questions of hope, humans and the lunchtime philosopher

August 7, 2013

The building in which I study holds up a decent cultural life.

ImageThere is always a current exhibition of art in the foyer,  the main hall is a popular venue with chamber ensembles as a rehearsal and performance space and there’s a healthy series of lunchtime seminars by faculty and visiting scholars. 

As I am interested in (ok, obsessed with) the ways in which theology is ‘taught’ or ‘presented’ or ‘communicated’ in every sphere of human community, but especially in the academy, I take every opportunity I can to observe a theologian or biblical scholar in a live setting, strutting their stuff.

Don’t get too excited: with a few notable exceptions, there is very little, if any actual strutting. We’re lucky if the average, or even exceptional, scholar is adventurous enough to try both standing and talking.

Sitting in the chair reading is the conventional posture, in case you were unaware and wondering.

This afternoon the Centre for Ministry and Theology, hosted a seminar by a guest Jesuit scholar – and Christian Philosopher from the US. He presented a beautiful exploration of the dimensions of Hope. I loved it.

For a number of decades now, I have pursued the practice of asking academic theologians this one same question: I will ask if, and how, the ideas they have explored speak to the whole of human life – in particular to those who are under 12 years of age. I generally hold back and let others ask questions first. If there’s no time for my question I let it go.

Because, I have discovered over years and years of asking this question, that the quality of answer is usually extremely disappointing, as it was today.

The common shape of the answer, as today, is

‘I haven’t thought about it, I leave that up to people who have more contact with children than I do.’

Today, as many times before, the speaker found themselves in unfamiliar territory – and he began to bumble around. The quality of his thought weakened. The room became a little bored. I’m used to this, but I don’t think it’s because others in the room necessarily had disdain for a question about children as such – simply, that he wasn’t saying anything clear or helpful in response. Even I got bored – and I’m quite invested int he topic!

And so today, I witnessed again the cycle that leaves our theologies anthropologically weak and flawed.

It is perfectly acceptable for a scholar to have a multi-decade career and never think of humans as other than adults.

When asked to address the wider (and fundamental) dimensions of human life scholars have little to offer.

Listeners experience the questions of younger-years anthropological implication as basically unfruitful, and so these questions are not pursued in the academy, the marginalisation of the first decades of life continues in our theological and philosophical constructs.

In theology and christian philosophy, childhood remains Socrates’ unworthy ‘unexamined life.’

I grounded my question in some of his own material on the ‘greater (eschatological) hope and  ‘lesser’ hopes – science and progress and freedom. In my mind there is lots of interesting content in the interconnection between human life as child and these ‘lessser’ hopes – particularly in dialogue with the Zeitgeist philosophers of the past 2 centuries who have not posited science, progress and freedom as ‘lesser’ but great hopes. And in so doing have impoverished our sense of humanity, especially among the least and the little.

The object of my inquisition today, after a few minutes of ramble – including ‘I don’t have any children, so I defer to those who do’ and some strange comments about the observation that children collect dinosaurs,  concluded that he had only given very woolly answers because he didn’t have anything much to say.

At least he was honest.

It is rare in other conditions for a scholar to invoke the pretext that lack of concrete experience of something disbars one from considering it’s philosophical content. Besides which every single scholar whom I have ever met or proposed this question to had for a good many years actually been a child. Not one of them could claim an exemption.

There is plenty of great writing and thinking being done specifically about children as children. “Bring it on!” I cheer. But this is not the same as those who think  they are thinking about the basic, normative humanness, and seeking to make philosophical or theological claims about humans, not thinking intentionally about children as the primary normative human. Statistically at least, we must admit that many more humans start and finish life as children than as adults.

Today’s seminar was on Hope.

I hope that one day, when I raise my hand and ask this question of a speaker, they will look me confidently in the eye and say –

“I have thought about this as a matter of anthropological priority – and I can assure, I stand by everything I have proposed today to be equally helpful – or challengeable in reference to children as to adults. Next question.”

Here’s hoping…


  1. Interesting how adults experience of children was considered more valuable that ones own experience of childhood…unless we can actually face these questions, our own experiences of childhood are invalidated…

    • Do you think it has something to do with the esteem ‘objectivity’ has in the academy, patterned on so called ‘scientific method’ which all disciplines now try to conform to? Perhaps the research reflex is to objectify, and so the obvious source material of subjectivity (or inter-subjectivity) is dismissed.
      Any kind of auto-ethnography is viewed with great caution and even suspicion (so I’ve been told).

  2. Auto-ethnography is not really required in qualitative research. My work (strictly speaking, Grounded Theory) starts out kind of ethnographically – painting ‘a portrait of a people’. In this kind of work, the researcher’s presence and biases are permitted provided they are acknowledged. Qualitative research is supposed to bring ‘subjectivity’ into the field. The inclusion of childhood is totally permissible and to be encouraged.
    However, most QR probably doesn’t think about including childhood experience very much. I’ll have to make sure I don’t leave it out…mmm, a review is called for.

    • Geoff, when I think of you, ‘grounded’ is one of the most apt words imaginable. I think the ‘subjective’ is best thought of as an honest integration of the role ‘self’ plays in any research task.
      In my one semester of research methods, when ‘autoethnography’ was covered there was not discouragement, but definitely an admission of how wary HREC was of it as a process, and also how wary HREC process is of anything that involves chidlren practically – which is right to caution against the instrumentalisation of children – but it’s not right to exclude them from our world view.

      Godspeed (whatever godly pace that may mean) in your research Geoff!

  3. The response in the seminar is disappointing. I’m currently reading the book “Vulnerable Communion: a theology of disability and hospitality”, by Thomas Reynolds, which talks about the defining characteristics of humanity in the image of God as: creativity, relationality, and availability, over against characteristics which particularly suit adult alpha-type people. It’s good to be reading from an author who could respond well to your question, at the same time as reading your blog!

    • very lovely to have your voice here, David!
      Thanks for adding to the conversation.
      I am grateful to hear of Reynolds: it sounds like he might share some ground with David Jensen’s Graced Vulnerability, in which he suggests that the core nature of God is vulnerability – an attributed which children demonstrate innately.
      I’ve done a fair it of reading in (dis)abilities theologies and found lots of common ground between the mainstream discourses of child and (dis)ablement, equally marginalising, inadequate and lacking vision of shalom.
      I have blogged a little about this too https://multivocality.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/boston-disability-and-apathy/

  4. […] This reflection from Beth Barnett is very interesting – on how most theologians never stop to think how what they are saying relates to/impacts on under 12s: click here […]

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