Teaching Big Ideas to Young Minds: Why?

Just the other day, I walked in on my students doing something amazing—they were discussing calculus. They were slinging terms left and right, talking quadratics and derivatives, differentiated and otherwise. I mean, I guess it was calculus. As if this dyslexic history major could tell either way.

It is the joy of teaching in a classroom following a calculus class. I take one look at the hieroglyphics that the previous teacher left on the board—I assume out of pride—and I just laugh. The students laugh at me laughing. It’s fun.

Then it’s my turn. I get to teach them Christology, soteriology, and anthropology. I teach ontology, epistemology, and cosmology. Sure, it may be Bible class and apologetics class, but far be it from me to ease up just because the topic turns spiritual. After all, they were just learning calculus!

My first year of teaching theology to high school freshmen, I remember looking over my syllabus with a fellow teacher. Scanning all the “-ologies”, he asked doubtfully, “Do you really think that freshman can handle this? Don’t you think this is over their heads?”

With an unbearably Will-Rogers-like smirk, I replied, “Maybe, but that just means they need to sit up taller.”

Why is it that we teach such big ideas and expect such deep thinking from our young people when it comes to so-called “secular” subjects, yet when it comes to the things of God, we are content to have them read a few verses and discuss a few practical applications?

We need to teach young people the big ideas about God our creator, the universe he created, and the image in which he created us—using the mind he created in us to use. That is to say, we need to teach young people theology.

Here are three reasons why.

Because Big Ideas Prompt Deep Thoughts

Christianity is not a shallow faith. Opponents of Christianity often treat it as such, building strawmen versions of our faith to beat down and declare victory. Unfortunately, many Christians do the same to make God more palatable to our sensibilities.

Ever since God revealed himself to Abraham, he has had to constantly differentiate himself from the gods that people had fashioned for themselves. He had to expand the thinking of his people to understand that he is not to be worshipped in a “graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4) The Apostle Paul had to expand the thinking of the philosophers on Mars Hill to differentiate from the idols they continued to build. He told them that God, the God “that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;” (Acts 17:24)

Christianity is not a shallow faith, because our God is not a small God. In what is perhaps the most important soteriological treatise ever written, Paul exhausts his descriptive ability and in a sanctified exasperation declares:

O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

This is no surrender to the impossibility of understanding God. This is a submission to the sheer bigness of who God has revealed himself to be. This is an invitation to dive into the depths of theology.

Our young people need to learn how to think deeply about big ideas because our God is a big God.  

Because Deep Thoughts Promote Deep Beliefs

We often strive for simplicity. There is comfort in simple ideas that are easily understood. There is comfort, but there is not growth.

“As newborn babes, [we are to] desire the sincere milk of the word, that [we] may grow thereby,” Peter tells us. However, just like newborn babes, we must not stay there. There is a strong indictment for those who settle for simplicity when deeper nutrition is available.

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

Can you imagine the frustration? Here an author under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit had many more things to say, but he was cut short because they were too hard for his audience to understand. They were “dull of hearing.” The word dull is elsewhere translated as sluggish or lazy. What a shame that there was something further they could have learned about God, a step closer to God they could have taken. But, they were too lazy in their thinking.

We do not let our young people be lazy in their schoolwork. We do not allow them to be sluggish in their chores. God forbid that we allow our young people to be dull of hearing in their thinking, lest they miss out on growing in the Word of God and thereby growing closer to the God of the Word.

Our young people need to learn how to think deeply about big ideas because our faith is a deep relationship.

Because Deep Beliefs Prevent Bad Ideas

When our young people think deeply about the big ideas of Biblical theology, they are better grounded to withstand an onslaught of un-Biblical ideas. They may not all become professional theologians, but they should be rooted in their beliefs deeply enough to weather the storm. This depth does not come by them knowing more, but by what they know meaning more to them.

Unbiblical ideas are always smaller versions of the truth. This is what Nancy Pearcey calls reductionism: “It means reducing a phenomenon from a higher or more complex level of reality to a lower, simpler, less complex level—usually in order to debunk or discredit it.”[1] These bad ideas reduce God to an impersonal force or an irrelevant idea. They reduce humanity down to intelligent animals or biochemical machines.

Being grounded in a deep understanding of Biblical theology will expose those ideas for the falsities they are simply because they are too small to be true. If our young people understand who God is, and who they are having been made in God’s image, they will never settle for anything less.

Our young people need to learn how to think deeply about big ideas because bad ideas are too small to be true.

Teenagers are teenagers. However, they don’t have to act like it. The most remarkable instrument in all of Creation sits between their ears. Remember that next time you see one studying chemistry, physics, or advanced math. Remember that and ask yourself how deeply they should be thinking about their faith.

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (pp. 44-45). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching Big Ideas to Young Minds: Why?

  1. Excellent post. My I add something that might interest young minds?

    When Abraham received his calling from God to go from the city of Haran in the north…to Canaan the Promised Land to the south…with each step Abraham took God was displacing whatever normative life Abraham might have lived…mayor of Haran…on the school board…coaching ancient youth soccer…with a new life-script that Abraham would never have dreamed up in his wildest imagination.

    This is a unique concept…exclusive to the Bible…that reveals a new and alternate approach to life…following the living God who created each one of us…has placed within us abilities and talents…and can compose life-scripts for us that match like a dovetail these in-built abilities.

    We see this same through-line in every biblical narrative story of faith. This is one of the positive features Jesus died and the cross…and rose up the third day…to provide for us.

    This is a huge alternative to worldly conventional normalcy and thinking…a life following God in God-sovereignty…rather than going our own way apart from God…in self-sovereignty.

    God bless you. Barton Jahn

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