When I Was a Child: Kids Believe the Darndest Things

“If you lack wisdom in some areas, have someone bring you a funnel from Nuremberg.” Source

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

In a recent post responding to a column in The Salt Lake Tribune in which the author rather unhelpfully suggests that instead of “faking it” you should “believe what you believe” and “not believe what you do not believe,” Sam rightly observes that “belief isn’t static” but waxes and wanes over time: “The idea that you have to be fully committed or fully uncommitted is just unfathomable.”

In addition to the weaknesses Sam points out, the Tribune column misses—somewhat inexplicably given the attention they attract from adults during Sunday services—the fact that a sizable population shows up to church every week as blank slates, with no particular beliefs or even a concept of belief to call their own: infants and young children.

Belief is clearly not a prerequisite for church attendance if we take them into account, and though I’m not even sure attendance is a necessary condition for developing belief—it’s hardly sufficient—attendance is certainly a common method for socializing children in the church with a view to helping them develop belief and faith.

So rather than continuing to harp on Brother Monson’s column, I’d like to direct the reader’s attention to that formative stage of life where we go from empty vessels to believers. For most of you this will coincide with childhood, but I have to confess that I do not have the confidence of Paul that I have moved entirely beyond childish things.

My thoughts here were inspired by this podcast on “kid logic… where kids look at something going on around them, observe it carefully, think about it logically, and come to conclusions that are completely incorrect.”

Now, I get that when we are talking about religious beliefs it’s not really a matter of “correct” or “incorrect” beliefs, though the skeptic dismisses wholesale the stories of angels and golden books while the dogmatist despairs for your uncertainty regarding the Godhead. But for all its rejection of creeds, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does promote and periodically review in person a set of teachings that members are assumed to know and expected to adhere to. So without getting too hung up on what beliefs are correct or not, let’s reflect on the mysterious process of belief acquisition.

Part of the process is not mysterious at all, of course—children are simply told what to believe; like the Renaissance model of gaining wisdom, a funnel is inserted into the top of your head and information and experiences are poured in. The mystery lies in what the individual child does with that information and those experiences.

I still vividly recall the Sunday afternoon years ago when my daughter left nursery sobbing. Alarmed, I asked what had happened. It turned out the lesson had been on Heavenly Father, and she was confused about this guy the teachers kept referring to as “father” who definitely wasn’t the only person she knew as her father. She didn’t want another father and became distressed at the teachers’ insistence that in fact she did have a second one. In this case a euphemism for God/implied teaching about an abstract relationship between humans and divinity backfired in the face of my daughter’s limited experience.

I can also recall the sinking feeling that I’d blown it already on the evening of my baptism. On the way home after the services, I got into a fight with my brother in the car. As I walked into the house and passed the washing machine and dryer, I realized that I was already unclean, not an hour after being washed of my sins.

Something else I used to believe in as a child include deceased ancestors who followed me around like a drone; I mean, I didn’t think in terms of drones back then, but that perspective of the eye in the sky is exactly what I had in mind.

Sometimes childish—unreflective?—beliefs persist into adulthood. For example, it was once plainly obvious to me that temple garments had physical protection properties like bullet proof vests. You wear your garments, you’re not going to get hurt. I can also recall a heated discussion about whether God knows the future while I was attending BYU. “Of course he does!” I exclaimed with righteous fervor. Years later discussions at New Cool Thang led me to revisit my beliefs about divine foreknowledge and conclude that my earlier beliefs in this regard—however firmly held—weren’t based on much more than a gut feeling.

Those beliefs weren’t solely a product of my gut, of course; it’s no accident that a Mormon kid had views on relationships with deceased relatives, the efficacy of temple garments and baptism, the nature of God, and so on. Lessons on all of those topics were a regular part of my development, even if what I did with the snippets of what I took home from those lessons was far from predetermined.

On the basis of new information and experience I have since modified those beliefs, and I’m no longer burdened by that fight with my brother those many years ago. Similarly, my daughter does not mistake Heavenly Father for me, or vice versa. This doesn’t mean we’ve figured it all out, however, or that all that remains is to stride confidently down a well-lit covenant path to our reward. As Paul notes in the verse following the one quoted above, even “now we see through a glass, darkly”; even “now I know in part”; we won’t see “face to face” or “know even as also I am known” until some point in the future.

In the meantime, reflecting on childish beliefs can be a beneficial exercise, either as a means of easing self-imposed burdens, coming to terms with new information and experiences or just as a source of amusement. I’m not sure when my supply of them will run out or that I’ve even stopped accumulating them, so I should have plenty to keep me busy in the years ahead.

How about you? I’d be interested to learn how your beliefs have developed over time and what inspired you to modify them.

Comments

  1. One of my earliest memories of Church was attending Primary (back when Primary included Sacrament) and taking in the lesson that our bodies now are just like our spirits in the pre-existence. I took this as a way to tamp down any times I had feelings wishing I was a girl, that I could just be like the women I so admired.
    Though I had parents who were pretty good at complaining against teachings that they disagreed with (Saturday’s Warrior comes to mind) and my mother was strong in the feminism of her youth, and concept of gender being wrong was simply not in anyone’s mind but mine.
    What broke it was spending time trying to find understanding from the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. The subsequent wrestling with God, on a question I’d never really asked before, was a turning point in my life.

  2. I had all sorts of weird beliefs as a kid, often derived from me trying to square a rather fundamentalist scriptural hermeneutic with observed reality — including the little I knew of science. For instance, since I knew continental drift happened over thousands of years, I hypothesized that humans got from Adam-ondi-Ahman (Missouri) to the Fertile Crescent via Noah’s ark: the Mississippi had a disastrous flood, the ark was swept to sea, it looked as if the whole world was flooded, and then they arrived in what appeared to be an entirely new land.

  3. (Correction: millions of years! So Pangaea was nowhere in human history.)

  4. Kristine says:

    TK–the first theological crisis I remember had to do with the same sort of reconciliation effort. I was 5, and our Family Home Evening lesson had (inexplicably! who tells 5-year-olds this stuff?) included a quotation from Brigham Young about how resurrection would proceed, with patriarchs calling their families forth from their graves. I became extremely worried about what would happen to people who were eaten by lions, which led to nightmarish visions of body parts rising up out of the savannah…

  5. On knowing the future, how can God show people visions of future events, if God doesn’t see the future? In D&C 38, Jesus says that all things are present before his eyes. I assume “all things” includes both past and future. Truth is knowledge of things as they were, as they are, and as they are to come (D&C 93). If God is a God of truth (which he tells us he is), then he must have knowledge of the future. You don’t really have to rely on your gut on this. Unless you don’t take him at his word, or if you think Joseph Smith made this all up. If that’s the case, then you may as well toss the whole religion basket into the landfill.

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