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A figure stands on a cliff face, looking out across a stormy sea.
Caspar David Friedrich's “Der Mönch am Meer”, 1808-1810.

Theology of the Child

Often children are spoken about as sites of hope. What might it mean to hope for a child beyond projecting imagined futures?

Toward the end of his time on earth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed to write a theology of the child. I have a young child at the moment, and have been reflecting on some of the ways we tend to speak of childhood and growth.

One of the more subtly pernicious ways parents are introduced to ways of thinking about childhood, I think, is through language of milestones or phases of development. Much of this language emerges in parenting literature that seeks to provide the parent with a “what to expect” from your child at different ages or phases of “development.” There are ways in which failure to meet these normative developmental milestones is flagged as something to be monitored, even in more marked cases, medically diagnose or pathologise.

This produces a kind of anxiety in the parent. Are they going to the right daycare? How good are their motor skills? Is their language coming along well enough? This is produced by what in theological terms we might call an anthropological teleology: a way of thinking about the goal (telos) of human life (anthropos). Often this maps unfortunately onto ways of talking about a child’s prospects in an ultra-competitive world of schools and careers. We impute to the child aptitudes from an early age which correspond to career aspirations, the kid who loves blocks becomes the engineer. Parenting becomes a mixture of wanting to let the child be, to enjoy their childhood, to be free of worry, to play, and of wanting to “set them up for success.”

One of the reasons I find these ways of thinking about development pernicious is because they attend to loss or slippage in the wrong place. One of the things I am conscious of constantly in watching my child is that they will never be this way again. That time will march on, that I will never have access to them at this age again. Parenting is, in this sense, a series of losses. Those losses can induce in me a kind of melancholia, a refusal to let go of how my child was, to fix them in my imagination and refuse to let be. Or loss can be the condition of parenting as a kind of letting go of mastery. I’m not to set my child up for success, I’m to give them back to God. This is what Simone Weil calls “decreation”: that creation is always in a process of giving itself back to God, becoming nothing, and that is its goal.

The way we reasoned with ourselves over our child’s baptism was to see it as a form of what you might call parental dispossession. The image of handing over an infant to participation in the death and resurrection of the messiah, independently of their understanding what is taking place, is a strange one. When Abraham was about to slaughter his only son, to wield the knife on the greatest gift ever given, God provided a ram instead. When God handed over his child we spat in its face and slaughtered it ourselves. Might we say that God gives us our children so that we can give them to God? My child is not the site for me to project my unfulfilled dreams of becoming a footballer, or a more successful academic. My child is not a site for me to find myself, but for me to offer my dreams up in favour of hope.

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