“Why the heck do I have to learn … ?” I think every child, teen, and adult has said that more than once in their lives. Toddlers and preschoolers have a shorthand for that. They simply say, “Why?” Will anyone who has had or dealt with children and who has never heard any form of this please raise their hand?
We spend our lives learning. Newborns have to learn to breathe and then to suck. The rest is progressive. Children want to know, so they ask, “Why?” with seemingly every other breath. It’s their way of finding out how the world works, something they’re going to need to know, and, I think, they revel in learning about it.
Then comes school. “Why do I have to learn math? Why do I have to learn geography? When am I ever going to have to use grammar?” My particular “Why do I…” was math, especially algebra. I was no good with numbers, even in elementary school, and the thought of having to prove that x=2y totally bewildered me. I loved words, and the better I could spell and read them plus learn what they meant and how to put them together to express my thoughts and understandings, the more I enjoyed them. The combination of dissection, statistics, and probability I learned in second-year Biology was much more appealing than the various noxious smells from the Chemistry lab. A slide rule (we didn’t have calculators in those days) was as incomprehensible as a text in Koine Greek.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn many things I really didn’t want to know, like balancing a checkbook, changing washers in a faucet, mixing vinegar and baking soda to clean out drains, and remove hard-water deposits in the sink and bathroom fixtures. I didn’t want to learn to iron, adjust a recipe to add or subtract servings, or read a map to get to a place I needed to be but didn’t know how to get there. How many skeins of yarn do I need, what size needles, and how many stitches do I need to make a patterned square for an afghan I am knitting for a friend or a sweater for myself? You get the point.
In our lives as Christians, we have had to learn things like praying, both personal and communal. We learn why we pray, whether it is to thank God for something, ask for something, or in times of tension, fear, illness, and disaster. We are taught who we need to pray for, what prayer can do, and how to do it, whether we recite a blessing we’ve learned or are struggling to put words together so God can understand what we need or believe we need. We also learn stories that tell us what God expects of us. Sometimes that is easy since we have stories to illustrate the lesson. At other times, we have to stop and ponder what the story is trying to tell us, given that we are reading them through eyes that are 2,000 years younger than the stories themselves. Still, it’s part of being Christian.
Sometimes we learn a verse or group of verses that bring us comfort or ease our fears. We use them like a mantra, reciting them repeatedly, bringing them into our consciousness, and focussing our attention on something other than unpleasantness, danger, or anxiety.
Being brought up in a church or denomination, we learn the rituals and customs surrounding birth, baptism, marriage, and death. We realize that Christmas and Easter are joyous times while Lent and especially Holy Week are thoughtful and penitential. We are taught to understand what the Eucharist is, what it means, and what it does for us. We observe practices like having ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday and anointing with oil for healing and comfort at other times. We stand for worship, kneel for prayer, and sit to listen and learn. Christianity is a cradle-to-grave-and-beyond series of lessons and practices. I wonder – did any of us ever ask why we needed to know all this?
The things I learned about faith and how to use it, though, are things I use every day, often without thinking about them. I have to be very mindful of prayer and reading at times. In contrast, other times are purely spontaneous when situations and people come to my attention. I discovered how to think through things using various theological reflection techniques and calm myself with centering prayer. I may never need to learn about soteriology or eschatology, and that’s fine. I don’t need to know everything there is to know about theology, doctrine, and the like. When it comes to having faith, I’m still learning, but I know in whom I believe and why.
The question of “Why do I have to learn …?” doesn’t come up very often with faith. When it does, it usually becomes a welcome new insight and understanding. I have a feeling even my last breath will be a new revelation. Now that’s something that never appeared in a school curriculum!
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.