Fr Martin Henry: The wisdom of being childlike in faith

Fr Martin Henry reflects on the gospel call to be mature yet also have a childlike faith. Is this a case of the Bible contradicting itself?

Titian's depiction of Wisdom, painted in 1560, is located in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
Titian's depiction of Wisdom, painted in 1560, is located in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice

There's a very important aspect of the Christian faith that's often particularly difficult to reconcile with today's world. It somehow doesn't seem to fit in with today's way of thinking.

This aspect of our faith is highlighted in the special emphasis Jesus places on children, and indeed on the need to become like little children, if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).

Moreover, elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel and also in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as contrasting children ("infants" is the literal term used) with "the wise and learned" (Matthew 11:25, paralleled in Luke 10:21), to the disadvantage of the latter.

Today's world, however, generally tends to regard immaturity, which is natural and normal of course in children, with some disapproval.

Our world prefers, I think, to encourage us to become mature and independent. As we know, when people are annoyed at somebody's behaviour, they frequently say, not "Why don't you become like a little child?" but, "Why don't you grow up?"

The same basic attitude, the same mentality, has even to some extent percolated into the Church too. For, we are often invited to become mature Christians, to discard the habits of childhood and leave them behind us, so as finally to live grown-up, Christian lives.

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And this approach to our faith can even appeal to, or call for support from, the Apostle Paul himself, who wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

So, is there then maybe a contradiction between Jesus' call to become like little children, and St Paul's message about leaving the ways of childhood behind us? And, if St Paul were to be taken as the spokesman for the modern world's emphasis on maturity, what becomes of Jesus' invitation to us to become like little children?

And why, in the first place, does Jesus speak of the "little ones" and contrast them with the "wise and learned", and say that it is to the "little ones" that God prefers to reveal himself? Why does Jesus tell us that God is hidden from the wise and clever?

The answer to questions of this kind can hardly be that wisdom and cleverness are bad in themselves: they are, after all, gifts of God, a part of God's creation. Wisdom is even praised as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is placed indeed right at the top of the list.

It is then unlikely that Jesus wishes to encourage us to underestimate or despise or neglect or frown upon human wisdom, and discourage us from pursuing it. But he wants perhaps to teach us that there is something else, something even higher than human wisdom, something that lies beyond all wisdom and cleverness and learning, something that we can actually only receive from beyond ourselves (like our own birth, for that matter), because we ourselves don't have the ability to create or attain it.

Jesus is trying to get us to see, in short, that there is something in life we can only receive by accepting it as a gift, like little children. But at the same time, he is hinting that it is a gift we need in order to survive or, to use more traditional terms, something we need for our salvation, as when he says: "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened... and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29).

And that 'gift' is the peace of God, which – notwithstanding his preference, expressed elsewhere, for maturity over the habits of childhood – St Paul himself tells us "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7), even the understanding of the wisest and most learned. This peace comes to us through God's unconditional acceptance and love for us in Christ Jesus, his Son.

The peace of God, our faith promises us, can lighten the afflictions and burdens of humanity, which Jesus was always alert to, because human beings, we believe, are made in the image and likeness of God, and as such we can look forward in hope, beyond all the trials of this world, to sharing one day in the fullness of God's glory in heaven. We can hope, in other words, that in our beginning is also our end.

Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor