Putting Away Childish Things?

Theology is at once the most noble and the most childish of all of the academic disciplines. On the one hand, it was long believed to be the queen of the sciences, as that which concerns itself with the highest heights and deepest depths of all the created order and human experience, and thus, it was the science to which all others paid service. On the other hand, somewhere along the line, this queen has gained the reputation of being something of an adult-sized child, not unlike most royals today, and whatever heights and depths it was once thought to explore seem by many to be fueled by a lot of soaring hot air and missteps into intellectual ditches. Though many contemporary theologians may long for that Golden Age when they could unselfconsciously take their seat at the head of the academic table, their current seat at the kids table is not without merit and its own kind of privilege.While many of todays scientific adults punctuate their factual consumption with chattering questions, which are posed with prosaic politeness and answered with the most auspicious austerity, those theological children, who are still immature enough to allow their crayon-dreams to spill outside the lines set by reasonable people, enjoy the radical freedom and inquisitorial anarchy that goes with the kind of immunity from embarrassment that only children know.

Theologians have earned their place at the kids table by continuing to ask why? after the adults have recited the obvious answers, by retorting why not? to the point of provoking an exasperated because I said so!, by repeating something an adult said or did with an innocence that confounds rationalization, by turning almost every serious job into play (e.g. parent, teacher, cop, robber, soldier, scientist, tea party host), by listening to the same bedtime story every night as if it were being read for the first time, or by saying something silly and out of context that nevertheless has an irresistible patina of profundity. For theologians, as with children, there is a thin line between the ridiculous and the sublime, and while this might make them ill-suited to command armies, manage markets, cure cancer, or put people on the moon, it makes them more than qualified to call all of those activities into question, both as to their means and their ends.Here, though, theologians must part ways with their younger analogues. It is one thing to ask an unanswerable question, but it is quite another to understand the nature of its unanswerability and argue for its continued relevance for an adult world that already has more answerable questions than it can handle. The problem with children is that they tend not to know just how radical or important their questions are until they have been taught not to ask them anymore, but theologians, the best ones anyway, have the audacity to insist upon the urgency of their questions even as they refute all of the readily available answers.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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