Life: Child's play: making up God as they go

After weeks of being bombarded by advertising it should be no surprise that children become materialistic at Christmas. Yet as Angela Lambert reports, they retain hidden depths of spirituality
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A little girl from a non-religious background, asked to describe God, says: "It's like she's got an answerphone, so when people pray to her she can listen even if she's out."

A boy disagrees: "I think God might be two sexes together in one and the three different colours of black, white and brown. Or he might even be something else. We'll never know."

Three Catholic children speculate what God might be like. The first, a girl of eight, says: "One day we'll hear a booming voice and it'll be God and he'll say, `No more wars'." Her seven-year-old sister disagrees: "He'd make the things in the shops not be so expensive, but he'd make people not care about chocolate bars." Their five-year-old brother interrupts: "No he won't, he'll say there are to be no murderers, no burglars and no girls."

How many parents ever stop to wonder if their children have an interior life, let alone a spiritual one? As under-10s power their way through the day, fizzing with energy, squealing, shouting, sobbing, standing on their heads, bouncing up and down, they seem the most purely physical of beings.

Yet two noted theologians, one a father of five children, the other a woman with four children aged between two weeks and eight years, both assert that children have profound and imaginative spiritual lives, regardless of background faith.

John Hull is professor of religious education at the University of Birmingham. He is also blind. With his shock of greying hair and long beard, he resembles an Old Testament prophet.He is one of the most eloquent critics of government policy on religion in schools, and the Government listens to his views.

Professor Hull draws on conversations with his own five children to demonstrate their ability to think in large concepts. He tells me about his four-year-old daughter experimenting with the idea of getting older. "Finally she asked, `How long do the numbers go on for?' I told her, `The numbers go on and on and on for ever and ever,' and she said, `Whew!' This child had got a glimpse of infinity that took her right out of the confines of her own biological individuality to a sense of wonder and delight which is an expression of spirituality.

"My six-year-old asked me, `Is God a lady?' I started to give him a careful, politically correct explanation of how God combines both sexes. He could hardly wait for me to end before saying triumphantly, `Well if God's a lady, then the Virgin Mary must be a man!' He's hopelessly mixed up but does it matter, as long as he is learning that religious ideas are not fixed?"

Carolyn Butler trained as a theologian and is now a religious broadcaster and mother of four young children. "Interviewing children for a programme about their spirituality, I found that a lot of them talked about peace: not world peace, but peace and quiet," she says. "I think they are looking for time to make sense of their world."

She toured several schools and talked to children from many faiths and those with none. "I was surprised that all the children I talked to used religious vocabulary. I thought they'd either be very halting and shy, or cynical, but they had a lot to say.

"For a start, they took belief for granted. Children's spirituality is innate. In young children there's an incredible openness and receptiveness. They seem to think with God rather than opposed to him. My eight-year-old said, `If people don't believe i n God, he gets upset because he is real.'

"I find it sad that children aren't given very much time simply to be bored. That may sound funny, but there's not much time or space for them to be thoughtful. One definition of spirituality is the basic search for meaning; and children need time to make sense of their lives just as much as adults."

She makes a point of encouraging her own children to talk about their inner or spiritual world. "I began by doing meditation with them, mainly because I wanted to calm down one of my children, who finds it very difficult to switch off mentally and often gets extremely agitated.

"We went through the normal bedtime routine with a story and songs, and then I turned off the light and suggested they thought of a garden, with a pool or a lake, and then imagined treasures or problems, put them there and left them. At first they were terribly giggly and found it all hilarious, but gradually they stopped fidgeting and did relax and seemed to experience an overall calm. Since then, to my surprise, they've often asked to do it again. They lie in a dark room, completely still and quiet, and all I have to do is say, `Garden...'."

Does she worry that the commercial world and children's cartoon culture deny them the freedom of their own imagination? "I think spirituality today is uphill work for all of us because of that culture. We live in a consumer society and on the whole that makes for a consumer spirituality and a lot of shopping around. We start transferring our spiritual needs on to the economic plane. We shop for the latest fad, and children especially get very excited because it's as though a spiritual need is going to be met, but of course it's not. So we're caught in a trap where we endlessly want to buy things in order to feel fulfilled but we never are. This is a distortion of our real hunger, because spirituality is not about buying things but about giving up things and making sacrifices, and those disciplines are hard for us all.

Professor Hull feels, too, that the overemphasis on material goods makes it harder for us to recognise that children have inner lives. "Things go wrong when children are brought up to live just for themselves in the belief that money is all-engrossing.

I t is as innate to share as to grasp, but we are brought up in a culture where the hand is seen mainly as an instrument of possession. The culture of money is a deterrent, showing a contempt for children's spirituality.

"Spirituality is not an add-on or extra bit; it's part of their whole human potential. We shouldn't ask whether children are spiritual, but why so many grown-ups are not. The opposite of spirituality is to be entirely locked in our own bodies and engrossed in our own lives, regardless of the human gifts of speech, memory and sexuality. Religion is only an articulate and crystallised form of spirituality, but not the only form. It can also be found in art and, supremely, through love, so that children brought up in a loving atmosphere will grow up with empathy towards others. It is not natural to live entirely for yourself.

"Young children have a spontaneous love of religious language and they ask questions about God. At the age of four, my daughter blew through pursed lips and then said, `I'm being naughty, Daddy, I'm blowing on God!' She was playing with the idea that Godis in the air, God is everywhere. Children have a sense of the incongruity and humour of religious language; they are sensitive to its oddity and strange potency."

Does this mean that children brought up without knowledge of a tradition of faith are being deprived of something vital?

"Yes, I think so. Religions are the most powerful accumulations of the human spirit. They can also be toxic and false; but they do represent the accumulated treasures of human spirituality. The great religions, at their best, offer an integration of history and culture and ethics which has a sustaining power. These are the ongoing traditions which shape and enrich people's lives."

How can God be expected to make a difference to children? "He is not like other authority figures in their lives. No other such figure is everywhere present, and children find the thought of God's ubiquity amusing. But God shouldn't be used to make children be good. Child control through coalition with God is a disastrous policy and an indication of parental weakness. We cannot help presenting our children with an image of God which is the model of our own relationship with them. If you ar e the sort ofparent who depends upon power and size and strength, then willy-nilly you will implant an authoritarian conscience into the child, and set him up for life as someone for whom God is a God of power, taboo and guilt. One has to set up God as t he lover ofcreation, the burden-bearer, the gate-opener and companion for life.

Carolyn Butler agrees: "Rather than being hesitant and searching for the truth with the child, we feel we must give them big answers or platitudes like Jesus loves you - which means nothing to a child. It's my most loathed cliche because it won't provokea conversation or a question. Children get fobbed off so often that, by the time they're teenagers, they have lost interest. It's better to give small answers that spring from real experience rather than big but meaningless answers."

What, then, should secular parents do? I asked John Hull.

"Parents tell their children stories about Father Christmas which they know aren't true, so why not tell stories of God, even if they don't personally believe them? They need to understand that much of the Bible is just like Shakespeare - stories to meetthe needs of the day. It's astonishing how many people fail to grasp that the Bible is not literally true. It's like a great art gallery: some of the pictures are good and some are bad; some Bible stories are dark, some light. They enable children to find ways of talking about their own lives and problems - through stories like Cain and Abel or Abraham and Isaac."

"Spiritual education is just good parenting: showing children how to share, make friends, and be loyal to them. These are what make life worth living, not status. Jesus says, `Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water I shall give will never thirst, for the water that I shall give will be like an eternal spring."

Carolyn Butler's programme, `Little Angels', will be broadcast on the BBC World Service at 2.30am and 4.15pm on Christmas Day and repeated at 7.30am on Boxing Day. John Hull's booklet, `God-talk with Young Children', can be obtained from the Department of Education at Birmingham University.