The Mystery of the Child
Martin E. Marty. The Mystery of the Child. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,2007.
The nature of the child remains a relatively under-explored phenomenon by theologians. Clichés and even more grounded assertions recognize that the future of any society is contingent upon the health and well-being of its youngest generation. Regardless, many theologians fail to include the child in their efforts. To his credit, Martin E. Marty in The Mystery of the Child seeks to offer a theological exploration of the child. In doing so he contends with voices that leave the impression that the child is a problem to be managed. In contrast, Marty argues that the child is a mystery to be appreciated.
In terms of his argument that the child is a mystery, Marty offers that “the provision of care for children will proceed on a radically revised and improved basis if instead of seeing the child first as a problem faced with a complex of problems, we see her as a mystery surrounded by mystery” (1). In the end, he is “interested in a nonclinical question: how to conceive of a child” (1). Aware of the possibility that many individuals will dismiss his project as not immediately practical, Marty appropriately asks us to summon the patience needed to explore the underlying assumptions we carry in relation to the child. He claims that his project will prove to be practical as it offers “meta-guidance or meta-advice, treating issues that are situated behind or beyond those involving practical counsel” (1). As a result, he is hopeful that individuals charged with caring for the child will see him or her in a different light. The mystery of the child, for Marty, is rooted in the child’s paradoxical nature. Marty views children as “immortal teachers because they are complex. Their simplicity and their complexity in interplay make them beguiling and promising candidates for research, observation, and care” (6). The challenge Marty makes to those of us charged with care for the child is to transfer our impulse to reduce complex phenomena to one of appreciation.
In order to develop his understanding of the child as a mystery, Marty initially draws heavily on the work of Gabriel Marcel, in particular Marcel’s The Mystery of Being. As a result, Marty states that “Mystery refers to something fathomless…. What is fathomless is open to discovery and revelation without end, but it never finds resolution or conclusion” (16–17). Beyond Marcel and his larger framework of mystery, Marty also draws upon the efforts of theologians like Gordon Kaufman and Karl Rahner. For example, given his starting point with Marcel’s notion of mystery, Marty finds Kaufman’s “analogical argument promising” (63). The child is thus seen as manifesting “the ultimate mystery, especially when recalled as created in the image of God” (64). Finally, Marty also draws heavily upon the work of José Ortega y Gasset. In particular, Ortega y Gasset offers Marty an understanding of the complex and ultimately fluid nature of human identity. As a result, an inextricable dimension of the child as a mystery emerges when we view the child as a “pilgrim of her being” (143). Experiences in the past may provide the only fixed line in a child’s identity. Regardless, “they also open him to new possibilities” (144).
Despite the significance of Marty’s efforts, we should not underestimate the pressures against understanding the child as a mystery. Although theologians have remained relatively silent on the topic, not all disciplines have shared this posture. In particular, developmental psychologists have gone to great lengths to quantify the child and thus often to reduce the nature of the child to that of a problem. Marty contends that “They can tell much about the chemistry of our makeup, but they offer little that the one who deals with the mystery of the child favors most: asking questions about how to live” (149). Developmental psychologists often overstep the boundaries of their discipline and “claim predictive power and at least implicitly tell people how to live” (149). As a result, “Adults often employ these explanations to reduce the wonder of both boys and girls and to rationalize how their elders would exert or withhold discipline” (154). In contrast, mystery cannot be quantified. In the absence of an appreciation for the child as a mystery, the child as a problem becomes the default to which we collapse. Strategies for controlling or managing children offered by developmental psychologists fill a perceived need even if that need is more illusionary than real.
Perhaps one of the locales in which this perceived need is most acutely felt is the Christian community. Early in his book, Marty turns to the works of James Dobson, Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, and John Rosemond as examples of such efforts. In particular, Marty’s concern focuses on “the implicit claim that the child can be understood, explained, and somehow cut to size, and thus will turn out in ways that will please adults with their various cultural preconceptions” (49). However, perhaps Marty’s most sustained form of engagement with these kinds of efforts rests with his discussion of Roy Zuck’s Precious in His Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible. Marty ultimately argues that if “Zuck approached the Bible with the mystery of the child, not the problem of the child, in the forefront, there might have been more accent on enjoyment, for adults and children alike” (96–97). Marty challenges Zuck on the grounds that the cumulative weight of the Biblical record that Zuck cites affirms a view of the child as a mystery and not as a problem.
Marty’s argument for the child as a mystery is developed over the course of ten chapters which tend to move from the theoretical to the practical. For example, Marty’s text opens by developing an understanding of mystery and then quickly unfolds it within the particular context of the child. Marty then proceeds to juxtapose his understanding of the child as a mystery with the child as a problem. The differences between these views become most evident when Marty places them within the context of care. If the child is viewed as a problem, then control becomes the objective. If the child is viewed as a mystery, then wonder becomes the objective. By the time Marty reaches his seventh and eighth chapters, he is ready to apply his understanding of the child as a mystery to various circumstances and particular contexts. He offers details in chapter seven concerning the significance of resources such as stories, songs, and visual forms of art and in chapter eight concerning how providers of care can re-stimulate a sense of wonder in children. Marty’s volume ends with a postscript and a prescript which he entitles “The Abyss of Mystery.” In essence, Marty concludes his important argument concerning the child as a mystery by asserting that certain qualities of this understanding apply to all of us—even adults are to open themselves to seeing the world as a child. By doing so, “We will be receiving the gift of each new day, and with that gift the presence of children in our midst, mirrors of the divine mystery that represents both an abyss and a promise” (246).
Although Marty’s project is admirable and leads theologians and others who dare to follow in a positive direction, the methodology of his argument leaves something to be desired in relation to his larger goals. In particular, Marty’s use of Kaufman’s analogous argument leaves me with two questions. First, who initiates appreciation for the ultimate mystery? Second, what is the nature of its context? Kaufman, as quoted by Marty, identifies the individual human agent as the point of initiation for an appreciation for mystery. In places, Rahner also appears susceptible to comparable forms of thinking. From this perspective, theology becomes the language of the private self and is thus unable to muster the critical presence needed to challenge more public forms of language such as developmental psychology. Although admirable in its intent, Marty’s argument is left incapable of fully subverting the understanding of the child as a problem. The way to rectify this weakness in Marty’s argument is to insert a more robust ecclesiology. When Marty mentions the church, he mentions it as one among other societal equals. When best understood, theology is the language one learns via the practices of the public that is the church. These practices initiate an appreciation for God as a mystery since God initiates the gift of grace—the gift we then recognize in the child.
In the end, Martin Marty is to be commended for his efforts in The Mystery of the Child. He rightfully challenges our propensity to reduce and quantify human identity, particularly our propensity to view the child as a problem. As a result, Marty charts a new course by proposing that we view the child as a mystery. Perhaps future generations of theologians can recast Marty’s vision for the child in terms that do not view theological discourse as private in nature. Only under such conditions can theology challenge the claim that disciplines such as developmental psychology have laid on our understanding of the child. In essence, efforts to care for the child are too important to settle for anything less.
Todd C. Ream,
Indiana Wesleyan University