Note: While this analysis of the Child Theology Movement (CTM) will be primarily critical, I want to be clear up front that I am immensely indebted to CTM in my own thinking. I consider CTM’s Marcia Bunge to be one of three visionary thinkers—along with Janet Pais and Cindy Wang Brandt—who have most shaped my thinking on child liberation theology. CTM issues a radical call to pay better attention to both the children around us and the children in the Bible. That call in itself is an important call.
The term “Child Theology” “was first used in June 2001 in Penang, Malaysia.”[i] The Child Theology Movement (CTM) officially began a year later, and it has now become an charitable organization based in the United Kingdom. The directors of the CTM organization are Marcia Bunge, DJ Konz, Victor Nakah, Bill Prevette, Sunny Tan, Keith White, and Haddon Willmer. Bunge is probably the most known leader of CTM due to her prolific and revolutionary academic studies of the intersection of religion and childhood, displayed in books such as The Child in Christian Thought, The Child in the Bible, Children and Childhood in World Religions: Primary Sources and Texts, and Children, Adults, and Shared Responsibilities: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives.
The heart of CTM is the theology it has pioneered, termed “Child Theology.” For the movement, this theology is first and foremost a process whereby one comes to understand God. “Whatever else Child Theology may be,” White and Willmer write in their Introduction to Child Theology (the founding primer of CTM), “it is theology.” As theology, it is “speaking and thinking of God.”[ii] The key concept of Child Theology is the “child in the midst.” Taking its cue from Jesus centering children during a theological discussion in the Gospel of Matthew, CTM urges “that the child be put in the midst of theological talk and thought.”[iii]
The “child” that CTM references is not an actual, physical child. Rather, the child is an abstract ideal of a child that theologians can use as an analytical lens. CTM advocates are upfront about the fact that, “In Child Theology the focus is not the child or children, but God.” For CTM, the fact that Jesus centered children prompts “a kind of extended reflection on and response to what Matthew records in Chapter 18:1-14 of his gospel: The story of Jesus who set a child in the midst of his disciples who were making a mess of the theological discussion… The child, so Jesus seems to have thought, would make a difference to the way they thought and spoke about God.”[iv] CTM proposes that Christians today should similarly place a “child in the midst” of their theological and philosophical dialogues, by viewing those dialogues and the implications thereof with children as a focal point.
Child Theology vs. Theology of Childhood
Before explaining CTM further, it is important to clarify that CTM and its Child Theology are distinct and separate from what is called Theology of Childhood (TOC). Child Theology is the theological thought process advocated by the physical charitable organization the Child Theology Movement. It encourages thinking about God by using children as lenses and/or inspirational launching points for discussion.
TOC, in contrast, is a multifaceted movement of various and disparate people and organizations that encourages thinking theologically about the human experience of childhood and how to better foster spirituality in children. People like Sofia Cavalletti and Jerome Berryman, and religious educational systems like the Catechesis of the Good Shephard and Godly Play, are all considered part of the TOC movement.
Whereas TOC encourages doing “theology for children” and “with children,”[v] CTM is about adults doing theology with other adults (with children simply as a lens). White and Willmer say the focus in TOC is “the child or children rather than on theology, church, and mission [as it is in CTM].” In TOC, “The focus is the child and children… The child is in the midst but mostly as the object of attention, ministry, and advocacy, rather than [as in CTM] seen as placed by Jesus to illuminate a theological conversation or argument about the Kingdom of Heaven.”[vi]
The Child as Means
Understanding the aforementioned difference between CTM and TOC is crucial to understanding the key motivations of CTM. Both movements center children. In TOC, children are centered because they are the focus of the movement and in order to better minister to and advocate for them. In CTM, children are centered because they supposedly help people better focus on and understand God. White and Willmer, speaking of the child centered by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, remark, “This child is like a lens through which some aspects of God and his revelation can be seen more clearly. Or, if you like, the child is like a light that throws existing theology into new relief.”
The child is a lens or lighting effect and that is why the child is centered. Children as children are superfluous to the CTM process apart from their utility. Indeed, White and Willmer make clear that the child as a child should not be centered because that leads to de-centering Jesus: “Child Theology stresses that the child Jesus placed in the midst of his disciples is not intended as the object of analysis or adoration, but as a sign or clue to a greater understanding of God and his kingdom.” We see here, then, that “a greater understanding of God and his kingdom” is the ultimate value and goal, and children are simply a means to that end. Child Theology therefore does not “make the child or childhood the ultimate focus or boundary of its reflection.”
If this sounds utilitarian, that is because it is. White and Willmer argue that the reason Jesus put a child in the midst is not because Jesus loves children, welcomes children, or wants to lift up marginalized people groups. Rather, Jesus simply saw that children could be useful to his purposes. They say, “Jesus put a child in the midst because the child, not least the child who was marginalized down there with servants, could serve God theologically.” [vii] They expand on this idea, saying that, “The child is not to be idolized or sacralised, a god made visible and accessible, but rather the child is like the mountain where God is in his true presence, giving the words of life but invisible.” In other words, children are place mats for God. “The child is like the mountain” is intended to reference Mt. Sinai, where God “sat” while talking to Moses in the Book of Exodus. Similarly, children are in whom God “sits” while God and whoever God talks to are doing serious, significant work (and thus children continue to be sidelined).
The Danger of Child Idolatry
The reason that CTM does not wish to follow TOC in centering actual children in its theological endeavors is because CTM believes it needs to “sail between” “two potential dangers,” referred to by White and Willmer as the classic Greek either/or monsters Scylla and Charybdis.[viii] Scylla represents undervaluing children. Charybdis represents idolizing children. While White and Willmer initially present these two dangers as being opposite and equal ends of the same spectrum, they dedicate only 57 words to the danger of undervaluing children. But to the “danger” of idolizing children they dedicate 1,457 words.
And what exactly would be going overboard in child advocacy for CTM? How would a Christian child advocate idolize children in CTM’s mind? To CTM, idolizing children means “to see the child as having in herself intrinsic worth.” This is because the worldview that “sees children as ‘intrinsically valuable’” is the “contemporary secular mold.” Christianity, in contrast, believes that children only are valuable in relation to God: “To think of a child outside the context of her relation to her Creator and Heavenly Father is to go where angels fear to tread.” [ix]
CTM also rejects the concept of children’s rights. In fact, when referring to the rights of children, White and Willmer put “rights” in scare quotes: “the ‘rights’ of children.’”[x] According to CTM, children do have some rights but those rights are not inherent or absolute. Rather, the rights are—again—only in relation to God:
We are in favor of setting out some of the “rights” of children, and there is no reason for Christians to belittle the rights of the child, but we have to reckon with the profound difference between affirming rights as inherent in the independent being of the creature on the one hand, and rights as intrinsic to the relation with God, on the other. This is one of those points of difference from the rest of the world, where it can become practically and intellectually embarrassing to be Christian and to think theologically: Christians hesitate to affirm the child in the unambiguous way that others manage.[xi]
Centering children in thought and practice also “can be a form of idolatry.” Even though Jesus said that to receive a child is to receive him, White and Willmer claim this is only because, “The child is a key representative of God in Christ, a representative but, and here we must be clear, not a substitute.” In other words, the child was not centered as an actual child but was simply supposed to be a placeholder for Jesus—even thought Jesus could have just placed himself in the center because he was there.
While the Child Theology Movement has influenced how I am developing child liberation theology, there are some truly significant points of disagreement. To CTM, Jesus placing a child in the midst of adults and saying to become like that child is not centering children; he is simply using a child to better center God. Child liberation theology says the opposite. The child is centered because Jesus is calling attention to the child, not himself.
To put this another way: If Jesus placed a black person in the midst of white people and said to become like that black person, CTM would argue that Jesus is not centering the black person; he is simply using that person to better center God. In other words, CTM is missing the very essence of Jesus’s argument by stripping the child of childness (or in the analogy, stripping race out of the conversation, when race would obviously the whole point of the conversation).
CTM also claims that Jesus chose children to represent him, not be a substitute for him. Child liberation theology claims otherwise. It claims that children become Jesus to us in our right-here and right-now. That is why Jesus said that if we welcome the little children, we welcome him. Children are not only the appointed substitutes for him in the right-here and right-now, they are also of the same nature as he is: children. Jesus is the God Child. Child liberation theology calls for a Christology that centers the childness of Jesus, whereas CTM considers this aspect of his nature incidental.
Additionally, child liberation theology objects to CTM’s rejection of children’s inherent rights and value. Since child liberation theology is oriented around praxis, the abstract attempt to ground rights and value in a relationship to God has no practical value to liberating children in the right-here and right-now. Affirming children’s inherent rights and value, in contrast, is a key part of empowering our contemporary communities to better love and protect children. Christians should affirm children in an unambiguous way.
[vi] White and Willmer.