One of the best gifts I received when I finished grad school was a book called This I Believe, based off of the NPR program (and 1950’s radio broadcast) of the same name. In the book and the weekly program, “Americans from all walks of life share the personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives.” Reading from this book quickly became one of my most treasured rituals. Every night, after I had finished preparing for work the next day, I’d get ready for bed and read one of the essays before going to sleep. When the book was finished, I turned to the weekly podcast. I found the essays simple yet profound, and each in their own way inspiring. I often thought I should sit down and put my own thoughts on paper, but as it often does, life got in the way. All this to day, I was ecstatic when my student staff at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) was asked to write their own This I Believe essays to share at our weekly meetings. Last week, I wrote and shared mine. As much as I tried not to tie my piece to my Catholic identity, there was no denying the truth that so much of who I am, what I do, and of course, what I believe is centered on my faith. And so I share it here…This I Believe:
When I was younger, I used to drive my mother crazy asking questions…about anything and everything. No answer she could give me ever seemed to be satisfying enough, as ten new questions would sprout with each response. “But why?” I pleaded. The “but whys” continued until, frustrated she’d finally say, “Ahhh Tefi, I don’t know!” Now that my nieces are a little older, I understand from the other side, the frustration and joy of the ‘but why’s. Thus I believe in the power of ‘but why’ – the power and necessity of curiosity – the power of the kind of thinking that forces questioning and the questioning that in turn inspires more thinking. Yes it’s a vicious cycle, but a beautiful, wonderful, vital vicious cycle.
Perhaps this is why I ran away from home when I was three, only to be found bathing-suit clad and doll in hand at the neighborhood school playground. “I just wanted to go to school!” I explained to my relieved yet furious mother when she found me. Or perhaps this is why I’m a teacher today. Or why, despite the three degrees I already have, I’m sure I’m not done going to school. The truth is, that even if I wanted to, I can’t get away from the ‘but why?’s or the ‘how?’s and the ‘what if?’s for that matter.
When I first started teaching, I got nervous every time a hand went up. I never knew what question was about to be thrown at me, and I was sure I wouldn’t have the answer. I was so afraid that the students would find me out and discover that I really didn’t know what I was doing in the front of the classroom. Perhaps, I’ve just gotten more comfortable in front of a group of 16-year-olds or I’ve simply accepted the truth and know it’s okay that most of the time I won’t have the answers. In all honesty, teaching religion, specifically morality, often means it’s impossible to have any simple or definitive answers. I do, however, have the ability to question and more importantly, the power to encourage and allow my students to question. Now, after seven years in the classroom, I don’t get nervous when hands go up, I get nervous when hands don’t go up. If my students aren’t questioning what I’m saying or interacting with Church teaching, then they aren’t thinking. The idea that they might simply be buying into something at face value without ever critically picking apart and examining it for themselves worries me far more than having to admit I don’t have an answer.
I think this worry stems from my own experience. When I started undergrad at Loyola Marymount University, many, many years ago, I was a quiet, shy, Catholic school girl. I was a good student, and for all intents and purposes, a good Catholic. I had grown up surrounded by the faith of my parents – studied it in school, practiced it at home and at church, and accepted it at face value. I never questioned it – it wasn’t a faith that was my own. My freshman year, I took a class called the Roots of the Catholic Tradition with Fr. Tom Rausch, SJ. I was invited and pushed to engage the faith I had grown up with in a new way. Every week I struggled with the readings, asked questions trying to make some sense, and turned in an essay. And every week I’d get back a paper, marked up in red with responses and comments, and a return question, “Have you thought about theology as a major?” There it was, every week without fail, until finally I gave in and considered it. I eventually declared theology as my major and spent the rest of my undergraduate career questioning my faith, Church teaching and tradition, until it became my own. Every time I run into Fr. Rausch now, I remind him it’s his fault I went on to study theology after LMU and am in the line of work I’m in. And then, I thank him.
I often think I grew up in terms of my faith at LMU– and there definitely were and sometimes still are growing pains. The more I study, the more I teach, and the more I reflect, the more questions arise. I will be the first to admit, and sometimes quite vocally, that there are many teachings, practices, and attitudes within the Catholic tradition that I don’t agree with. There are times when I’m not just disappointed by this Church, but I’m angered and wounded, and find myself pondering the questions I’m so often asked by others, “Why do you stay?” or, “How can you teach this?”
And ultimately, my answers usually come in the form of, “How could I leave?” and, “What would happen if I don’t teach this? Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” I stay and I teach because I envision and hope for a different Church, that more fully lives out the ideals of Jesus I believe to be true, like love and dignity, and the acceptance and raising up of the marginalized in society. I stay and I teach, hoping that just a few of my students will start asking questions – questions that begin to change thinking, so they can speak up for change. I stay and I teach because I believe our thinking and in turn the Church, and indeed our world can change. But change, as history shows never comes easy and it never comes fast, but when it does come, it comes because people had the courage to question – to ask the ‘but whys?’ and the ‘hows?’ and the ‘what ifs?’ I stay and I teach because I believe in the power of these questions, and if I don’t ask them, I can’t expect others to, either.
Tefi Ma’ake is grateful the teachers who pushed her to ask questions and the students whose questions continue to push her.