Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who is a child? I

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

- Matthew 18.5

I would like to begin a new three part series that attempts to give a rough outline of what, or rather who, is a child. In one sense, this is simply one way into a theological account of humanity, a discourse which interests me. But in another sense, I hope to begin a dialogue with parents, prospective parents, those who care for young people and those who have ever been a child, about the theological underpinnings of raising children. Why? Because children in our culture are too often ignored as an inconvenience or worshipped as idols. Also because Jessica and I are expecting a little girl in December. And today is Jessica's birthday and this was something she asked for.

So, who is a child? My answer will come in three parts (each with a few sub-points):
A precious gift of the Father and a member of the community of creation
A brother or sister for whom Christ died and an image-bearer called into service of neighbour
A recipient of God's Spirit, an addressee of God's word and a bearer of living hope

A precious gift from the Father of all
The first thing to say about children is that they are received. Although they come from human flesh and partake in their parents’ DNA, they arrive gratuitously. They cannot be bought or sold, earned or deserved. They are unnecessary, entirely contingent, thoroughly dependent upon a source outside themselves. They are an expression of divine grace from one called Abba, Father, from whom all good gifts originate. They are not simply another one of his many gifts, but are a particularly precious one.

And so they are to be welcomed with thanksgiving wherever they are found. They are strangers arriving at our door, to whom warm hospitality is due. They ought not be turned away empty-handed or shut outside but received with joy. And once they have crossed into our lives they must not be abused or abandoned, but should be generously provided with all they need.

A member of the community of creation
As God’s creations, children share in the common existence of all creatures. They too fall under the original divine blessing; they are good, very good. They take their place amidst a complex and interdependent web of relationships, expressing their creaturely dependence upon God through interdependence with their neighbours, human and non-human. Like us and all living beings, they require nourishment, warmth and protection since their lives, like ours, are fragile and vulnerable. Theirs are particularly vulnerable. Compared with most other animals, human children are born very immature and with few resources to contribute to their own survival. And so while we receive them from God, they receive care from us. They require attention and affection, others who will take responsibility for them and provide for their needs.

Like the rest of us, they need the rest of us, and like the rest of us, they have something with which to bless the rest of us. They are recipients of care, and yet from the beginning and increasingly, they are also a source of blessing, a conduit of divine generosity. We are not simply to receive them from God as blessings, but to receive blessings from them.

Children are one of many, and the dependency shared by all created beings is particularly apparent in them. Yet they also have their own distinct being. They are not their father or mother. Their existence is not exhausted by reference to the family, the society and environment into which they are given. They are unique members of a common kind and so each requires particular attentiveness to this child.

And yet this uniqueness is not an undifferentiated negative freedom as some have falsely imagined pure subjectivity. Although they each have their own stories, they are born into larger stories already underway. They are not the beginning, but a new start within something already begun. And so they belong to particular locations, particular people, particular communities, particular cultures. They will be raised to speak particular languages and hold particular beliefs. These may be open to revision and correction as all living traditions inevitably are, and yet they belong within a tradition nonetheless. Tradition is not a prison from which to escape, but the ground under our feet. We do not fly like the angels (who, being immortal, did not arrive in history midstream like we each do and so do not require tradition). We are human from humus (earth), Adam from adamah (ground). We require a given basis upon which to walk, both literally and metaphorically, even if we are also nomads whose journeys may not always be circular.

Consequently, raising a child within a tradition is not an evil imposition or a form of child molestation, as it has become fashionable to claim in some circles. It is a gift and a necessary provision. No child begins the human race again, but we all receive from those who have come before us. Similarly, no child can claim to end the human race, and so these children will themselves become the bearers of tradition to future generations.
” Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”

- Joel 1.3

See here for the second post and here for the third and final post in this series.
Images by Steve and Bill. All children pictured in this series are my nieces and nephews.


jessica smith said...

Yay! Thanks! Looking forward to hearing more about how we should think about children and 'this child'. Glad you've begun the conversation.

Anonymous said...

wonderful wonderful news Byron and Jess. Praise God! I also look forward to hearing what you have to say on this.

Rachel in Timor Leste.

Anonymous said...

congratulations byron, that's wonderful news.

Anonymous said...

Great post Byron, but nothing compared to that bombshell of news. Awesome.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Congratulations, Byron.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Happ ybirthday Jess and well done guys!

Jonathan said...

Congratulations! And thanks for the series, too.

Megan said...

Congratulations Byron! I look forward to hearing your perspective on parenthood in your blog. God bless you both as you await her arrival.

Meredith said...

Deep thoughts. Triggered a memory of a really great sermon preached by Dave Thompson recently, on the occassion of his son's dedication. He talked about what it is we want for our kids, and questioned whether we really do want them to develop into 'independent young people' - as so many people seem to say (on congratulations cards and things). Dave suggested that, alternatively, we hope and pray that our children will become dependent adults - i.e. people who consciously acknowledge and live out their dependence on their good God and Father - not people who live in either ignorance or denial of the kind of dependence you're describing.

byron smith said...

Thanks one and all. I don't have a great deal to say (and indeed, I've already said 1/3rd of it here), but am looking forward to more reflections from those with more experience than my own avuncular and godpaternal ones.

Meredith - Sounds like a good sermon. Getting dependence right is a difficult task and ironically one that we each have to face for ourselves (though not by ourselves).