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What Is a Child?

By Neil Dhingra

What is a child? For Karl Rahner, a child is already a Mensch. If children have to grow, strengthen, learn, and mature, what must remain is a mystery in childhood, “which endows us with the power still to be able to play, to recognize that the powers presiding over existence are greater than our own designs and to submit to their control as our deepest good.” Thus, as Rahner insightfully writes, a person receives God’s life as “he becomes that child which he only begins to be in his own childhood,” as the openness of childhood deepens into “an infinite openness in all circumstances and despite the experiences of life which seem to invite us to close ourselves.” Childhood is neither awkwardness to be gotten past nor an “innocent arcadia” to be somehow preserved; it must be “discovered anew.”

A recent collection of essays reminds us how easily this mystery is neglected. We see this in the Bible: Rohan P. Gideon points out that, in Nehemiah, economically desperate Israelites treated their children as mere commodities for enslavement, even as sexual exchange goods (5:5). Closer to the present, Kenneth Mtata notes that some African tribes have required ritual passage through which children reach full personhood, and he reminds us that in the West personhood also seems “negotiated” through first “living out a proper life.” (In the United States, something like this arguably has been revealed in the lack of consideration of the needs of children during COVID.)

Nevertheless, Scripture reminds us that childhood is theologically resonant: Jesus must be in his Father’s house at the age of 12 (Luke 2:49), and the Spirit falls upon young as well as old on Pentecost (Acts 2:17). Given this significance is elusive, Amos Yong asks us what the mystery in childhood may tell us about God. Yong returns to what Rahner calls the “playtime” of childhood: God’s kingdom is not limited to “calculative and instrumental logic,” with creativity, imagination, unpredictability, and simple joy left behind like outgrown toys, worn-out clothes, and sugary drinks.

What might this play look like? Rahner begins his essay by acknowledging that he did not spend much of his time looking after kids. Nevertheless, we may see his and Yong’s vision of childhood, opposed to the too-“adult” world of predetermining designs and calculations, take form in the liturgy. Romano Guardini’s influential The Spirit of the Liturgy states that the liturgy is not where we learn to “do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful,” but rather where we play a “divinely ordained game.” It is like the meaningful purposelessness of Wisdom, “delighted every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world” (Prov. 8:30). The liturgy is less like the gym, “in which every detail of the apparatus and every exercise aims at a calculated effect,” and more like being in the open woods and fields, embracing possibility rather than productivity.

This does not mean that the liturgy is without order, just as children playing even made-up games invent a lot of rules, but that liturgy cannot be a pristine or finalized work of art. Here, Guardini opposed the Benedictines of Maria Laach, who held that the liturgical community prayed in perfect unity, all selves tuned to the same spiritual wavelength. (Aidan Nichols writes of something “ruthless, some might even say Fascistic, in the case of the monks.”) This is important, as playfulness is not only contemplative but resistant to even the best adult pretensions. The mystery of childhood is both wide-eyed contemplative wonder and a reminder that there always remains something “more.” Dean Blevins has movingly described two Downs children in his congregation whose “mischief” — echoing points from the sermon with physical expressions, dancing to music while everyone else stands still — shows that God’s kingdom is finally subject to neither rubrics nor any other form of “ritual mastery.”

However, Rahner’s association of the mystery in childhood to a playful orientation of trust and openness may seem dangerously vulnerable to adult betrayal. What of the child who lacks a secure childhood, who has no positive sense of parenthood that lets her “call upon the nameless by name” as a child of God? If difficult, this may not be insuperable. Rahner notes that an insecure childhood “may actually serve to spur us on to the metaphysical quest for one who will provide us with our ultimate support.” More concretely, in a collection of short stories, the Jesuit writer Uwem Akpan shows how in extremis a sort of child’s play may be all we have. Of course, this may only be a reprieve. In one of Akpan’s stories, a boy jokes around with his sister, who has become a sex worker to pay for his education. “At times like this, it was as if Maisha had forgotten her job, and all she wanted to do was laugh and playact.” It doesn’t last.

However, in another story, set amidst Christian-Muslim violence in Ethiopia in 2006, the Christian narrator is told that she cannot be with Selam, a Muslim girl who lives across the street and has been her friend, even her “twin.” After the narrator retreats to her room, she sees Selam on her balcony across the road. They follow each’s other gazes as they look out at nature. Then, they playfully mime one another’s actions, including hugging imaginary friends. “You smiled because you had discovered a new language.” Besides the impassive natural world, that language, in its playful intimacy, even if it is necessarily secret and wordless, remains the only transcendence of religious rivalry.

Akpan’s most brutally realistic story is about the Rwandan genocide. A nine-year-old child of a mixed Hutu father and Tutsi mother, Shenge, must protect her brother, Jean, from the increasing horror, which incriminates relatives and people from the churches. It engulfs her family, and the ending is heartbreaking, as Jean “stamps around in the blood as if he were playing in mud.” The blood is that of their Maman. Yet amidst the unspeakable, near-complete human failure — ethnic violence, UN soldiers walking away from a distressed child — Jean’s actions still represent the only dim possibility for hope. “His hands are stained, because he’s been trying to raise the dead.” Under the black clouds, Shenge and Jean hide among thorns with a broken crucifix, and “My brother is playing with the glow of the crucifix, babbling Maman’s name.”

These actions are hardly untouched by irony, but if they are meaningless, there is effectively no future that is not more of the grisly same, and even the solidarity between Shenge and her brother would be fragile. The religious gestures and instinct for play of a still-naïve child are all that we have to hold onto as the book ends.

Karl Rahner’s brother, Hugo, wrote a book on play, in which we read, “To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic, to enact to oneself the absolutely other, to pre-empt the future, to give the lie to the inconvenient world of fact.” What, then, is childhood? It is not something that passes, but a mystery which must be rediscovered anew, to resist the finality of not only an inconvenient world of fact but also a world of fact that would otherwise lead us to despair. But childhood only becomes more than a stage we must mature out of into resignation, glancing back mournfully at what seems like beautiful naïveté, if its play is not escape but, as the Rahners suggest, anticipation.


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