God, Atheism, and Becoming Like Little Children

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3).

Though many of Jesus’s words might be subject to interpretation in various faith traditions, Matthew’s report of what he said in Galilee in response to the question, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” seems pretty direct. Yet, most of the turning and becoming in our world today is in the adult direction. What is it about children which could possibly allow their entry before the rest of us? After all, they depend on us mature people for their education, safety, and very existence. We certainly don’t need a four-year-old to show us anything—do we? It took a 40-year-old Edwin Hubble with his telescope in the first part of the 20th Century to prove that our universe is ever expanding and 28-year-old Stephen Hawking and 34-year-old Roger Penrose provided strong evidence our stars and planets have not always been there. Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope in 1933 at age 27 and modern instruments can now magnify human cells a million times and have revealed them to be ordered universes in themselves. These are the works of mature minds. It is certainly not child’s play.

Yet, ponder: It is not surprising that most of the scientists making landmark observations today have become atheists, agnostics, or are no longer especially interested in the hereafter despite growing up in religious families. Their scientific method has become their god and is bound to eventually show that the idea of a loving, omnipotent being creating all of this out of nothing is preposterous, wishful thinking. The more they discover, the more arrogant they become. Drawn like moths to a flame, they bask in their recognition at national and international scientific meetings. Acolytes from the major secular universities supporting their research fawn all over them because of their brilliance and the media are quick to follow suit. Consequently, their conclusions about creation become quite contagious for the rest of us. We figure that they must be right and assume that our scientists will get us the evidence that there’s nobody out there before we die.

There is at least some pull in the opposite direction since many of us grownups love our kids more than life itself. Many of us are still in the habit of going home to our families, reading a story to our moppets at bedtime, and tucking them in with, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”like our parents did with us. We might even tell them about a kindly father in heaven who made us, made the earth, and all the animals and plants just because he loves us. Of course, they trust whatever we tell them and innocently and instinctively believe it.

Nevertheless, our collective genius has evolved us far beyond Santa Claus, Tinker Toys,and Legos and we’re not going back! What we have failed to consider is that brighter minds than ours have been trying to prove that God is a myth since humans inhabited the planet and that the argument for or against is unlikely to be settled in our own lifetime. That’s going to leave some of the scientists and us at least a tiny bit uneasy when we keep remembering back to our own childhood and what our parents and Sunday school teachers told us. That nagging little voice will always be asking, “What if I’m wrong and reject God in the short time I have left? Will he reject me? As has been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Lest we think that modern geniuses have all the answers, with none of the tools we have today, Thomas Aquinas, using his prodigious intellect alone, proved 700 years ago that the universe has not always existed and that there has to have been an Unmoved Mover (perhaps the one who ignited the Big Bang?). Thomas himself, undoubtedly familiar with Matthew 18:3, had some insightful observations about small children. He tells us that little children are not pretentious and do not put on airs. They are simply themselves. They are pure and not dominated by unchaste desires like many of us mature folks. Rather than manipulative like so many adults, they are true friends who do not hold grudges and forget wrongs quickly. They are happy to overlook the morning’s scuffles in order to play again in the afternoon. Their limited rational powers at so young an age prevent them from real sin. Ironically, despite his remarkable intellect, the purity of Aquinas’s own heart was such that, on the testimony of Reginald, his confessor, his general confession before dying was like that of a child of five. Had he been remembering Matthew 18:3?

Those of us who call ourselves believers can be just as arrogant as the rocket scientists. These superior intellects of ours have made some of us so-called scripture scholars, fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew positive how every passage should be interpreted. We grownups believe we know who God is and how He wants to be worshiped, don’t we? After all, we’re the ones who designed Notre Dame and Chartres. We have the knowledge to compose hymns that bring a tear to the eye in their simplicity or exhilaration in their incredible vocal or symphonic harmonies and mathematical complexity. Why should we turn the clock back to enter God’s kingdom when we have many more advanced resources for sanctification than a child? What is it that little kids have that we have left behind?

The most obvious is their innocence. Indeed, innocent trust is one of the basic attributes of being a child. When we tell them there is a Santa Claus who’s kind and jolly and will bring them gifts on Christmas, they write letters to him and address them to the North Pole. When we take them to church or Sunday school and they are told that they have a Father in heaven who made them, they accept it immediately and without question. The prayers they say and the songs they sing with that knowledge are not only precious to us, but likely to Him as well. About the worst thing a four-year-old can do is to stop up the toilet with halfaroll of toilet paper. Sadly, it doesn’t take long before, as high school kids, they can take those same rolls and stream them over the house of someone they don’t like out of pure malice. A four-year-old white boy can sit with a black boy and make vroom sounds happily together with toy trucks and be totally unconcerned that their skins are a different shade. Little children in their simplicity are fascinated with puppies and delighted if the puppy licks the chocolate off their entire faces. Some angry adults purposely teach puppies to become attack dogs in some kind of warped machismoto menace or even kill others if necessary. As Aquinas indicated, a child can be momentarily annoyed when another kid pushes him down and in halfatick scamper after him and tag him “it” laughing uproariously in playful forgiveness. Some “grown-ups” will shoot to kill for less. Harboring a grudge never occurs to a child, but many of us older folks have carried aroundseveral for years for what we consider personal slights of us, our families, our politics, our research, or our religion. Some of us have even killed or maimed innocent people because we’reso sure ours is the true faith. Tragically in these matters, too, kids believe everything we tell them.

If there is an all-knowing Creator of the Universe, we adults can’t be more than infinitesimally advanced than our three-year-olds to Him. He must be amused by the ideas of our greatest scientists and mathematicians, but lovingly allows us to pontificate at national meetings, and win the accolades of our colleagues or even Nobel prizes for our “landmark” discoveries. We are even allowed to use our “great” intellects to turn away from Him and teach others that He is an invention of our fear of death and the unknown. Even though each of us instinctively knows good from evil, we are free to hurt others in so many disparate and sometimes violent ways. We can selfishly amass great wealth and power for ourselves and families without a thought to the huddled masses around us. Our kids instinctively love and believe in us. They are proud to copy everything we do.

God is not in the forcing business. He gave us the beautiful gift of free will. If He does love us as we were taught, He wouldn’t totally abandon us as puffed up as we might become. Jesus repeatedly confronted the scribes and Pharisees whom He loved with the truth about their arrogance and hypocrisy and won some of them over with his teaching and example. What He offered free for the asking was the gift of faith. Faith is not something which the intelligentsia of our world think they can reason to or reject. Belief is free for the asking from Him. So, if the astrophysicists and we are in our right minds, we might be humble enough to admit that we can’t know absolutely about the creation of the universe.  The safest fallback posture for any of us who remain uncertain to adopt could then be, “If you’re out there, Lord, please help my unbelief.” A loving Creator would not likely say, “No” to His creature for such a humble request before death.Following that freely given gift, we will all hopefully have time for our own search for childlike innocence.

The title, ‘Where Are You Going, My Little One, Little One’? is a line from a thought-provoking song written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reynolds, and Alan Greene, entitled Turn Around. There is an obvious answer to this question for innocent children whether taken from us gradually by disease, suddenly in an accident, or deliberately in traumatic abuse or abortion:This day you will be with me in Paradise.”