endFor everything there is a season, and that is no less so for blogs. In light of my previous post, I’ve decided to allow this blog’s season to come to its end. 

For those who have read, commented and engaged with me via Paternal Life, thanks. This blog has been an important part of my journeying as a young father. 

For those interested in continuing to read, comment and engage with me, I’ll be continuing to blog over at Per Crucem ad Lucem

Again, thanks.

mergerA (modified) repost from Per Crucem ad Lucem:

Most of my blogging happens over at Per Crucem ad Lucem. But some time ago, I made the decision to blog occasionally at two additional sites – Civicus (a blog dedicated to issues broadly related to human rights and with a particular interest in Burma), and Paternal Life (a very occasional blog concerned with issues pertaining to being a dad). The decision to blog at various places was not made lightly. At the time I felt that the different foci could best be served by separating them out (much like the direction that biblical scholarship took in the last century). This would mean, I felt, that readers who were interested in the particular focus of the blog would be less likely to have to wade through copious posts that they were not particularly interested in. A downside of this decision has been that these three of my many passions – theology, human rights and fathering – have, as far as blogging goes, been kept separate, and do not share the perichoretic (probably an inappropriate word to use in this context) existence that they know in my own being. Consequently, I’m (inadvertently) sponsoring the idea that theology, human rights and parenting have little to do with each other, a notion which is of course utter baloney.  The other downside, though significantly less important than those already stated, is that maintaining three blogs takes more work.

So, I’ve been wondering about merging Civicus and Paternal Life with Per Crucem ad Lucem (the blog that I pour most of my energy into and which recieves the most hits); and the point of this post is to invite some comment about how you – my readers – and those who may have journeyed down a similar track feel about this proposal. Do you have a preference? What sorts of questions ought such a decision be required to consider? Would such a merger of interests be unduly isolationist for too many readers? Your thoughts?

I read a delightful essay recently 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.”

[Re-posted from Per Crucem ad Lucem]

The Saturday Age recently ran this interesting piece. My desire to seek out more then led me to discover this interview with Olivera Petrovich by Rebecca Bryant. I thought it was worth re-posting:

Young children see the world with fresh minds that embrace both scientific causality and metaphysical speculation, says Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich. And their conceptions show striking similarities across widely differing cultures, she tells Rebecca Bryant in this exclusive interview with Science & Spirit.

Science & Spirit: What is your current role in the field?

Olivera Petrovich: I am currently with the Experimental Psychology Department at Oxford University, where I research and tutor in developmental psychologist. I also lecture in psychology of religion at Oxford — my course is open to theology, philosophy, and psychology students.

S&S: Your research interests lie in the psychology of religion, focusing especially on the development of spirituality in children. How do you go about it?

Petrovich: My approach to this is very strictly empirical. It begins with children’s accounts of the physical world — notably their causal explanations and the way they categorize objects and events around them. I’m interested in children’s spirituality as it develops in their encounter with the physical world, not through the teaching they may receive in bible classes and so on. I’m not at all looking at the cultural transmission of spirituality.

S&S: You recently conducted cross-cultural studies involving British and Japanese children. What were the aims — and the findings — of this research?

Petrovich: I was really interested in children’s ability to offer both scientific causal explanations and metaphysical explanations, which go beyond the scientific. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture with a very different history of science and religious tradition. So I thought I should be able to get some interesting comparisons between Japanese and Western children.

I tested both the Japanese and British children on the same tasks, showing them very accurate, detailed photographs of selected natural and man-made objects and then asking them questions about the causal origins of the various natural objects at both the scientific level (e.g. how did this particular dog become a dog?) and at the metaphysical level (e.g. how did the first ever dog come into being?). With the Japanese children, it was important to establish whether they even distinguished the two levels of explanation because, as a culture, Japan discourages speculation into the metaphysical, simply because it’s something we can never know, so we shouldn’t attempt it. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children. On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word “God,” instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., “nobody knows”) or an incorrect response (e.g., “by people”). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands? It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, “We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy.” So it was wonderful when these children said, “Kamisama! God! God made it!” That was probably the most significant finding.

I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body. When you press them, they of course fall back on what they’ve been told, saying things like, “I know he’s a man because I saw him on the telly,” or “He’s just like my daddy.” These are very rational responses, but they’re not natural conceptions formed by children. Rather they’re imposed by the culture in which the children live.

S&S: In what ways do adults’ religious concepts differ from those of children?

Petrovich: I did test adults in Britain, but not yet in Japan. The results show that the differences between lay adults and children tested under the same conditions are largely quantitative. Adults are more accurate at identifying objects and describing their physical properties, but the categories they use in their explanations aren’t qualitatively different from those used by children. When it comes to adults’ speculations about the creator — the source of objects — they do display greater cultural influences than children, but when you systematically compare adults’ and children’s descriptions, you see significant similarities — in their references to God being something like air or gas, for example. Children’s descriptions are very basic, whereas adults use more sophisticated vocabulary, but there is no more information about God in adults’ references than there is in children’s. I think this is perfectly plausible and predictable because we can’t say that we as adults have more privileged access to God than children do. We’re all in the same position.

S&S: From your research, do you think it’s possible that the inclination toward religion or spirituality is universal?

Petrovich: I think possibility is the precise word to use here. I can’t be more certain than that because I have only worked with children aged three-and-a-half upward, and that’s already an old age when it comes to basic understandings, some of which are in evidence in the first year of life. However, the cumulative contribution of many domains of cognitive developmental psychology suggests to me that it’s a serious possibility that spirituality is a universal aspect of human cognition. Recent research shows that human infants aren’t passive recipients of information around them, but obviously think, making inferences and forming hypotheses. There’s also a lot of research showing that very young children are quite good at handling temporarily hidden objects. So, I think it needn’t be too difficult for them to make the inference that surely there must be some kind of invisible principle for what we see around us.

S&S: What drew you to the psychology of religion, as opposed to any other field in psychology?

Petrovich: I’ve always been interested in religion as well as psychology — even before I knew the word “psychology” existed. As a child I remember being interested in how people think, in why I thought this way and others thought that way. I began to notice that some people go to church and believe in God and others don’t. Also, like all children, I kept asking questions about the origin of the world. But I might’ve been more fortunate than some other children because I remember, for example, my mother telling me that even though we don’t really know the answers to these questions, it nonetheless remains very important to think about such issues.

As soon as I discovered psychology as a possible area of serious study, I thought that religion must surely be the most fascinating aspect of human thought. You can’t say that this stimulus is more likely to lead you to the concept of God than any other, and so the interesting question is how thought about God occurs.

S&S: How do you see your work fitting into the wider field of science and religion?

Petrovich: This is a very important question indeed. What drives me is the realization — which I hope is correct — that psychology is probably the best-placed science to explain both the origin and continuity of the interaction between science and religion in human affairs. You can find astronomers, geologists, biologists, and chemists throughout history who have either been religious or non-religious. And the difference between these two groups has always intrigued me. What is it in people’s thought patterns, in their education, in their further development, in their interaction with other people and disciplines that makes them perceive the world in one way rather than the other? I think experimental cognitive psychology is in a unique position to answer most of these questions because we can’t achieve a great deal in inspiring others to see the world as we see it unless we first understand how the human mind works — and that is just what cognitive psychologists aim to do.

S&S: Where do you see your interest in science and religion taking you in the future?

Petrovich: What I ideally would like to do is obtain a proper, funded post in academic psychology of religion within a psychology department. That doesn’t exist at the moment, anywhere, but the interest is tremendous — every year for the past four or five years I’ve had inquiries from students wanting to do research in this area.

The other thing would be to get funding for one or two studentships to work on a large project with me so that people can get trained. At the moment, you have very good psychologists with no education in theology or religion, and theology people who have no technical knowledge of how to do psychological research. Why is that relevant? Because if people have no idea about a field, they can never reach a hypothesis that’s worth investigating.

Olivera Petrovich is the author of the upcoming book, The Child’s Theory of the World. She can be contacted at olivera.petrovich@wolfson.ox.ac.uk. Rebecca Bryant has a doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford University. She is a writer and researcher based in Oxford.

Trevor Cairney has posted a helpful (and encouraging) review of the ‘Your Baby Can Read!’ program developed by Dr Robert Titzer. While I was unaware of Titzer’s thesis, the concerns Trevor outlines make real sense to me. As I noted in a comment on his post, I spend all day with a 2-year-old. We cook, play, dance, listen to music, read, count the dongs on the grandfather clock, paint, sort through food, and eat leaves in the garden, among other things. It’s learning all the way, and the resultant growth in her is obvious. I can’t imagine how spending an hour a day sitting in front of a TV (which she is not interested in at all) watching DVD’s can compare with sitting on dad’s knee reading, or kicking a football or counting flower buds in the garden, or learning to share toys and attention with friends. I’m keen to hear from others who may have had experience with Titzer’s program, and whether or not their experiences echo any of Trevor’s concerns.

Ben, over at Faith and Theology, offers a wee review of Robert L. Short’s, The Parables of Dr. Seuss.

And while I’m mentioning books, I’ve been meaning for ages to draw attention to Amanda Craig, an author of five novels, and children’s book critic for The Times and columnist for The Sunday Times. Her site is a mine of helpful reviews and recommendations for children’s books, and anyone who loves all the Hairy Maclary books and is ‘increasingly resistant to pop-ups, and other gimmicks’ is already earning some major brownie points from me.

Grant Thorpe is an experienced parent and Baptist pastor from South Australia who is currently presenting a series of 5 talks based on his helpful book Christian Parents & Their Children. I will post them here as they are made available.

1. Hope for our Children (45 mins)

2. Children of the Covenant (36 mins)

3. Representing Our Father’s Authority to Our Children (42 mins)

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