Now, before you go and marvel at the deep spiritual precocity of our daughter, let me put this into context. She said this sentence as her mother was reading her a book that features a mother taking her child to find God in the beauty of the natural world. There is a line where the child asks, “Can we go find God?” to which Curly Fries responded with the above.
As it turns out, this is kind of a thing with her. Last week, her mother remarked offhand that she wanted to have a beer with dinner, to which our little girl said, “I want beer.” She doesn’t understand what beer is any more than she understands what God is. But if either of us makes a statement about something we want, she says she wants it too.
But if you think that means that her declaration of wanting to find God is not a statement of faith, then think again. She may not know what God or beer (or coffee or going to the movies or whatever we’re talking about) is, but she knows that it’s something desirable. She knows that it’s something she should want and she knows she wants to be curious about it.
Much is made in the Christian tradition I grew up in about how child-like faith is a faith to be emulated. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4 NRSV); a little later he says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matt. 19:14 NRSV). There’s so much to unpack about what “the kingdom of heaven” even means, but it’s clear that Jesus believes that his followers should be more like children. He says “humble,” which I take to mean lowly or powerless, since we all know that young children rarely act humbly. (At least, mine sure doesn’t: “Sit, Daddy!” “Read, Daddy!” “I want pancakes!” “No bath time!”)
No one in the Bible ever says that we should have faith like a child, but it has certainly become a convention in evangelical thought to lift up such a thing. I don’t necessarily disagree; I believe there is a very powerful and humbling element to a child’s faith, evident in my little Curly Fries’ assertion that she also wants whatever it is we want.
James Fowler is a theologian and developmental theorist who wrote an influential book on the spiritual development of human beings called Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and The Quest For Meaning (New York: Harper Collins, 1981). Using the developmental theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, Fowler differentiated and described the various stages of a human being’s development of the capacity to understand and engage the world through symbols, stories and a reliance upon deeper meaning. Fowler contended that all human beings have faith, regardless of religious traditions or expressions. He describes faith as “the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence… Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized specialty. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goals to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions” (14). Every human being, by this definition, has “faith” in that he or she commits one’s life to the pursuit of some higher calling of belief. This faith may be expressed through a religious devotion, or it might be expressed as a commitment to one’s family, one’s job, one’s identity, etc. (or, usually, some combination of all the above). As such, humans develop a deepening capacity to engage this as they grow and develop.
The first stage of development that Fowler describes (beyond the initial position of an infant who cannot differentiate herself from the mother or caregiver) is called Intuitive-Projective Faith. This is evident in children usually from the ages of two to seven who have developed some capacity for language and imagination. The child has the capacity to understand intuitively the experiences of the world in her particular environment, and from that projects her interpretations of such experiences into the environment. Children at this age, who have not developed the capacity for concrete operational thinking (see Piaget) do not distinguish between imaginative fancy and what we adults would consider “reality.” Fowler writes:
“Stage 1 Intuitive-Projective faith is the fantasy-filled, imitative phase in which the child can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories of the visible faith of primally related adults… The imaginative processes underlying fantasy are unrestrained and uninhibited by logical thought… The gift or emergent strength of this stage is the birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence” (133-134).
In short, children this age just soak things up. Their world is full of fancy, imagination, and emotional associations with experiences free from the operational structures of rational thought. Toddlers don’t comprehend the moral complexities of whether it is okay to throw food on the floor; they only associate the emotional responses mirrored in their environment. In our house, for instance, the emotional response mirrored by the primally related adults when food is thrown on the floor is one of dismay and anger. Conversely, the emotional response mirrored when she says the words, “I love you, Daddy,” is one of great warmth, protection and delight. Curly Fries doesn’t understand what “love” is in any kind of rational or reasonable sense. She doesn’t know what it means when I tell her I love her. But she does know the sense of being treasured, of being nurtured, of being held and snuggled and gleefully relished. One day, when she has developed the capacity to understand more concrete operational thought, she will begin to associate these deep affective and intuitive experiences with the rational concept called “love.”
There’s a hazard to this phase, too. If a child does not grow up in a nurturing, supportive environment, negative experiences can form lasting impressions of fear, hurt and anxiety. Fowler says that, “The dangers in this stage arise from the possible ‘possession’ of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations” (134). A child who is abused or neglected at such an age forms permanent impressions of home life associated with threats. Or, as the second part of this statement implies, even a nurturing environment can unintentionally or inadvertently reinforce a particular cultural expectation. For instance, no one in my home growing up ever told me that it was not okay to cry. But I learned early and fast from somewhere that boys were not supposed to cry.
So how does this relate to my little Curly Fries’ infinite curiosity about wanting whatever I want? It demonstrates a significant amount of trust in me. A frightening amount of trust, really. (I mean, c’mon – she’s two years old and she’s already asked for beer.) She has experienced our care and concern for her as great enough so as to associate anything that we deem good and desirable as also good and desirable for herself. Beer, coffee, a trip to the mall: if we want it, then she wants it too. This is why she wants to eat food off of my plate, even when she has the exact same thing on her own plate. This is why she wants to get in the shower with me even after she’s just had her own bath. This is why she wants to read with me even if I’m reading a book on human development that has very few pictures in it. She wants to remain connected to her caregivers by experiencing the same things we experience.
This has been significantly helpful in her growth so far. She has tried a lot of different foods simply because she sees us eating them. (She loves hummus.) Her success at potty-training so far has come from her curiosity in watching us use the potty. (And the M&M’s we give her after successfully pee-peeing in the potty don’t hurt.) She quit resisting getting her nails clipped after watching me clip my own nails. And she’s grown to love going to church because Mommy and Daddy have found a church they love.
Which brings me back to her wanting to go find God. Of course it thrilled us to hear her utter such words, even though we know she doesn’t understand what she’s asking. It will be a while before she can comprehend who or what God is; truthfully, do any of us really comprehend such a thing? But at this early stage in her development, she is making lasting emotional associations with the world around her, and she has already associated at such an early age that “God” is something to be desired, if only because she has learned that God is something that the adults in her life also desire. In other words, she may have no idea who or what God is other than that God is good.
When I think about what it means to become like a child, to have the faith of a child, to “change and become like children,” this is what I think of: I want to orient my life in such a way that I can take for granted the goodness of God. Maybe the goodness of God isn’t that much different than the goodness of coffee (or beer). Or the goodness of going to church on a Sunday morning. Or the goodness of taking a shower at the end of the day. My daughter doesn’t distinguish between different levels of goodness; something good is something good and worthy of curiosity and pursuit. Don’t misunderstand me and hear me decrying maturity and development; I don’t regret the knowledge, wisdom and experience I have acquired as an adult, and I don’t want to return to a state of unawareness and immaturity. May my imagination never grow weary, and may I continue to model for my child that there is grace in the world, a place where one’s experience can blossom and flourish and thrill, to enjoy the great goodness to be found everywhere. If this is the faith of a child, then I pray I can be born anew every day to go find God.