David Jensen on children

david-jensenDavid Jensen teaches reformed theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His delightful book, Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (posted on here and here), focuses on the covenant grace of God which welcomes and encompasses vulnerability in human persons. Children (among others) constitute such authentic personhood. He suggests that to be a child is to be three things:

1. Chosen by God;

2. Open and vulnerable to the grace that makes life possible; and

3. A pilgrim, oriented Godward and toward the present.

1. Chosen by God – Children of election

Children are loved because of the simple fact that they are. The divine election

distances a theology of childhood from utilitarian considerations, where children are considered worthy because of something they possess (such as beauty) or provide (such as happiness to a parent). A revised doctrine of election claims first and foremost that children are worthy because God chooses them as subjects of divine love … In a society where genetic technologies promise a day in which parents will be able to select the “best” traits for their own children and filter out what is undesirable or unworthy, election proves subversive: God values infinitely those who are seen as disposable and valueless. God’s electing grace is the eternal yes to our tendency to say “no” to children. We neither choose children, nor do they choose us; and eternal choice precedes both parent and child. (pp. 44, 46)

2. Childhood vulnerability in difference

Living in God’s image, children are metaphors of openness to the One who creates each of us differently. Despite bourgeois longings to the contrary, there is no such thing as a model child … What some of the classic theologians have dismissed as the hallmarks of selfishness – the wails of hunger, the cries to be held – are actually the marks of relationship and dependence of life in God’s world. Infants cry not out of selfishness, but to speak of a profound need for another … (pp. 47, 49)

graced-vulnerability3. The Pilgrim Child

Jensen considers children as pilgrims, as persons who are beginning to question life and to journey in it, who are as much – indeed more – oriented to the present as to the end. He writes:

Children subvert our understanding of pilgrimage in their attentiveness. They are pilgrims not because they are on their way somewhere, not because they are growing up to be somebody, but because they are already somewhere and somebody. Children’s pilgrimages call us to become who we already are: children of God, attentive to the surprise an mystery of creation … To be a pilgrim as children are is to live in the present, and to pay close attention to the immediacy of the journey … This present-orientation of childhood pilgrimage is not hedonistic, but the immediate delight of God’s world: an orientation that is not simply on the self, but on self-with-others … [Children’s] present-orientation affirms the enduring value and significance of human relationships. (pp. 53, 54; see also pp. 121-2)

For Jensen, such pilgrimage involves play (with its decidedly eschatological bent, so Zechariah 8:5: ‘The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there’), imagination and attention.

Karl Barth on Children

The Barth House

The Barth House

According to Hans Frei, what distinguished Karl Barth (1886-1968) as a theologian was the ‘startlingly consistent’ identification of ‘universal divine action with divine action in Christ alone’.[1] ‘Here God is present and known to us, and the only logical presupposition for this presence and this knowledge is – itself. For this unique thing there can be no set preconditions; it creates it own. No natural theology, no anthropology, no characterization of the human condition, no ideology or world view can set the conditions for theology or knowledge of God’,[2] and, by implication (after Calvin), for knowledge of creation.

This is where Barth begins. Indeed, there can be, for Barth, no other starting point than the eternal decision of God to be God for us – that God, in Jesus Christ elects to be humanity’s covenant partner and redeemer. We cannot understand humanity apart from this eternal decision of God to become incarnate for our sakes. We cannot understand personhood apart from the sovereign God’s decision to make covenant with God’s ‘other’.

While Barth wrote little directly regarding children,[3] Eberhard Busch has observed Barth’s great love for children, and his commitment to them, even when work pulled him away from home, and from his wife Nelly who assumed the major role in bringing up the Barth children. Busch records that around the time Barth was finishing writing the second edition of Der Römerbrief, Barth ‘watched his children … growing up, with care and delight. He still had time, for example, to comb his son Christoph’s hair every morning, “more for my own pleasure than for his gain and satisfaction”‘.[4] Busch also reports how Barth, during his years as pastor in Safenwil (1911-21), immersed himself in his confirmation and pre-confirmation classes, ‘told Bible stories to the twelve- to fourteen-year-olds in the so-called “children’s class” on Sunday after a sermon’, and held weekly meetings for young people already confirmed. He also had strong ideas about the form that these meetings should take: ‘It cannot merely be teaching and learning: we must discover each other personally and become good friends’. He also confessed that these weekly meetings ‘were always a dreadful worry for me’, that he often stood ‘awkwardly in front of bored faces’, and that he usually ‘simply ran out of steam, even in the most well-known things’.[5]

On comparing Augustine with Barth on children, consider these words from Augustine:

Who can recall to me the sin I did in my infancy? For in thy sight no one is clean of sin, not even the infant whose life is but one day upon earth … What, then, was my sin? Was it that I cried for more as I hung upon the breast? … Even in my infancy, therefore, I was doing something that deserved blame, but because I could not understand anyone who blamed me, custom and reason did not allow me to be blamed … It is clear, indeed, that infants are harmless because of physical weakness, not because of any innocence of mind.[6]

Augustine believes that all of us are born with evil tendencies by virtue of original sin. Indeed, he somewhat ‘fused biological ideas of heredity with the idea of the juridical liability of humanity’.[7] This view constitutes the mainstream Christian tradition.

Barth rejects this (negative) view, stressing instead that children are bearers of God’s gracious promise to make them – and indeed all humanity – his covenant partners in Jesus Christ.

Barth also presents three interrelated thoughts about children:

1. Children are needy beginners. They are ‘inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature’, but as such they may humbly acknowledge their need and assume a ‘sheer readiness to learn’.[8] Barth, like Calvin, makes a lot of the correlation between children and the life of filial reality before God:

In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, found themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).[9]

That children are ‘beginners’ does not mean that they should be kept in dependence upon their elders. Rather, it implies that they may mature before the covenant God with a spirit of courage and cheerfulness.

A portrait of Mozart in Barth's house

A portrait of Mozart in Barth's house

2. Being a child is characteristically to be at play. Here Barth draws upon Mozart, whose playing reflects the sheer absence of self-preoccupation. Mozart is not focused on personal confession (as is Beethoven); nor is he about ‘business’ or communicating doctrine (as Barth reads Bach as doing). Mozart just ‘sounds and sings’ with an objectivity that includes ‘an intuitive, childlike awareness of the essence or center – as also the beginning and end – of all things. It is from this center, from this beginning and end, that I hear Mozart create his music’.[10]

3. Being a child is about the opportunity to realise ‘freedom in limitation’. We respond to God’s call as those under the limitations of creation – space and time – and as those elected by God to particular vocations and places of responsibility. The call by the Word of God means freedom. That that same call comes to creatures means limitations. To be a child is to realise this two-fold truth, and to press in various directions in order to identify the boundary between the two – i.e. to step into freedom. This stepping requires what Barth calls a ‘youthful objectivity’.

Youth is the capacity and will to devote oneself to an object without considering or intending that the manner of this devotion should be specifically youthful, but rather in suppression of any such consideration or intention and with the serious aim of rivaling the objectivity of those who are older. He who wants to be a child is not a child; he is merely childish. He who is a child does not want to be a child; he takes his play, his study, his first attempts at accomplishment, his first wrestlings with his environment, in bitter earnest, as though he were already an adult. In so doing he is genuinely childlike. This is what it means to accept the command of the particular hour in true loyalty to its specific determination, to be free in its distinctive limitation.[11]

Directly and indirectly, Barth helps us to ask a number of questions that are pertinent for those in pastoral leadership:[12]

  • Do I treat children as gifts who are promised God’s friendship, and not as corrupt or neutral objects who exist for the sake of my control and fashioning?
  • Does my care for them communicate hope and possibility rather than a sense of failure and ruin?
  • Am I moved to witness good news to other children not my own who need to and by grace may hear it when they have enough to eat, or when they have an opportunity to learn and develop their own powers for responsible life with others?
  • And with my own children, do I really place first their relation with God and my summons joyfully to invite them to rejoice with me in God, rather than first insisting that they mimic my life history or ‘make something of themselves’?

Just before his eightieth birthday, Barth sketched a ‘Rule of life for older people in their relationship with the young’. Eberhard Busch recounts Barth’s words:

You must make it clear that our younger relations have the right to go their own way in accordance with their own principles, not yours … In no circumstances should you give them up: rather, you should go along with them cheerfully, allowing them to be free, thinking the best of them and trusting in God, loving them and praying for them, whatever happens.[13]

[1] Hans W. Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays (ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 228.

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology (ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher; New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1992), 154.

[3] Here I am drawing on an essay by William Werpehowski, ‘Reading Karl Barth on Children’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 386-405.

[4] Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 121.

[5] Ibid., 64-66.

[6] Augustine, Confessions (trans. Rex Warner; New York: New American Library, 1963), 23-4.

[7] Henry Chadwick, Augustine (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111.

[8] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV.4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 79, 80.

[9] Ibid., 80.

[10] Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. C.K. Pott; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 16.

[11] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (trans. A.T. Mackay, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 609.

[12] These questions are adapted from Werpehowski, ‘Barth on Children’, 405.

[13] Busch, Karl Barth, 476.

Friedrich Schleiermacher on Children

schleiermacherFriedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is among the most significant Reformed theologians between Calvin and Barth.[1] What constitutes an area of great neglect in his thought, however, is his thinking on children, explored in a number of his writings: Soliloquies (1800), Celebration of Christmas (1806) and Sermons on the Christian Household (1820). He was concerned throughout to explore a number of questions:

  • What is the child?
  • What is the unique spiritual perspective of childhood?
  • Must maturity alienate us from childhood?
  • How might parents best nurture their children and draw out the unique individuality that expresses itself in children?

These kinds of questions were explored against the backdrop of a rise in the importance of the nuclear family as a social institution, and the sharper demarcation between the roll of mothers and fathers – the home, children and emotions were increasingly seen as the domain of mothers, the withdrawal of extended family, etc. More positively, there was greater emphasis on the value of children’s nurture and development through age-appropriate play and education. The period also saw the development of the kindergarten, children’s literature and children’s toys.

More than most theologians, it was Schleiermacher (and later people like Karl Rahner) who believed that children could teach adults, that children – as children – were full human beings and so worthy of respect and dignity. So, in Schleiermacher’s novella The Celebration of Christmas: A Conversation, one of the characters, Agnes, poses a series of important questions:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? In the case of the man who has come to reflect upon himself and the world, and who has found God, seeing that this process is not gone through without conflict and warfare, do his joys rest upon the eradication, not merely of what is evil, but of what is blameless? For it is thus we always indicate the childlike, or even the childish, if you will rather so have it.[2]

In 1834, Schleiermacher preached a sermon on Mark 1:13-16. In exegeting v. 15 [‘anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’], he noted:

The peculiar essence of the child is that he is altogether in the moment … The past disappears for him, and of the future he knows nothing – each moment exists only for itself, and this accounts for the blessedness of a soul content in innocence.[3]

This, Schleiermacher believes, is a child’s gift to adults, and it is towards a recovery of precisely this perspective that Jesus has in mind for those who would enter the Kingdom of God – that those who know communion with God might live in the present with no anxiety about past or future. So DeVries on Schleiermacher:

Children remind us of the fact that God created humanity to live simply. They help adults shed their obsession with the complexities of work and public life. Indeed, children draw adults back into the most basic of human relationships.[4]

Charles Blackman, 'Children Playing' (1974)

Charles Blackman, 'Children Playing' (1974)

Celebration of Christmas is a revelation into Schleiermacher’s theology (on many levels) and not least his (overly)-optimistic view of human personhood. It was this that Barth, in his 1923/24 Göttingen lectures on the Theology of Schleiermacher, rightly picked up on, criticising Schleiermacher for positing an anthropology too without regard for an adequate account of the realities of sin, conversion and the in-breaking of the Word of God.

In those lectures, Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s ‘Christological Festival Sermons’ (as Barth calls them) spans some 50 pages wherein Barth expresses his usual mixture of appreciation and criticism for the Silesian-born theologian. One place where Barth’s praise for Schleiermacher’s Christmas sermons is noted concerns Schleiermacher’s sermon on Acts 17:30-31 [‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead’]. On this, ‘the most powerful and impressive Christmas sermon that Schleiermacher preached’, Barth comments:

Let us look beyond the narrow sphere of individual life, Schleiermacher asks in the introduction, to the large and universal sphere. It is the Savior of the world whose coming we celebrate. A new world has dawned since the Word became flesh. His appearing was the great turning-point in the whole history of the human race. What is the change whereby the old age and the new may be distinguished? The fact that ignorance of God is no longer overlooked and tolerated by God. Christ’s life was from beginning to end an increasing revelation. The world’s childhood ended with it. Sin is now known and the image of God is evident. Hence judgement passes on all human action, and we ought to rejoice at this. We are now told that he commands everyone everywhere to repent.[5]

DeVries suggests that Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s (positive) child-anthropology is not nearly as nuanced as it ought to be. She notes that, for Schleiermacher, children a not perfect and sinless mediators of the higher life and are born with as much potential for sin as for salvation, and that it is the parents’ duty to nurture their children’s ‘higher self-consciousness’ which connect them to the transcendent and also opens their hearts to others.[6]

Rather than follow the formal catechesis that Calvin and Luther had stressed (and which Schleiermacher thought were too impersonal), the Moravian/Pietist-educated Schleiermacher stressed that the Christian home is the ‘first and irreplaceable school of faith’, for only here can children really experience the full range of what Christian faith is about and so come to faith in Christ. Schleiermacher believes that faith is more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.

Still, he notes that parents can also damage a child in a number of ways:

  1. by failing to take their concerns/interests seriously.
  2. by failing to respond empathetically or appropriately to their emotions.
  3. parents whose own emotional lives are chaotic or unreliable will drive their children into secrecy.
  4. by attempting to live their own dreams/aspirations through children.

Lewis Hine, 'Children playing with Campbell Kid dolls' (1912)

Lewis Hine, 'Children playing with Campbell Kid dolls' (1912)

Schleiermacher also stresses that pastors have a pivotal role to play in children’s faith, among the most important duty of which is informal and personalised catechises where the focus is on leading children to develop, in DeVries words, ‘sound and sophisticated abilities in reading and interpreting scripture. Such instruction might begin with memorizing Bible verses, but it should eventually lead to developing in children a way of thinking (Gedankenerzeugungsprozess) that can be applied to questions or situations that will arise when the catechizing process is over’.[7] In other words it is about helping children to think theologically about all of life. DeVries continues:

Schleiermacher holds high expectations of the catechizing pastor. He states that when children who have been raised in the church lose their faith in adulthood, it is often because they have received poor catechetical instruction. Mindless repetition of correct answers will not sustain faith through the journey to adulthood. Pastors should treat children as fellow seekers who will be no more satisfied with pat answers than adults. If there is a virtue to be developed in the teaching pastor, it is the virtue of humility, for teaching the faith is probably his [sic] most difficult task. Schleiermacher urges his ministry students always to consider their teaching a work in progress, and challenges them to be quick to admit their mistakes.

What children need more than anything else is living faith in Christ. Parents, teachers, and pastors must devote all their energy and enthusiasm to presenting Christ to their children. This is best achieved through the whole of life itself, lived with children. They should feel the love of adults as “reflecting the splendour of eternal love” in Christ. Children who have received the Spirit in baptism and who have been raised within the loving discipline of the Christian community give us reason to hope for the future.[8]

[1] Here I draw heavily upon an essay by Dawn DeVries, ‘”Be Converted and Become as Little Children”: Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 329-49.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890), 33.

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermachers sämmtliche Werke (vol. II/6; Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1834-1864), 71-2.

[4] DeVries, ‘Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’, 341.

[5] Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (ed. Dietrich Ritschl; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 72.

[6] See DeVries, ‘Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’, 341-2.

[7] Ibid., 345.

[8] Ibid., 346-7.

John Calvin on Children


'The Young Calvin', by Oliver Crisp

Children take on a ‘largely symbolic character’ in most of Calvin’s writings wherein children are viewed as ‘metaphor for the religious life of adult Christians’.[1] Unlike Luther, Calvin tells us very little about his encounters with children. He does, however, tell us that he and his wife lost their only biological child: ‘God had given me a little boy. God took [him] away’.[2] We know little about his relationship with the two children from his wife’s first marriage aside from his pledge (on her deathbed) to care for them; or about the children of his brother Antoine, who lived in his household.

Calvin was not, however, indifferent to children. So Pitkin:

[Calvin’s] writings, along with the social and ecclesial changes he participated in and sought to effect, bear witness to the importance of children in church and society. Serious implications for children’s lives and important assumptions about their nature emerge in his radically theocentric theology of grace, especially in his understandings of providence, covenant, baptism, and human nature as created and fallen. Moreover, when one takes into account the full range of his reforming activity, especially his preparation of ordinances for regulation of the Genevan church (1541), his two catechisms (1537 and 1541-2), and his promotion of school reforms in Geneva, it becomes clear that Calvin, like many intellectuals and reformers of his day, was intensely interested in children and child rearing.[3]

There are multiple ways to approach Calvin’s thought on children, one of which is via his thinking on election: ‘the elect are from birth full inheritors of God’s covenant and members in the church’.[4] Another profitable avenue is via Calvin’s thinking on God’s providence. For Calvin, all human life exists under divine providence; children, therefore, are not ‘begotten … by a secret instinct of nature’ or the ‘fruit of chance’ but are gifts of God.[5] So even when he lost his only son (child mortality at the time ranged between 30 and 50 percent), he would write (to Pierre Viret):

The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children.[6]

Providence does not equate to laxness, however, and Calvin took seriously the responsibility of parents (indeed, it was a coordinated effort of family, state and church)[7] in rearing children:

… unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring. Farther, he who thus reflects upon the goodness of God in giving him children, will readily and with a settled mind look for the continuance of God’s grace; and although he may have but a small inheritance to leave them, he will not be unduly careful on that account.[8]

And what sort of children ought parents wish for?

… the children which we ought to wish for, are not such as may violently oppress the wretched and suffering, or overreach others by craft and deceit, or accumulate great riches by unlawful means, or acquire for themselves tyrannical authority, but such as will practice uprightness, and be willing to live in obedience to the laws, and prepared to render an account of their life. Farther, although fathers ought diligently to form their children under a system of holy discipline, yet let them remember that they will never succeed in attaining the object aimed at, save by the pure and special grace of God.[9]

Calvin consistently stressed the parental obligation to fulfil God’s commands and diligently instruct children in the family.

Associated with this is the duty of Christian parents to baptise their children. ‘Parents ought to consider that children in the home constitute a “mirror of God’s grace,” a sign that God cares for the family, and from this consideration be moved to fulfil their parental obligations’.[10] Unlike some, Calvin did not believe that baptism was strictly necessary for salvation. Salvation depends entirely on the promise of God in God’s word, and not on the sign of that promise. Christian parents, therefore, have a duty to baptise their children, but should not worry about the fate of children who die unbaptised.

Calvin takes all authority – parental and otherwise – with the utmost seriousness. But where parents lead their children to violate God’s law, ‘children should regard them not as parents but as strangers’.[11]

Stages of childhood

Like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, Calvin divides childhood up into three stages, each lasting about 7 years.

1-7      On Matthew 18:1-5:

[Jesus] holds up to them a little child as an emblem of humility. When he enjoins his followers to become like a child, this does not extend indiscriminately to all points. We know that in children there are many things faulty; and accordingly Paul bids us be children, not in understanding, but in malice, (1 Cor. xiv. 20;) and in another passage he exhorts us to strive to reach the state of a perfect man, (Eph. iv. 13). But as children know nothing about being preferred to each other, or about contending for the highest rank, Christ desires that their example should banish from the minds of his followers those eager longings after distinction … It will perhaps be objected, that children, even from the womb, have a native pride, which leads them to desire the highest honor and distinction; but the reply is obvious, that comparisons must not be too closely or too exactly carried out, so as to apply at all points. The tender age of little children is distinguished by simplicity to such an extent, that they are unacquainted with the degrees of honor, and with all the incentives to pride; so that they are properly and justly held out by Christ as an example’.[12]

Based on Psalm 8:2, Calvin considers young infants [those still nursing] as mature proclaimers of God’s goodness: ‘[David] says that babes and sucklings are advocates sufficiently powerful to vindicate the providence of God. Why does he not entrust this business to men, but to show that the tongues of infants, even before they are able to pronounce a single word, speak loudly and distinctly in commendation of God’s liberality towards the human race?’.[13]

These comments are remarkable given that Calvin’s stress on sin’s noetic effects. This statement remained unchanged from the 1536 Edition of the Institutes:

Even infants bear their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; for, though they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their own iniquity, they have the seed enclosed within themselves. Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; thus it cannot but be hateful and abominable to God. Through baptism, believers are assured that this condemnation has been removed and withdrawn from them, since (as was said) the Lord promises us by this sign that full and complete remission has been made, both of the guilt that should have been imputed to us, and of the punishment that we ought to have undergone because of the guilt.[14]

Infancy ends with the onset of reason, at about age six.

calvin-and-hobbes7-14     A period of intellectual, spiritual and moral maturation.

So Calvin, on 1 Corinthians 13:11 [‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me’], insists on the necessity of education for childhood, but which does not suit those who have already reached ‘maturity’ (Latin commentary) or the ‘age of discretion’ (French commentary). The awakening of reason involves a lapse from the earlier simplicity. Consider Calvin’s comments on Genesis 8:21 [‘The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood [from youth]. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done’]:

… the clause which is added, “from youth”, more fully declares that men are born evil; in order to show that, as soon as they are of an age to begin to form thoughts, they have radical corruption of mind.[15]

Again from his comments on Psalm 8:2,

If God has appointed children even in infancy the vindicators of his glory, there is no absurdity in his making them the instruments of showing forth his praise by their tongues after they have arrived at the age of seven years and upwards.[16]

Education/instruction was at the forefront of the Church’s/parents’ responsibility towards children. Calvin taught (and practised) and that before a child was admitted to the Lord’s Supper at about age 11 or 12, they underwent weekly catechism classes (based on 52 question-and-answer format questions on nature of faith, the Creed, the Law, prayer, worship, Word and Sacraments) and learnt to sing the psalms. The assumption throughout, however, was that the child (indeed all children and not only those of Christian parents, because one could not know who the elect were) was to be treated as fully Christian (by virtue of the one covenant) and not as an object for conversion. 7-14-year-olds also had to give a public confession of their faith before the congregation. The confession proceeded an oral interview with a pastor and involved a brief verbal testimony. The catechism classes were not with a view to rote learning of answers but with a view to providing young catechumens with a vocabulary for articulating their growing faith.

14-21 [maybe slightly earlier for girls].

Calvin describes this as ‘an age of pride and rebelliousness fired by the awakening sex drive’.[17] Note Calvin on Genesis 34:4:

young men [ought] to take heed to themselves, lest in the slippery period of their age, the lusts of the flesh should impel them to many crimes. For, at this day, greater license everywhere prevails, so that no moderation restrains youths from shameful conduct.[18]

In sum:

Like Augustine, Calvin assumes a graduated guilt as one moves with age to greater accountability for acts of wrongdoing. However, he does not dwell on evidences of corruption in small children, as Augustine does … Although young children are corrupted by original sin, when compares to older children and adults, they demonstrate a lack of malice that their elders ought to emulate. The biblical basis for this view ins 1 Corinthians 14:20, where Paul urges believers to be children not in understanding but in malice … Adult believers ought to imitate children’s natural simplicity but not their lack of understanding … Calvin, the theologian of “total depravity,” is more appreciative of the positive character of children, dwelling less on their sinfulness that some of his forebears (such as Augustine) or successors (such as Jonathan Edwards).[19]

[1] Barbara Pitkin, ‘”The Heritage of the Lord”: Children in the Theology of John Calvin’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 161.

[2] John Calvin, ‘Responsio ad Balduini convicia’ in Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia (ed. G. Baum, et al.; vol. 9 of Corpus Reformatorum; Brunswick/Berlin: C.A. Schwetschke and Son [M. Bruhn], 1863-1900), 576.

[3] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 161-2.

[4] Ibid., 164.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. V (trans. James Anderson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 110.

[6] John Calvin, ‘To Viret. Geneva, 19th August 1542’ in Letters, Part I: 1528-1545 (ed. Jules Bonnet; vol. 4 of Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 344.

[7] See Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 174-89.

[8] Calvin, Comm. Psalms V, 111.

[9] Ibid., 112.

[10] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 173.

[11] Ibid., 172.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1 (trans. W. Pringle; vol. 16; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 332-3.

[13] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. I (trans. James Anderson; vol. 4; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 96.

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Edition (trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Grand Rapids: The H.H. Meeter Centre for Calvin Studies/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 97; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 4.15.10.

[15] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, Vol. I (trans. J. King; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 285.

[16] Calvin, Comm. Psalms I, 99.

[17] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 165.

[18] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, Vol. II (trans. J. King; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 219.

[19] Pitkin, ‘Children in the Theology of John Calvin’, 165, 169.

Towards a Theology of the Child

child-feetRecently, I posted on Karl Rahner’s theology of childhood. Over the coming weeks, I plan to post similar reflections that contribute towards developing a theology of childhood. Initially, I propose to post mainly from those of the Reformed camp: John Calvin, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, David Jensen, Jürgen Moltmann, and from Australian Roman Catholic theologian Anthony Kelly. At some future stage, I’d also like to work on similar contributions from the Celtic and Anabaptist traditions (I’d welcome any relevant resources regarding these two areas).

Karl Rahner on a theology of childhood

RahnerTragically, there remains a tendency in our own day to ‘instrumentalise’ childhood, and so to devalue childhood qua childhood. So Martha Stortz: We point children ‘too rapidly toward the adults they will become’. Childhood is not ‘something you do on the way to becoming an adult’.

One of the most valuable finds while preparing a course recently on a theology of the child has been Karl Rahner’s essay, ‘Ideas for a Theology of Childhood’ in which he was very critical of the cognitive developmental theory approach to assessing childrens’ ‘value’. In the essay Rahner is concerned about a number of things, which Martin Marty helpfully discusses under the following headings:

1. That we interpret the existence of children in a biblical matrix: that we first hear ‘what the divinely revealed word has to say about childhood. In the intention of the Creator and Redeemer of children what meaning does childhood have, and what task does it lay upon us for the perfecting and saving of humanity?’

2. That this beginning represents mystery unveiled. Consequently, those who care for/about children will delight in each act of unveiling and find meaning therein.

[C]hildhood is, in the last analysis, a mystery. It has the force of a beginning and a twofold beginning at that. It is a beginning in the sense of the absolute origin of the individual, and also the beginning which plunges its roots into a history over which the individual himself has no control. Childhood has the force of a beginning such that the future which corresponds to it is not simply the unfolding of some latent interior force, but something freely sent and something which actually comes to meet one. And it is not until this future is actually attained to that the beginning itself is unveiled in its significance, that it is actually given and comes to its own realisation, as a beginning which is open to the absolute beginning of God who is utter mystery, the ineffable and eternal, nameless and precisely as such accepted with love in his divine nature as he who presides over all things.

Put differently, it takes eschatology to make sense of human personhood. He goes on:

… we do not really know what childhood means at the beginning of our lives until we know what that childhood means which comes at the end of them; that childhood, namely, in which, by God-given repentance and conversion, we receive the kingdom of God and so become children. It is in this sense that we only recognise the child at the beginning of life from the child of the future.

sinead-13. That the child is open to God, who is the utter mystery.

4. The child is ‘effable’ but finds her origin in God’s ineffability (beyond words). This means, among other things, that those who care for and think about children – including theologians – will recognise in humility that we lack the words and concepts to penetrate the deep mystery of childhood (or human personhood full stop) which lies in God.

5. The child is to resist efforts by adults to control.

6. The child exists always at the threshold of the eternal.

7. The naming of the child is significant.

8. The child is accepted into divine love. On this Marty writes:

God in God’s divine nature always reaches out to accept creatures in love. The child may often deny, ignore, or even repudiate the love of God, also when it is reflected in the faces, arms, and acts of parents and others. Recovery of love, however, always can begin when that little child is allowed and encouraged to remain open to the eternal and thus is able to receive signs of divine love. Though the child is born into a world of accident, chance, contingency, and random happenings she will finally address it in openness to the One “who presides over all things.” Rahner expresses it tersely: “childhood is openness. Human childhood is infinite openness”.

9. The child is an independent and a dependent being.

10. Original childhood is preserved forever. This is a fascinating notion of Rahner’s:

[P]rovided we reverently and lovingly preserve this state of being delivered over to the mystery, life becomes for us a state in which our original childhood is preserved for ever; a state in which we are open to expect the unexpected, to commit ourselves to the incalculable, a state which endows us with the power still to be able to play, to recognise that the powers presiding over our existence are greater than our own designs, and to submit to their control as our deepest good.

Through this essay, Rahner rejects the notion that we progress through ‘stages’ or that we can talk about any life as a series of phases ‘each of which … is exhausted [and] leads on to the next, the very meaning of which is to disappear into the next, to be a preparation for it, to “exist” for the further stages beyond itself’. In such a scenario, he says, ‘childhood itself disappears’. Instead, he insists on the most profound sense of continuity of life. In Marty’s words, ‘For all that flows over the river bed, its base is not mud but rock: in this metaphor, the mystery of the child remains’. Or in Rahner’s:

We only become the children whom we were because we gather up time – and in this our childhood too – into our eternity … The special character of childhood may always be fading away so far as we are concerned, and may also disappear into that which comes afterwards in point of time, so that it seems only to derive its justification and its value from this, but this is not so. This morning does not derive its life simply from the afternoon which follows.

11. The child is open to expecting the unexpected.

12. Play has a special quality. Here we are reminded of Schleiermacher’s theology of the child, and of Barth’s venerating affair with Mozart.

sinead13. The child remains in an ambiguous relation to the concept and practice of control and controlling. Rahner speaks about the need for children to ‘recognise that the powers presiding over our existence are greater than our own designs, and to submit to their control as our deepest good’.

14. The child’s ending is revealed in the beginning.

15. The child is best revealed as a child of God. So Rahner:

… the childhood which belongs to the child in the biological sense is only the beginning, the prelude, the foretaste and the promise of this other childhood, which is the childhood proved and tested and at the same time assailed, which is present in the mature man. In other words we must take childhood in this latter sense as the true and proper childhood, the fulness of that former childhood, the childhood of immaturity.

But once we perceive the unity which exists between the childhood that comes at the beginning of our lives and the mature childhood, and once we realise the light which each throws upon the other, then it easily becomes clear that childhood in itself, and even at the human level, entails an orientation to God, that it achieves perfection in that relationship which we call being a child of God, that it is not merely a question of a metaphor, the transference of a word from one objective situation to another similar one, in which the comparison is merely secondary and incidental. Here it is rather the reality of childhood in the human sense that is ‘transferred’ into childhood in the divine sense. For if childhood (and this applies to childhood in the human sense as well) is openness, is trustful submission to control by another, the courage to allow fresh horizons, ever new and ever wider, to be opened up before one, a readiness to journey into the untried and the untested (and all this with that deep elemental and ultimate trust which seems inexhaustible in its endurance, the trust which the sceptics and those who have made shipwreck of their lives bitterly describe as ‘naïve’) then in all this that transcendence of faith, hope and love in which the ultimate essence of the basic act of religion precisely consists is already ipso facto an achieved and present fact …

Childhood is openness. Human childhood is infinite openness. The mature childhood of the adult is the attitude in which we bravely and trustfully maintain an infinite openness in all circumstances and despite the experiences of life which seem to invite us to close ourselves. Such openness, infinite and maintained in all circumstances, yet put into practice in the actual manner in which we live our lives, is the expression of man’s religious existence.

Rahner’s essay raises questions about the trinitarian shape of Christian anthropology – that human personhood can be ‘understood’ only insofar as we speak of the dynamic and perichoretic life of God – i.e. of Father, Son and Spirit in their giving and receiving, and in their perfect unity. And so Rahner talks not only about divine Fatherhood – that childhood takes its meaning and raison d’être from the Fatherhood of God, and that maturity means growing into fuller realisation of our being children of the Father – but also about the fact that human being is grounded in the sonship of the Son:

… all childhood in heaven and on earth derives its name and its origin from that one childhood in which the Logos itself receives its own nature in the act of eternal generation by the Father, in which we ourselves are admitted by grace to become participants in this self-bestowal of the Father upon the Logos and so have a share in the divine nature … Childhood is only truly understood, only realises the ultimate depths of its own nature, when it is seen as based upon the foundation of childhood of God. And when we really want to know what the real connection is between human childhood and childhood of God, then we need to commit ourselves to the infinite depths and power of that transcendental movement which is latent in human childhood itself, and allow ourselves to be projected from this into that which is enjoined upon us in the Christian teaching about the Father in heaven, and about men who have received the grace from the life of God himself to be children of God and brothers and sisters of one another.

william-adolphe-bouguereau-a-childhood-idyll-1900Rahner fails (in this essay) to go on and develop the pneumatalogical dimensions of childhood – and of human being – though this final sentence at least hints of the communality of personhood, that one’s identity is ontologically bound up with that of the other, a reality only truly possible in the Spirit.

One of Rahner’s most pastorally potent claims, however, is his insistence that we do not lose or leave behind our childhood; rather, our childhood goes with us into our eternity:

Childhood endures as that which is given and abiding, the time that has been accepted and lived through freely. Childhood does not constitute past time, time that has eroded away, but rather that which remains, that which is coming to meet us as an intrinsic element in the single and enduring completeness of the time of our existence considered as a unity, that which we call the eternity of man as saved and redeemed. We do not lose childhood as that which recedes ever further into our past, that which remains behind as we advance forward in time, but rather we go towards it as that which has been achieved in time and redeemed forever in time. We only become the children whom we were because we gather up time – and in this our childhood too – into our eternity.

Imagining the kingdom: a child’s perspective

girl-with-painted-handsJonathan Kozol once asked a thirteen year-old boy, ‘How long would you like to live?’ The answer: ‘I would like to live to see the human race grow up’. And then the boy proceeded to provide something of a ‘report’ on the nature of the kingdom of God:

‘God will be there. He’ll be happy that we have arrived. People shall come hand-in-hand. It will be bright, not dim and glooming like the earth. All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones. As for television, forget it! If you want vision, you can use your eyes to see the people that you love. No one will look at you from the outside. People will see you from the inside. All the people from the street will be there. My uncle will be there and he will be healed. You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money. Mr. Mongo [a drug addict] will be there too. You might see him happy for a change. The prophets will be there, and Adam and Eve, and all of the disciples except Judas. [For an alternative word on Judas see here, here, here and here]. And, as for Edgar Allan Poe, yes, he will be there too, but not like somebody important. He will be a writer teaching students. No violence will there be in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house. God will be fond of you. How will you know that you are there? Something will tell you, “This is it! Eureka!” If you still feel lonely in your heart or bitterness, you’ll know you’re not there’.

Sounds like good news to me … Preach it kid!

Thinking Advent: Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope

I read a delightful essay today by Jürgen Moltmann entitled ‘Child and Childhood as Metaphors of Hope’ [Theology Today 56, no. 4 (2000): 592-603]. In this essay, Moltmann recalls that Jesus was ‘not merely a “gentle friend of children,” as the sentimental nineteenth century liked to picture him’ but a revolutionary contrast to the Roman world of antiquity wherein children were undervalued and where their legal status (alongside that of women and slaves) was very low; indicative of the fact that as the property of the paterfamilias, they could be sold or abandoned, and often were, particularly girls. Moltmann then offers some helpful commentary on key NT verses concerning children:

(1) “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10: 14; Matt 19:14; Luke 18:19). The disciples view children as unworthy and therefore try to keep them from their master. After all, they are not children anymore. Jesus reprimands the disciples; embracing and blessing the children, he proclaims what he embodies, that the kingdom of God is already theirs. According to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God already belongs to the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying,” In the same way, it also now belongs to children, children are made partners in the covenant with God. Why? Did they deserve it? No. it is exactly because they do not deserve it and are unable to effect it, but in fact receive it like their own birth.

On the other hand, the kingdom “where peace and justice kiss” (as the psalm says) does not appear at the heights of human progress, among the clever and just, rich and beautiful of this world. Rather, it appears among the oppressed, the powerless, the poor, and the children, turning the status quo of human value systems upside down. If the kingdom comes into the world “down below,” those “up there” have been deprived of any religious legitimacy supporting their presumption to dominion. Just as the blessing of the poor was complemented by the lamentations over the rich, the benediction of children belongs with the curse pronounced over the violators of children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6). If God’s kingdom comes into this world by way of the poor and the children, so does the judgment of God.

(2) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes rne, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). And the one who sent Jesus, as we know, is the Father. By way of these identifications, Jesus declares children his representatives in society: Just as the God of his messianic mission is in him, so Christ is present in every child. Thus, whoever takes in a child, takes in Christ. This is exactly how Matthew describes the great judgment day: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “For I was hungry and you gave me food … I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:40, 35-36). The one who will judge the world identifies with the lowly. He is hidden and present in them already now and will eventually judge how the just and the unjust treated the least among humans. Children and the lowly are not, unlike the apostles, agents sent by God. Rather, in them, the poor, powerless, and imprisoned Christ is waiting for his followers to act. Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is also the spontaneous impression the image of the child in the manger awakens in us.

(3) “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:3, 1) By saying this, Jesus underscores the point that whoever wants to be the greatest of all will have to be everybody else’s servant, “deny themselves,” and become “like a child” (18:4). He asks the disciples to accept themselves not in their power, but in their weakness, not in their wealth, but in their poverty: not as grown-up children, but as the children of their adulthood. He asks the disciples to reclaim the facets of their own being, which had been repressed by development and education. We can only come into the kingdom of God if we receive it like a child with empty hands. That does not mean one has to go back to being a child (which would be childish) but become upon analogy “like a child.” We don’t have to imitate children to become part of God’s future, rather we must be in solidarity with them, respecting their intimate proximity to God’s future. The point is not that children are closer to the kingdom of God because of especially childlike properties (like innocence or naivete that adults have lost), but rather that the kingdom of God is closer to them because they are loved, embraced, and blessed by God. We could also say: Whoever experiences God’s closeness in the community of Christ — as humans experienced it in the proximity of Jesus – will become like a child. Another, later way to phrase this is: Gotteskindschaft – “the community of God’s children.”

This stirred a number of questions in me that I’ll go to bed tonight thinking about:

  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s identification of children with Jesus’ words (in the Sermon on the Mount) regarding the “poor,” the “hungry” and “those who are crying”?
  • What ought we make of Moltmann’s claim that just as the God of Jesus’ messianic mission is in him, so too ‘Christ is present in every child’, so that ‘whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God’?
  • What might it mean for us to ‘reclaim the facets of [our] own being, which [have] been repressed by development and education’? Are there implications here for pastoral leadership?

Later on, Moltmann unsurprisingly draws on Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope:

“Jesus is himself present among the helpless, as an element of this humbleness, standing in the dark, not in brightness … This is why the child in the manger becomes so important, along with the humbleness of all the circumstances in the out-of-the-way, cramped stable. The unexpectedness of finding the redeemer as a helpless child.” Christian love therefore “regards the helpless as important, that which is discarded by the world as called” and “gathers up its own in their out-of-the-wayness, their incognito to the world, their discordance with the world: into the kingdom where they do accord.”

sinead-1I was reminded of another essay that I recently read by Tony Kelly where the author suggests that in a world of violent competition and the exponential growth of problems and responsibilities, the child calls for the rebirth of wonder, trust and playful contentment within the great womb of life and time. Where the harried adult might see only problems, and become weary in mind and heart, children live otherwise. ‘They breathe another air, content to play within the inexhaustible mystery of what has been so uncannily given. Every child is a call to return to the gift that was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’.

So too does this same refrain echo through Moltmann, who concludes his essay with three reasons for why children remain metaphors of hope:

(1) With every child, a new life begins, original, unique, incomparable. And while it seems that we always ask, who this or that child looks like (apparently because we seem to think we can only understand the new in the comparison with what is already known or similar), we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future.

(2) With every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance. It is important to see children in their own transcendent perspective and so to resist forming them according to the images of our world. Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

(3) The last reason to see “a new beginning” or a “beginning of the New” in the beginning of a child’s life is the fact that, for me, children are not only metaphors of our hopes, of that which we want, wish for and expect, but also are metaphors of God’s hope for us: God wants us, expects us, and welcomes us. Humanity is God’s great love, God’s dream for God’s earthly world, God’s image for God’s beloved earth. God is “waiting” for the “human person” in every child, is “waiting” for God’s echo, resonance, and rainbow. Maybe that is the reason God is so patient with us, hearing the ruins of human history, inviting one human generation after the other into existence. God is not silent, God is not “dead” – God is waiting for the menschlichen Menschen the “truly humane human.” “In all of the prophets, I have waited for you,” Martin Buber has the Eternal One speak to the Messiah, “and now you have come.”

Karl Barth on childlessness

‘… there are men who do not become parents. We are thinking of all those who broadly speaking might do so, and perhaps would like to do so, but either as bachelors or in childless marriage do not actually fulfil this possibility. What attitude are they to adopt to this lack? What has the divine command to say to them concerning it? In some degree they will all feel their childlessness to be a lack, a gap in the circle of what nature obviously intends for man, the absence of an important, desirable and hoped for good. And those who have children and know what they owe to them will not try to dissuade them. The more grateful they are for the gift of children, so much the more intimately they will feel this lack with them. Parenthood is one of the most palpable illuminations and joys of life, and those to whom it is denied for different reasons have undoubtedly to bear the pain of loss. But we must not say more. If we can use the rather doubtful expression “happy parents,” we must not infer that childlessness is a misfortune. And we must certainly not speak of an unfruitful marriage, for the fruitfulness of a marriage does not depend on whether it is fruitful in the physical sense. In the sphere of the New Testament message there is no necessity, no general command, to continue the human race as such and therefore to procreate children. That this may happen, that the joy of parenthood should still have a place, that new generations may constantly follow those which precede, is all that can be said in the light of the fact which we must always take into fresh consideration, namely, that the kingdom of God comes and this world is passing away. Post Christum natum there can be no question of a divine law in virtue of which all these things must necessarily take place. On the contrary, it is one of the consolations of the coming kingdom and expiring time that this anxiety about posterity, that the burden of the postulate that we should and must bear children, heirs of our blood and name and honour and wealth, that the pressure and bitterness and tension of this question, if not the question itself, is removed from us all by the fact that the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and ultimately depended has now been born and has now become our Brother. No one now has to be conceived and born. We need not expect any other than the One of whose coming we are certain because He is already come. Parenthood is now only to be understood as a free and in some sense optional gift of the goodness of God. It certainly cannot be a fault to be without children’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 265.

[Image: Marc Chagall, ‘Abraham and Sarah’, 1956]

Do children have a ‘natural belief in God’?

Over the weekend, the Melbourne newspaper The Saturday Age ran this interesting piece:

‘INFANTS are hard-wired to believe in God, and atheism has to be learned, according to an Oxford University psychologist.

Dr Olivera Petrovich told a University of Western Sydney conference on the psychology of religion that even preschool children constructed theological concepts as part of their understanding of the physical world.

Pyschologists have debated whether belief in God or atheism was the natural human state. According to Dr Petrovich, an expert in psychology of religion, belief in God is not taught but develops naturally.

She told The Age yesterday that belief in God emerged as a result of other psychological development connected with understanding causation.

It was hard-wired into the human psyche, but it was important not to build too much into the concept of God. “It’s the concept of God as creator, primarily,” she said. Dr Petrovich said her findings were based on several studies, particularly one of Japanese children aged four to six, and another of 400 British children aged five to seven from seven different faiths.

“Atheism is definitely an acquired position,” she said.

Source: The Age

The conversation is picked up on Barney Zwartz’s blog, The Religious Write, where Zwartz asks whether or not Petrovich’s findings might support an evolutionary anachronism that we are outgrowing. So, what ought we make of all this? Should we really be surprised? Should theists be encouraged by such findings? What difference does it make that the children studied were 3.5+ years old?

There’s also an interview with Olivera Petrovich that I’ve posted here on Paternal Life that sheds more light on the subject.

Growing up under militarisation

The Karen Human Rights Group has just released a 174-page report on the effects on children growing up in the context of violence – because of both ongoing armed conflict in Burma and Karen State (Kawthoolei; lit. ‘the land without evil’) and because of other more serious structural violence committed by the State. The report makes for sombre reading even while its very existence is a voice of hopeful protest; or, as Moltmann puts it, ‘There is already true life in the midst of the life that is false’. Here’s a blurb:

As the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta currently ruling Burma, works to extend and consolidate its control over all areas of Karen State, local children, their families and communities confront regular, often violent, abuses at the hands of the regime’s officers, soldiers and civilian officials. While the increasing international media attention on the human rights situation in Burma has occasionally addressed the plight of children, such reporting has been almost entirely incident-based, and focused on specific, particularly emotive issues, such as child soldiers. Although incident-based reporting is relevant, it misses the far greater problems of structural violence, caused by the oppressive social, economic and political systems commensurate with militarisation, and the combined effects of a variety of abuses, which negatively affect a far larger number of children in Karen State. Furthermore, focusing on specific, emotive issues sensationalises the abuses committed against children and masks the complexities of the situation. In reports on children and armed conflict in Karen State and elsewhere, individual children’s agency, efforts to resist abuse and capacity to deal with the situations they live in, as well as the efforts made by their families and communities to provide for and protect them, tend to be marginalised and ignored. Drawing on over 160 interviews with local children, their families and communities, this report seeks to provide a forum for these people to explain in their own words the wider context of abuse and their own responses to attempts at denying children their rights. With additional background provided by official SPDC press statements and order documents, international media sources, reports by international aid agencies, as well as academic studies, this report argues that only by listening to local voices regarding the situation of abuse in which they live and taking as a starting point for advocacy and action local conceptions of rights and violations can external actors avoid the further marginalisation of children living in these areas and begin to build on villagers’ own strategies for resisting abuse and claiming their rights.

The full report can be downloaded here as a pdf.

As for Burma’s ruling junta, that trinity of evil – Maung Aye, Than Shwe and Shwe Mann – convert or kill them Lord. How long, O Lord? How long?

Buchanan or Dylan?

I’m facing a potential crisis with my soon-to-be-two-year-old daughter. She prefers Colin Buchanan’s Follow the Saviour to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Now it’s not that I don’t like Colin; in fact, I reckon the guy (and his music, and his theology) is awesome. But I’m trying to introduce my daughter to the classics, the greats of music, like Dylan and Bach. (For the record, she really likes Bach; it’s just Dylan, and Iris DeMent she won’t listen to for more than a track or two. She definately takes after her mother here!)

My questions to fellow parents are: 1. ‘Is this a crisis I really need to avert?’ 2. Is Colin part of the necessary diet of milk (albeit milk of the best quality) through which one must progress in order to get to the meat (like Bach)? 3. If so, are there other flavours of milk that your kids (and you) are enjoying at the moment?

Children and Church

Since being joined to the church, I have always struggled with the notion of children being ‘sent out’ of the service. I hear the rhetoric of church as ‘family’ and so often see this translated as ‘the men’ going off to do their thing, ‘the women’ going off to do their thing, and ‘the children’ going off to do their thing. Lots of groups ‘doing their thing’; but not much family. It’s all a bit like a ‘get your own lunch today’ day that we sometimes have at our place … and, as convenient as it sometimes is, and as it means that I usually get to eat what I want to eat (when I want to eat it), I don’t like it one bit!

Having a toddler of my own has not changed my mind about kids in church one bit. Sure, it’s not always the most convenient way to pray while someone is pulling off your glasses and hitting you in the head with a Bible, but I want to publically worship with my daughter and with the other kids, not have them shoved out to the back hall while ‘we’ do the real ‘church stuff’. Not only are these young people missing out on worshipping with – and learning from – us adults, but we are missing out on worshipping with – and learning from – our kids.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the old arguments that kids learn differently, that their attention spans are less – and these are important considerations that I don’t want to undermine – but what I (and too often they) really hear is ‘they’re a distraction’, and ‘we can’t be bothered thinking of a way of doing church that is relevant to non-adults, or at least to non-adults different from ‘us’.

So it is that I was excited to come across the following words from FW Boreham, cited by Geoff Pound (and reprinted here with his permission):

I am told that, away beyond the Never-Never ranges [remote areas of Australian outback] there is a church from which the children are excluded before the sermon begins.

I wish my informant had not told me of its existence. I am not often troubled with nightmare, my supper being quite a frugal affair.

But just occasionally I find myself a victim of the terror by night. And when I am mercifully awakened, and asked why I am gasping so horribly and perspiring so freely. I have to confess that I was dreaming that I had somehow become the minister of that childless congregation.

As is usual after nightmare, I look round with a sense of inexpressible thankfulness on discovering that it was only a horrid dream. An appointment to such a charge would be to me a most fearsome and terrifying prospect. I could not trust myself.

In a way, I envy the man who can hold his own under such circumstances. His transcendent powers enable him to preserve his sturdy humanness of character, his charming simplicity of diction, his graphic picturesqueness of phrase, and his exquisite winsomeness of behaviour without the extraneous assistance which the children render to some of us.

But I could not do it. I should go all to pieces. And so, when I dream that I have entered a pulpit from which I can survey no roguish young faces and mischievous wide-open eyes, I fancy I am ruined and undone. I watch with consternation as the little people file out during the hymn before the sermon, and I know that the sermon is doomed. The children in the congregation are my salvation. – FW Boreham, ‘Pity My Simplicity!’ Mushrooms on the Moor (London: Charles H Kelly, 1915), 151-152.

If the NT is anything of a reliable witness, it is clear that kids loved being with Jesus. What does this tell us about Jesus? What ought this tell us about the way that the church (the body of which he is head) ought to be?

On Good Friday this year, I took my daughter to a service at the Baptist Church in St Andrews. Many things struck me at that service. Here’s three of them: (i) The worship leader made an enormous effort to help ‘all’ those at the service to worship God in a way that was meaningful to them; (ii) The welcome of children was a fantastic and practical reflection of the stained-glassed window above the communion table that represented Jesus welcoming children; and (iii) Sitting on a pew surrounded by the wriggles and voices of children and their praise, I worshipped God with them.

Three further notes:

1. I am not necessarily advocating the cessation of Sunday Schools.

2. Perhaps the argument that children are better served by the Christian family via some more age-appropriate teaching time (during the sermon, for example) is the most practical (and convenient) compromise, but is it really the best option? I don’t know. Perhaps it is. If so, how can churches better communicate to young people that this service to them is an act of love and an affirmation of their value to the community, and to God? Perhaps this is the real issue behind this post.

3. My wife is convinced that my theological idealisms do not translate into the ‘real world’. She may be right! She usually is!

Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood

As a parent – and a theologian – I’m always on the lookout for good children’s books, and good books about children … and good books in general. I’ve recently become aware of Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood by David H. Jensen. While I await my own copy to arrive, here’s a  review of the book that I read:

Taking seriously children qua children, Jensen issues a clarion call for Christians—theologians and others alike—to do the same. Tracing their place in the tradition, he notes the comparatively little attention afforded to children in theology and church. Cast as corrupt bearers of original sin, as those whose wills require breaking and reshaping, or as less than fully human entities on their way to personhood, children have been depicted and treated in ways that fall short of ancient Jewish and Jesus’ own norms and practices. A few voices have dissented, though at a comparative murmur and without providing adequate alternatives. Children remain largely devalued, even as church and society fail to counter their widespread abuse (local to global) amid war, poverty, disease, hunger, abusive sexual and labor practices, domestic violence, and crime. Jensen’s alternative “theology of childhood” draws on “the covenantal framework of children as full members in the household of God and the whisper of an ethic of care implicit in the gospel narratives of Jesus with children.” This theology calls Christians to become vulnerable with children as they attend to them, care for them in ways the tradition at its best has embraced, and enhance children’s lives as they are changed themselves to become like children. The means are the church’s distinct “practices of vulnerability”: peacemaking, baptism, sanctuary, and prayer. Crafting an original, rich, impassioned, keenly argued yet accessible book, Jensen has graced child and adult alike. His is constructive and practical theology at its best! – Allan Hugh Cole, Jr.

Sounds great. I’m looking forward to reading it. Gems will be shared. I’d be keen to hear comments from others who have already read, or are reading, this book.

Conversations with Poppi about God: A Review

Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

McLeod Campbell and Children’s Letters to God

It is not unusual for me to have a plethora of books on the go at once, scattered conveniently around most parts of the house. Of late, I’ve been reading two books (in the same room) whose themes converge that I wish to comment on here. I’ve just re-read (after many years) John McLeod Campbell’s, The Nature of the Atonement. This book must be counted as among the most significant reflections ever penned on the atonement. Denney rightly listed it alongside Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, and Forsyth praised it as a ‘great, fine, holy book’, although both had reservations about some of Campbell’s ideas. Others, such as James Orr, Robert Dale and John Scott Lidgett also gave positive voice to Campbell’s work on the atonement.

The fact that McLeod Campbell is largely ignored today (despite the influence of Tom and James Torrance, and Tom Smail, and a few recent publications such as those by Peter Stevenson and two by Michael Jinkins – here and here), and that not least in publications dealing specifically with the atonement, is scandalous (pun intended). There may be some identifiable reasons for this neglect. Perhaps it is because, like Forsyth, Campbell was a non-conformist and non-conformist British theologians have, until more recently, found it difficult to be heard and taken seriously by the academy. Perhaps it is because Campbell is just not the easiest writer to follow, particularly in his atonement tome (his sermons are much easier going on the reader!). Perhaps it is because Campbell’s best insights have been taken up by others, such as the Torrances. Who know? I often ask similar questions about Forsyth (and Denney and Lidgett). I hope to post more about the relationship between Campbell and Forsyth soon.

The other book I’ve been reading is Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. While Campbell laid much weight on the filial nature of Jesus Christ and his vicarious work of offering to the Father the perfect human response from the side of sin (a response which was at heart about Christ’s intercessory ministry), Children’s Letters to God takes up something of humanity’s imperfect participation in that perfect intercession. Some of these prayers seem quite humorous and even silly. Others betray a deeper cognition. All betray, however, a glaringly beautiful honesty and unpretentiousness that our elder Brother not only makes possible for us, but creates in us by the Spirit.

Here’s a few that I like (and each one could serve as a great sermon starter):

– Dear God. Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?
– Dear God. Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?
Dear God. Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?
Dear God. Who draws the lines around the countries?
Dear God. I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that OK?
Dear God. Are there any patriarchs around today?
Dear God. It’s OK that you made different religions but don’t you get mixed up sometimes?
Dear God. I would like to know why all the things you said are in red?
Dear God. Is Reverend Coe a friend of yours, or do you just know him through business?
Dear God. I am English. What are you?
Dear God. Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Dear God. How come you didn’t invent any new animals lately? We still have just all the old ones.
Dear God. Please put another holiday in between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.
– Dear God. Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
Dear God. I wish that there wasn’t no such thing of (sin. I wish that there was not no such thing of war.
– Dear God. Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.
– Dear God. I bet it is very hard for you to love everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.
– Dear God. If you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes.
Dear God. I am doing the best I can.

‘… For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me’. (Matthew 18:2-5, The Message)