How to teach our children to write in pencil

Recently I heard a Sunday School teacher of young children bubbling about how many catechism questions her children had learned that year; I should note that she was not bragging, since she doesn’t teach the catechism herself, but was commending the parents and children for their hard work because of how important it is for children to “know what they believe.” Laying aside her dubiously assumed answer to the question of “do they even know what the catechism is saying so that they could be said to ‘believe’ it?”, I think her remarks convey a popular misunderstanding among many people, and not just Christians.

The first page from the 9th edition of the Wes...

On one hand, I agree that knowing what we believe is extremely important: we should always be aware of what beliefs are guiding us day-to-day. It’s part of a critical self-awareness that many are missing when they function from all sorts of unexamined assumptions and then act as though “believing” is the same thing as “knowing”. And this is the problem: although knowing what we believe isn’t the same thing as knowing the right things, most people who are most confident that they know what they believe seem to be the likeliest to “know” things they have no proper epistemological basis for knowing. So when people like this Sunday School teacher speak of the importance of children knowing what they believe, what they mean is believing exactly what we’ve taught them to believe before they have a chance to be critical about any of it.

I want my children to start off being aware of how little they know, not how much they know–or think they know. I also want them to be aware of how little everyone else knows, how much mystery there still is in this world, defying all of our confidence.

But it’s a difficult balancing act: I want my children to trust what my wife and I tell them and not gainsay everything we try to teach them. I want them to learn to live off their best guesses, while recognizing that that’s all they are. By this I hope they will avoid fundamentalism of both the religious and positivist varieties. I want them to live in wonder and in expectation, starting off not as skeptical blank slates who must learn everything for themselves but as notebooks written in pencil who can rest on the suggestions of those older and wiser than they, correcting as necessary.

As long as children are aware that their catechisms are written in pencil, some of the danger is mitigated. But children are so black and white that it’s often hard to get them to unlearn “facts” without damaging the trust tissue their learning is couched in. So I’m stuck thinking that by and large, catechism as practiced by most is a bad idea. If I had a chance to revise the way catechism is taught, this is how I would preface things–not just once, but often.

We’re learning the things believed by our mothers and fathers in the faith. They didn’t know everything, of course, and they made mistakes like we do, but they followed God and did their best to understand Him, and this is what they came up with. We’re entrusting it to you for safekeeping.

If we were able to communicate that…that’s really about all it would take, isn’t it? If not those very words, the regular reinforcement of this disposition toward knowledge, which falls under the virtue called humility, would seem to help many avoid crises of faith later in life.

None of the toilsome expositions about uncertainty, faith, doubt, hope (i.e. the stuff I talk about on this blog all the time) would be necessary for most Christians to perilously work our way through if we could have just learned to gratefully hold everything we were taught with an open hand and not been trained to “know what we believe” to the point where we held such unrealistic expectations about the capacity of anyone–to include the biblical authors–to have absolute, unquestionable knowledge.

Children want brute facts; their young minds are usually not amenable to nuanced views of epistemology. They often ask hard questions like “Is that true?” that we’re unprepared to answer without the necessary nuances. But answering that sort of question by both affirming that 1) “Many good people think it is” and 2) “But many other good people disagree” is extending them an invitation for discovery that will benefit them far more than unwavering confidence in “what they believe”.

Fellow non-/post-Evangelical believers, how have you seen this approach play out? Have you seen something that’s worked better?

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