Our daughter came to us one day complaining that kids at school had laughed at her when she had called a deer “Bambi”. It wasn’t because she had called that particular deer by the name of the famous animated deer, but because she called all deer by the name. As a family used it as a generic label rather than a proper name, just as all raccoons were Meekos and all of certain fish were Nemos or Dorys. Thus is the influence of Disney’s animated feature films on the lives of our family. And thus is the influence of family or culture on the labels we assign to things.
I wonder what would happen if we did not teach our children the names of God, YWHW, Allah, Shiva or others. Certainly we teach our children religion, whether to inculcate values or to inform them of what’s out there. My wife and I read to our girls from a children’s book which told stories from the Bible in rhymes, so they grew up knowing the big stories of the Old and New Testaments in their simplest forms. This likely influenced their vision of what was holy. They attended some summer camps and churches with friends, but we didn’t stress religion in our family.
Many other children are brought up to believe in their families’ religion, and they grow up to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whatever based on what they were raised to believe. But what if they weren’t raised with the religions transmitted to them by their families. What would they discover?
As a teacher and student I’ve read a bit about educational and other psychology, and as I understand it, children, and human beings in general, are curious and want to learn and understand the world or the universe around them. Why else would we send probes into space or men to the moon? Children explore and learn from the moment they are aware of the world until we drum out that curiosity through coerced formal education (but that’s for another blog). They touch and taste and smell and look and drop things and pick them up and drop them again because they are curious about what will happen. Before school they learn to walk and talk and do myriad other things without any formal instruction.
And they learn labels. They learn red and frog (or Kermit) and dog and cat and sky and grass. That’s what they learn in English speaking countries. Elsewhere they might learn Rot or Frosch or Hund or Katze or Freiluft or Rasen. The labels are determined by the culture in which the children grow up. Of course if the children are twins, they might develop their own labels for things as they discover and discuss them together beyond the reach of adult influence. Even children at play can create their own languages and labels, and as creative adults we develop languages for Klingons and other imaginary beings which involve completely different labels.
So what if kids did not have labels for the Divine? What would they discover? If the Divine exists, wouldn’t children or adults be touched by it or discover it without it being transmitted to them culturally? Wouldn’t it still exist, but without a label?
We hear every day about signs of the Divine in our lives, in the details, in our relationships, answering prayers, performing miracles, protecting us from harm, or vanquishing our enemies. Children, perhaps more than adults, see things with wonder and awe (in the original sense of the word in which a degree of fear is involved). They experience new things all the time which do not fit into their Weltbild. It is beyond their zone of proximate development. To them the world is full of mystery and intrigue and things that defy explanation. Aren’t children closer to the Divine than we adults are?
Does our teaching and transmission of labels, rules, dogma, parables, quatrains, sutras, meditations and interpretations of the Divine get in the way of our children truly “knowing” the Divine? And isn’t it possible, just as my daughter and her friends each saw the same animals, but called it different names, for no other reason than we adults transmitted different labels, that we all grew up experiencing the holy, but because of our instruction, we created divisions by calling the Nameless by different names?