and we can see that he is sent by God because of the miraculous beginnings described by the authors here.”
“But it's also important to note that all three members of the Godhead are present here. Some people would say that this would be impossible.”
I really don't want to go there. “Who specifically would say that?”
“Well, all of the other Christians believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost are all the same person.”
“I guess none of those billions of other Christians throughout history ever thought to actually read their Gospels and discover the truth hidden in plan sight within this story here?”
Uncomfortable silence, which, in retrospect I probably deserved for throwing down the gauntlet so hard. Well, time to pick up the pieces. I turned to the class. “Since I'm not technically a 'traditional' or 'orthodox' Christian, I'm probably not the most qualified person in the world to tell you what they believe, but I guess we could talk a little bit about this, if you'd like?”
Since my class, being teenagers, is always up for a tangent to the lesson, they readily agreed. So I began by explaining that Christians were, of course, very well aware of the Baptism of Jesus. So how to they deal with it? They deal with it well enough, it's not some horrible problem they don't know how to resolve.
The problem, I continued, is that we Mormons have a very poor understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. In Greek, the Trinity is described with the word homoousia, which can roughly mean “the same being” or “the same nature”. Ousia is much like our English world “being” if looked carefully at it as a verb: “present tense 'To be'” (though note that it is an adjective, not the actual “to be” verb of Greek; it's just that ousia covers a similarly wide range of meaning). What does it mean “to be”? Existence, nature, substance, essence, and so forth. The classic definition of the Trinity, as set forth in the 1st Council of Nicea (and I also pointed out that Nicea nearly always get's a bad wrap among us Mormons unnecessarily [I plan on writing a series, if I ever get time, going over the history and context of the early councils for the purpose of presenting them to Mormons accurately instead of the jumbled anti-Catholic and anti- Trinitarian 'just-so' stories that LDS like to tell themselves about Nicea.]), was that all members of the Trinity were of the same ousia, or “being”. At different times through history that has been interpreted strongly, as though they shared the same experience and were nearly the same entity, but other times that has been interpreted loosely, as though they shared merely the same divinity and purpose. I've heard the Trinity described by some loose Trinitarians as a sports team, a single unified team of individuals that work towards the same goal. I mentioned as well that among traditional Christians “Modalism”, or the belief that there is only one God and that He expresses himself at various times as either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost was actually a heresy (a word I also had to define, as they'd never heard of it before). Thus, Christians have to walk the knife's edge of doctrine between Modalism and Polytheism; they've had a few centuries to figure it out, and they're pretty good about keeping their balance collectively, though you'll certainly find individuals who are modalists or polytheists. Mormonism ignores the problem by simply declaring itself polytheist, but even for us it's not that simple: even the Book of Mormon sounds, throughout most of its pages, like a modalist document. Much Mormon Apologist ink has been spilled trying to recover the Book of Mormon from modalism, to varying levels of success.
So in the end, I told them, the Trinity is actually a somewhat complicated belief. Many Christians love and adore the complexity and incomprehensibility of it. I mentioned that we Mormons also have our own mysteries that we love where the very mysteriousness of the doctrine makes it seem greater to us, with the best example of this being the Atonement. We routinely hear from various people that how the Atonement actually occurred at one time for all people is a mystery beyond understanding, and yet nobody in the LDS Church seems to find this problematic. Instead, many Mormons love the idea all the more for not understanding it (I'd even argue that the doctrine isn't all that difficult to comprehend, but that we enjoy the mystery of it so much that we actively play it up amongst each other). The Trinity is the same way for many Christians; they love it and treasure it.
And then at the end of my ecumenical rant, an interesting thing happened. One of the kids raised his hand.
“One of my friends at school is a Christian. Well, I mean a non-Mormon Christian. I don't know what he believes about the Trinity. I've never actually asked him. I know he's gotten made fun of because of it before, but he's never actually told me what he believes. I'm going to go and ask him about it.”
Suddenly the class was all talking amongst themselves about their Christian friends at school (I didn't know that there were enough non-Mormons in Utah Valley for everyone to know someone, but I guess there are). And this wasn't in the typical, “let's get to know you just enough so that we can convert you”-type discussion. These kids were actually talking amongst themselves in pure curiosity about a doctrine that none of them had been raised to believe in, but that perhaps some of their friends believed. It was, even for someone like me, who no longer believes in the LDS Church, or even in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, a truly heart-warming experience.
Perhaps that was the Spirit then? I don't know; I personally doubt it, but that doesn't mean I'm correct in doing so. I think it was an honest pride in these kids being willing to explore the ideas of others. When we got to class next week I asked if anyone had talked to their friends. Only the one boy had, and he said that his friend wasn't really that religious and didn't actually know what he felt about the Trinity. But he apparently appreciated someone asking him about his beliefs because that never happened; it was usually the other way around.
And so this is the middle road I currently try to travel. My goal in class isn't to help these kids be better Mormons and get to some “Celestial Kingdom”, nor is it to be better biblical scholars. Instead, my goal is to give them the tools to become the people that the LDS Church, one of the most disliked minority religions in America, needs: open to others, open to discussion, open to research, open to debate, and, above all, open to loving their fellow humans. My lessons, when I can get them to be applied to to us modern humans, tend to focus on helping others, on the messages of inclusion, assistance, and grace that are in the Gospels (yes, there's plenty about “justice”, vengeance, punishment, and other horrible things, but these kids are going to hear enough about the “justice” of God as they continue in the LDS Church).
Next post, I'll talk a bit about how the bishop's felt about all of this as I've talked with him more than I imagine most teachers do.