“Truly I tell you: whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” — Mark 10:15
“ . . . babies and young children are like the research and development division of the human species.” — Alison Gopnik
Most of us have heard this comparison, that we should be more like children when it comes to faith and that children somehow have insights into the mysteries of the kingdom that the rest of us just don’t have. I’ve wondered what that meant. Do I wipe out the years of study, conjecture, listening to others, idle speculation, fervent longing and moments of insight? Are children blessed because they simply accept at face value what adults say? But anyone who knows little children also knows, with a sigh sometimes, that more often than not they decidedly do not accept, without question, what they are told. Well, perhaps it means that they trust implicitly, without wavering. Sometimes this is true, but they can also be wracked with doubt and fear—just like the rest of us. Perhaps it means that they are innocent of evil, unaware of what lurks in the heart of darkness in all of us, but if that were true we are still left with the memory of pain such evil instills.
I got a glimpse of another way to imagine this through a TED talk I recently saw by Dr. Alison Gopnik in which she asks, “What Do Babies Think?” She describes her research with four-year-olds who work their way through rather complicated experiments, making calculations and assessing probabilities on the fly. What she found is that young children are much better than adults at coming up with unusual hypotheses to solve unusual problems. They aren’t afraid to try out this and that, see what works and what doesn’t, and keep at it until they get someplace. In other words, they’re pretty good little scientists and experimenters.
Gopnik found that babies and young children don’t think like adults do. Whereas adult thinking is like a spotlight that focuses on one thing and excludes everything else, children’s thinking is like a lantern that casts its glow on everything around it. Young children don’t exclude—they include—and they’re very good at taking in a lot of information from many different sources at once. Their brains are flooded with neurotransmitters that stimulate learning and that don’t inhibit what comes in. “So when we say that babies and young children are bad at paying attention,” says Gopnik, “what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention. So they’re bad at getting rid of all the interesting things that could tell them something and just looking at the thing that’s important.”
It’s like falling in love, says Gopnik, or being in a place you’ve never been to before. The brain is sparking, taking in all this information, neurons and synapses firing, all senses on high alert—a veritable learning organism that experiences life in all it’s buzzing, blooming confusion and can’t get enough of it.
As we grow and develop our brains learn to filter and focus. We screen out the things that throw us off or distract us. We learn to concentrate, pay attention, get the job done. Gopnik reassures us that there’s nothing wrong with this: it’s all part of filling our place in the world as adults. But she likens babies and children to one stage in the process of the species and suggests that they are the butterflies, flitting from one idea to the next, open, creative, and filled with wonder. Adults, in a curious turn, are the caterpillars, inching along their prescribed paths.
That’s what it usually requires to do what must be done. “But,” says Gopnik, “if what we want is to be like those butterflies, to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children.”
Adventists, like many Protestants, are a cerebral lot. We want evidence, lots of it, preferably from the Bible, for what we should think and do. We are long on reason, but rather short on imagination. Both are needed for the spiritual life. Reason eliminates the unsound and the dubious; the imagination kindles our emotion and our compassion. Would we dare to open ourselves fully to God’s love without the flame of desire for God? Would we believe in grace, an element that is delightfully unreasonable, so that our lives could be lifted and freshened, were it not for this childlike openness to all that God has for us?
Ellen White, no stranger to the realms of glory, urged us to take up “experiential religion.” No other form, she suggested, would be enough to open our eyes, free us up, shake us around, and follow Jesus. If babies and young children are the research and development branch of the species, says Gopnik, then adults are the sales and marketing division of the enterprise. To put it in religious and spiritual terms: if you’re tired of selling it why not do some R & D for awhile? You just might see the kingdom in a whole new light.
Barry L. Casey, a long-time Sligo member and a co-leader of the Believers and Doubters Sabbath School class, teaches philosophy and communications at Stevenson University, Trinity University DC, and Washington Adventist University.