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On Forming Human Children, Part 1

By Jon Jordan

If you encounter human children on a regular basis, you are doing the work of formation. A mark is left on them by your action or inaction, by your words or your silence. By what you choose to enjoy or dismiss in front of them. Every interaction we have with children is formation.

Don’t believe me? Ask my eight-year-old daughter what we call drivers who aren’t being safe on neighborhood roads while we are out on a run. I said it once and I will never live it down…

So, in the world of the church and the academy, when we speak of the Christian formation of children, what we really mean is the intentional Christian formation of children. How do we attempt to form young Christians when we stop to think about what we are doing?

It is too easy to bemoan the reality that modern attempts at formation — both sacred and secular — have failed to hit their marks. There are many areas in which we in the 21st century are on the cutting edge, the state of the art. Formation is not one of them. Automobiles are more efficient than ever, microchips are smaller and more powerful, and almost any good needed for survival or entertainment can arrive on our doorstep in two days or less. Travel, computing, and supply chain management (present travails notwithstanding) in the 21st century are as efficient as ever. I am not alone in being convinced that this is not the case in the realm of formation.

At least from my experience in the church and the academy, fruitful formation today often comes from a discovery of an older, better way to form young Christians. And in looking back at older, better ways to form children, a foundational truth emerges that pagan Greeks and Romans, as well as early Christians built their formation programs upon.

Before you can intentionally form a human child, you have to understand what a human child is, and what a human child is for. Unfortunately, most of the modern educational movements of the past century have, as their foundation, a woefully inadequate anthropology. 

This is, of course, what C. S. Lewis argues throughout his lectures that became The Abolition of Man, and through the Ransom Trilogy he was finalizing while preparing those lectures. For the especially curious, these themes are most directly treated in lecture two, “Men without Chests,” and in the fictional adaptation of that lecture, That Hideous Strength. (If your interest in these things is even remotely piqued, it would be well worth your time to close your browser now and procure a copy of either book…or both!)

What follows is a short list of proposals that set forth a number of ways that a more robust anthropology can lead to a more robust program for Christian formation. This is not exhaustive, and there is much more to say about each proposal. I plan to do just that here in the months ahead. But each of these three proposals hint at an older, better way to form children that we do well to consider.

A final note before the list: there are some school systems, and even some parish educational approaches, that are designed at their core to ignore or deny one or more of these anthropological assumptions. (That this is as true in the world of Christian schools as it is in the public school realm is a great scandal.) But each of these proposals have practical implications that parents, students, teachers, priests, and godparents can adopt regardless of the school or parish they find themselves in. These are not foundational principles for some students in some types of schools and parishes. These are basic principles of formation rooted in a proper understanding of what a human child is, and what a human child is for.

To the list:

Humans are embodied souls, so our formation programs must involve more than the imparting of knowledge from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student. Information is available anywhere; knowledge and wisdom are best gained through paideia, the passing down of an entire way of life from one generation to the next.

Human desires can be shaped. Tastes can be developed and trained. Loves can be ordered, and reordered. So our formation programs must have as primary goals the development of desires, the deepening of tastes, and the right ordering of loves.

Humans are worshipers. Our formation programs, academic and otherwise, must recognize the fundamental reality that to be human is to worship. If we give our children nothing to worship, they will not worship nothing. They will worship everything. They will become devoted to things that cannot bear that devotion, and they will be crushed when a world that was never meant to be their god fails them time and time again.

This is just some of what it at stake when we consider what it means to form children.

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