Children and the Theologians: Clearing the Way for Grace

Children and the Theologians: Clearing the Way for Grace 
by Jerome W. Berryman 
(English)
ISBN: ISBN-10: 0819223476 ISBN-13: 978-0819223470
Hardback: 276 pages
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing; 1 Jan 2010

As it happened I found myself reading Jerome Berryman’s Children and the Theologians at the same time as I was delving into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s extensive book, A History of Christianity (Penguin, 2009). The chief insight apparent from this unintended juxtaposition was that in mainstream Christianity, children and childhood, as seen by one of its keenest contemporary historians, were marginal to the point of invisibility. So Berryman’s book has a contribution to make to the story in which “something has been missed during the last 2,000 years”. (18)

The aim of his book is to describe the church’s past views of children in order to see if there is a more appropriate way to think of them today. To avoid any suspense it is only fair at this point to say that he believes that we can do better! His method is to select theologians across the centuries, summarizing some of their theology related, directly or indirectly, to children, and aspects of their life and experience as they connect with children. As these selected theologians are investigated certain themes begin to emerge. Taken together they comprise what Berryman terms a “de facto theology of children”. His hope is that this endeavour will help to pave the way for what he calls a formal doctrine of children.

The evidence gathered is reflected upon in the last two chapters. Chapter Eight is a summary of what Berryman understands by this de facto theology of children; Chapter Nine spells out a doctrine of Grace in which he envisages how God’s grace might be reflected and revealed through children as they interact with the “seven classical sacraments”. Berryman is careful to point out that he is addressing the whole church East and West and therefore is at risk of satisfying no one on matters of detail. (245)

There are several illustrations in the book, and these make a considerable contribution to the argument and themes. A particularly salutary one is “The Child Enthroned”, painted by T.C. Gotch around the year 1894. (144) This might serve as a silent warning to all who would make idealized children or childhood the ultimate focus of their theology!

The theologians chosen are Jesus (Chapter One); St Paul, Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Peagius, Augustine (Chapter Two); Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa (Chapter Three); Luther, Calvin and Hooker (Chapter Four); Boehme, Bunyan, Pascal, Jesuit and Ursuline Missionaries, Wesley and Edwards (Chapter Five); Schleiermacher, Bushnell, Barth, Rahner and Williams (Chapter Six); Bunge, Miller-McLemore, Mercer, Jensen, Herzog and Marty (Chapter Seven).

Their teachings, writings (if any), and lives reveal a view of children that ranges from “high” to “low” (esteem, that is, rather than churchmanship!). Berryman classifies these views further using the four terms, Ambivalence, Ambiguity, Indifference and Grace. In the chapter about Jesus, the nature of these themes begins to emerge. Jesus, when assessed by many of his teachings and actions held a high view of children; but other sayings reveal a low view of children; then there is evidence (notably John’s Gospel) of what Berryman calls indifference. The terms must be used with care: so what Berryman means here is that, apart from the saying about being born again, the dying child in Capernaum, and the boy who offered loaves and fishes, the Gospel barely hints at children. And when you put these themes together you arrive at what he calls “ambiguity”. If you take the life of Jesus as a whole, then this manifests grace, but he did not say much explicitly about grace.

Berryman, taking his cue from Rowan Williams, argues for a “literal reading” of the texts: that is one that accepts the rough edges and resists the temptation of smoothing them out in order to achieve a single view. Reading Berryman’s book, as is also the case with reading the Gospels, requires handling the text with care. Quotations taken out of context will be misleading.

My sense is that Berryman is best read in the context of being a disciple of Nicholas of Cusa 81-84. It is in this section that the text comes alive: paradox and humour are at the heart of the doctrine and argument. We are likely to misread both Berryman and Nicholas if we neglect their wistfulness, wonder, and experimentation with thoughts and ideas. Perhaps we ought to consider Nicholas as a patron saint of Godly Play!

Readers will make their own judgments about the theologians selected, what is said about them, and the interpretation and labeling (in terms of the four themes) of the thinking and lives of those chosen. Understandably, given that Berryman relies sometimes on secondary texts, alternative readings can be offered. Without being ungracious, it is worth noting that everyone will be aware of omissions from the list: Athanasius, Jerome, Duns Scotus, Erasmus, Zwingli, Boff, Tillich, Bultmann, Urs Von Balthasar are just a few that come to mind, the last having written a book specifically about children and theology, Unless You Become Like This Child, 1991 (English edition). Of those known best to me it was the omission of James Loder, and his book, The Logic of the Spirit that occasionally seemed to cry out for mention. (I know that Berryman knew Loder and studied his work, and I think I detect Loder’s influence.)

Here, to give a flavour of the book and its way of working is Berryman’s summary of Paul’s theology as seen through the narrow window of his view of children: “there was little said about children and little experience of children to inform what was said. Most importantly, what was said seems to have little awareness of Jesus’ high view of children.” (44) This view is seen as typical of the majority of the theologians described. A real problem of the methodology is that Berryman has to argue so often from what is not said or experienced! There is no escape from the problem if a continuous history of the child in Christian thought is sought. (Bunge’s work, The Child in Christian Thought, which is quoted throughout Berryman’s book, is of course, selective and not intended to provide a continuous narrative.)

While on the subject of omissions, we do well to note that a history still needs to be written of Christian-inspired work alongside children as it reflects, affects and represents de facto (and even formal) doctrine about children. Scripture Union, for example has produced some carefully drafted documents setting out positions on theology relating to children, and these will repay careful study in due course. I point out such omissions not as a criticism, but as an aide-memoir to those who take up the baton in the search for a better way of understanding and relating to children and childhood in the light of historical and theological reflection.

Among the insights that I found particularly thought-provoking include the call for us to imagine the effect on children of seeing their parents, or adults known to them martyred for their faith (35-38; 116-117). This profound and frightening experience has gone largely unrecorded, but must have found its way into the consciousness (or unconscious, individual and collective, of the church through the generations). There is also a crisp description of the significant difference between the basic view of children in the Western Church (sinners) and the Eastern Church (part of the church). (39) The way the connection between a view of children and theology has mushroomed in the first decade of the 21st century is striking because the work seeks to establish some narrative continuity. As in other disciplines such as sociology, there has been a major shift in consciousness (of which Berryman’s book is a part).

How to read the de facto doctrine of children through 2000 years? Berryman gives a framework (or game) deriving from Hermann Hesse’s idea of a “developmental history of the soul”. (This moves from loss of innocence, to a futile struggle to overcome guilt by deeds or knowledge, through to the emergence into a transformed world that represents a new kind of innocence.) Berryman suggests four levels of reading (or playing with) the data he provides: enjoying the history; discovering the larger meaning of the history; finding a personal (existential) meaning; taking action and serving children in ways that are open to grace (201). There is a useful summary of the theologians (with the exception of the most recent) and the reminder that this is not a blame game: what we have is “a hundred-gated cathedral of the spirit”: each theologian is a gateway, though some are broken and some are shut (200).

It is essential in assessing the book to do justice to Berryman’s analysis of the four themes in Chapter Eight). His purpose is not to praise or criticize, but to see into what is true. So ambivalence is always in evidence: that is, people holding mutually conflicting views at the same time about children. The section I found most illuminating was that on Ambiguity, where he lists seven revealing issues. Taking this section into future theology relating to children will help to clarify what we mean and the language that we use. What do we mean by children (babies, children or adolescents)? Are they sinless or sinful? Do they change or stay the same? Do we teach them or do they teach us? Are they mature or immature spiritually? Do they bring trouble or blessing? Do we mean actual, real children, or are we speaking in general, conceptual terms that might include adults? Indifference is the most frustrating of the themes, because it is so hard to know how to engage with it. Grace has something (like Nicholas of Cusa and Jerome Berryman?) “mirthfully paradoxical” about it (215).

Berryman sees Attachment Theory as a way of bringing personal (existential) coherence to the data in the book. He sees a high view of children associated with secure attachment (219); a low view is correlated with ambivalent attachment; and indifference is related to avoidant attachment (which Berryman sees as characteristic of much contemporary church (as well as contemporary culture). Grace is not about leaving thinking behind in order to act, but about changing the way we think and also the way we act (224).

For Berryman a way of showing how this sort of change might look is primarily ecclesiological. He examines how each of the seven (sic) sacraments might be understood and celebrated differently and more richly when there is a high view of children. There are some creative ideas, as we might expect, from the founder of Godly Play. He argues that children are uniquely suited to reveal God’s raw grace because they usally participate in it naturally; the creative process works in them in an intense and unified way; they are open to the whole circle of the creative process. (236) This process includes biological, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions (237-243). Together they interweave love, flow, play and contemplation, which have similar structures.

This leads us to reflect upon where all of this gets us in practice, assuming that is that we wish to respond by taking action.

One of the questions begged throughout the whole book is whether a formal doctrine of children is desirable or practicable. If it were, where would it sit in systematic theology? Part of the doctrine or Trinity? Or a sub-set of Anthropology? Given that Jesus placed a child in the midst as a sign of the kingdom of God, and of himself, perhaps we should find a place in Christology? And what about Ecclesiology and Eschatology? And if we are convinced about the close link between children and grace, then perhaps it is Soteriology where the new doctrine should be placed. A formal doctrine would require a decision of this sort.

The second important question is about children as sacraments. This may be a way of crystallizing the core message of the book. Berryman is pretty clear where he stands. Even if the reader finds it hard to go the whole way with this, the section dealing with the question repays careful study (230-232) and significantly enough Berryman points us to one of the pictures in the book: Emile Nolde’s “Christus und die Kinder”: “The children absorb Christ’s presence and make it manifest rather than only superficially and passively reflecting it. The children’s faces embody Christ’s presence at least as much as bread and wine do. The raw, undifferentiated energy of grace can be felt as it flows out from God as light in the painting through the children to the viewer. The children are the means by which we can receive God’s light without being overwhelmed by Christ’s presence. The children according to this logic, are at ease with being a means of grace.” (231)

Have they been communicating God’s grace throughout history despite the fact that so many theologians were indifferent to it? If so, where do we look for evidence? Or does Berryman have a more subjective idea of sacrament: that is depends on the faith of the recipient rather than on the act and promise of God?

If we are to engage with this possibly ground-breaking book, we must learn to read this, as every other part of it in a spirit of generosity, inquisitveness, wonder, and with a smile. We may not agree with every part (I wonder if Berryman does!), but we should welcome the ideas in a similar spirit to that in which we would wish to welcome a child. I hope that it will make a contribution to the emerging international movement, Child Theology. If it does, this will not be not so much because it offers a flowing narrative or coherent doctrine, but rather more on account of its “rough edges”.

Recommended by: Keith J White

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