Do Children Know God Without Being Taught?
The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) writes of a vision in which a four-sided form, representing the wisdom of God, is connected by a channel to a fetus in the mother’s womb. Through this channel to the child a “fireball” is transmitted, which “pours itself through all the limbs of the person and gives the greenness of the heart and veins and all the organs to the entire body as a tree gives sap and greenness to all the branches from its root...A fireball possesses the heart of this child. Because the soul, burning with the fire of deep understanding and not having the form of human members, discerns different things in its journey of understanding. The fireball…comforts the heart of the human being because it exists so to speak like the foundation of the body” (Fox, 55.)
Hildegard’s vision confronts us with the idea that God may be communicating with us well before we are born. This thought, as well as my own observations of children and my own experiences of God, have led me to ask, “Can we know God without being taught?”
The prevalent theories of faith development, and the curricula for Christian education that have evolved from them, stand in opposition to the idea that we innately know God. As well, the history of Christian thought about children has promoted the idea that children are far from holy and in dire need of instruction. In this paper, after reviewing historical lines of thought regarding children’s spirituality, and the faith development theories of James Fowler and John Westerhoff, I present alternative ideas about faith that allow or support the theory that children know God without being taught. This idea is then examined in light of Scripture.
Tradition: The Child in Christian Thought
For centuries Christians have understood humanity to be marked by original sin. In the West this has been interpreted by Augustine (354-430) and Reformed theologians as a statement of our inherent sinfulness at birth; even the newborn participates in Adam’s sin. Infant baptism, for Augustine, is reclaiming the child for Christ (Guroian, 69ff.)
“By contrast, Chrysostom [347-407] maintains that newborn infants are innocents, wholly without sin” (Guroian, 70.) He interprets original sin not as the passing on of sinfulness, but of mortality; sinfulness then is a result of mortality (Guroian, 67.) Human nature “in its wholeness is mortally wounded by original sin” and its will is “weakened and prone to personal sin, but [infants] are still innocents” (Guroian, 69ff.) For Chrysostom then, baptism of infants is not done to reclaim them, but to fortify them for a life of spiritual combat. Thus, baptism’s importance for Chrysostom is not solely tied to its remedial power, but to its incorporation of the infant into the church, the body of Christ. Infants are baptized into the church “because they benefit from the care and discipline of adults experienced in the spiritual struggle” (Guroian, 70.)
It is of course Augustine’s interpretation of original sin that has dominated Christian thought in the West. For Aquinas (1225-1274), infants bear the stain of original sin, but are not capable of actual sin. Aquinas allowed for the idea of the innocence of infants, since they do not yet have the capacity for reason; yet “for Thomas, children are bearers of actual – but not existential – innocence: afflicted with a fault that does not automatically consign them to hell, neither are they models of purity or virtue” (Traina, 131.) They are, then, not spiritual models for adults to follow; “they are incomplete, lacking both wisdom and active virtue” (Traina, 128.)
John Calvin (1509-1564) not only upheld the doctrine of original sin as it came from Augustine, but “against the dominant patristic and medieval traditions, Calvin and some of his contemporaries, especially Luther and Melanchthon, understood original sin itself to consist of an inherited...
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