In The Mystery of the Child well-known American Lutheran scholar, Martin Marty combines the detail and thoroughness of a historian with a fresh theological thesis that provides caregivers of children with new insights about the meaning of childhood and the gift of childhood. In Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood, David H. Jensen, assistant professor of theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, considers children not for what they will become but for what they are—God’s elect, conceived in vulnerability in the image of God.
While the qualities of childlike wonder and play are part of The Mystery of the Child and the unassuming charm of a child is a feature of Graced Vulnerability, readers will find no romantic views of childhood here as both books build in complexity, culling the works of artists, philosophers and theologians. With a backdrop of the thousands of children that are victimized by war, hunger and economic and sexual abuse both authors explore the biblical child, the modern child and future child with the best tools available for understanding how children thrive and how adults benefit from their relationships with children as parents, educators, ministers and other caregivers.
Jensen and Marty both draw on the thought of Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner (1904–1984), whose brief but significant writings on the theology of childhood have contributed to new approaches in the religious education of children. Rahner views the child from the beginning as a complete person and partner with God. *The child’s relationship with God is actual and not merely potential, giving childhood a value in itself and not simply a step toward adulthood.
In Graced Vulnerability Dr. Jensen offers an easy to read style with a thesis that is well researched and compelling. He examines the myth of childhood innocence where the child is protected and sheltered from the world and where the child is seen as a tabula rasa (blank slate) that simply needs correct imprinting by the adult world. Jensen compares this with the opposite myth that children are inherently selfish and need to have the sin beat out of them.
Jensen’s alternative is scriptural, doctrinal, and practical. He considers the children first. Their vulnerability, he writes, demonstrates a fundamental quality in our humanity and in the very nature of God. “By becoming vulnerable with the children in our midst, we not only stake a claim with their lives, we also understand more fully what it means to be created in God’s image and what it means to be church.” “Childhood in this sense,” concludes Jensen, “is a two-way street. Children grow into adulthood, but adults also learn from children. Each stage of human life is precious and valuable in its own right….”
Honoring the difference in each child as he or she learns and grows through play and imagination helps adults to see the differently created persons they, too, are called to be. “In attending to children we are opened anew to God’s grace in the world.” In the end, Jensen’s thesis reminds us of the One who became incarnate and vulnerable for our sake and leads us to listen again to the Gospel’s call to become like a child. In this story Jensen sees Jesus turning convention on its head by proposing a reversal of status that means accepting the vulnerable and learning from them.
In The Mystery of the Child Dr. Marty writes for both scholars and practitioners. He applies to the child the distinction between a problem and a mystery, borrowed from French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973). Marty views the child not as a problem to be solved but as a mystery to be enjoyed and contemplated. “Mystery” not as something arcane and not in the colloquial sense as in “This child is a mystery to me!” but the sense of mystery that surrounds us, draws us into itself and yet can never be grasped in its totality. With mystery there is always more to experience and comprehend. Considering the child as mystery rather than a problem that has to be controlled and disciplined does not discount or minimize the social realities of childhood.
“I welcome the contributions of social scientists to the study of the child, but they deal chiefly with “problem” and the child. I don’t think they have as much to say about “the mystery” of the child. I compare the mystery of the child to the mystery of a work of art: I am not sure that social scientists have much to say to help in interpreting a Mozart sonata, a Monet painting or a chocolate soufflé. Dealing with the child demands many approaches and disciplines, so experts who deal with each need one another.”
In his book Marty pursues only this one theme, the mystery of the child, but he approaches it from countless literary, philosophical and biblical roads all of which ultimately lead to the analogy of the child as “created in the image of God.”
In this liturgical season when Christians commemorate the epiphany of God in a child, these wise men bring gifts of faith, scholarship and a profound care for children.
*For an excellent article on the ideas of Jesuit Father Karl Rahner on childhood see The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Chapter 16 by Mary Ann Hinsdale, “Infinite Openness to the Infinite: Karl Rahner’s Contribution to Modern Catholic Thought on the Child.” (Reviewed in TLC, Spring, 2005).
Jack Miffleton is a teacher and musician. His songs are sung in classrooms and churches around the world. He is theological consultant and music director for the I Am Special program published by OSV Publications. He teaches music at Saint Jarlath School in Oakland, California, is married, and has a grown son.
Carey and Carol Jean have composed new music for the entire school year and every liturgical season. Based on Scripture and reflecting sound theology, the songs feature refrains that are fun and easy for young people to sing.