Our society is confused about children. We allow their destruction in the womb and their manufacture in the laboratory, a contradictory denial and affirmation of their inestimable value that tells us a great deal about our strange times. In our cold calculus, we allow that children are necessary to repopulate the world. Yet children are not essential only because they grow up to be adults. Children are mirrors of God’s perfections. They are necessary if we are to know God, and are therefore integral to our salvation, body and soul.
There is a tradition that attributes the innocence of Eden to children. This is surely wrong. The brutal child soldiers of Liberia and Uganda have shown us as much. Dominic Ongwen, now convicted of crimes against humanity for his violence in Central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army, began his career as a murderer. St. Augustine, in any case, had no illusions. He would have nodded in sad recognition at the more quotidian cruelty meted out by the young on social media.
Modern social science, tethered to legal and economic theories, measures children in terms of their “potential,” a calculus unsullied by reality. Insurance companies add up “lost human capital” that dead or mangled children represent. This seems blasphemous, and too often becomes so. Within the broader dynamics of our culture, children are for the most part merely another class of products to be bartered, used, and finally, manufactured, through the machinery of lifestyle planning, fertilization techniques, or the servitude of surrogacy.
“Potential” is an aspect of “being,” not something that marks being’s incremental growth in value. That children might become this or that is simply a feature of what it means to exist as human beings in time. As the philosopher Michel Henry argued, maturation and growth are how “life manifests itself.” When it comes to being human, one is never “more or less.”
Children, therefore, show us God, not because they are innocent, nor because they are filled with wonderful potential, and certainly not because they satisfy our psychological needs. Rather, children mirror God’s perfections insofar as they “just are”: “I am who I am,” the Lord tells Moses.
Adults mirror God in this way as well, but with visible difficulty. Like felled trees, adults have been cut, stripped, smoothed, and inserted into the social machinery of human devising. Children mirror God well, not because they are more perfect than adults, but because their lives are unobstructed by adult accretions. It was Thérèse of Lisieux who showed us that large vases with large flowers are no better than small vases with small flowers. Their beauty is equally bestowed by the Lord, and perhaps to the smaller more so for their lack of showy pretension.
Human children are the creatures with the longest period of infantile vulnerability after birth. Evolutionary biologists argue about why this is the case. Are the pelvic constraints of women the cause of early birth? Or does the long process of maturation stem from limited metabolic resources during gestation? Whatever the explanation, the fact is clear: Newborns are defenseless, bearing witness to all creation’s dependence upon God’s sustaining grace. The death of a child touches us not as the loss of something that “might have been,” but of something—someone—who in her or his own right is an instance of divine making, an existence that causes us to say, “All this is God’s doing.”
Kenelm Digby (1603–65) was an English Catholic philosopher, friend of Descartes, and diplomat. While in France, he was introduced to a “feral child” whom he dubbed “John of Liège.” At the time of their meeting, John was a young adult. He had fled into the forests as a child of five to escape the religious warfare consuming his community. Separated from his parents, he lived alone in the woods for years. Having later returned to society and relearned speech, John was able to talk somewhat to Digby, who refers to the episode in his Treatise on the Nature of Bodies (1644). What Digby says about children is instructive.
In one section of the treatise, Digby discusses taste and smell, two astonishing ways (as he sees it) of perceiving the minute realities of a vast and interconnected world. He is fascinated by the utterly perfected sense of smell and taste, honed by the feral life, of the wild man John of Liège. Digby contrasts this with socialized human beings whose taste and smell are “clogged” by their gluttony, having been taught to rely on other, rational means for figuring out what is good and bad in the world of things. But the result, for the civilized, is an alienation from the breadth, intricacy, and richness of creation. In Digby’s view, human culture, with its sin and violence (hence John’s flight into the woods), trains us to lose sight of creation in its fullness. Somehow, John’s otherwise impoverished social life had granted him powers that opened vistas of divine artistry that the civilized failed to perceive.
Digby was writing a metaphysical treatise. John of Liège struck him as manifesting a perfection of the soul—for, on Digby’s view, when the soul is eventually freed from the body by death, it is released from the “clogging” of sin and attains infinite perfection. Our embodied lives play along the pathways and corridors of infinity, sensing and intuiting its breadth and glory. But socialized existence inculcates barriers, some helpful given our fallen state, many not. Thus children, who are only at the first stage of this process of socialization, may lack cognitive abilities, but they enjoy powers of perceiving that remain unimpeded—the human child with a wolf’s sense of smell. In this way, they graciously indicate to us what we are to expect of our destinies with God.
Digby writes that the human embryo’s soul is “infinitely more perfect and admirable” than the simple “lump of flesh” it inhabits. In maturation, our souls are shaped by expanding experience. But this maturity, this “filling up,” relies upon the receptivity of the soul, which, in the womb, enjoys its most perfect openness to the future. More than that, because God has made the embryo, its perfect openness reflects divine perfection. While embryo, child, adult, and purified soul in eternity exist in a hierarchy of becoming, the embryo and then the young child most clearly indicate the infinite gifts that God offers to created beings.
Digby articulates a very different view about the nature of created worth than do today’s usual assumptions. He presents us with diverse “infinities” of value rather than the parsimonious parcelling out of measureable quantities of pleasure, function, and responsibility. God bestows value to his creatures in such a way that “more and more” never permits the all-too-human social calculus of “less and less” upon which the actuarial equations of insurance agents and financial planners are based.
For all his gnostic and Romantic theories of knowing, Wordsworth got it right when he wondered how one might describe the mind of children, whose thoughts seem to have “no beginning.” A child’s growth in learning, tasting, seeing, smelling, thinking, speaking, and finally (most wonderfully for Wordsworth) imagining cannot be reduced simply to pre-established genetic blueprints, to identifiable circumstances of parents and social location. Rather, these enacted capacities emerge from something mysterious and lead into the unfenced landscape of divine giving.
Peopling the world requires children, and so we think we should at least go about encouraging their production for practical purposes, whether we care much about them or not. This is a destructive and stingy attitude. Children point us to the promise of God’s purpose, which is to see him and enjoy him as he shares with us the inexhaustible fullness of his life. Digby was fascinated with John of Liège’s sense of smell, much like the stunning infantile facility of learning languages, because it betokened a childlike “taking in” of the world without impediment. This in turn reveals our destiny: to be as children, bearing witness to the perfection of being open to infinity. Every child stands as a figure of the beatific vision. Children manifest God’s limitless generosity, and they ought to be limitlessly cherished.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.