In summer 2006, I participated in the month-long Youth Theological Initiative’s Summer Academy (YTI) at Emory University. For the first time in my life, I came into contact with adults who believed I was capable of and interested in theological reflection. Without their belief, I could not have learned what I learned. In the many conversations I have had since about YTI, I have attempted to tell reliably of my experience.
I tell people we learned words like theodicy, exegete, eschatological, liturgy, and grace. I tell people that we took each others’ hands and peered into the deep waters of our souls. I tell people that we lived life as it was meant to be lived. I tell people that we journeyed together into uncharted deserts and survived on the manna, grace, and relationships we found there. I tell people about the rhythms of class, plenary meetings, meals and play. Yet still, YTI is so simple (or complex) and real that it cannot ever be fully explained until it is experienced.
During YTI, the campus of Emory University becomes one of the “thin places” in this world; Heaven and Earth overlap during the Summer Academy and the boundary between the two thins out.1 In this way, YTI is a vehicle that carries us out ofchronos time and sets us gently down into kairostime.
YTI scholars — as the young persons participating in the Summer Academy are called — come to the program just after completing their junior year in high school. Just as pressure to find the perfect college increases, or the search for the right place to be after high school starts to become unbearable, YTI scholars are given the opportunity to catch their breath. YTI serves as a sort of liminal space — a space that allows scholars to discover that it is the questions and not the answers that shape us.2
Our discovery of these Big Questions was fostered by both the structure of the Summer Academy and by the relationships that grew around the structure. While at the Summer Academy, scholars attend classes taught by Emory University professors and graduate students. Readings are assigned and discussed. Scholars visit faith communities and engage in volunteer work. Covenant groups — confidential groups of scholars and staff — meet daily and encourage scholars to express thoughts that are more closely held. Scholars are even asked to keep journals of theological ponderings, referred to as pensées.3
In all of these ways, I was posed question after question, by professors, students, fellow scholars, and local faith communities: What is your theology of baptism? Of the Eucharist? How is it that God “allows” suffering? Can war ever be just? How does the Trinity “work”? How seriously should we take the command to love our neighbor as ourselves? Should we really sell all we have and give it to the poor? How do we faithfully interpret what the Bible has to say? And, perhaps most important of all, does God actually exist, and how can we know?
I was given reading after reading, from Moltmann to Bonhoeffer, Harkness to Augustine, and from Martin Buber to Serene Jones. I was asked to reflect daily in both writing and speech on the questions posed to me and on the readings given me. A lot was asked of us scholars. The intense reflection on and questioning of dearly held beliefs was not a comfortable process.
After a week, my hands began to shake slightly but constantly — my body’s physical expression of my inner wrestling with questions that threatened my world’s stability. Yet, in my discomfort, I found that God is steady enough and large enough to hold me safe.
I learned that play is indeed a holy, right, and good thing. When we play, we open a door to joy and release — and we remember our common humanity. I learned that God shows up in games of Frisbee and in wooden Scrabble letters.
I learned that food does not constitute a meal, but rather it is the conversation, laughter, and tears over and around the food that turn it into a meal. In this way, I continued to learn the meaning of Christ’s last meal.
I learned that one’s presence is sometimes more important than words, and that God often uses others’ arms to hold us close.
I learned that becoming a member of the Body of Christ does not mean uniformity, but rather diversity. Acknowledging our differences is more holy and healing than ignoring them.
At YTI, I was given room to take my day-to-day experiences of living — my readings, my conversations, my games, my food, and even my experience of touch — and begin to discover God in all of it. I was posed questions, confronted with readings, and given room to pose my own questions. I was given the space and the words that would allow me to begin trying to make sense of the theology inside and surrounding me.
I began learning so much that summer… and I am incredibly and sincerely grateful. Yet, my experience and the opportunities I was presented with at YTI are not common outside of YTI and I yearn for others to be given the same opportunity.
Why? Because adults rarely trust us young people with the words or the space that would allow our theological ponderings to make sense. Adults tend to say or at least think, “Youth are not capable of doing theology.”
Adults seem to assume that young people are not interested in anything other than being entertained — and are certainly not interested in or even capable of doing theology. As a graduate of YTI, I can tell you this is far from the truth.
To discover the truth for yourself, I dare you to trust the young people in your life to be capable of reflection on their faith. I dare you to give your young people the space and the opportunity to wrestle with the Big Questions that may not have easy answers, or even answers at all. I dare you to teach them words like theodicy, exegete, eschatological, liturgy, and grace. Give them Moltmann along with Scrabble, and the Eucharist along with a spaghetti supper. Give them the space and the opportunity, and see what happens.
See what happens. And believe.
Feature Image by Moritz Schmidt. CC Zero License.
- The concept of “thin places” is a part of Celtic mythology. Peter J. Gomes’ book, The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart contains a wonderful exploration of this concept.
- Here, I am alluding to YTI’s theme of “Exploring questions that shape us.”
- These journals were specifically called penséesby YTI staff in order to call Blaise Pascal’s Pensées to mind. It became quite significant to many 2006 scholars that Pascal too was a young theologian.