By John Mason Lock
Last week, I came across an assertion on social media that “all children are theologians.” As a father of four and as someone who’s been involved in children’s ministry regularly for almost 20 years, this immediately struck me as the assertion of someone who hasn’t spent much time with kids. This assertion also ignores the reality that children are morally complex, that they are neither wholly bad (as a crude rendering of original sin would teach) nor wholly innocent and good (as a naïve, romantic view of children might argue).
Now I realize that I should not take any statement on the Web as being representative. It is both a blessing and a curse that social media level various social strata such that any and everyone has a platform to voice an opinion. Nevertheless, I’m convinced this romantic view of childhood has become quite pervasive: it’s one of the reasons why, I think, the concept of discipline has largely disappeared from parenthood today.
From my observation of preschool programing, the greatest exertions in the education of children seem to be in the direction of nurturing self-expression, combating bullying, and encouraging acceptance of those who are different. All of these are worthy goals, but there is no acknowledgment, let alone effort, put toward the idea of teaching a child how to love that which is good and lovely. It’s almost radical to suggest that children might not know what is good and worth their love.
I would like to strike a middle course that neither exaggerates the moral depravity of children nor puts them on such a pedestal that they sound like children no one has ever met. In this regard, I am inspired by the wonderful book on the psychology of conversion in children by a fellow Covenant contributor, the Very Rev. Leander Harding: Reverence for the Heart of a Child. The book is based on his doctoral dissertation at Boston College and examines divergent approaches to conversion in classic Protestantism.
A form of Calvinism stresses the utter depravity of children and the absolute need for repentance for them to be saved. On the other hand, liberal Protestantism stresses the purity and innocence of children. It isn’t so much conversion that is needed as preservation of the child’s innate goodness. Dean Harding deftly identifies the problems with each of these extremes, and tries to outline a sane and sensible approach to religious formation that acknowledges the moral complexity of children and values their capacity for awe and wonder at the holy.
In a similar way, when I encounter the phrase all children are theologians, I see another modern effort at denying or muting the doctrine of original sin. Original sin has suffered a great deal of bad press and is much misunderstood. It merely asserts that every human being is part of a broken system in which humanity rebels against God. It is actually a pastorally sensitive doctrine in that it tells parents and those involved in the nurture of children that we shouldn’t be surprised that children invariably turn out as sinners. It’s not simply the case, as the 39 Articles assert, that we follow in the way of our parents, but that all share in the guilt and sin of humanity.
Perhaps moderns have chafed at this doctrine because we so highly value individuality and personal expression. The ancients taught that humans are social animals. We are utterly dependent on others. From parents, teachers, caregivers, it is impossible to imagine a solitary human life. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise the person of faith that sin is deeply personal but also decidedly collective. It’s an individual and a family problem, and therefore we are not born theologians. We have to be taught what is right and true.
As one of the beautiful prayers in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts it,
Give us light and strength so to train [the children entrusted to our care], that they may love whatsoever things are true and pure and lovely and of good report, following the example of their Saviour Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the many sayings of Jesus about the grace of children and the virtues of childhood. “Let the little children to come to me, and do not forbid them: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14). Similarly, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:15). Further, we see in the first letter of John the repeated use of children as a term of address, stressing the innocence and trust that the evangelist believed the faithful should possess. I don’t think Christ was exalting the moral innocence of children. Although there are differences of degree, children and adults meet on the same plain of needing love, grace, and forgiveness. While not exhaustive of all that Christ was extolling in children, I think in part he saw their capacity for trust and joy.
Children are obviously dependent on the care of others. As we grow older and become more independent, we forget how little of human experience is self-made. Often the elderly chafe at the increasing reliance they have on others. In my estimation, this is simply making explicit what was already the case: the basic need and dependence we have on others. We are, therefore, creatures who must live by trust. Our dependence on other human beings awakens us to our need for God.
In my observation of my children, I have been most impressed by their capacity for joy at the simple pleasures of life. Playing with friends, riding a bicycle, or enjoying candy elicit the most fervid delight in children. It’s a delight that wears old in adults on account of familiarity, but I think also our appetite for things chokes this delight. When we’re thinking about what to acquire next or what pleasure to pursue, there is very little space to enjoy the pleasures immediately before us. You’re scanning the horizon for some sign of future happiness. But as we can see by faith, all we need is before us.
All children are theologians? No. But children definitely have a capacity for joy and trust that is lost among our unbridled lust for things, our illusion of control over people and things, and the cynicism that sets in with experience. I’m alternately happy and dismayed when I see myself in my children — I know where at least part of the corrupting influence is coming from.