Nurturing the Spiritual Imagination of Children
The 2009 Sophia Lyons Fahs Lecture
Moderator: Laurie Allen. Speaker: Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Sponsored by the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA).
In the nineteenth century, William Ellery Channing proposed that we “do not see our task as stamping our minds upon the young, but rather aid them in putting their own stamp upon themselves.” The question is how we do that today. Standard religious education often discourages children from asking the big questions of life’s meaning. At the same time, over 5,000 messages are broadcast or printed every day, inviting our children to spend money. Our challenge—and our opportunity—is to give our children language and tools designed to encourage the life of the spirit and to prepare them to deal with theological ideas.
Rabbi Sasso began her talk by noting that "though most youth believe in some form of divinity, only 14 percent value their faith communities.” This may result, in part, from the reluctance many adults have about talking about spirituality with children.
As adults, we may believe that children lack the maturity and sophistication to engage in conversations about religion and spirituality. But Rabbi Sasso believes they can. The trick is to simplify the language, rather than the concepts. Stories and fables are well-known ways of doing this.
Story is the first language of religion. Rabbi Sasso described the cycle of experience, story/narrative/myth, ritual and theology that shape all religions. The stories—both content and structure—which we offer our children will nurture the kind of people we want them to be. These stories give children a chance to work through existential questions, as well as suggesting more practical ways in which they (and we) can engage with our emotions and interactions throughout life.
The important thing is insure that our children hear the four critical elements they need in the messages they receive from their parents and churches:
- Concrete messages, related to their own experience, with clear images of God, spirit and transcendence.
If we don’t take care to offer our children images of God and transcendence, someone or some other agency will provide them, particularly in the age of the internet and other pervasive media.
- Openness in conversations about spirituality.
- Help in asking questions and seeking their own answers. And
- Messages of critical thinking in the religious language of church and family.
We can challenge our children to transcend their developmental propensity to think in absolute and reductionist terms.
Adults may also have experienced a personal loss of faith and belief which inhibits our capacity to answer our children’s questions. In that case, our first work in religious education is to develop our own spiritual muscles. Remember that we engage this work “in hopes that our children can find a God that they believe in.” “Think back to your own childhood and remember a time when you felt the presence of the divine,” she advises, urging parents and church educators to get in touch with what enriched and informed their own spirituality, to remember and reinvigorate the moments of connection and profundity in their own lives.
"Nurture your own spiritual life of in addition to that of children," she advised. "Trust your own best instincts. Live with the questions that have no answers. Resist the temptation to claim one absolute right answer, and make everyone else wrong. Encourage conversation with children and don’t deflect their questions. Teach children to dance with this religious tradition. Teach by example."
In teaching children, talking about God only makes sense when we are engaged in living out our belief in God. The messages need to be clear and congruent, so that words meet actions. As one example, Rabbi Sasso noted that “You can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the classroom. We need to teach children to become aware of intolerance at home and afar.”
Rabbi Sasso believes that spirituality and religion are different, but necessary to each other. Without spirituality, she suggests, a church is an empty container. And without the structure that church and religion afford, spirituality can flow away. Religion gives parents, teachers and other faith leaders a way to lift our children up, to empower and enable them to make connections between lived experience and theological concepts. Remember, she says, that “We need to educate the mind, but we must also remember the soul” To this end, religion gives a language and an opportunity for children to develop their own innate spiritual awareness.
Remember that rituals are essential to a child’s development. Through them, through their routine and repetition, children find a structure in which their creativity can take root. Give direction, because children will create their own rituals if we have none to offer them—and they may not be the type of rituals most helpful to their spiritual lives. Make time for prayer and silence. Seek to minimi. the noise our children hear and the pressures of technology, "Time with children is just too important to allow it to take second place to cell phones, computers, and the incessant stream of information," she asserted.
Rabbi Sasso cautions against the ease with which religion can inculcate dangerous ideas in children or, conversely, allow them to discard religion and their own spiritual nature as they grow up. Remember that "God is like a mirror, and everyone who looks into it sees a different face. What we see in the mirror is that partial view of the one who reflects us all," as Judaism teaches.
Rabbi Sasso took several questions from the group, reinforcing her earlier messages of allowing the rich spiritual nature of children to emerge and take shape with our guidance. As she put it, “Our work is to help children to realize what it is that they have and what they might yet become.”
Reported by Rebecca Kelley-Morgan; edited by Bill Lewis.
About the Fahs Lecture
The Fahs lecture is an annual event, to honor and continue the work of liberal religious educator Sohia Lyns Fahs. Dr. Fahs led a revolution in the technology of Religious Education by espousing a whole-child approach. She taught by inviting inquiry, experience and a sense of wonder as children approach matters of religion and spirit.
The Fahs lecture is sponsored by the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA). Every year since 1974, LREDA has invited a General Assembly speaker whose work supports and deepens our understanding of educational ministries in the church.
The LREDA board celebrated its 60th anniversary this week. On June 23rd, 1949, Sophia Fahs and a small group of colleagues met to form what would become the professional association for religious educators
Laurie Allen, a member of the Liberal Religious Educators Association board, introduced this year's Fahs lecturer, Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Best known to many Unitarian Universalists through her children’s books, Rabbi Sasso also has the honor of being the first woman ordained to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. With her husband, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, she is also one half of the first practicing rabbinical couple in world Jewish history. The Sassos currently serve a congregation in Indianapolis, IN.