Friday, 26 November 2010

Three-year-old theology: on God, monsters, and jellyfish

An intriguing theological discussion with my three-year-old boy tonight, just as he was drifting off to sleep:

Boy: "I need to sleep up in your bed, or the monsters under the house will come and get me. They'll come from far away."

Dad: "Are you sure there are monsters under the house?"

Boy: "Yes, and they will get me."

Dad: "You know, you're very safe now that we have a dog. What do you think Kola [our puppy] will do if he sees a monster under the house?"

Boy: "He will eat them."

Dad: "Exactly. Or maybe just chase them away."

Boy: "And they would run away."

Dad: "Yep. Because there's one thing monsters are really scared of..."

Boy: "Jellyfish."

Dad: "Jellyfish...? Right! And they're also scared of dogs, especially Kola."

Boy: "Kola will protect me."

Dad: "And you know who else will protect you?"

Boy: "Daddy. And mummy. And myself."

Dad: "And one more person: God always watches over you."

Boy: "Does God watch the Wiggles too?"

Dad: "I guess so. God sees everything in the world, and God cares for you."

Boy: "Yes, God cares for me. But God kills his self."

Dad: "Um, are you sure about that...?"

Boy: (Nodding sadly) "Yes, he kills his self."

Dad: "Well... God sends Jesus to us, and Jesus died for us."

Boy: "But is God scared of the monsters? Or just the baddies?"

Dad: "No, God's not scared of anything. God is greater than anything else."

Boy: "Is God as big as the ceiling? As big as the clouds? Bigger than the clouds?"

Dad: "Bigger than anything."

Boy: "So if God came into our house, he would be squashed and die. He will be dying forever."

Dad: "OK, go to sleep now."

--

11 Comments:

crisp family said...

Why did you cut Jamie off just when it was getting interesting? The old parental standby 'Okay, go to sleep now' - i.e. 'okay, this is getting too deep. I need an escape route'. Hilarious! And familiar too. Thanks for sharing, Ben.

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks for this Ben. You have captured the child's theological 'logic' and feeling and the adult perplexity of how to 'work with' such conversations very well. Thinking of this conversation as a parable, I imagine Barth or Kierkegaard or Thomas Aquinas having a chat with some minor angel about theology (probably concerning some adult version of a fear of monsters under the house). The creative leaps and imaginative insights would run much the same way, and end equally with “OK, go to sleep now” from the angel.

Terry Wright said...

Nice to see what kinds of potential conversation there'll be once my boy hits three...

Richard Littledale said...

Can't fault the logic - can you? I've always loved the theoretical physicists's answer to the question "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object":

- those two things cannot exist in the same model world. Yes, but for those of us who live in a real world..

Maybe I should just go to sleep?

Larry Gilman said...

Writing down these exchanges always yields pure mind-expanding gold. This one made me teary.

What seems to be happening theologically here, in one aspect at least, is that the child, in his raw need to make sense of the world and in his unconscious, unconstrained, godlike power to rearrange concepts, reshapes the upbeat generic theism being offered by the adult (which I don't mean as a put-down -- I would no doubt say pretty much the same sorts of well-intentioned things myself) into the deep elements of Christianity -- scandalous, vital, infinitely better than a reasonable answer. Naked theism does not satisfy in a world where there are monsters under the house. ("God is great, God is good, God would help us if he could" -- that sort of thing.) Will God come to visit our house? But if God is bigger than everything, won't that squash God and make him die? Die forever? And doesn't God kill his self?

The big theological vocabulary words -- incarnation, kenosis, theodicy, redemption -- are all a million miles away from such inquiry. But not the struggle to be a person in a world of monsters and love.

Amazing stuff.

Emerson Fast said...

"And one more person: God always watches over you"

You should have said," And a Mode of Being: God always watches over you." Alas, at such a young age their minds are being infected with pre-Barthian theological ascriptions ;)

Paul Tyson said...

Larry – yes… there is so much that confronts and unsettles in this little dialogue. Jamie, understandably, is finding the idea of sleeping by himself in his ‘own’ bed lonely and frightening and heads into his parent’s room. Now, if we were like many cultures around the world today, and certainly in biblical times, then the whole family would sleep together in the one bed, and none of this conversation would happen. But the way we sleep – very individualistic on the one hand, and explicitly about sexual privacy on the other hand – might be the real problem rather than monsters per say. This is unsettling and confronting before the conversation even gets started! But then Jamie’s narrative of raw fear, comfort and tragic sadness is guided towards a more theologically framed set of ideas (and I mean ideas, its quite philosophical) so as to re-situate his narrative within orthodox notions of fear and comfort, at the same time that these orthodox notions are being used as tools to get him in his own bed, so as to preserve the privilege of adults sleeping together which, due to its association with sexual intimacy, children cannot enter into. (Hey, I do this with my four daughters regularly too!) In the end philosophically framed notions of fear and comfort backfire badly as a means towards both the goal of getting him into his own bed and forming his outlook on the world within orthodox doctrinal boundaries. This whole dialogue is very unsettling - thanks Ben!

Pamela said...

My son still asks me curly questions about God -and he's studying Law at Uni! I think he's practising for the courtroom.
btw, I enjoy reading Paul Tyson's comments just as much as your posts Ben. :)

flyingfarther said...

What I want to know is why your boy citing The Wiggles instead of Rainbow Randolf and Smoochy the Rhino. What does your boy have to fear? Clearly the Parade of Hope, the roughest of all the charities, doesn't stand a chance against the dog.

Shane said...

"He will be dying forever"

At three years old he managed to grasp "Stat crux dum volvitur orbis". Wow, I'm impressed.

Nathan Rinne said...

Ben,

Thanks for sharing this. This is actually a common theme on my blog, if you are interested....

http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/questions-kids-ask-but-adults-don%E2%80%99t/

http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/vandals-of-the-lord/

http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/%E2%80%9Cif-i-would-die-tonight-i-wouldn%E2%80%99t-be-afraid%E2%80%9D/

Thanks for your work. This Lutheran enjoys reading.

~Nathan

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