As a write this column I am preparing to give a paper at the Children’s Spirituality Conference in Chicago. This means I have a growing collection of books, articles and papers around me in every available place, surface and on the floor, and that every day the nature of “children’s spirituality” (and therefore what I am trying to say) becomes more elusive. I wonder whether there will be anything sensible or substantive to say. This is always how it feels at this stage of the process. We will see.
But meanwhile I have taken time out in order to share with you insights from two books that have been causing me to do some fundamental rethinking and radical pondering. They are related but seem to have reached their conclusions independently.
The first book is entitled The Spirit of the Child by David Hay and Rebecca Nye (London: Fount 1998). It takes the possibility of genuine spirituality in children very seriously and reviews carefully related research and evidence, such as it is. At the heart of spirituality is what the authors call “relational consciousness” (Chapter 8) which can be described as a sense of awareness, mystery and values (page 59). They argue that (though it may be related to it) spirituality is not the same thing as religion, and that there is a conceivable case for seeing it as a product of evolution that has a positive function in enabling individuals to survive in their natural environment (page 10).
If so, why is so little attention paid to children’s spirituality? One reason is the dominance of cognitive psychology in developmental theories and education, such that those writing about religion and faith “follow rather tamely in its wake” (page 51).
The prevailing wisdom (paradigm) derives greatly from the work of such as Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson, and although their theories have much logical and practical validity in explaining aspects of how children develop, they do not help an understanding of spiritual knowing. So if we are not careful we may find ourselves coming close to “dissolving religion into reason and therefore childhood spirituality into nothing more than a form of immaturity or inadequacy” (page 51).
Those of us who have pondered this line of thought, and like Froebel and Korczak have observed children in minute detail over long periods of time, have wondered whether young children (and that includes suckling babes and pre-verbal youngsters) have any less spiritual awareness than adults. Some have considered that they may have more.
I believe we must keep our wits about us in all this, because Gibran is surely right in saying that we cannot know their thoughts. But if this is so, let us be careful in assuming where this leads us either way, whether towards or away from believing in child spirituality. I am as sceptical about Wordsworthian optimism about the child trailing clouds of glory in his infancy, as I am concerned about anyone who assumes that spirituality is something that develops through life like say, religious belief, reason or knowledge.
So we come to the second book. It is by David Jensen: Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005). He seeks to show how children have been commonly seen in Christian theology as incomplete human beings. “So long as he has not the use of reason he is like a non-rational animal,” writes Aquinas (page 8). Childhood is discarded along the way to full personhood in this view. But why, asks Jensen, do Aquinas and so many after him, privilege reason as the key dimension of human life? Why not relational awareness or love? Perhaps we are persuaded because reason is something we can measure.
If so, what of the things we cannot measure? Who knows whether they are the most important aspects of all in understanding children and adults? Pascal memorably said, “The heart has its reasons that reason itself cannot know”, and I have long been worried about those whose approach to intervention in the lives of children is limited to outcomes (and therefore measurement of progress) because they may miss what is really important, if unquantifiable. Isn’t love exactly like this?
So I hope you see the point behind the title of this column even if you may disagree with the line I have been taking.
Which brings me to my grandson, Isaac. He is just over one year old, and my wife and I see him on a very regular basis. He does not speak any English words that we can recognise. He prefers wrapping paper to the contents of presents. He finds foodstuffs and mealtimes wonderful opportunities for tactile experiments. He loves grubs, plants, trees, touch, water, clouds and stars. And he is very sensitive to sounds and moods. There is no way I could say that he lacks spirituality as defined by Hay and Nye. Of course I cannot prove it. So what difference does it make to allow this possibility?
It means that neither we nor his parents (one is a teacher, the other a therapist) are impatient to teach him to speak the way we do, or to focus on what we think is important for him to know and do. We are intrigued by what might be going on in his inner world, and in his relationships with his environment, natural and human. And we sometimes join in conversations with him. But, you say, he doesn’t know any English so how can you hold conversations? And I take the point, but you can. They are largely on his terms. They involve a lot of inflection of tone and much body language, and they are sometimes protracted and intense. But they are intense and real.
In case you were thinking that this is an original approach, let me tell you that it was Korczak who wrote, “A baby can hold a very complicated conversation without being able to talk” (A Voice for the Child, page 23). You may not be convinced, but as one who has tried it, I have to agree with this great child care pioneer. And although I am looking forward to the time when Isaac and I can explore the world together (this summer it means beaches, sea and mountains) using words that I can understand, there is also a sense of sadness and regret for the world that he will lose in the process.
The intimations that I have are that his current world is a richly textured collection of feelings and sensations of wonder, awe, delight, and despair. (Please don’t think I am trying to sentimentalise or romanticise anything.) And if you are still not convinced and don’t happen to have a grandchild of your own aged just over one year old around, then let me say quite simply that if it were to come to the crunch I would instinctively and intuitively prefer love to reason, emotional intelligence to cognitive ability. I hope it doesn’t come to the crunch, and that the two will interact creatively with each other.
I can’t develop it now, but one of the lines I am taking in Chicago is to suggest that whatever is meant by spirituality, it may well relate closely to what Jesus meant by the term, “Kingdom of Heaven”. I take this to be the idea of what life and relationships are like “where God has His way”. Interesting that when the adult disciples showed that they were clueless about this Kingdom, Jesus took a little child (under the age of seven) and placed him in the middle of the disciples saying, “Unless you change and become like this little child you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Later, talking about children, he said, “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”. One finds deep spirituality in adults, but let us not overlook what we can experience and sense of it imaginatively in little children.
I am grateful for the cognitive development in my own life that helps me to learn from Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson and many others, but also that allows me to be alongside little children with empathy and imagination, realising that in many respects we are both children living in a world and a universe that evokes wonder and awe where reason has reached the limits of its ken, and where the meaning may turn out in the end to be love.