Of the many things that Jesus might have been getting at when he urged his followers to become “like little children,” I think near the top of my list would be the flat-out curiosity and forthrightness that I see so often in my own kids. I have found conversations with a couple of seven year-olds to be about as interesting (and reliable) a source of theological insight as any books on my shelf or sermons I hear (or deliver!).
The following conversation with my son N., which took place after our morning breakfast prayer, provided another example…
N.: Dad, is “amen” only for men?
Dad: Of course not, why would you say that?
N.: Well we say aMEN…
Dad: Ah, I see. Well, the word “amen” doesn’t really have anything to do with men specifically. It’s a word that originally comes from another language—it means something like “so be it,” or “let it be so.”
N. (seemingly satisfied with this answer—once the “comes from another language” card is played, that’s usually enough to send him off to other, more fruitful areas of exploration): Oh.
(Brief pause, for a couple of monstrous spoonfuls of Froot Loops)
N.: Dad, God loves everyone right?
Dad: Yes, of course he does. Why do you ask?
N. (recalling a line—”born for all men“—from a Christmas concert he sang four months ago): But we say that God loves men.
Dad: Yeah, you’re right N. It’s weird isn’t it? In the past, some people would use “men” or “man” or “mankind” when they meant “all people.”
Dad: That’s a good question, N.
N.: Because God loves women too, right dad?
He certainly does. It’s funny how our familiarity with certain customs or ways of speaking causes them to lose their strangeness over time. I remember having very similar questions when I was somewhere around my son’s age. I wondered why “men”/”mankind” could mean “male human beings” or “male and female human beings” but the same wasn’t true of “women” or “womankind.” I wondered (but never bothered asking) how girls and women felt about this. I wondered if I, as a boy, would appreciate being lumped into the category of “women” or “womankind.”
And then, somewhere along the way, I stopped wondering. I probably learned a bit about the evolution of culture and language and I probably had it explained to me that using these terms was just how we did things and wasn’t meant to be insulting to women. I probably grew so familiar with the accepted nature of these locutions that they gradually became less puzzling/mildly offensive to me. Even though I was/am/will continue to be careful not to use words in these ways myself, I slowly stopped being surprised.
Perhaps this is one area (among many) where I could become more “like a little child.” Because God does love women too, and our language ought to reflect this.
(For those wondering what my daughter C. made of the above discussion—one of such obvious personal existential import and relevance—her time was spent obliviously toying with breakfast, playing with various plastic animals and pestering the cat. Evidently these weighty concerns of gender, language, and the nature of God have not yet troubled her too much…)