Towards an Understanding of the Spirituality of Childhood – Chris Shute

Towards an Understanding of the Spirituality of Childhood

I have been a Christian involved with the School Industry long enough to have seen a large variety of approaches to the idea that children have ‘spiritual needs’ which can be adequately met by adults acting in some such role as teacher, tutor, pastor, priest or educator. Paradoxically, until the national curriculum swept aside the liberal pretensions of the old system and installed a compulsory barrage of specific learning, religion was the only subject which had to be on the timetable, at the same time as consisting of no specific knowledge and requiring no precise qualifications in the person was to teach it. So while I was at school I attended ‘Religious Instruction’ lessons taught by, among others, a member of the Communist Party, a specialist in Latin and Greek, and the admirable Dr. Gareth Morgan, who, when asked what religion he followed, claimed to be an adept of the Orphic Mystery Rites. During my training for teaching I also attended assemblies conducted by Max Morris, who made no secret of his dislike of religion by merely announcing a hymn, ostentatiously taking no part in singing it, and triggering the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer with the words ‘Our Father…..’ with no doubt the mental reservation ‘excluding me!’. That is not to slander a man who went on to become the General Secretary of the NUT. If it reflects badly on anyone it’s the people who framed the 1944 Education Act and those who failed to think cogently about the modifications which succeeded it. No-one should be forced to take part in rituals which they neither understand nor approve of.

The whole subject of Religion is difficult to talk about because of the utterly different purposes which those who promote it have as their aim and intention. For believers, of course, their chosen faith may be one of the most important elements in their life. For a few it may even be something they would be ready to die for or to kill. For these people religion is an absolute priority. They invest it with all the weight of sentimental attachment which they confer on their own family relationships. Indeed they may call members of their sect ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. On the other hand the Government still sees Religious Instruction as a way of inoculating children and young people against sin, usually thought of as disobedience, and in more recent times of trying to avoid conflict born of ignorance about other religious traditions. Many committed Christians look upon R.E. as a means of keeping our country broadly Christian in its culture: they tend to be at least suspicious of any programme which includes other religions in its scope, especially if it attempts to recreate what are seen as alien rituals and forms of worship. Teachers, especially in the Primary sector, may find themselves more or less compelled to give lessons on religion to their own pupils, without any consideration being given to their knowledge of what they are teaching, their sympathy for it or even their respect for other religious than their own. They may not understand why the adherents to other religions express their devotion in ways which seem bizarre to outsiders. Therefore they may not be able to present the fullness and richness of the whichever faith they are trying to teach about and confine themselves to presenting the most striking aspects of whichever tradition they are dealing with – the Five Pillars of Islam, the Five Ks of Sikhism, the Dietary Laws of Judaism, in short anything which can be listed, pictured, and re-enacted. I have enough experience of other religions to have realised that this is an approach which conceals rather than illuminates the true essence of any religious system.

In order to understand and empathise with a religious community you must spend many months and even years with it, Many religions have developed a complex system of symbols each of which incorporates many levels of meaning. Symbols, if we are to believe C.S.Lewis, are not merely a convenient shorthand representing in a short space a digest of some religious narrative – that would be mere allegory – but rather a iconic representation of something which is infused in the very fibre of human existence. So the cross is far more than the instrument of Christ’s death: it evokes the moment when time meets with eternity, provisionality with permanence, the individual with totality. Its meaning emerges from elements which are part of DNA and as inescapable. In presenting religion to children we do wrong if we present it as no more than a collection of rather strange, even out-of-date, ritual behaviours, performed for reasons which are far more to do with traditional culture and keeping in favour with one’s parents and community than they are personal and deeply human.

We adults perceive at least some of these things according to our background and the choices which we have chosen to make. Children, on the other hand have, initially at least, only their parents to rely on for information about everything that they see around them. They cannot distinguish between scientific fact and theological speculation. The statements that ‘water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade at sea level’ and ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ have exactly the same ‘truth value’ for a small child. He or she cannot be expected to understand that the first statement is the fruit of experiment which is verifiable at any moment by the simple expedient of boiling water and measuring its temperature, whilst the second is a statement which is transcendental, an attempt to sum up the moral condition of humanity in words which can only bear enough truth to point humanity in the general direction of reality. It is reasonable as a description of the human condition: we do tend to screw up our lives and relationships   by our selfishness and lack of ability to empathise, but to insist, as devout Christians often do, that humans cannot do the right thing under any circumstances, and therefore children have to be closely watched to uncover their earliest sins, is a distortion of spirituality and a serious threat to their future moral development.

The greatest error in trying to explain the world of the spirit and the religious ideas so intimately associated with it, in my opinion, is to make narrow parallels between religion and morality. This tendency has been responsible over the centuries for the spread of a conceit that devoutness is synonymous with obedience, which in its turn is presented as the core of goodness, and accepting the right of older, more articulate, even more charismatic people to give orders which to obey is pleasing to God. I remember an exchange I took part in during a Bible study at my Church, a Baptist Church in the Midlands. The leader, a former pastor from Northern Ireland, was trying, on the basis of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, to teach that Christians should always obey the nation’s Government. I added, as seemed reasonable to me, “….During good behaviour!” “No,” said the leader, “the Scripture doesn’t put any limitations upon the obligation to obey the Government.” “You mean, if I were living in pre-war Germany I would be obligated to obey the Nuremberg Laws?” “That’s what the Book says,” insisted the leader. I had only one recourse. I said, to a tempestuous and collective indrawing of breath, “If the Book says that the Book’s wrong!” I had no intention to challenge the authority of Scripture, nor to insult the feelings of the others: I just felt I had to oppose an approach to Scripture which discounted the moral and ethical sensibilities of at least one sincere person who had grown up with all the same teachings, based on the same texts as the Leader.

Children need, in my estimation, a radically different approach to  the general category which we call ‘spirituality’. A friend of mine, a Jew married to an African Christian, has a six-year-old daughter. She goes to Kheder, a Jewish religious class at the Synagogue on Sabbath, and Sunday School at her mother’s Church on Sunday. She regularly asks her parents questions about God which reveal that she is not in any way confused by the different religious traditions with which she lives. “Does God go shopping at the Supermarket?” was a recent one. She was trying to bring  the transcendental into the compass of everyday life. She clearly saw God not as Other, but as part of the human experience. I was moved to think hard about how I would have answered the child’s question, because I know that it concerned far more than the ephemeral musings  of a young person blurting out whatever happened to be in her mind. I think I would have said “I can’t say I’ve ever seen him there, but that is not to say that he is never there. Some people think that God is a person who can’t be seen, but who is in a sense, everywhere. I think of him like that, but it’s all right to decide for yourself how you think of God. Whoever he is he will not blame you or punish you if you don’t get it right.” That reply has at least the virtue of recognising the  limits of human thought and the impossibility of making statements about God which are scientifically true.

How should a parent respond to a question like that if he or she happens not to believe that God exists? Surely it is wrong to enrol children among the unbelievers before they have had time to come to their own conclusions about the whole question of transcendence. It would be equally wrong, in my opinion, to insist that children identify themselves as belonging to the same religion as their parents. Most children want to please their parents, and will do and say anything which they know will achieve that end: some of them even see their parents’ religion as something to be proud of, especially if it seems to distinguish them from other pupils and make them feel special. In that perspective it is probably best to say clearly and simply that some grownups have decided that it is reasonable to believe that there is no such person as God, but that other grownups believe that there is. It is worth remembering that small children think that all adults know everything which is to be known, and discovering that this is not true is potentially traumatic if it is not handled with wisdom. It is always right, in my opinion, to tell a child what you believe about anything in the human universe, provided only that you give equal weight to the opposite assumption, if it can rightly be said to exist. It is important that children be encouraged from the earliest time in their lives to regard opinions as at the same time valuable and variable, and to respect other peoples’ ideas while not being feeling obliged to accept them for themselves.

To sum up, children need to be respected more than they are at present in their thoughts and their feelings. They need the freedom to be provisional, to have one set of opinions one day and another the next, to speculate about what they hear and see around them, and to have their questions answered from an impartial standpoint. They will certainly tend to acknowledge the transcendent, even if only because they are overwhelmed by the newness and the strangeness of ‘this endless only world in which we say we live’. Spirituality in children is not the same thing as it is in adults, and shouldn’t be treated as such. We should always remember that we were all children once, and that just as our bodies change as we grow up, our perceptions of the universe alter themselves, and as they do so they replace our earlier ideas without signalling that anything material has changed

Chris Shute

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