When I was little, there were many magical moments. One such moment happened when I entered the living room and found presents under the Christmas tree. Call it Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, or whatever you want – but it was mysterious, and I was in.
This was a wonderful time – and perhaps you can remember such a time in your own life. Or if you have kids, perhaps you know the delight in ‘playing along’ with the story, vicariously experience the joy and innocence once again.
But it can’t last forever – can it?
I suppose we could all mutually agree to believe what we know isn’t the case – and in some ways, you could say that given our Christmas-overkill every year we do exactly that. We reinforce the illusion, by some mutual agreement (which must be some marketer’s dream).
But then a ten-year-old who has figured it out says to her younger brother, “You know Santa isn’t real, right?” And Christmas is ruined. If only he could go back to his child-like faith.
I wonder if there are parallels to this scenario in the life of faith. Jesus certainly commends children as ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ and calls us to receive the kingdom ‘like a little child’. The phrase ‘faith of a child’ or ‘child-like faith’ does not actually appear in the Bible, though the idea is certainly present.
I often hear this referenced when someone takes part in a discussion about hard to understand issues or when learning something that might challenge an aspect of his or her faith that perhaps had been taken for granted.
“But you just have to have a child-like faith.”
But what is a child-like faith?
When Jesus mentions that children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he is noting their humility – not their ability to believe certain things about God, nor their ability to believe almost anything. In Matthew 18 he is contrasting children with those who argue and fight about who is the greatest. (Though I know some kids who have the same argument!).
In Mark 10 he talks about receiving the kingdom like a little child. Here I think the focus is being open to what God is doing in the world. This may be in contrast to those who were skeptical or critical of the things Jesus was doing as he proclaimed the kingdom – teaching, healing, eating with outsiders, etc. So there definitely is an element of openness and embracing what God is saying and doing. Children probably didn’t have the status of adults, and Jesus may be surprising his listeners with who is actually included in the kingdom – children, prostitutes, tax collectors. The kingdom is for ‘the least of these.’
We all know there is something about grown-ups that gets in the way of relationships, that makes simple things more complicated, that is less willing to trust, and so on.
Further, in a complicated, intimidating world we want something that is easily graspable, something that we can hold on to easily, something that soothes and calms our fears.
Even David in the Psalms yearns for the simplicity of a child:
“I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
There is a time to just sit and rest in God. He is vastly greater than we are, and it is a great comfort to simply trust in his goodness. That is a very biblical thing to do and is one of the supreme joys of faith.
So what are we to do when things get complicated, as they inevitably do? I suppose we could retreat and ‘find a happy place’. Or plug our ears and simply ignore whatever is going on. Or say, “I just want a child-like faith.” Or tap our heels and say, “There’s no place like home.”
But we do not remain children. We grow up.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The Apostle Paul noted as much:
“When I was a child,
I talked like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
Some say faith is becoming ‘too heady’. Perhaps we have Paul to thank for that. Or the church fathers. Or the desert fathers. Or the various councils that met early on to hammer out incredibly heady ideas. Or Thomas Aquinas. Or Duns Scotus. Or Anselm of Canterbury. Or John Calvin. Or the medieval scholastics who wrote volumes and volumes of incredibly dense theology.
The idea that faith is getting ‘more heady’ is probably not actually the case. In fact, perhaps we are coming out of a time of when the faith has been ‘dumbed down’, and now some are attempting to deconstruct a few of the concepts that came out of our dumbing down period (the explosive growth of fundamentalism in the 20th century). So maybe there is a reapprehension of the faith taking place. A return to thinking. This might be painful to some, but, in reality – this probably happens in every generation.
One might also point out that the very things we might call the ‘simple aspects’ of faith are themselves the results of some very heady dialogue, hard work and intense thinking. Let’s take one issue: the Trinity. As Christians we take this aspect of God for granted, but it took centuries of thought and argument for this ‘simple’ concept to be worked out. Or the divinity of Jesus. This also took centuries to work itself out. Or pick your favorite ‘simple’ doctrine. The idea that there was a pristine time when faith was simple and we didn’t have to think about things but just trust in God is an illusion.
Even in Jesus’ day children were expected to memorize vast portions of the Torah, if not the whole Torah itself. That’s way too heady for most of us. And that was the expectation for children. So perhaps the faith of a child is the faith of one who takes their faith seriously. Who takes God seriously. Who commits their hearts and minds to knowing God as well as possible, by taking the textual tradition they’ve been handed seriously, and when the kingdom is breaking in around them (even in unexpected ways!) – they are open to it.
Additionally, Jesus himself was one who did quite a bit of deconstructing of what many took for granted. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”
So when we look for cracks in the settled foundations of our assumptions, perhaps we are simply walking in the path of the Master himself, who called us to be as children, without actually becoming children.
After all, when I was a child, I thought like a child.
But we are no longer children, and we must – at some point – put childish ways behind us.