I’ve been known to get a little excited about grammar. Remember diagramming sentences? I loved it: the longer the sentence, the better. In high school, and then in college, I took Latin, a language known for aiding English speakers in understanding the form and structure of formal writing. I enjoyed learning the vocabulary, discovering predecessors to familiar English words, but mostly it was the Latin grammar that called to me. Parsing those paragraphs and identifying parts of speech, verb tenses, noun cases, and more … well, it was flat out exhilarating!
But grammar is not the same as language. My understanding of grammar started around the 3rd grade; but I started learning English the day I was born. I learned that some tones were joyful and others were sorrowful. I noticed that certain sounds caused faces to change in predictable ways. Eventually, I connected words to objects, then to actions. At some point, I added things like pronouns and prepositions, adjectives and adverbs. It happened gradually by assimilation, not through focused study. I never tried to learn English. I just soaked it up from my surroundings.
That’s how I came to know Christ, too. Just as my environment encouraged my grasp of language, being in communion with followers of Christ formed my understanding of who God is. Later, I studied scripture and Christian doctrine more critically; I asked hard questions and struggled with the intrinsic mystery of faith. But long before that, I began learning that Jesus loves me and that God is both good and great. Over time, my understanding grew deeper and wider. I attended Sunday school, Mission Friends, and covered-dish suppers; Vacation Bible School, weeklong revivals, and church camps; funerals, weddings, and baby showers. From this immersion in the faith, I figured out that following Christ includes holy scripture, sacred music, godly friendships, private and intercessory prayer, personal sacrifice, and acts of service. I could see that Christianity was time consuming, complicated and messy. I never tried to learn these things. I just soaked them up from my surroundings.
In The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, George Linbeck proposes that the Christian faith is more like learning a language than learning a set of rules. He suggests that knowing Christian doctrine is good, just as knowing grammar is, but that the work of salvation comes in the submersion of self in the life and work of Christ. Our faith deepens as we begin understanding that the biblical story is our story; and that happens much in the same way a newborn learns native language — slowly, bit by bit.
When I was a school child, I’m certain there were days when I got off the bus talking about how boring, irrelevant, and useless school was. Some days are like that, in part because learning is so very gradual that we don’t realize it’s happening. Also, I definitely had teachers who fell far short of competency. (Yet even that taught me something.) Still, never did my mother respond with, “Well, goodness! If you’re not getting anything out of school, there’s no reason for you to get up and go. Why don’t you just sleep in tomorrow?”
As for church — listen, I’m a preacher’s kid. I spent more time at church than in my own backyard. (To be fair, we did live in a parsonage for a while and the church was, in fact, our actual backyard.) Sure there were days when I thought church was a waste of time. And when we were teenagers, my sister and I were a Sunday school teacher’s nightmare: determined, as we were, to keep pushing the theological envelope. But rest assured, there never came a day that my parents said, “Girls, just take a break from church. It’s obviously too frustrating for you.”
My parents knew that their children could study Christianity’s statutes and decrees privately, away from a community of believers. We could definitely become knowledgeable about our faith without ever making church a priority. They also knew that would never be enough. Academic understanding of the Christian religion would not offer the assurance of things hoped for or the peace that surpasses understanding. They knew that for us to become followers of Christ, we would need the kind of gradual formation that occurs over years, not over textbooks.
I love theology, exegesis, and ancient languages (especially the grammar). But I learned how to love God, how to deal with doubt, how to face grief, uncertainty, and pain by being in community with other believers. As a result, when I lean into my faith, it holds firm. Jesus loves me, this I know. Thanks be to God.