Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom :: What the child learns the adult does not abandon

(For the next several months I will be participating in this book club on Desiring the Kingdom , hosted by Mystie at Simply Convivial. If you missed my earlier posts you can find them here)

Last week was all about the human person as a lover, who is a desiring creature. This last section of Chapter 1 takes a look at how persons as lovers behave and why.

Smith begins by talking about what he calls the social imaginary. This refers to what lies under the surface of what we think about and/or believe. The social imaginary is the way people imagine their social surroundings and these imaginings are conveyed through stories, songs, legends and images. Because the social imaginary paints a picture of the "good life" the understanding that each person has of it is below the consciousness on a gut level. It's a non-cognitive, or even pre-cognitive understanding of the image of the life we desire. We could describe it as the background of our knowledge in that it is an inarticulate understanding of one's whole situation.

What strikes me is that this imaginary is necessarily social. Stories, pictures, legends are all passed down from person to person and all have elements of relationship in them. They paint a picture of how "I" stand in relation to the world. Reminds me of Charlotte Mason when she says that "education is the science of relations" .

Smith says,

Discipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively "understands" the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel.  

This is such an important point being made. It seems to me that if we want to raise children who are Christians and who will choose to live Christian lives then we need to begin from the beginning. When a baby is born we don't immediately begin by teaching him to speak or to be self sufficient. The very idea sounds absurd. No, we begin with a baby by holding him, kissing him, smiling at him and talking to him. Gentle touch, soft sounds, meeting his every need. We let him get used to and begin to understand his surroundings in an instinctual way. It is non-cognitive and is absorbed by the child effortlessly. He gradually begins to understand who his parents are and becomes comfortable in his home. Little by little he begins to understand that he can control his arms and legs and begins to use them consciously. He imitates his parents' actions and speech and eventually makes them his own. This is all done prior to even speaking his first word. It is instinctual and intuitive.

My belief, and it seems to correlate with what Smith is saying, is that we should approach a child's faith in the same way: begin with actions first. We Orthodox teach children to make the sign of the cross, to kiss the icons, to sing in church, to bow and kneel and prostrate. They learn willingly and are happy to imitate their parents. We teach them to memorize prayers and scripture even before they can understand what they are actually saying, and their souls are shaped by the very act of speaking the words. [Fr. Tom Hopko says that when we go to church, we are not there to pray about what is on our minds, but we need to put our minds where our mouths are; we need to think about what it is that we are already saying. The prayers are given to us. We need to bring ourselves to pray them. As we sing in the Cherubic Hymn right before the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy: "now let us lay aside all earthly cares".] They can live and breathe the Christian life before they are even aware of any rational explanation or understanding.

Doctrines are the cognitive, theoretical articulation of what we "understand" when we pray. 

Our children can understand in their hearts long before they will ever be able to put their understanding into words. We as parents and teachers should take advantage of this and use the time we have with them right from the beginning. It is up to us to model and help them form the habits that will define them as Christian persons.

Those of us who have young children can see this clearly. When one of my children offends ones of his or her siblings, we ask him or her to apologize. A two or three year old may not fully understand what he is saying when he says "I'm sorry", but that certainly doesn't mean that we have to wait until he understands before we teach him to apologize. We teach our children to do before we expect them to understand. It is our responsibility, our duty, to teach our children how to act as Christians.

As Shinichi Suzuki says in his book Nurtured by Love,

The habit of action - this, I think, is the most important thing we must acquire. Life's success or failure actually depends on this one thing. So what should we do? We should get so that it is second nature to put our thoughts into action. 
If we are successful in teaching them how a Christian ought to behave then they have a bit of a head start as they come to a more rational understanding of the Christian life.

One more point to be made here is this: if we want to have a Christian culture, we need to have practices in place that help us to learn how to relate to each other. That's really what culture is - a way of relating with the others around us that is acceptable to all involved. We are formed by the culture around us and we also form the culture ourselves. There is a powerful connection between what we do and what we intend and what culture tells us to do and what the culture intends. What's wonderful is that as Orthodox we don't have to make up our own Christian cultural practices from scratch. The Church, which has existed for 2000+ years, has kept that culture in tact for us. There have been those who have deviated and walked away from the Church's teachings, but the Church herself has retained what it had from its very inception. We only have to conform ourselves to what has already been established as the Christian way of relating to God and to others and to the world. By conforming ourselves, we then preserve and perpetuate that culture and so are able to pass it on to our children.

 book club


  1. When we relate it to how we naturally teach small children, you are right, the emphasis on practice developing love and understanding makes much more sense.

  2. I love the pictures, and the Suzuki quote.
    I think your description of how you teach small children is in line with what Smith seems to be saying, and it makes a lot of sense. Liturgy is something you participate in way before you understand what it is about -- so it's a way of bringing mysterious, immense things into your concrete life. That is a great way to look at it. Even though I may understand the practices of our faith more cognitively than a small child does, I am not sure I really "participate" in it with my whole self any more than they do. Perhaps less in fact.

  3. Yes, it is so much easier to understand with the mind than it is to fully participate with the heart! I think that one of the greatest blessings of the liturgical life of the church is the fact that even if we miss out this time around, we will come back to each season and have the chance to dig deeper and participate more fully next time. The cycle continues and repentance can be lived out step by step. I wrote a bit about it in this post:



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