Instances of Discovery

[NOTE: There is much wisdom in the C. S. Lewis principle, stated in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” By “old” he meant really old, centuries or even millennia old. These days, however, even “last year’s” books are considered “old hat.” With a nod to Lewis, I’m going to reflect here on a book published three decades ago.]

Jesus told his disciples, Let the children come and don’t get in their way (Mt 19:13-14). He said that unless you become like children you are not worthy of God’s reign (Mt 18:2- 3). Paul wrote that when he was a child he spoke, thought, and reasoned like a child, but when he became a man he gave up childish ways (1 Cor 13: 11).

There is not as much contradiction here as the words seem to imply—“childish” and “childlike” are not synonyms. But churches have tilted too much toward Paul. We treat the faith as an adult possession that we hand on to children. We give, they receive.

In 1987 and 1988 the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, where I was executive director, had an inquiry called “Transmitting Tradition to Children and Young People.” The adults in the group were encouraged to remember what it was like being a kid. One recalled, painfully: “I knew some things about God, but grownups told me they weren’t so. Faith for me has always been a consciousness divided between what I know and what others tell me is true.” She grew up on a farm and inventively solved the problem of dealing with adults who thought she was wrong: she stood on tree stumps and preached to the cows.

The children and young people who joined our Institute inquiry constructed a list—a long list—of faith questions they had always wanted to ask adults. Our attempts to answer were not disasters, exactly, but they were certainly comic.

We would go on at great length responding to a question, then ask if they wanted us to say more, and they invariably replied we had said too much already. We would offer what we thought was an appropriately brief answer to another question, then ask what they wanted us to talk about next, and they invariably chided us for not taking their question seriously enough. Our estimate of the relative weight of their questions was all wrong all the time. We listened, but were tone-deaf.

Cross-generational communication and comprehension are difficult and elusive, as any parent knows, as any teacher of a Sunday School or religion class knows. But tough as it is, these days we have not only the moral pressure to make contact across generations (even if only in isolated moments of so-called “quality time”), but also the psychological mandate to get in touch with our own inner child.

Such talk sometimes annoys me, but when my own therapist welcomed a refreshing breakthrough by saying I had finally let the little boy in me come out of hiding, I had to admit she knew what she was talking about. So: I know what needs to be done. I need to listen to kids. The church needs to listen to kids. Can anybody help?

Enter Robert Coles.

Child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, prolific author, and chronicler of the experience of children in the racial crises and poverty crises of our time, Coles turned his attention to a subject that he says was staring him in the face for decades, but because of his professional and intellectual prejudices he didn’t even notice it. Of course in his thousands of clinical and interview encounters with children he had sometimes heard God talk and church talk, echoes of the Bible and references to Jesus, but his psychiatric training had conditioned him to see such language as symptomatic of something else. In retrospect he says simply, “I did not follow the leads” (xv).

When, together with his wife, who has been his research colleague throughout his career, he began to go over the transcripts of interviews from years past, he was startled to see how many and various were the “lost opportunities,” the “hints not pursued” (xv).

Coles’s 1990 book, The Spiritual Life of Children (it's still available for purchase), is what happened when he finally decided to follow the leads.

He did not have to start from scratch. He had already been nudged in this direction by two mentors.

One is Anna Freud, daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis, who was herself an eminent analyst but of a sunnier disposition than her father. Two of her pieces of advice to Coles were crucial.

He discussed religion with her and she said, “Let the children help you with their ideas on the subject” (xvi), and Don’t “assume too little of the child being interviewed” (99).

Coles’s other teacher was the physician-poet William Carlos Williams, who stated as a principle, “When a kid falls silent, I should keep my ears open” (167), and whose characteristic response when stumped by a child’s question was, “It beats me” (300).

Coles learned these lessons well: Kids’ ideas are worth hearing; If kids feel you expect them to be interesting, they probably will be; Don’t start compulsively talking when the conversation pauses; Never claim to know what you don’t know.

The research Coles did for this book—interviews with children individually and in groups in many settings in this country and abroad—was a new kind of discipline for a psychiatrist. The context was not new—he had been talking to children for years—but the discipline was new because it repeatedly required him to suppress many well-trained responses: “I told myself to keep quiet” (62).

And it wasn’t always a matter of simply willfully keeping his mouth shut: “I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what I thought” (33). Coles is honest enough, though, to tell us when the old ways reasserted themselves: “As usual, I bought time with a question” (78).

The exercise of reticence was a severe discipline, but so was the discovery that funding for this research was harder to secure than for any other work he had ever done. If the research questions are social or political or economic, foundations are eager with their support. Foundation executives, as if in chorus, responded to Coles’s inquiries: “We are not involved in religion.” One of them, a friend, followed up with a phone call: “We were wondering what someone like you hopes to do with a subject like that” (xviii).

Fortunately, the Ford Foundation and Lilly Endowment (Lilly is usually the best and sometimes the only hope for support of the sort of work Coles was doing) thought “a subject like that” in the hands of a researcher like Coles had merit, and he was on his way, with the indispensable help of his family.

You may have noticed that I have not yet said anything about what Robert Coles found out.

I have not lost my way, nor am I uninterested in his reports of what children said. Rather, I believe this book’s evidence of how a professional can take a new direction, can look back and see—and admit—blind spots, can stare down the bemused puzzlement of friends who think the new direction is a flight from sanity, can learn to listen and look in new ways, can shut up when every nerve is tensed for speech—in short, the evidence this book gives of a professional’s conversion experience—is of an importance equal to that of the results of the research itself.

To gain from the resource that the spirituality of children offers us, we must first face the challenge that unfamiliar voices present. Robert Coles’s conversion experience is an authentic fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope (35:5) that the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.

[The next blog post will consider what Coles's unstopped ears heard.]