"All right, everybody." I took a sip of my beer, set it down firmly and pounded my fist once on the table. "I call this meeting to order."
My friend C. put down his herbal tea and said "We're having a meeting? This is a meeting?"
I looked over at M., his wife. M. and C. are the parents of two boys and two girls; their daughters, age 14 and 10, co-school with H. and me twice a week. Their 14-year-old is the one who just had a five-week stint in a local charter school but recently returned to homeschooling. "You didn't tell him this was a meeting?"
"Okay then. I'll fill you in."
Dinner was over and the brownies hadn't been served yet; we had sent all the children away upstairs to play Wii or cards. Throughout the evening they would keep poking their heads down to ask if it was time for brownies, and we would send them up with a terse, "No. Go away."
This was somewhat unusual for us, but today we were talking about the kids. Two of them, anyway.
+ + +
"Okay, C., do you remember a long time ago when our oldest kids were very little, and we were sitting around having tea in the evening, the four of us? And we were sitting around talking about theology? Do you remember the Mutual Anti-Evangelization Clause?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I remember."
+ + +
C. and M. are members of the LDS Church, i.e., they're Mormons. And C. and M. are kind of Mormon nerds in the way that Mark and I are Catholic nerds. We used to have a lot of fun talking about the differences and similarities between our two faiths, late into the evening, when the kids were younger. As we've gotten busier and busier, and our children's antics more complicated, we haven't had much opportunity to sit down and have long-ranging conversations, although from time to time we've fielded brief questions from one another, sometimes through email.
+ + +
"Do you remember how we used to say, 'One of these days our kids are going to grow up and start arguing with each other and then we'll have to have a talk about all this?'"
He grinned. "Is that time now?"
+ + +
Last Monday was the 14-year-old girl's first day of seminary, which in the LDS church refers to an organized, four-year religious education program for high schoolers. It's typically run on weekday mornings before the kids go to their "regular" schools; she'll be getting up at 5:30 AM for the foreseeable future. I picked her and her sister up from her parents' house not long after her dad C. brought her back, and we headed to H.'s house for a day of history and Latin and Spanish and English, all the subjects that H. and I co-school.
She was really excited, and chattered about it all the way. I nodded and listened: it is a beautiful thing to see a young woman totally on fire for her faith. And I'm charmed because she's a budding theology nerd too. As well as the regular kind of nerd. Did I mention I'll get to teach her geometry next year?
During lunch, while H. and I were eating and chatting in the kitchen, we overheard a lively discussion in the dining room where all nine kids were having their salmon loaf and apples. I touched my ear and gestured to H. to listen.
"But it just doesn't make sense that God created everything out of nothing," the 14-year-old was saying. "That's why we think of God as the Creator in the sense of an organizer."
My 12-year-old was saying, "No, God has to make everything out of nothing, because otherwise where did everything come from?"
"Here, let me try to find what it says in the Scriptures..." I could hear the sound of rummaging in an overfull backpack.
H.'s almost-13-year-old was saying, "Guys. Guys. Maybe you're both right. Maybe we should talk about something else."
We listened to them debating while we cleaned up, more than a little entertained -- at least we listened to the 14-year-old and my 12-year-old debating, and H's son going "Hey, I have an idea, let's play cards" -- and eventually I had to go put a stop to it because lunch was over and they had to work on their world history homework.
And then I had to put a stop to it again.
I could tell they were trying to figure out a way to come to some point of agreement, but I knew darn well they weren't going to find one. The LDS doctrine of creation is not reconcilable with the Catholic one. Besides, they had work to do, and they were making the other boy feel very stressed out.
[H. told me subsequently that when their family sat down a couple of days later to watch the first televised debate between President Obama and Mr. Romney, their son asked exasperatedly, "Why do they have to sound so much like my friends?"]
Anyway, I figured I was going to have to talk to my son about the reality of having good friends of a faith different from his own, and I might as well start by talking to... my good friends of a faith different from ours.
+ + +
I told the story at the table, strenuously urging C. and M. not to apologize for their daughter. It was a two-way thing, really, even though her excitement about her new seminary class was the trigger. "What I'd really like to do," I explained, "is use this as a teaching opportunity. We have a chance to model to our kids how -- well, how we can enjoy taking an interest in each other. How we can sit around and talk together in a spirit of honest curiosity, you know?"
"It's very useful to have a clear understanding of what we all believe."
"I know I've enjoyed being able to call upon explanations that come from 'my good Catholic friends' when I teach Sunday school," said C. "I use you guys all the time."
"And it's interesting," I said. "And talking about it and identifying the differences helps us understand our own beliefs. I mean, I'd like to see them enjoy the same kind of attitude that we can have, sitting around and talking over a cup of tea." I adopted a mock conversational tone. "'This is what we believe.' 'Oh, isn't that interesting, this is what we believe.' 'Oh, how very interesting. Is it like this?' 'No, it's not at all like this, it's like this.'"
"But trying to convince each other is kind of off the table."
"Well, yes, it's not necessary. It's obvious that you are happy where you are and that we are happy where we are, and that we each understand our own faith really well. But we can still explain because it's interesting, and neither one of us wants the other to have an inaccurate picture of each other. And it helps us know each other better, too."
Mark interrupted with a sly smile, "Of course, it's not like we wouldn't be happy if you decided to become Catholics. But our friendship isn't predicated on that. We know perfectly well that if you have any questions about what we believe, you'll ask us. And if we have any questions about you, we'll ask you."
"Yes," I said, "it's like 'Preach the Gospel, and we mutually agree that words aren't necessary.'"
+ + +
We knew we needed to lay down some ground rules for the teens and soon-to-be-teens. "Plus," I explained, "I want the grownups to get our story straight before we turn around and have this conversation with our kids." After much discussion we decided on four points.
1. Both of our families believe that it's the right and responsibility of parents to form their own children in faith. That means that we can confidently say to our own teen, "It's fine for you and your friend to explain your faith to each other and answer questions. But you need to know that your friend's parent doesn't want you to work hard to try to convince your friend that you're right and they're wrong. We respect our friends' wishes when it comes to raising their children, and we aren't going to undermine their parental authority." Bottom line: explaining and answering questions is fine ("Catholics believe this because...") but attempts to prove to a teenage friend that his/her mother and father are teaching error are not permitted.
2. In answering each other's questions, they are not allowed to speculate and make up answers. My son is particularly prone to this: imagining how he thinks things ought to be, and then explaining them authoritatively as if that is really how things are. I could easily see him saying, "Well, Catholics believe such-and-such..." when he's really only talking about his own opinion.
So: The teens are only allowed to answer questions that they are confident they can answer accurately. We do not want them teaching each other inaccuracies. And we do not want them being reinforced in inaccuracies about their own faiths. And we certainly don't want them to think they've found points of agreement that don't actually exist. We agreed to make the kids practice saying, "I don't know the answer to that. I will ask my parents." It's good practice anyway, to admit when you don't know the answers, and to go to a reliable source to find them.
3. They need to take note of the emotions of people around them. It was unfair of my son and C. & M.'s daughter to keep debating -- even though they really were being polite to each other -- when it was clearly making H's son so uncomfortable. (He didn't have the option to leave -- they were all supposed to be working on a project together.) We will let them know that if their discussion is upsetting other people in the room, they should charitably discontinue it and pick it up at another time.
4. We don't give them permission to discuss eternal consequences. Both families agree that kids of their age and level of catechesis aren't yet mature enough to fully grasp concepts of heaven and hell and purgatory and the like. Speaking from the Catholic point of view, the concept of "no salvation outside the Church" has a certain subtlety that I'm not at all confident a twelve-year-old can grasp and accurately convey. And discussions of damnation or salvation tend to have an emotional effect on many people -- not usually a positive one.
Obviously, if you believe in the immortality of the soul, it follows that there's nothing more important than their friend's salvation. But they also need to trust that it's God, not them, who is in charge of that. And they need lots more catechesis (and maturity) before they can discuss what their churches teach about "the last things" with confidence and accuracy. So: Ix-nay on the ell-hay, at least for now.
+ + +
That was Sunday night. The next morning, on my way to pick up the girls, I had my 12-year-old in the front seat, and I had a chance to talk about it all with him. I think it all sank in and made sense.
Also, he spent several minutes describing with interest the differences between the doctrine of Creation as he understood it, and as the 14-year-old had explained that she understood it. It sounds to me like he was paying attention.
They're reaching the age when they start taking possession of the things they've been taught, trying to re-formulate them in their own words if they can, trying to make sense of it from within themselves. They're going to talk to each other, and they're going to try to make sense of a world in which people they love have very different thoughts. We have an opportunity, as friends who are parents of friends, to help show them how to set the tone. It would be irresponsible not to do so with some deliberateness.