Two years ago Marcia Bunge, an ethicist at Valparaiso, invited me andsixteen other scholars to participate in a project on "The Child inChristian Thought and Practice." In attending to the history ofChristian ideas about children -- a history that has been largelyforgotten and ignored -- she asked us to explore several questions.How did influential Christian theologians such as Augustine, ThomasAquinas, and Martin Luther understand children's nature? What didthey see as parents' religious responsibilities? And could any oftheir ideas about children contribute to a richer theologicalconversation today?

Now that the project is almost completed, all of us have come to adeeper appreciation of the complexity of the Christian tradition. Onone hand, we could not help being disturbed by some of the ideas weunearthed: unfortunately, some of the stereotypical, negative imagesof Christian discipline and brutality are rooted in history.Needless to say, Christian theologians were shaped by their own timeand place, and some were psychologically or physically cruel. Forexample, in my research on Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-centuryAmerican Calvinist, I found that he did not hesitate to use fear inorder to make children repent. Because of his genuine belief ininfant damnation and children's depravity, he told children they were"young vipers" who deserved to go to hell. Unless they were "bornagain" they would "burn in hell forever." Other Christians defendedphysical punishment on the grounds that children needed "correction."In seventeenth-century Canada, Jesuit missionaries taught HuronIndians not to "spare the rod." True Christians knew that sinfulchildren sometimes "needed" to be hurt.

Yet without ignoring this troubling heritage, we also found that manyChristian thinkers were inspired by Jesus' famous words, "let thelittle children come to me." For example John Calvin, famous for hisinsistence on human depravity, believed children could serve asreligious examples for adults. Karl Rahner emphasized that childrenare fully human and should be treated with respect. And AugustHermann Francke ministered to orphans and poor children, arguing thatthey, too, were the heirs of God's kingdom. Even Jonathan Edwards,whose views of children sound harsh to modern ears, claimed thatyoung children could be true Christians. As he explained, "many ofthem have more of that knowledge and wisdom, that pleases [God] andrenders their religious worship more acceptable, than many of thegreat and learned men of the world."

First and foremost, our project has been a scholarly one. Byexploring the theological controversies over children, we have triedto give a richer account of the history of Christian thought. Butbecause studying the past inevitably raises questions about thepresent, we have also tried to help contemporary religiouscommunities reflect on their own views of childhood. Do we seechildren as innocent, or prone to sin? Do we see them as fullyhuman, or as physically or psychologically deficient? How do wedefine children's rights and responsibilities?

The Christian tradition does not offer easy solutions to the problemsfacing children today, but critically examining that tradition mighthelp us come to a deeper understanding of both children and thevocation of parenting.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus