Chapter 7: Childhood and Maturity
And Jesus called a little child unto him and set him in the midst
of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become
as little children, ye shalt not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child,
I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things.
I Corinthians 13:11.
Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be
ye children, but in understanding be men.
I Corinthians 14:20.
Jesus seems to place a premium upon childlikeness. St. Paul implies
the necessity of maturity. The superficial contradiction of these two emphases,
which St. Paul resolves in his admonition, "Be not children in understanding,
howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men," points
to a profound and perennial problem of human life. Maturity is both good
and evil. It is both life and death.
Maturity is life. The mature man understands his world and himself better
than the child. His reason grasps the relation of things to each other
in their causal sequences. His judgment is capable of significant choices.
His memory, social and individual, appropriates the experience and achievements
of the past. His imagination anticipates the future. The child-man, unable
to understand the relation of things to each other, ascribes an ultimate
source to every natural event, thus peopling his world with spirits, monsters,
gods, devils and other mysterious potencies. Maturer understanding discerns
the regularities of natural processes and learns to interpret the world
in terms of dependable causation rather than mysterious caprice. Childhood
cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its
knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the
fulfilment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than
Maturity is death. The human body begins slowly to die, shortly after
it has reached its full growth at twenty-five years or thereabouts. Most
athletic games, with the possible exception of golf, are the province of
youth. Fortunately the mind continues to develop in a decaying body. But
even the spiritual capacities of man may decay with age. Maturity may mean
atrophy of the imagination, loss of the unity and serenity of childhood,
degeneration from sincerity to deviousness, from expectancy and eagerness
to cynicism and disillusionment.
Since maturity may mean death as well as life, it is obvious that something
of the genius of childhood must be retained and recaptured as we grow into
maturity. That is the significance of all the myths of religion which picture
the ideal of end of life, like unto the beginning; the ultimate consummation
of the Kingdom of God like the paradisiacal genesis. Perhaps the difference
between childishness and childlikeness is that the latter recaptures rather
than retains the simplicities and profundities of childhood. We cannot
merely retain the early simplicity. We cannot be, but we must be "converted
and become," as little children. The greater complexity, the wider intellectual
range, the more detailed knowledge of maturity means death if something
of the simplicity, unity and profundity of childhood is not constantly
recaptured. In that sense a profound religion makes demands which defy
the counsels of sophisticated modernity, intent upon intellectual maturity
alone and blind to the price which it has paid for its sophistication.
The unity of a child's life is akin to animal serenity. The harmonies
of nature have not been disturbed in it, though it must be admitted that
the youngest human infant reveals elements of freedom which make bovine
serenity impossible. The child is not at war with itself. With the growth
of reason and the consequent growth of freedom the alternatives which present
themselves to human choice grow in bewildering complexity. Any unity which
is achieved must be a unity which holds a great profusion of impulses and
desires under the check of a central will.
The problem of maturity is not only to achieve unity amidst complexity
of impulses but to overcome the particular conflict between the IS and
the OUGHT of life, between the ideal possibilities to which freedom encourages
man and the drive of egoism, which reason sharpens rather than assuages.
Thus every adult life experiences the reality of what is expressed in the
myth of the Fall. The rational freedom with which man is endowed represents
an ideal possibility of harmonising the forces of nature upon a higher
level than they achieve in nature. But this ideal possibility is not realised.
Reason disintegrates nature's harmonies without being able to reconstruct
a pure harmony upon a higher level. Therefore man is estranged from himself
and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the
law that is in his mind.
Since this conflict in man is never completely resolved maturity means
the loss not only of childlike innocency and unity but of childlike sincerity.
A child does not pretend to be other than it is. It centres its life in
itself and does not claim to do otherwise. Gradually the larger world is
disclosed to the maturing mind. This world suggests a community of values
greater than the self, which it ought to serve; but it also reveals a multitude
of forces and an abundance of life which can be brought into the service
of the self. Thus the simple egocentricity of the child grows into egotism.
The self that had been only the centre of the self tries to make itself
the centre of its world. The self is obviously too petty to undertake such
an enterprise with complete self-assurance. It knows its existence to be
justified only as it finds its subordinate place in a total scheme of life
greater than itself. But this knowledge is unable to overcome the drive
of egotism. Hence the self is tempted to hide its desire to dominate the
world behind its pretended devotion to the world. All mature moral conduct
is therefore infected with an element of dishonesty and insincerity. The
lie is always intimately related to the sin of egotism. Adult character
is forced by its own inner contradictions to pretend to be something which
it is not. The devil is a liar. This insincerity in adult life is a part
of the Fall. it is not an inherited infection but it is nevertheless a
recurring one. No degree of conscious moral striving can completely eliminate
The difference between childlike sincerity and adult dishonesty is portrayed
with particular vividness in the collective history of man. Primitive tribes
live for themselves and fight for their existence against external foes.
They do not justify these conflicts to themselves or to their foes. They
are self-justifying. Advanced civilisations look out upon a larger world
than their own life. Invariably they have both an imperialistic and a moral
attitude toward this world. They seek to dominate life beyond the boundaries
of their own state; but they also feel themselves the bearers and inheritors
of values which transcend their national existence. When their national
existence is threatened, or when an imperial impulse prompts them to extend
their dominions, they always insist that it is not their national existence
or the extension of their dominion which is at stake but Kultur,
or democracy, or white civilisation, or Nordic culture. These pretensions
are never wholly untrue, since maturity knows nothing of a purely discreet
existence in men or nations. Every individual life is organically related
to and the servant of organisations of life beyond itself. Yet these pretensions
are never as simply true as the idealists pretend. Nations do not fight
if they do not feel their national existence or their national pride jeopardised,
though they may rise to the knowledge that the best protection of the self
is devotion to a system of security, the advantages of which transcend
this immediate purpose. But where the larger value is not immediately and
obviously to the advantage of the more immediate one, devotion to it is
qualified. This constitutional shortsightedness and dishonesty of nations
has made the achievement of an international government impossible to the
present time. Superficial cynics sometimes regard the hypocrisies of nations
as merely the dishonest devices of statesmen. It is true of course that
the interests of ruling classes accentuate this native dishonesty; but
it is basically a natural and inevitable quality of mature existence. Tribes
may be honest; but empires are dishonest. This fact alone makes nonsense
of all simple moralistic ideas of progress. The warfare of modern man is
so terrible not only because his intelligence has perfected the instruments
of conflict and made them more deadly, but also because maturity has forced
him into a curious hypocritical fanaticism. He can be so ruthless to his
foe because he regards the foe as a peril not merely to his existence but
to all high and holy values of life.
If the complexity and dishonesty of adult life are a constitutional
defect it may seem futile to demand of man that he "be converted and become
as a child." Indeed, no mature religion will expect what modern liberal
religion has expected of man: that the recognition of his sins will lead
to their complete elimination. A mature religion will know that it is dealing
with something more stubborn and mysterious in human wrongdoing than some
easily corrected sloth or malice. It will recognise the reality of "original
sin" in other words. If it does recognise this it will have something more
than a simple moral command as its plan of salvation. Yet the command to
be converted and become as little children is an imperative. Dishonesty
is not normative because it is general; nor is egotism right though it
is the law of existence. No man can return to the innocency and unity of
childhood; yet he cannot escape judgment upon his life, his egotism and
his hypocrisy from a perspective, of which the innocency of childhood is
a symbol. The man who sees in childhood the promise of what life ought
to be, and the outline of what life truly is, has discerned one of the
profoundest truths of the Christian religion. God is both the creator and
the fulfilment of life. Life must move forward to what it was at the beginning.
But it must move forward. Infantilism is psychopathic. There is no possibility
of remaining as little children. There is only a possibility of "becoming"
as little children.
To become as a little child cannot mean to recapture its innocency.
To repent and be converted cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must
mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest. To repent
and be converted cannot mean that we will be emancipated from all selfishness.
No spiritual insight or discipline can wholly free man of the inclination
of human reason to extend the range of the self-regarding impulses with
which nature has endowed him. But the repentant man, who knows both his
dishonesty and his selfishness, will be able to check these tendencies
and thus prevent life from developing a consistent hypocrisy and egotism.
The unity toward which we strive cannot be the perfect unity from which
we have come, because it is a unity within complexity. There is thus in
the Christian religion a challenge to a higher honesty and morality and
the consciousness of an unattained purity which man cannot achieve himself
but which lies in the hands of God to impart. In the Parable of the Vineyard
those who have achieved much are as greatly in need of God's grace as those
who have achieved little. The validity of this idea cannot be doubted in
the light of the plight of human spirituality, though it is an offence
to simple moralists. Dishonest, selfish, proud and disquieted maturity
must regard the innocency of childhood as the norm of life, even though
it is an unattainable norm; and as the outline of life's final fulfilment,
though resources greater than any man's are required for its fulfilment.
"With man this is impossible, with God all things are possible."
We are standing at a crisis in our social history in which political
and social forces are strangely divided into two camps, in both of which
the relation of childhood and maturity is not fully understood. The fascists
seek to escape the complexities of modern civilisation by returning to
childhood; the communists are more correct in wishing to go forward to
a higher justice but wrong in imagining that perfect innocency is a possibility
for man's natural history.
Modern fascism seeks to overcome the complexities, disunities and disintegrations
of modern society by a return to tribal simplicity. Ludwig Klages, a typical
philosopher of modern Germany, significantly regards the mind as a disease
which disintegrates the simple animal harmonies of nature, as indeed it
does. But when a modern nation uses all the technical arts of propaganda
and organisation to force life back into its primitive unity and seeks
to turn the rational process suicidally upon itself, it generates psychopathic
aberrations. Romantic primitivism is a false escape from the perils of
maturity. A man cannot be a child. A modern nation cannot force itself
into the mould of a primitive tribe. The consequence of such an effort
is not child-like innocency but the sadism of a concentration camp.
There is something equally abortive in the effort of a fascistic Realpolitik
to escape the dishonesties and pretensions of political life and frankly
and brutally to avow its egoistic ambitions. If liberal politics represents
a maturity which has not discovered its own sins, then fascistic politics
is a form of infantilism which seeks to escape dishonesty by disavowing
all the higher loyalties to which men and nations have been only partially
true. That also is a false way of salvation. A modern nation cannot escape
its obligations to a civilisation greater than itself, even though it be
recognised that it is never as loyal to these obligations as it ought to
be and claims to be. An honesty which destroys the norms by which dishonesty
is discovered may achieve an internal unity but at the expense of external
anarchy. Modern fascistic nationalism significantly accentuates the anarchy
between nations as it seeks to overcome the anarchy within nations.
In comparison with these primitivistic tendencies in reactionary politics
communism and radicalism represent health. Marxism seeks to overcome the
disintegration of modern society by pressing forward to a new and higher
form of integration. That is the proper strategy of maturity. Nor is the
hope vain that modern society may be able to find a new form of unity,
more compatible with the necessities of a technical civilisation. Communist
theory is wrong only in that part of its thought in which all modernism
is wrong. It is utopian. It imagines that perfect innocency, a new childhood,
lies at the end of the social process. It thinks itself capable of creating
a society in which all tensions are resolved and the final root of human
anarchy is eliminated. If that were really possible its new society would
not be the beginning of history, as it fondly imagines, but its end. For
the dynamic energies of human life, which destroy the harmonies of nature,
are also the creative forces of history. That is a paradox which has not
dawned upon the consciousness of any simple-minded modern, whether liberal
or radical, The fabric of history is woven upon a loom which has greater
dimensions than any known history. No simple victory of good over evil
in history is possible. Every new energy of life and every higher creative
force can be, and will be, a force of disintegration as well as of integration.
The realisation of this fact distinguishes the apocalyptic hopes of prophetic
religion from the utopias of modernity. The problem of good and evil cannot
be completely resolved in history.
We have considered the serenity, unity and sincerity of the child as
normative for life. That has suggested the whole range of moral and social
problems which mankind faces. But we have not considered, except by implication,
the cultural problems of history. For these we must regard the profundity
of the child as normative. The most charming characteristic of childhood
is the penchant of the child for simple but profound questions. Every child
is a born theologian, which may be one reason why moderns regard theologians
as obscurantists. The child is a theologian rather than a scientist. It
is confused and uncertain about secondary and natural causes; but it is
interested in primary and ultimate ones. It is less interested in tracing
the causal sequences of the evolutionary chain than in inquiring when and
why the world began.
In a recent book entitled Conversations with Children a breakfast
dialogue between father and six-year-old daughter was reported which I
am forced to quote from memory. It ran something like this:
"Father, why was I born?"
"I don't know, my child; only God knows."
"Did God want me to be born?"
"I think so."
"Was God born?
"No, God was not born."
"If God was not born, why did he want me to be born?"
"Now be quiet, you little busybody."
"Why don't you answer my questions, you old lazybody?"
These simple questions of a little girl are perfect examples of childlike
profundity. They all concern themselves with the problem of ultimate meaning:
"Why was I born?" and with the relation of the infinite to the finite:
"If God was not born, why did he want me to be born?" The questions of
the meaning of life and of the relation of the finite to the infinite fairly
exhaust the whole range of religious thought and life. The second question
is suggested by the first, because every conception of meaning points to
sources and fulfilments of meaning which transcend the finite world.
Religious literalism seeks to preserve childlike profundity in religion
by giving simple and childlike answers to childlike questions. It thinks
that the mythical answers to childlike questions are adequate scientific
answers. It tries to insist that, because the idea of creation is true,
it is also true that God created the world in six days; and that because
the story of the Fall is true, therefore the account of the serpent and
the apple in the garden is actual history. Thus it corrupts ultimate religious
insights into a bad science. It tries to make mythical explanations of
the ultimate "why" into scientific explanations of the immediate "how."
This is a form of cultural primitivism as baneful as the social primitivism
of reactionary politics.
The culture of modernity is a reaction to this kind of primitivism.
It is unfortunately a new childishness which imagines that superficial
answers to profound questions are sufficient. The child asks questions
without claiming to know the answers. The adolescent thinks he knows the
answers. The adolescent sophistication of modernity expresses itself in
finding scientific answers for religious questions; in thinking that analyses
of historical sequences and natural causation are an adequate approach
to the problem of the meaning of life. It believes that the world is self-derived
and self-explanatory because it is always possible to find a previous cause
for every subsequent event.
The childlikeness of an adequate religion lies not on this but on the
other side of sophistication. It is not the childlikeness of primitive
ignorance but the childlikeness of a wisdom which has learned the limits
of human knowledge. It therefore approaches life with awe, hope and fear.
With awe, because it knows that the mystery of life is something more than
an unknown region not yet explored by an advancing science; with hope because
"it doth not yet appear what we shall be" and no record of past history
gives us an adequate clue of what creative omnipotence may bring forth
out of the infinite possibilities of existence; with fear, because it knows
the possibilities of evil, which appear at each new turn in history, are
never adequately anticipated by any analysis of the past. The wisdom of
such childlikeness will prefer its hopes to its fears, knowing that good
is more primary than evil, that the world could not exist at all if it
were not good, creation being a triumph over chaos. It will therefore approach
life fearful and yet unafraid. Its serenity will be more lasting than that
of a culture which based its confidence upon the illusion that human intelligence
had overcome the chaos of the nature about us and the nature in us. It
will not be surprised if ogres and goblins suddenly appear out of the darkness;
any more than fairies and good spirits will surprise it. It knows the dimensions
of life to be both deeper and higher than the thin surface of expected
occurrences which has been frozen by rationalism into an icy solidity,
giving those who seek a firm footing upon it a false sense of security.
The ice is not very thick; the ocean beneath it is deep and tempestuous;
and the sun above is warm and melting.
The relative good of every human achievement is always threatened by
the chaos of evil and by the judgment of a good God who destroys man's
imperfect handiwork to make room for something better. The joys of birth
and the grief of death are richer, more satisfying and more terrible than
the rational expectancies suggested by vital statistics. No rationalist,
in the period of bourgeois complacency in which it was believed that the
demonic forces in history had been permanently banned by human prudence,
could have foreseen or did foresee this sorry era in the world's life,
in which nations have gone mad and worship as their gods ridiculous leaders
who have suddenly emerged out of the twilight zone of political burlesque.
It is not without significance that the real saints of history, as distinguished
from morbid, self-flagellating ascetics, have a delightful sense of humour,
as had Francis of Assisi for instance. This sense of humour is based upon
a curious quality of disillusionment which has not resulted in either bitterness
or despair. It is without bitterness, because judgments of the fellowman
are tempered by the forgiveness which is prompted by repentance. It is
without despair, because no evils in the world can disturb the firm faith
in the goodness of God and his ultimate triumph over evil. This quality
of mirthful serenity is unlike the innocency of childhood which knows no
evil. It has looked into the abyss of evil and is no longer affrighted
by it. This state might be termed a second childhood, but for the uncomplimentary
connotation of that term. It is, at any rate, the spiritual state which
follows the second birth of repentance and conversion.
Spiritual health in both individuals and societies is an achievement
of maturity in which some excellency of childhood is consciously reclaimed,
after being lost in the complexities of life. It is an inner integrity
not on this but the other side of inner conflict; it is sincerity not on
this but the other side of a contrite recognition of the deceitfulness
of the human heart; it is trust in the goodness of life not on this but
the other side of disillusionment and despair; it is naivete and serenity
not on this but the other side of sophistication. In no case is the exact
outlook of the child reclaimed. What is at the end is never really like
the beginning. Yet something of the beginning must be in the end, if the
end is not to be pure dissolution. In both morals and culture, life and
history are therefore constant battles "to become as little children,"
to arrest that in growth which is decay, to prevent multiciplicity from
destroying unity, to prevent increased knowledge from enervating the zest
for life and to prevent the atrophy of the imagination in the growth of