At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4
Christianity (and religion in general) is often maligned as being anti-curiosity. Passages like the one I just quoted are often cited. This understanding is fueled by two flawed notions. 1. Faith is belief apart from evidence, or in Dawkinian terms, even in spite of the evidence. 2. A child’s faith, which Jesus calls people to have, is simplistic and unquestioning.
Let me first take aim at Dawkins (and the other New Atheists) on this. The man is flat out wrong. I believe that I am the only person to have done the research to prove that either he is a lazy scholar, and outright biased maniac, or a flat out liar, (or evil, but I choose not to think about that) in regards to one of his quotes in The God Delusion where he tries to show that Christianity is outright against curiosity and learning using a quote from Augustine’s Confessions to make his case. The man is wrong. Much of the advances in science and philosophy for hundreds of years were done by Christians- a point he acknowledges by saying that these Christians, had they been born today, would have been atheists. Nonetheless, they were Christians and they were inquisitive. I guess Christianity isn’t incompatible with curiosity after all. Anyway, if you’re interested in my trouncing of Dawkings on this point, read this.
Now let me take aim at the two contentions above, beginning with #2.
Anyone who has kids knows that they ask a lot of questions and they are increasingly more sophisticated. My oldest child is only six and he has already asked me why bad things happen to good people if God is loving and can do anything. If you can find me an adult with anything more sophisticated than that, I’m their huckleberry. I often wonder if people who think ‘faith like a little child’ is ‘childish’ spend much time around children. I know that my experience is not merely anecodotal. As one who was in charge of Sunday School programs and was a teacher at the junior and senior high level and two years of college, I can testify that kids ask a lot of hard questions.
I can also testify to the fact that the difference in the age groups doesn’t have anything to do with sophistication of the questions but rather the attitude in which the questions are asked. A six year old asks a question because he really wants to know. A thirteen year old wants to play gotcha. A senior in high school already knows the answer and knows you’re wrong. A college kid wants to tell you the answer. Sometime in college it begins to sort out so that a person raising the question could be in any of the categories of attitude I just listed.
Here I think we will be helped by noting that the Bible never says we need to have ‘faith like a little child.’ Never. I welcome correction- but I’ve never seen it. Look at the passage above. Do you see the word ‘faith’ in it? I don’t. People read ‘faith’ into the passage because they have prior notions about ‘faith’, thinking that surely that must be what Jesus means. But Jesus says what he means: “whoever humbles himself like this child.”
In other words, Jesus is not calling people to believe things without asking questions. He is calling people to have a certain kind of attitude. We would be more accurate if we said we needed to have ‘humility like a little child.’ The difference between the questions my son asks and the questions my high school seniors asked was attitude. The questions themselves were, most of the time, equally difficult.
Did Jesus know that kids ask lots of questions? Yes, I think he did. And to be fair, I think a big reason why teenagers and adults come to have ‘bad’ attitudes is because they’ve been offered unsatisfactory and incomplete answers and sometimes been lied to. They begin throwing up defenses, becoming hypercritical, claiming skepticism but in fact practicising cynisism. You cannot enter the kingdom of heaven if your worst fear is that you’re going to be hoodwinked.
Clearly, the task is to try to find an answer-giver who won’t lie to your or abuse his position (Matt 18:6).
But let us set aside this unbiblical notion about ‘faith like a little child’ and the notion that Christians aren’t to ask questions or shouldn’t think critically. This notion doesn’t come from the Bible.
You’ll note that I didn’t address #1, precisely what ‘faith’ is. Well, I guess my point is that a humble approach to the question would be to ask the question, “According to the Bible, what is faith” and then have an attitude that spurs you to investigate- and accept the answer when it is in your hand. But to quickly settle the argument that faith is indifferent to evidence, I will submit just one passage and leave it there. That passage is John 14:11
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.