Parents are frustrated by the Common Core math assignments their kids are bringing home. This “new math” involves drawn out processes to demonstrate how numbers can be broken up and recombined in groups that are easier to work with. For parents who grew up learning the traditional approach to arithmetic, Common Core exercises can seem unnecessarily long and complicated. The traditional approach uses formulas that can reach the same answer in fewer steps. So why don’t they just teach kids that?
There are actually some good reasons for teaching math in this new way. It helps kids understand what’s going on when they work through a math problem. Under the “old math” kids didn’t have to understand that “borrowing” meant taking part of a number and recombining it with part of another number. They just had to follow the steps and trust that the answer was right. Common core is messier because it deals with the why of arithmetic as well as the how. It can be confusing at first, but once mastered it allows for a more complete understanding that sticks with kids better.
The highest I ever went in math was Algebra 2. My teacher, Mr. Sinderson, was smart, dedicated, and cared about his students but he used the memorized formula approach. His favorite phrase was “copy this down like a robot.” I got a B in his class by memorizing and executing the formulas he taught for solving and graphing algebraic equations, but I had no idea what any of it meant. I knew that y = ax2 + bx + c would graph as a parabola but I had no idea why that was true, and I forgot everything I learned in a matter of months (I had to look up that equation on Google just now). Without having grappled with the underlying why of the equation, the truth didn’t stick with me.
Christians can be a lot like Mr. Sinderson when it comes to teaching others about God. We want people to learn the right answers and the quickest, easiest, way to do that is to tell them to copy our theology down like a robot. “Jesus is God’s son,” “We’re saved by faith,” “The Bible is God’s Word”, etc.
We encourage folks to accept these kinds of statements at face value without grappling with why we are so confident they’re true. We might provide a verse or two as proof text, but we don’t really want anyone to question the truth of these propositions or explore how complex these seemingly simple statements really are. We’re so focused on right answers we don’t worry about why the answers are right.
But people who never wrestle with the why of their personal theology often don’t stay grounded in that truth. People who not only know the right answers, but why those answers make sense are less likely to abandon them and usually find it easier to live in a way that is consistent with those truths.
What we need is a kind of Common Core theology. We need to teach Christians how to break what they believe about God apart and look at it from different angles. We need believers who aren’t afraid to ask questions and are willing to do the hard work of formulating an understanding of God that includes the why as well as the how.
This can be scary for those of us who grew up having those right answers drilled into us at church. The very act of questioning those answers or breaking them apart can feel uncomfortable or even blasphemous. But just like parents whose kids bring home unfamiliar math homework, we need to be ready to move beyond what has worked for us so far and embrace a theology that will prepare us and others to go deeper in our relationship with God.
Theology, unlike math, doesn’t guarantee that honest questions will always lead two different believers to the same answers. Once we open up the right to question our assumptions about what is true about God we have to allow that someone else who loves Jesus might disagree with us. That can be hard.
History tells us that followers of Jesus have consistently found agreement on the essential questions of who God is and what kind of life he wants us to live, but on some of the underlying why truths there is often disagreement. That’s no reason to avoid asking why. Unity in the midst of deeply held differences is more powerful than a veneer of unanimity that never delves below the surface.
God isn’t afraid of our questions. He’s less concerned about our ability to spit out the right theological answers than our ability to embrace his truth at a deep and life-changing level. That’s why we must be ready to move past the formulaic approach to theological understanding and dare to ask why we believe what we do.