Friday, April 27, 2012

Regression Lesson

When Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Mark 10.14)

Alive and Aware

Alison Gopnik is an Oxford-trained psychologist, philosopher, and self-avowed materialist—meaning she subscribes to “the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena” (American Heritage Dictionary). Although we risk over-simplifying both her psychological research and philosophy of life, it’s not inaccurate to say Dr. Gopnik views the more ephemeral aspects of faith—its transcendence, the sense of God’s presence in our lives, the need to reconcile one’s being with divine will, and so on—with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yet her findings nonetheless open to us a profoundly moving window that can illuminate how we approach faith.

Dr. Gopnik’s primary field of study focuses on child learning and development. And what she’s discovered is riveting. Immediately upon entering the world, infants and youngsters exist in a perpetual state of newness and wonder. Every moment is like “first love in Paris,” she says. “Every step is sky-diving; every game of peek-a-boo is like discovering Einstein’s theory.” Brain scans of babies and toddlers reveal constant incandescence, as their neurons blaze with curiosity and eagerness to apprehend the world around them. In contrast, adult scans evidence long stretches during which thought and perception register nothing new. As we age, it appears we increasingly lapse into autopilot, leading Dr. Gopnik to suggest grown-ups spend large portions of their waking lives in a state of relative unconsciousness. It turns out our assumption that little ones are oblivious to life’s joys and challenges couldn’t be more wrong. Our children are supremely alive and aware.

Such as These

In Mark 10, people bring their children to Jesus, asking Him to bless them. The disciples reproach them, just as we would expect, since youngsters in ancient times are discounted as society’s least. They have nothing to contribute—no wisdom or experience, no means of productivity, and no way to help ensure a family’s stability. Indeed, they’re seen as liabilities. They may be loved. They may not. Either way, they're not worth much to anyone until they reach adolescence. And in the hardscrabble daily existence of first-century Palestine, survival is hardly a given. So while we bristle at the disciples’ dismissal, they neither mean no harm nor are they out of line. If anything, they’re showing Jesus respect as an eminent Rabbi. Which is why He surprises them by welcoming the very young.

And we should be highly cognizant of what’s going here; because there’s more to it than the “Jesus-loves-the-little-children-of-the-world” photo op that many paint it to be. This is not a campaign stop, with Jesus kissing babies and patting tykes on the head. It’s not a polite gesture meant to flatter their parents. Jesus turns the situation into a teaching moment to say something vital about us. Read His response carefully: “Let the little children come to Me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (v14) The kingdom of God belongs to childlike believers. Jesus is so emphatic about the required state of mind of “such as these” that He spells it out in the next verse: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Now we can settle for the broad strokes of His message to us, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we get it: we should be humble, innocent, trusting, etc.” But Dr. Gopnik might encourage us to reconsider. In light of her research, when Jesus instructs us to approach faith in a childlike fashion, He’s telling us to become alive to everything around us—to remove the scales from our eyes, unstop our ears, unblock our emotions, and enter God’s kingdom as if we’re discovering the world God has given us for the first time. In essence, Jesus turns a socially unpleasant situation into a regression lesson.

Natives of God’s Kingdom

The power of newness is not news. It resounds throughout Scripture, starting with the Creation and continuing throughout Jesus and the Apostles’ linkage of faith with re-Creation. Numerous times we hear God speak through psalmists and prophets, saying, “I’m doing something new!” Jesus defines a faith-led life as new birth. In 2 Corinthians 5.17 we find Paul’s famous proclamation, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And since these words are spoken to us, we’re apt to apply them only to us. But I think we miss a huge part of the message by not expanding its principle to the world at large. Re-Creation invites us to respond anew to the world and people around us—to allow the film of old ideas and perceptions to dissolve so that we may reenter our lives with fresh insights and curiosities. Foregone conclusions are gone. Prejudices and presumptions are preempted. Jaded attitudes and reactions lose their luster.

We are, first and foremost, natives of God’s kingdom, born with a glorious aptitude for grace that enables us to wonder at all we encounter, never pausing to get hung up about where it comes from. For children, beauty is beautiful. Joy is joyous. Meanness is mean. Sadness is sad. They don’t linger to attribute their wonder to others’ largesse or cruelty. They don’t shape their world to meet expectations. And they most certainly don’t take the burden of its hardships upon themselves. That’s why children are so extraordinarily resilient. Their incandescence happens within, as they light up by viewing every experience as something altogether new. Dr. Gopnik says while we work our way through life, children create their lives with play and openness to what they’re given. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these, Jesus says. Regressing is an act of faith that releases new, re-creative faith.
As children of God’s kingdom, we view the world through wide-eyed wonder.

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