Instances of Discovery

[In my previous blog post I introduced the matter of children's spirituality; now I am considering what Robert Coles found out as chronicled in his 1990 book, The Spiritual Life of Children.]

What did Coles, with his newly unstopped ears, hear? He heard a lot.

From a literary perspective, he tells us too much of what he heard. He needed a more severe editor, one who knows that flavors are sometimes best conveyed in small bites.

Occasionally the transcript of an extended conversation is electric, and we can plug into it. Other times, though, what could have had the brilliance of a flashbulb is strung out so that it illuminates like a weak-batteried flashlight. But the book gathers speed and intensity as it goes along; Coles the author gets a second wind instead of running out of breath.

There is much to ponder in what the children told Robert Coles.

Several times he marvels at the variety of views, even among children in similar religious and social circumstances. Some of what they say is theologically rather conventional, but their way of saying the conventional is sometimes so disarmingly unconventional that you may hear it again for the first time. I will note only a few of the many remarks that I find instructive or arresting or refreshing.

Coles puts to good use the insight of teachers and psychologists, that children (and people more generally) may say more through drawings than in words. A ten-year-old Swedish boy, when offered a whole box of crayons to draw his idea of God, said, “It’s hard to imagine Him; that’s why I’ll just use a pencil” (44). I find in this remark a compact understanding of symbolism—why it is necessary and why it is always subject to revision. The boy is saying it is hard but not impossible to imagine God; the mistake is making the image indelible, unrevisable.

A nine-year-old boy, son of working-class parents in Boston, reflecting on the picture he himself had drawn, implies that it is hard to imagine God, but it can be done if a condition is met: “You have to trust in God when you try to imagine Him” (68).

This straightforward, uncomplicated but profound sentence reminds me of one of the most venerable of all definitions of the Christian life—Augustine’s fifth-century ‘‘faith seeking understanding,” picked up by Anselm in the twelfth century and revived by Karl Barth in the twentieth—coming alive all over again. I certainly do not claim that the fourth-grader could work through the implications of his insight, but I, and many academics like me, can be recalled by this kid to the truth that trust is the foundation of knowledge, not the other way around.

One conversation Coles reports caught my attention in a special way. A young person makes an observation, with a kind of off-handedness as if to say, “What could be more obvious?” that I had come to only after much laborious pondering.

Nine-year old Henrietta, a black girl in Boston, draws a picture of Jesus healing a blind person, and intentionally does not adorn Jesus with a halo. “He didn’t look as if he’d just fallen out of the sky. He was this guy who built houses (wasn’t He? a carpenter), and there was this secret in Him,” she says, “that God had picked Him—and maybe Jesus didn’t know Himself that He’d been picked. I mean, God could have kept it from Him, couldn’t He?” (178 ).

There are intellectual puzzles aplenty in the church’s age-long effort to figure out the relation of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ, but Henrietta understood at age nine what I wrote only at age forty: that if Jesus was really like us, then he had moments when he was not sure of his identity, and the contradictory episodes in the gospels when he claimed to be the Messiah and when he claimed not to be the Messiah are probably both authentic reminiscences of what Jesus actually said.

More remarks are lodged in my memory: “I prayed to God, and I thanked Him, but I didn’t say for what! I just thanked Him!” (56)—reminding me of Anne Lamott's aphorism that there are only two prayers: "Help me! Help me!" and "Thank you! Thank you!" A boy thinks of God and us playing hide-and-seek (142). A Jewish boy elaborates the encounter of God and Moses after the making of the golden calf in a way entirely consistent with biblical drama: “I think Moses calmed down God, and then God calmed down Moses” (188). And my favorite of all, from a fifteen-year-old girl who realized Jesus was fully at home in the world of his own time: “If Jesus returned, he’d buy a computer and use it.” He’d have “all His speeches” stored away. And Christ in heaven now, trying to keep track of everyone, has “rooms and rooms of printouts!” What do the disciples do? “They help read all the computer sheets!” (222).

The book is as fresh as tomorrow, but one feature of all these remarks makes the book seem outdated: every reference to God is masculine. If any of the children ever wondered about the gender of God, no echo of their wondering sounds in these pages. The book unintentionally alerts us to the tenacity of the image of God as He. I am surprised the maleness of God is so uniform throughout the book; I am even more surprised that Coles never breathes a hint of puzzlement or worry about it himself.

So, like every book, The Spiritual Life of Children is flawed, but it can teach us some important lessons.

First, children make worthwhile contributions to the conversation of faith. We must not assume too little of them.

Second, family members are powerful authorities, perhaps more powerful than we know. Mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents crop up all over the place in the book. In one case a question is resolved by “My aunt says” it, “so I guess that’s what happens” (84).

Third, the New Testament tells us very little about Jesus as a child, but what the church tells children about the young Jesus is very important to them, and works its way into their imaginations more deeply than we suppose.

Fourth, our style of religious education too often closes doors that children are trying to open. Kids who ask questions and are told to “cut it out” will conclude, “I know I can be a pain” (141). An eleven-year-old, wondering about Jesus at that age, thought, “Probably He was in school, and I don’t know, He could have been having trouble there. I asked our Sunday school teacher one day and he laughed and said, ‘Doggone, Charlie, that’s a funny question!’ He didn’t answer it, and we kept reading from the Sunday school book” (210).

Fifth, and most important: for our own sake as well as for the sake of the kids, we need to be much more clever about linking the religious life we offer children with the spiritual life they generate themselves. They wonder about the big questions—the Why? Questions—with an intensity that some of us older folks have outgrown. Their spirituality may even help us recover some of the excitement and wonder in which religious rituals and ideas and institutions were born. Perhaps, after all, as Isaiah predicts in the vision of the peaceable kingdom, “a little child will lead” us (11:6 ).

Once, when Coles was instinctively about to fill a silence that had fallen on a group of children, a girl who had not said much spoke up: “We should do this more often. You think a lot when you’re listening, and then you say what you’re thinking, and you don’t forget what you’ve heard” (316).