Currently I’m at work on a novel—a sci-fi/fantasy about angels and aliens—and while writing this essay I noticed that my story actually contains all the gateways to childhood that I’ve been describing.
My protagonist reflects often on his own childhood; he has a significant relationship with a child; he becomes a Christian and so experiences the first glow of faith; the novel’s central scene takes place in the Garden of Eden; and so on. Moreover I’ve invented an alien world in which the beings begin as adults and grow downwards into children; another where children are treated with complete equality (for example, being allowed to govern); and still another society comprised entirely of children. While I did not consciously plan this parallelism between my fiction and my nonfiction, it shows that art, too—and the subconscious in general—may be potent means of recovering youth.
In 2018 my wife and I moved from the west coast of Canada, where we’d lived for thirty-five years, halfway across the country to Ontario where I grew up. While there were other important reasons for this move, one motive was to return to my roots and to reconnect with that physical environment. For life impels one to become a complete human being, and I sensed that the right conditions for further growth were to be found in the place where I was planted.
The title of this essay employs the word embrace, meant literally. It is not enough to contemplate childlikeness theologically. What is needed is a warmer, deeper, more vibrant experience: an actual embrace across the years, so real as to be felt in the gut. The ancient Hebrews understood three ways of knowing: from the brain, from the heart, and from the bowels. To know in the brain is to know propositionally. To know in the heart is know by feeling. To know in the gut is to know by unknowing, a state attained when the ties of worldly enculturation are so loosened as to allow the Kingdom of God to rush in. Adults possess their own sort of wisdom, but a child knows, and somehow adult and child must reach across the vast gulf to join hands and hearts. Does the child reach too? Oh, yes! The child yearns for the acknowledgment, the loving regard of its older self. Will you grant your little boy his heart’s desire? Will you cherish your little girl? Consider making Catherine Doherty’s favorite prayer your own: “Lord, give me the heart of a child and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”
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The above essay, the fifth of seven parts, is excerpted from An Introduction to Child Theology, edited by James M. Houston, pp 220-29.
I’ve also written on the theme of childhood and childlikeness in my book The Mystery of Children: What Our Kids Teach Us About Childlike Faith, available as a free ebook on this site, or in paper from Amazon.