MARCIA J. BUNGE
Whether or not we have children of our own, we are concerned about children in our midst and in our wider culture. Are they being raised with love and affection? Are they receiving a good education? Are they being exposed to good role models? How do we account for the serious problems many of them are facing, such as abuse, depression, teenage pregnancy, and poverty? Our concerns and questions are reflected in the growing number of public debates across liberal and conservative lines about children. Diverse political parties, non-profit agencies, and religious groups are focusing more attention on a number of issues, including child health and safety, education, child poverty, juvenile crime, child neglect and abuse, and the moral development of children. Certainly, the severity of these problems is highly debated, and there is disagreement about whether the present situation of children is better or worse than it was in the past. Nevertheless, broad public concern for children and heightened recognition of the tremendous challenges they face are unmistakable.
This widespread concern is one of the many reasons that interest in children is growing in a range of academic disciplines, reaching well beyond those fields that have typically devoted attention to children, such as education and child psychology. For example, beginning with the influential 1960 study by Philippe Ariès, a number of historians have been directly exploring the history of childhood in the West. Recently, studies on the history of childhood in non-Western cultures have emerged as well. During the past ten years, several studies have also emerged in the field of philosophy, particularly on philosophical conceptions of childhood, on children's cognitive and philosophical capacities, and on children's rights. In addition, there is a lively debate among sociologists regarding children, especially in relation to the effects of divorce and single parenting on children. Certainly, studies in the area of psychology continue to explore many aspects of children's lives. For example, classic works such as those by Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan have attempted to paint a more sophisticated picture of the moral development of children. Other studies have focused more directly on the religious perceptions and faith development of children.
Studies such as these are helping us to reflect more seriously on a number of questions regarding the nature of children and the obligations of parents and the wider community to children. The historical studies highlight conceptions of childhood and how they can change over time, and they prompt us to reflect on our own current attitudes toward and assumptions about childhood. The psychological and philosophical studies shed light on the complex emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual lives of children, and they raise a number of important questions about the development of children, about our treatment of them, and about their religious worlds. Studies in these and other disciplines, particularly sociology and law, have also challenged us to think not only about the obligations of parents toward their own children but also about the responsibilities of schools, religious organizations, local communities, and the state for nurturing children.
The Current State of Theological Reflection on Children
When we ask what Christian theology might contribute to this wider public and academic debate about children or how it might help us to reflect on our notions about the nature of children and our obligations to them, one can easily suspect that it has very little to offer and is perhaps even destructive. The grounds for this suspicion are compelling and are twofold.
In the first place, until very recently, issues related to children have tended to be marginal in almost every area of contemporary theology. For example, systematic theologians and Christian ethicists have said little about children, and they have not regarded serious reflection on children as a high priority. What Todd Whitmore has claimed about the Catholic Church can be applied to Christian theology in general: there is no well-developed social teaching on the nature of children and why we should care about and for them. Although the church has highly developed teachings on other issues, such as abortion, economic justice, and moral conduct in war, theologians have not offered sustained reflection on the nature of children or on the obligations that parents, the state, and the church have to nurture children. Furthermore, children do not play a role in the way that systematic theologians think about central theological themes, such as the human condition, the nature of faith, language about God, the task of the church, and the nature of religion. Certainly, issues regarding children have sometimes been addressed in theological reflection on the family. However, as Whitmore points out, "For the most part, church teaching simply admonishes the parents to educate their children in the faith and for children to obey their parents." The absence of well-developed and historically and biblically informed teachings about children in contemporary theology helps explain why many churches often struggle to create and to sustain strong programs in religious education and in child-advocacy ministry.
In the second place, since little serious attention has been given to children in contemporary theology, assumptions about Christian perspectives on children are often shaped mainly by recent and disturbing studies about the religious roots of child abuse. Some of the most familiar studies have exposed what has been called a "poisonous pedagogy" in some past and present strains of European and American Protestantism. This type of inhumane pedagogy stresses the absolute obedience of children to parents, the sinful nature or depravity of children, and the need to "break their wills" at a very early age with harsh physical punishment. According to some of these studies, the idea that children are sinful and thus must have their wills "broken" is often supported by the notions that since God punishes his people, parents must punish their children, and that obedience to God demands absolute obedience to parents, even if they are acting unjustly. This kind of religious reasoning and the emphasis on the depravity of children have apparently led, in some cases, to the physical abuse and even death of children, including infants. Most of these studies recognize that the Christian tradition is diverse and that Christianity has at times protected children and helped them to achieve wholeness. However, without further knowledge about what the church yesterday and today has said about children, and without focused attention on children in contemporary theology, it is easy to assume that what Christian theology offers to contemporary reflection on children is at best irrelevant and at worst destructive. If one believes that viewing children as sinful often fosters inhumane treatment of them, and if one observes that many theologians, both in the present and in the past, regard children mainly as sinful, then one will assume that most forms of Christianity are potentially destructive. Furthermore, even if theologians were to rule out explicitly the physical punishment of children, the view of children as sinful can appear to be hopelessly out of touch with common psychological conceptions of children that emphasize their potential for development and their need for loving nurture.
Several recent studies, however, are beginning to provide a fuller picture of Christian views of children and to enrich theological reflection on children, thereby enabling theologians to contribute more fully to the debate about children today. This is especially the case in the areas of pastoral care, ethics, and the history of Christianity. For example, several ethicists and pastoral theologians, especially through the Religion, Culture, and Family Project headed by Don Browning, have generated a number of new studies that focus directly on the family and in this way are shedding light on issues regarding children. Others are combining attention to gender equity or reproductive issues with concerns for children and the family. Some pastoral theologians, such as Herbert Anderson and Susan Johnson, are focusing more attention directly on the church's attitudes toward and treatment of children. They are also exploring more fully the spiritual formation of children and the role of parents in this formation. In the area of the history of Christianity, several important studies have discussed children in the context of theological views of motherhood or the family. The number of historical studies devoted specifically to children and their treatment in the church has also been increasing.
The Necessity, Purpose, and Scope of This Book
Although research regarding children is beginning to emerge within several areas of theology, the current literature still lacks a full account of past theological perspectives on children and our obligations to them. Beyond material provided in the above-mentioned research on the religious roots of child abuse and other recent historical studies, we know little about what theologians in the past have actually said about children or how they have treated them, especially when compared to other themes or ethical concerns in theology. Furthermore, some studies about the views of past theologians regarding children can be misleading because they do not always take into account either the larger theological framework of a particular theologian or his or her specific social and historical context. Thus, a fuller account of past theological perspectives on children could help amplify and provide a corrective to the current literature. Such an account could also prompt more serious theological reflection on children among theologians and ethicists today, because they depend on strong accounts of past theological perspectives whenever they attempt to construct meaningful responses to contemporary challenges.
The main purpose of this volume is to offer a critical examination of past theological perspectives on children in order to strengthen ethical and theological reflection on children today and to contribute to the current academic and broader public discussion on children. In this sense—although the contributing authors come from the fields of ethics, the history of Christianity, pastoral care, and systematic theology—the volume can most accurately be described as a study within the area of historical theology. The main task of historical theologians is to examine carefully and critically past theological positions and to outline their implications for today. Thus, the authors in this volume have examined the theological perspectives of a number of influential theologians and movements in the history of Christian thought with regard to the following central question: What resources do they provide, if any, for reconsidering our views of children and our obligations to children? The essays therefore address the following specific questions:
- How do these selected theologians and the leaders of these movements speak about the nature of children?
- How do they speak about the responsibilities and obligations of parents, the state, and the church to nurture children?
- How are their ideas about children and obligations to them related to the larger theological framework and the central theological concerns of each theologian or movement?
- How are their ideas related to their particular social, cultural, and political contexts?
- What are the implications of these ideas for our contemporary views of children and our obligations to them?
Since the contributing authors examine a variety of periods, thinkers, and movements, and since they work with diverse kinds of sources, their approaches and emphases vary. However, since the book as a whole is a study within the area of historical theology, all of the authors attempt to combine historical integrity, theological insight, and resonance with contemporary issues.
More particularly, the volume examines the ideas of the following individuals and movements: (1) selected theologians, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, who have significantly shaped theology and the church; (2) selected theologians, such as Jonathan Edwards and Horace Bushnell, who have influenced many of the ways we still think about children and child rearing in the United States today; and (3) selected groups and movements—such as the Jesuits and Ursulines of the seventeenth century, the Pietists of the early eighteenth century, and the black women's clubs of the nineteenth century—that worked closely with children. The mixture of theologians and movements generates a richer theological discussion about children and helps reveal a variety of attitudes and behaviors toward children in the history of Christianity. The book does focus mainly on highly influential theologians, some of whom touched on the themes of children only marginally. The history of Christianity contains many other sources that have reflected more extensively—and, in some cases, with more insight—on children. However, it is important to examine these influential figures because they have greatly informed cultures and Christian theology and continue to shape the beliefs and practices of living communities of faith today. Just as feminist and womanist theologies have recognized that a critical examination of views of women within the Christian tradition must include the study of some of its most influential figures, a study of both the possibilities and the limitations of Christian perspectives on children must include an account of how some of the most influential figures in the tradition have thought about and acted toward children. It is hoped that this study, which does not aim to be exhaustive but which is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, will prompt further research into the ideas of other theologians and into the religious worlds of children themselves.
Claims and Contributions of This Volume
By carefully examining selected theological perspectives of the past, this book as a whole makes three general claims and thereby offers three significant contributions to the discussion of children today.
First and most generally, by using childhood as a "lens" to examine the past, the study uncovers neglected aspects of the ideas and practices of theologians and movements and thus contributes to the history of Christian thought and of conceptions of childhood. The essays reveal a range of attitudes and behaviors toward children within Christian thought that is broader than much of the current literature suggests, and they indicate that childhood has not always been a marginal theme in Christian theology.
Second, the volume reveals varied perspectives among theologians on the nature of children, particularly in regard to the notion of the child as sinful. More specifically, it shows that notions of original sin and "breaking the will" are complex and do not automatically lead to the harsh punishment of children, and that the idea of original sin, set within a particular larger theological framework, has in some cases fostered the more humane treatment of children. The essays also make it clear that several theologians radically reinterpret or even reject the notion of original sin as something children inherit, and they provide alternative perspectives on sin and the nature of children. By examining these various perspectives on the nature of children, the study provides a partial corrective to the current discussion of religion and child abuse, and it offers both "more negative" and "more positive" views of the nature of children that challenge many contemporary and often oversimplified conceptions of children.
Third, the study finds that several theologians took obligations and responsibilities toward children seriously: they emphasized the role of parents in the religious formation of children, outlined particular obligations of the church and the state, and understood care of and advocacy for children as central to Christian life and faith. By outlining some of these perspectives, the study can help to strengthen contemporary theological reflection on parenting and to foster further discussion about the responsibilities of the church, the community, and the state to children. The study also offers those within the church several theological grounds for child advocacy and prompts all readers —whatever our religious or philosophical commitments —to re-evaluate our own convictions about parental and communal responsibilities toward children and perhaps to discover obstacles that are preventing us from treating more children with care and compassion.
The following three sections provide a more complete discussion of each of these general claims and contributions of the volume and in this way highlight some of the most significant themes found within particular essays.