On Being: An Examination of Childhood Faith
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
It’s no secret that I love podcasts. I’ve never followed a TV show, and I’m movie-illiterate, but I adore podcasts. I got into the habit when I lived alone, and now that I live with lots of roommates, I listen when I drive, go for walks, or complete chores around the house. On my phone, I’ve arranged them by topic, grouping NPR classics like This American Life, Serial, TED Radio Hour, The Moth together, followed by Christian podcasts including Seminary Dropout, Quick to Listen (new!), and The Liturgists Podcast. Bridging the categories is On Being with Krista Tippet.
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Tippet went on to receive her MDiv from Yale Divinity School in 1994, and merged her life as a faith leader and journalist by starting the weekly programming for On Being in 2003. Tippet is not an evangelical, but I’ve learned more in 2 years of listening to her podcast about how to talk in the secular world about faith experiences than I did in 2 degrees from Wheaton or 2 decades in the church.
In her weekly episodes, Tippet interviews an individual about the intersection of his or her vocation and spiritual life. Just in the last 6 weeks she has interviewed a mystical Jewish rabbi, a filmmaker and founder of the online Webby awards, a poet in the Black Arts Movement, and a scholar studying “The Wisdom of Millenials”. So, it’s a fairly wide swath.
Near the beginning of each interview, she asks her guest about their spiritual or religious life in childhood. Obviously, this is my favorite part. Regardless of how non-religious their home or community was, every guest has some form of answer. Some share that they had very positive experiences, deep questions, and a life-long faith commitment. Some share that they had negative experiences and have sought healing and reconciliation with an idea of faith. Almost unanimously, guests share some way that their childhood faith experiences have impacted their understanding of personhood, vocation, or religious devotion long-term.
If they were to take a “what do you believe” questionnaire, Tippet and many of her guests would end up with radically different results. Rarely do I hear someone interviewed who I sense I would closely align with. However, Tippet’s gracious posture of listening and question-asking has taught me volumes in engaging in conversation. Her curiosity without confrontation opens conversations where I often find myself thinking, “me, too”. Her connections between a person’s present action and their early developmental years keeps me nodding as I go about my chores. Her steady pace holds the conversation at a reasonable, rational speed that honors completing thoughts more than inserting opinions, and asking further questions more than being right. Oftentimes I hear her guests admit that they still have questions or areas of wondering. Everyone is allowed to be in-process.
After episodes, I often think about how the leaders, artists, educators and religious leaders of tomorrow are having their own formative faith experiences today. Some of them are in churches. Of those in churches, many of them are experiencing weekly entertainment by adult volunteers who believe that they must wait until their teenage or young adult years to make a true faith commitment or have a significant faith experience. To be blunt, I’ve never heard someone admit that they encountered Jesus by being entertained. Furthermore, while adults asking children questions is great for making sure they can repeat information, modeling question-asking and inviting children to ask their own questions guides children to internal exploration. The adults interviewed who look favorably on their religious experiences of childhood often cite the relationships of their faith community, the unique markers of this community (songs, meals, smells) and their quiet pondering and question-asking in their home or alone.
While I believe that The Church is much more than a community-wide social event or an encouragement circle, I also believe that community is an important function of the church, and one of the most profound parts of a child’s faith experience. Entertainment might help a child learn more facts about Christianity, but it rarely facilitates meaningful spiritual reflection or deep personal faith commitment.
As I prepare to teach in my church’s Children’s Chapel or write a lesson to distribute to other congregations, I often consider these childhood faith reflections from dozens of episodes and ask myself the following questions: Is my method invitational? Is our worship space hospitable? Does my lesson facilitate exploration? Do I honor each child as a brother or sister? Do we recognize the power and presence of God?
I doubt I’ll ever meet anyone interviewed by Tippet, but I believe that the children that I work will grow up to reflect on their own faith formation, and I hope that they know they were wanted and loved, that they heard often of the love-infused character of God, and that they had space, time, and an invitation to pause to reflect, ask their questions, and talk with God themselves.