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“The Philosophical Baby” Enters the Kingdom

Frankly, I know little about raising children. And I understand next to nil about the ways of God.

And yet, my interdisciplinary interest in religion and the arts draws me into contact with research on consciousness, imagination and creativity. Often, these discourses are grounded in evolutionary and developmental psychology and philosophy of mind. Of course, many of the more thoughtful debates taking place in Adventism—from the origins of life to human sexuality—also brush up against our various understandings of how morality and existential meaning change among humans over time. While we often look to scripture, history, the current political climate and ourselves, one area that is often shrouded in the mists of ignorance lies in our own experience as, and with, children.

How does childhood help us understand theology? The most often way this is treated in sermons involves simplistic calls for blind “child-like” faith, but this authority-inclined fideism is frankly hard for me to take as it has a long history of abuse. But the message of Jesus does include that strange statement in Matthew:

Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The saying about the rich man, a camel and the eye of the needle almost makes more sense; thus, what might Jesus mean?

University of California, Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has written a new book entitled The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Not only a psychologist, but also a trained philosopher and mother, Gopnik argues that “what makes us more human than anything else is our ability to imagine possibilities.” I believe that’s also known as hope.

In a review in Scientific American, Ethan Remmel writes:

Gopnik argues that although young children’s thinking may seem illogical and their play functionless, their imagination and exploration actually reflect the operation of the same powerful causal learning mechanisms that enable our uniquely human achievements in areas such as science or art.

To an increasing number of college educated folks around the world, religion seems illogical and the rituals performed, from church attendance to prayer, are popularly dismissed as functionless and absurd. Just like the nonsense of children and their “meaningless” play, in some ways.

But via Gopnik, I find myself rethinking these assumptions that underlie the discourse about maturity in human development and faith. In her book, she “posits an evolutionary division of labor by age, with children as the research and development department—’the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers’—and adults as ‘production and marketing,’ deciding which ideas to promote. She also says that babies’ brains are like the little streets of old Paris, whereas adult brains have broader boulevards.”

Remmel adds,

Gopnik suggests certain activities that might give adults a sense of what young children’s conscious experience is like. Our external consciousness is perhaps most like theirs when we are traveling in an unfamiliar country or practicing a type of meditation that emphasizes clearing the mind and being present in the moment. Our internal consciousness may be most like theirs when we free-associate, or when random thoughts run through our heads just before we fall asleep, or when we meditate by focusing on observing our thoughts without controlling them.

“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course faith should not become less informed, but actually enriched by the greater spectrum of human experience—not merely adult production, but also kid-like brainstorming.

In returning to that puzzling kid caveat of Jesus, I have to be honest that perhaps I have too hastily dismissed this. It’s not anti-intellectual, but about more self-awareness. After encountering the thesis of The Philosophical Baby, I have been converted to a larger understanding of the kin-dom of heaven. In the context of Gopnik’s argument, perhaps a more child-like consciousness—one including personal and community explorations of creativity, free association, and play might actually enrich our spiritual selves and ground our theology in a more whole-sum human experience.

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