"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tradition and Indignation

Recently my husband was teaching Genesis 1-3 in the Judaism section of his world religions introductory course. He started the class with a 10 question multiple-choice quiz. One of the questions was, "What did the man and woman eat that got them into trouble? (that's my phrasing, by the way). One of the four choices was "an apple from the tree of life" and another was "unspecified fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

I'll give you all a second to think about the correct answer to this question based on the text of Genesis 1-3....


The answer is the latter, an "unspecified fruit." When he was going over the quiz answers with his class, one student became particularly indignant. She raised her hand with an angry look on her face, "I've gone to Catholic school for 14 years. Are you telling me that all of my teachers were lying to me when they told me it's an apple?" To which my husband responded, "If they taught you this, they were mistaken. There certainly is a long tradition of associating the fruit with an apple, but the text does not specify that it's an apple."

The student didn't let the issue die there. "This is official Catholic Church teaching," she insisted. "Everyone just knows that Adam and Eve ate an apple." Jeff pulled out his pocket-sized Catechism, and he assured her that it was nowhere in the Catechism that the fruit from Genesis was an apple. He also offered her extra credit if she could locate where in Genesis 1-3 the fruit was identified as an apple. Finally the student crossed her arms and closed her mouth.
Since this was in the section on Judaism, Jeff went on to talk about several midrashic interpretations of the passage, one which identifies the fruit as grapes, and another that identifies it as figs. There's nothing patently wrong with variously interpreting the fruit, especially for the allegorical juice (no pun intended). Grapes as the fruit, for example, has a strong tradition because of the association with wine and drunkenness that causes trouble later in Genesis. The figs tradition, meanwhile, is interesting to Christianity in that it makes possible one explanation for Jesus' cursing of the fig tree in the gospel of Mark. I have a hunch that the apple tradition comes from Augustine (probably among others), who would have had a lot of fun playing with the Latin words for evil and for apple.So I guess Jeff shouldn't be too surprised that a student would be absolutely convinced that the fruit in Genesis is an apple. Perhaps for those raised in the Catholic tradition, it's kind of commonsensical- one of those Bible "facts" that we just all assume we know. As testament to this, Jeff's office neighbor polled a listserve of Catholics (not in academia), and found that 22% of them thought the apple in Genesis was dogmatic, an official Church teaching. For the most part, Jeff just found the incident amusing.

That is, until he checked his email a couple hours letter and found a scathing email from the student. "I answered today's quiz based on my previous knowledge. I understand that you drop our three lowest quiz grades, but I didn't want to waste my cushion on a topic that I know. I've been a practicing Catholic for 18 years, and I attended Catholic schools for 14 years. You are basically saying that my parents wasted thousands of dollars on my education and that all the Catholics I know are wrong on this" and so on (my paraphrase).

Well, Jeff's never had his Catholic orthodoxy challenged by a student before, so he was a little taken aback. The real issue of course, was not his orthodoxy, but the text. It's a text-based course and it was a text-based quiz. Upon re-examining the student's quiz, he found she had correctly answered one out of the ten questions (she erroneously answered that the sun was created on the first day, and human beings on the seventh, for example). His Muslim student, on the other hand, had received ten out of ten. Which student do you think actually read the text? Clearly not the one who relied on "previous knowledge."

My husband is a convert to Christianity who was in many ways led to Catholicism because of (and through) the Bible, so he is continually surprised at the seeming ignorance of many Catholics when it comes to Scripture, which is a crucial part of what constitutes tradition.

I told Jeff that he should tell the student to look on the bright side, something like, "I'm not saying your parents wasted thousands of dollars on your Catholic education. I'm saying you're getting money's worth in my class."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Why, Mommy?"

"Mom, when is baby Eva's birthday?" Maia asked me as we were walking home from the park one day last week.

"I don't know yet, Maia." I responded.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because Eva hasn't been born yet. You don't know someone's birthday until she is born."

"Why?" inquired Maia.

"Because a birthday is defined by the day on which the person is born."

"But I thought baby Eva's birthday was in December," suggested Maia.

"Well, we sure hope so," I replied. "It's our best guess. But we don't know the date yet."

As you can see, Maia has hit the question phase full-force. This has been going on for awhile now, especially the "Why?" aspect. I find myself usually pretty patient with answering Maia's questions, although I am starting to realize that some questions just don't have very good answers. Or maybe it's just that I don't have very good answers to her questions.
Also last week, during a quick car trip, Maia asked me why it was painful to die on a cross. And I have to admit that I'm more anxious about answering questions that have some kind of theological significance. I think I said something like, "It hurts a lot to have nails through your hands and feet," and of course, she said, "Why?" I don't even know how I answered this. But then the next thing Maia said was, "I don't want to die." This time, I got to ask why:
"Why, Maia?"
"Because it's painful. I don't want to die on a cross," she answered.
"Well, chances are you won't literally die on a cross, Maia," I assured her.
"Why, Mommy?"
"Nowadays there just aren't many people who are crucified."
"Why, Mommy?"
"Death by crucifixion was characteristic of certain historical time periods and geographical locations. It's not so common here and now."
"Why, Mommy?"
"I don't have a firm grasp of the history of crucifixion, Maia. I'm sorry. Maybe Daddy would know."
"Well, I don't want to die," she said.
"It might not be so bad," I answered. "Then you get to be with Jesus and all the angels and saints, like Mary."

"I don't want to be with Jesus. Because then I was at the hospital and I was sick and Jesus was there, holding me and he baptized me and he wanted to take me to heaven and I said 'No' and, Mommy, Father Satish is not Jesus."
This reply was the recap of a dream she had this past summer. She woke up from a nap in early June, crying and telling me she didn't want to die. I think every parent knows that at some point she's going to have the death conversation with her child. But at 26 months old? Jeff and I scoured our memories to think of where Maia had even encountered the concept of death. Finally we realized that crucifixes were probably her only association with death. I guess it's no wonder, then, that she was afraid. This dream seems to haunt Maia's memory, as she mentions it all the time.
So Jeff and I have tried to have conversations with Maia about why death isn't so bad. But she doesn't seem to get it. Then there was the instance a couple of weeks ago, when Maia was mad at me because it was time to leave the park. "I want you to go away and die!" she yelled at me. "Maia," I responded, "I think you would be very sad if I died." "No, just leave! I'll live with the Peters family!" she answered. So I told her, "I know I will die some day, and that's ok. But right now I want to stay alive so I can be your mommy on earth and take care of you. And it's not very nice to say that you want me to die." Maia put her thumb in her mouth and gave me the cold shoulder for the next five minutes. I don't know if she was thinking how much she'd miss me or how much fun she would have living 24-7 with her friend Samuel.