On Being a Theologian

Small children are both fascinating and exasperating. Fascinating, because they always find such joy in the small things we take for granted, and exasperating for just the same reason. That is, they will ask the most inane questions, often at the least convenient moment, about things that they should already know, or about things that you wonder why it would occur to them to ask.

“Why is that man standing there?”

“How should I know?”

I could make something up. But that would not satisfy the child, because the child already has an answer in her mind and the question is simply an attempt to confirm what she’s already thinking. Or perhaps not. If the answer I give differs from hers, she will argue with me about it.

So I’ve learned to respond to this sort of question with a question of my own: “What do you think?” Works like a charm. Usually.

Of course, akin to this are the wonderfully wacky ideas that children will invent: complicated nonsensical rules to explain the mystery of the world around them: “The grass is green so we won’t confuse it with the sky, which is blue.”

But then, there are also the manifold questions when they really are clueless and really are hoping to get an answer. “Why are there lines on the street?” asked while you’re driving and usually when you’re in the middle of some other conversation, thought or struggling to resist an overwhelming urge to loudly wish that some lame brain who also apparently lacks an understanding of the lines on the street should endure an eternity of everlasting torment beginning right now.

I bring up all this to make a simple point: being a theologian is much like being a child. As I think about God or read the Bible, how often am I like my children when they were younger?

I like to believe that God is never tired, distracted, or too busy. And so I’m hopeful that he finds even my most inane and silly questions to be cute. I believe this on the basis of an analogy. The Bible informs us that human beings have been created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26-27). I take this to mean, then, that we in some sense resemble God. Moreover, the Bible—particularly in the New Testament—describes God as the ideal father. In fact, the Bible describes people as being the children of God (see, for instance, Luke 3:38 and Acts 17:28).

So. When I am not too tired, distracted or whatever, I can’t help but find my own children incredibly fascinating and cute. If God is the ideal father, then his feelings about me should be similar to mine for my children.

Of course, how often do my questions about the Bible resemble something my oldest daughter asked when she was five?

One day she was singing “Little bunny fu-fu, hopping through the forest, picking up the field mice and bopping them on the head” followed by the good fairy coming down and warning little bunny fu-fu to stop the mouse bopping or else she’d turn the one bopping into a goon.

Suddenly, in the middle of this odd song, my daughter got a puzzled look on her face and asked very seriously, “Is little bunny fu-fu a boy or a girl?”
“Uh…” I answered profoundly. “It doesn’t matter.”

“All bunnies are boys or girls, so bunny fu-fu has to be one or the other, right?”

“I suppose…”

Needless to say, arguing with a five-year-old is an exercise in futility, and it was easier just to make up a gender for bunny fu-fu since my daughter wasn’t going to go on to anything else or leave me alone until I satisfied her query.

Nevertheless, the gender of bunny-fu-fu has no bearing on the song’s purpose or meaning. Yet, for my daughter, an answer was suddenly critical.

Perhaps, therefore, I might occasionally behave that way with the biblical materials: asking questions of it that are beside the point. After all, the Bible is not designed to give me an exhaustive and complete accounting of everything that there is, nor can it answer all my questions (I’ve discovered that the Bible is of very limited help in repairing a computer, for instance). Yet, how often have I behaved like my daughter, acting like it has to have the answer to the puzzle that currently occupies all my attention? In the mean time, I doubtless miss the whole point of the biblical passage I’m studying. The point of the bunny-fu-fu song, after all, is the horrid pun at the end, when the recalcitrant bunny fu-fu is magically transformed into a goon and the good fairy explains “hare today, goon tomorrow”—all of which a five-year-old probably doesn’t get anyway.

Rather than thinking of theology and its workings as an example of supreme erudition and high-mindedness, the purview of the most intellectual and sophisticated of people, I should probably recognize that most of the time I’m merely a five year old toddling about, looking up at my heavenly Father, and asking wide-eyed questions while hoping to validate the oddly skewed answers already in my head.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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