Like a child

You may have heard Christians heaping praise on the faith of little children. I’ve sometimes seen it with reference to this passage from Matthew 18:1-6 (ESV),

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous in his answer what the key feature of children is that makes them the greatest in heaven: is it their low status, or their belief in him?

Another passage often cited is Luke 18:15-17 (ESV):

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Again, there’s some ambiguity — this is also invoked to justify infant baptism. But these two passages are often combined to tell adults that they should be trusting, unquestioning, even naive in their faith in Christian teachings.

So it was these two passages I thought of when I saw this ad on a blog I was reading. (Sorry for the lower image quality, it’s a screenshot from my phone.) It’s actually a GIF with a few different children’s pictures, but this is the only frame with the second line of text.

Children believe in miracles.
What if we all did?

RethinkChurch.org
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
The people of the United Methodist Church

Methodists aren’t who I think of when I think of fundamentalist Christianity. The Methodists I know are pretty mainstream, even liberal. That motto, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” sure suggests that they are not the sort of Christians I usually discuss here.

And if you visit the website, the overall message is pretty solid, even I have to admit. They’re talking about welcoming a diverse congregation and helping those in need. Celebrating diversity and promoting charity are values I share. But I don’t hold those values because children do; I value those things because I’ve thought about it and decided they are good ideas.

The fact is, the emphasis on “childlike faith” is troubling no matter who advocates it. The ad text tells us, “Children believe in miracles.” Well, okay, but children also believe there’s a monster under their bed, that you have no idea they ate those cookies despite the crumbs all over their face, and that water poured from a short, wide glass into a taller, thinner glass becomes more water somehow. Kids are great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we should necessarily look to them as a group to figure out what’s true. They’re very much still learning how to process the world using evidence and reason.

Moreover, children don’t believe in [biblical] miracles ex nihilo. They believe in them because you told them they really happened, and they trusted you. It seems a bit backwards to glorify that belief, and to use it to justify your own. Maybe don’t teach children to believe things you think are false, eh?

This ad itself isn’t a big deal, and the website it’s promoting has a heartwarming message. But I think it’s a good illustration of how even warm-and-fuzzy liberal denominations of Christianity can contain and promote harmful memes. I’d be glad if every fundamentalist, literalist, young-Earth creationist switched denominations … but as long as we’re “rethinking church,” I think we can rethink a bit more.

3 thoughts on “Like a child

  1. My first reaction to that ad was much like yours: “Children believe in Santa. What if we all did?”

    Thinking about infant baptism, or any baptism for that matter, I don’t recall the bible saying that Jesus ever made a big thing of performing baptisms. I just looked it up, and there’s two mentions in John, one that he did, and one that it wasn’t actually him, it was the disciples. Other than that, I don’t think there’s a mention. And it apparently doesn’t say anywhere that he baptized his disciples. Funny that so many christians make such a big deal out of doing baptisms, and how, and at what age, when their god-man apparently wasn’t too fussed about doing them himself.

  2. A few days after I came out to my wife as a non-believer, she asked if we could meet with one of our pastors. I was fine with that… this is someone I considered a friend. The meeting went pretty well, with a minimum of preaching. One of the things he made a reference to was these very passages about the need to come to Jesus as a child.

    I probed him about this, because as you say, the meaning is ambiguous. He and I agree that intelligence isn’t the issue (I know a lot of Christians who are smarter than me). But I asked him: What characteristics, demeanor, or approach of a child was Jesus commending when he said this? He was quick to say it wasn’t “childishness” and after a few seconds’ thought he said the main issue was “dependence”: As a child depends on (trusts) a father, so we need to come to God and Jesus as dependent. I pointed out the obvious catch-22: If you don’t believe God exists, and you’re looking for reasons why you should, “coming to God in dependence” makes no sense — there’s no one to come to.

    But I agree with you that the way most “childlike faith” operates is as *credulousness*. As children we believe in God, miracles, and the supernatural because we trust those who raise us, and they believe those things. The chief problem of “childlike faith” is not carefully examining your beliefs and asking, “On what basis do I believe these things?” This is why I think teaching children critical thinking skills and encouraging them to question things is the most important thing we can do for them.

  3. Good stuff. I agree (and thanks for calling out the ambiguity!). We should study and not blindly apply our current culture and experience to ancient passages.

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