Monday, September 14, 2009

Who is a child? II

A few weeks ago, I began a new three part series hoping to reflect upon the theological assumptions behind parenting. Although it’s taken me a while, today I return to that series with my second post. A third will complete the sketch at some point in the future. My first post argued that a child is a a precious gift from the Father of all and a member of the community of creation.

A brother or sister for whom Christ died
If children are a gift from the one who is Father of us all, then they are also brothers and sisters with us in the same family. Our children are also our siblings. Although they may be younger siblings, they are nonetheless full members of God’s family and in that sense our equals. They belong within God's community as much as any adult and they are as welcome to approach God as the rest of us. Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me” - and woe to those who would turn them away. Children are therefore not proto or potential Christians, but can be welcomed from birth as those who are loved and welcomed by God. And in this, they are in the same position as everyone: we all only love because God first loved us. Our loving is always learned from a prior experience of receiving love.

Although it is a much disputed issue in some circles, this is the theological basis for the ancient and widespread Christian practice of baptising children. While their confession of faith might not yet be explicit, they are nonetheless already enfolded in God’s love, included in his promise and welcomed by Christ.

And God’s love is manifest to all through the death of Christ on our behalf. And this death was for all, and so also for children. There is a widespread belief in contemporary society concerning the primordial innocence of children. Yet this Romantic conception is relatively novel and only became popular during the Victorian period. If Christ died for the sins of all, then he also died for the sins of children. They are just as much in need of salvation and healing as the rest of us. Traditionally, this has been expressed in the doctrine of original sin. Despite much confusion, this teaching basically claims that we all begin in a broken situation, with divided hearts and amongst a fractured world. Even before children are able to express any kind of conscious or deliberate rebellion, they are born and raised in patterns of behaviour that dishonour God and diminish life. This teaching can be unhealthily overemphasised, but without it, our conception of children will be dangerously naïve.

An image-bearer called into service of neighbour
Like the rest of us, the young need to be taught how to live. To act naturally no longer comes naturally. It is only through repentance and humility that children (or any of us) come to learn what it means to be human. And when we stop trying to fly, we might learn how to walk. Indeed, the metaphor of walking is used repeatedly in the holy scriptures as an image of how we live. For those of us who seek to walk in the true and living way of Christ, learning how to live means learning to take up our cross and follow him. As Christ was the image of God, giving us a picture of God’s love and generosity, his gentleness and patience, his grace and truthfulness, so we are to mirror Christ and so also present an image of godly character to the world.

But what can it mean for children to be bearers of the divine image? Jesus said that the rule of God belonged to children, and that unless we become like children, we can never enter it (Matthew 18.3; 19.14). Again, it is not their alleged innocence or purity that we are to emulate, far less their ignorance, and not even their curiosity. To be a child is to be dependent; and children mirror to us the deeper truth that applies to us all: we all rely on resources beyond ourselves. Not one of us is self-sufficient. No one is a self-made woman or man. We have all received our existence from others and our life is lived for others. Ultimately, we have all received our lives from our heavenly Father and it is towards him that we are oriented. And so, to become a child in order to receive the kingdom of heaven means that God’s rule is acknowledged by those who give up the project of making themselves something and recognise the limited scope of their agency and responsibility.

Yet children are also to grow up. There is a way of embracing one’s limitations that is irresponsible and seeks to escape from the tasks placed before us, that uses our relative impotency as an excuse. Children need to learn and grow and become more than they presently are, to delight in new experiences and gradually to shoulder new (though still limited) responsibilities. To be mature is better than being immature. But if we listen to Jesus when he tells us to become like children, we also learn that part of maturity is recognising that I am not yet mature, that I still have room to grow, new responsibilities and possibilities to embrace.

And so we raise our children as equal siblings in God’s family. And we raise them as those who share the same vocation of mirroring God’s love. To grow in the capacity to give and receive love is what it means for a child to flourish. And we raise them aware of our continuing immaturity and the perpetual openness and ongoing repentance required of us all as we seek to grow up together.
See here for the first post and here for the third and final post in this series.
First image by JKS.


Lyndal said...

"When we stop trying to fly we might learn how to walk." What a purler! I hope you don't mind if I quote you somewhere sometime!
I am enjoying these musings on the nature and meaning of childhood Byron. It is lovely news that you & Jessica are expecting a daughter. She is already profoundly blessed by the family that awaits her. I thoroughly agree with your rationale for infant baptism - it is exactly (though far more succinctly and elegantly put) why we chose to have our 3 babies baptised. We roundly rejected the notion that we were raising little pagans who would not be part of God's community until some mystical moment in the future when their salvation was actualised. Yes, they may turn away from God and reject his son (though obviously we pray that will never happen)but until then we will treat them as died-for participants in the community of grace. To 'dedicate' them rather than baptise them just seemed insincere.
I look forward to the third installment.....

Mike W said...

Thanks Byron

Anthony Douglas said...

I'm still cracking up from this one: 'Our conception of children will be dangerously naive'!! I refuse to believe that was accidental, Byron ;-)

But aside from that, a beautiful post. Congrats to you both, by the way.

Jane said...

Our children are God's gift to us! Whichever way you what to put it. I couldn't be thankful enough. They're my source of completeness and happiness. Thanks for sharing your insights and perceptions. By the way, these best gifts that you could give your better-half might interest you too. Thanks and have a nice and fulfilling day.

Deb said...

Hello Byron and Jess,
Thankyou for the wonderful reminder of the precious gift of children and our role in raising them under God. I was refreshed to read you thoughts. It is sometimes hard to look up, beyond the business of the day. Difficult to see past the wiping of paint off fingers, food off walls, tears off faces and the wiping of other necessary substances. Thankyou for lifting my eyes again to the honour of this work.
Deb Hare

byron smith said...

Anthony - what relevance is authorial intent when you have the text in front of you? Make of it what you will. ;-)

Deb - I'm glad you've found it useful. Part of the reason Jess asked me to write something before we've got our hands dirty (all six of them) was to try to give us both some larger context when the mess threatens to overwhelm us.

Lyndal - thanks for your thoughts. I'm curious about why you feel a dedication would be "insincere". I don't think parents who dedicate their children are generally insincere. They also don't necessarily believe that children are little pagans until proven otherwise (though some do). Often they agree that children belong to God's family from birth; the disagreement in that case is over the meaning of baptism. For them, it is a expression of personal faith and commitment. For me (and for the scriptures, of course!) baptism is (amongst other things) a welcome into the Christian community and a dedication of a life in the pattern of Christ.

Lyndal said...

Oh dear - let me qualify what I wrote! It sounds terrible when you reflect it back that way. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that all parents who dedicate their children are being insincere. Far from it. Insincere was probably the wrong word (perhaps 'contradictory' is closer to what I meant?) and I was speaking for our own feelings only - no one elses.
What I was getting at does, as you noted, come down to a difference of opinion about the meaning of baptism. For US the meaning of baptism CAN be fully expressed in the baptism of an infant, so to make all the same promises and express all the same desires - but without the water - seemed to us to be, well, contradictory while at the same time (strangely) also putting too much emphasis on the water itself (by 'saving' it for later). Baptism for us points to Christ and what he has already done - regardless of age or mental capacity, rather than being a demonstration of an individual decision.
Have I dug myself out or only further in?

byron smith said...

Thanks - that makes a lot of sense. I'm glad you clarified.