Honoring Children’s Bodies

[1] The first crisis of my parenting career came early in my daughter’s life. Having bravely weathered an unexpected early delivery, survived the anxiety of having our healthy but low birth weight child spend her first night in the hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit, and patiently begun to learn the art of breastfeeding, I was ready for just about anything. Or so I thought. My confidence dissolved in an instant, however, on the morning we were to go home. As I lay considering which of the newborn-sized outfits I had brought to the hospital might possibly fit my four-pound infant, a nurse appeared in our room and announced that it was time for a bath. When I eagerly lined myself up on the side of the bassinet, hands clasped behind my back, eyes open with anticipation ready to observe the proceedings, she paused, looked me firmly in the eye, and said, “No, you’re going to do it.” Terror struck my heart; I imagined my inexperienced hands unwrapping this fragile bundle, washing and drying its tender skin, clumsily attempting to turn it over, and quite possibly doing harm in the process. What if I twisted some tiny limb or set her down wrong? What if I accidentally jabbed a delicate eye or ear? What if the water was too cold or too hot? The washcloth too scratchy? Couldn’t I, for this time only, just watch?

[2] Despite my fears, my daughter and I both made it through this experience unscathed, and soon baths and other once-terrifying aspects of infant physical nurture became surprisingly routine and, frequently, immensely enjoyable for everyone involved. Yet the uncertainty that permeated each early act of parental care–feeding, putting to sleep, dressing, carrying, settling safely into a car seat–was real. I am convinced that this unsettling feeling must be universal; anyone who has been entrusted with the daunting responsibility for meeting a child’s physical needs–whether as parent, other relative, caregiver, teacher, or physician–has experienced it.

[3] One’s initiation into parenting comes largely through the process of learning to respect and care for children’s bodies, and concern for their physical well-being continues long after children have learned to manage a large part of their physical care on their own. And yet this theme rarely receives the attention that it deserves. To be sure, the shelves in the parenting sections of bookstores are full to bursting with literature about how to ensure your child is getting the best physical start to life. These books offer guidance on such topics as how to get children to eat the proper things and (reflecting a concern that is frequently a new parent’s most pressing) getting your child to get the right amount of sleep. Rarely, however, is concern for the physical care of children integrated into a larger concept of child rearing, and this omission is particularly evident in writings from a religious or ethical perspective.

[4] A few examples illustrate the general lack of appreciation for care of children’s bodies in religious and ethical literature. For example, the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics entry on “children,” defines the ethical task of child rearing without any reference to children’s bodily nature: “In almost all Christian perspectives, child-raising is an essentially moral act involving the formation of children in a character appropriate to Christianlife, and representing a fundamental hope in God’s care for God’s people in the future.”1 Noting in passing that the contemporary view of children includes attention to their distinct physical as well as psychological needs, the entry, along with the one on “parenthood,” focuses on the “formation of character” and the need for proper “psychosocial and spiritual development.” Thus even when this literature does recognize the physical component of child rearing, it tends to view this instrumentally, as providing a context for the seemingly true and greater moral task of character cultivation. A discussion of bonding as the basic building block for effective parent-child interaction in The Family Handbook in the Family, Religion, and Culture Series quite correctly notes that bonding is a multifaceted attachment that includes an emotional, a physical, a volitional, and a spiritual component. However, the discussion downplays significance of the physical bond as an end in itself when it claims that the bond “establishes the psychological, social, and moral underpinnings for the child’s personhood and the context for the parent’s ongoing efforts.”2

[5] There is, of course, one important exception to the general lack of appreciation of children’s bodies in religious and ethical literature. The unjust physical suffering of children–most tragically evident in conditions of child abuse, poverty, malnutrition, exploitation, neglect, and war–has rightly claimed growing attention in the academy, the churches, and the popular media. Christian ethicists have long joined their voices to those of others decrying these intolerable evils and the injustice and immorality of the personal behaviors and social, economic, and political structures that contribute to the physical suffering of the world’s children. As John Wall points out in his contribution to this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, the recent responses of Christian ethicists to the broader crises facing the world’s children can be heuristically grouped into three different approaches: a communitarian approach that views child rearing not just as the cultivation of individual character but also initiation into community; a liberationist approach that focuses on bettering conditions for children; and a covenantal approach that aims at the revitalization of “covenantal institutions” (such as marriage, family, and church) in order to improve conditions for children.3 While Wall finds in these proposals “promising early signs for the possibility for more sustained ethical discipline,” he argues that in order for this genuine Christian ethical conversation to emerge, we need to attend to broader, theoretical questions of what children are, what child rearing hopes to accomplish, what are our obligations and responsibilities toward children, and the practical means by which these aims and obligations are to be realized. Critical ethical reflection on precisely these issues will not detract from but rather has the potential to strengthen our practical efforts to make the world a better place for children.

[6] Put bluntly, while we must continue to deplore and work against the injustice of children’s physical suffering, if we limit our focus to this, we run the risk of undermining our good efforts. Protecting the integrity of children’s bodies is an indispensable moral task, but it is not enough to dismantle or transform the concrete social, economic, and political injustices that directly and indirectly support their physical suffering (as if that in itself were an easy task). To draw upon the model of Luther’s interpretation of the commandments in the Large Catechism, it is not enough to refrain from doing children bodily harm. Rather, if we are truly to honor children’s bodies, we must first recognize their essential value per se and, upon that basis, act not only to prevent the suffering of children’s bodies but also to promote the flourishing of their physical well being. We do not honor children’s bodies when decry their physical suffering but at the same time omit or downplay their physical nature in our understandings of who they are.

[7] Thus I agree completely with Wall when he observes that “the ontological question of what children are when they come into this world” is the necessary starting point for more sustained ethical conversation about children. I would add that this question can only be answered through an anthropology that (1) recognizes and defines what I have elsewhere called children’s “fundamental humanity”4 and (2) integrates into its understanding of human nature the fact that, in the words of Stephanie Paulsell, all humans (children included) both “are bodies” and “have bodies.”5 Furthermore, I believe that this non-adult centered and holistic understanding of human nature need not mark a departure from Christian tradition. Rather, it can draw inspiration from the Christian past. As Paulsell points out in her beautiful “meditations,” the Christian tradition is surprisingly rich in resources for a spiritual practice of honoring bodies. She finds “touchstones” in the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection, in biblical affirmations of the goodness of creation and the church as the body of Christ, in the centrality of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Building on these, she paints an engaging and inspiring portrait of the ways in which human bodies are honored and can be honored in a genuine Christian spiritual practice. In similar fashion (but I am afraid not with such elegant prose), I suggest two important “touchstones” for a more holistic anthropology, with the first one coming from the Lutheran theological and ethical tradition.

[8] Although Philip Melanchthon has been called the ethicist of the Reformation, he is not well known in English-language scholarship for his moral thought.6 Aside from his important works in moral philosophy and theological ethics, such as the Epitome philosophiae moralis (1538) and the Ethicae doctrinae elementa (1550), he also wrote an extremely influential commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, the Commentarius de anima (1540), that provides the seeds for a Lutheran theological anthropology that takes seriously human nature in its entirety, body and soul.7 Melanchthon’s reading of Aristotle’s treatise on the soul differed both from previous commentaries and from Aristotle’s own purpose. He radically transformed the subject matter: instead of focusing on the generic spiritual principle common to all living beings (as had Aristotle), he concentrated on specifically human nature; instead of limiting himself to spiritual nature, as Aristotle and previous Christian commentators had done, Melanchthon spent the first part of his treatise discussing the human body in exquisite detail, drawing for the most part on the theories of Galen. While his view that an understanding of the human anatomy was important for understanding the soul was not without precedent, the reasons why he held this were new. As Sachiko Kusukawa has argued, Melanchthon believed that human anatomy was essential for understanding the Christian soul and, indeed, the whole human as created by God for a specific purpose.8 Although he was convinced that the rational soul was the better part of human nature, he nevertheless viewed the whole of human nature as the proper object of theological anthropology. The wonders of the human body reveal that it, like the soul, is God’s purposeful creation. And for this reason, one cannot neglect or diminish physical being and focus exclusively human spiritual nature in understanding what it is to be human.

[9] If Melanchthon helps us move toward a more integrated sense of the way that, in Paulsell’s words, body and soul are each “irreplaceable parts of the human person,” the theological anthropology of his contemporary, John Calvin, provides a “touchstone” for understanding children’s fundamental humanity. Though Calvin did not aim explicitly to defend the fundamental humanity of children, ultimately, for him, children are assumed to be complete human beings and are included in an anthropology that is universal but allows at the same time for differences. All humans are in the image of God and all humans are fallen, but children manifest both their createdness in the divine image and their fallenness in age and developmentally appropriate ways. Thus, for instance, Calvin’s singular reading of Psalm 8:2 (“out of the mouths of babes”) stresses the ability of literal, nursing infants to proclaim God’s glory; they manifest piety–for Calvin, the very purpose of human creation–in a way appropriate to their age and station.9 (One might also note that they do this with their bodies, through the physical act of feeding at the breast.) At the same time, like Augustine, Calvin can also see nursing infants as manifesting the corruption of sin.10 The point is that, for Calvin, children are no more innocent but neither are they more depraved than anyone else.

[10] Two recent additions to ethical and theological literature on children and childhood show the fruitfulness of the avenues laid out by Melanchthon and Calvin. In her recent book, Let the Children Come, Bonnie Miller-McLemore draws upon the Christian past (including Calvin) and contemporary feminist theology in order to develop a complex image of children as simultaneously sinful, gift, labor of love, and moral and spiritual agents. This richer theological understanding of children and childhood as a stage of human development moves beyond the simplistic understandings of children as “economically useless, emotionally priceless, socially invisible, and in the end morally and spiritually innocent” that have emerged in the modern West.11 Her more nuanced understanding of children and childhood provides a more solid basis for a contemporary theological anthropology that takes children’s fundamental humanity seriously. Although she does not directly take up the question of children’s bodily nature, articulating an understanding of children as enfleshed moral subjects would be a natural, and to my mind necessary, further step.

[11] Reflecting the ethical approach designated by Wall as “liberationist,” Douglas Sturm proposes a theology of childhood liberation that understands children, like adults, as “creative participants in the world” and “as citizens of a world community to be respected as such.” On the basis of this definition of childhood, he critiques current institutions and proposes new principles for social life that promote children’s flourishing.12 Sturm’s understanding of children’s nature not only avoids the trap of an adult-centered definition of human nature; it also has a greater capacity to integrate their physical being as essential component of the child’s self than do views of child rearing that single out the formation of character or psychological, spiritual, and moral development as the essence of growing up. Even the youngest infants participate creatively with their environment–initially physically and subsequently in other ways as well: emotionally, volitionally, intellectually, spiritually, and morally.

[12] So much of the good we do for children, and regrettably, also so much of the harm, is done to their bodies. We cuddle them, feed them, bathe them, run with them, wipe their noses, and kiss their “owies” to make them better. As their bodies grow, we try to teach them how to care for their body’s needs, gradually–but not easily–relinquishing control over what they wear, what they eat, how much sleep they get. We agonize over the children whose bellies are empty, who live in dirty and unheated homes or have no homes at all, who suffer and die due to a lack proper health care. How strange it is, then, that our theological and ethical understandings of who these children are and what they are to become so frequently disregard their physical being as an essential and integrated aspect of their personhood. When, however, we take seriously that children, like adults, are embodied selves and that, to paraphrase the psalmist, they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), we cannot fail to attend to the physical nature of children in articulating our visions of the ethical task of child rearing, our theories of moral development, and in our hopes for their future. As an example of how this might be done, one can consider Paulsell’s exquisite expression of such hope for her daughter:

[13] “What I desire with all my heart is to be able to invite her into a way of living that teaches her, through the countless bodily gestures of everyday life, to cherish and honor her body and the bodies of others. I want her bathing and her dressing, her eating and her drinking, to remind her that her body is a sacred gift and nurture within her a profound compassion for the vulnerabilities of all bodies. I want her to have such reverence for the body, and to know her own body as so deeply cherished, that she is able, if she wishes, to enter joyfully one day into a long and loving intimacy with another person, an intimacy in which she both receives and gives pleasure and deep, sustaining comfort.13

[14] In honoring children’s bodies we do an important act of Christian service, to be sure (Matt. 25:35-36), but we also do and receive so much more. Only by honoring children’s whole selves can we truly welcome them. When we welcome them in this way, then we welcome Jesus himself (Matt. 18:5).

End Notes

1 The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, rev. ed., s.v. “Children” and “Parenthood.”

2 Roland Martinson and Sharon A. Martinson, “The Nature of Parenting” from “Work of Families: Roles of Families,” chapter 5 of The Family Handbook, ed. H. Anderson, D. Browning, I. S. Evison, M. Stewart Van Leeuwen, The Family, Religion, and Culture Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 66.

3 John Wall, “The Christian Ethics of Children: Emerging Questions and Possibilities,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (January 2004)

4 Barbara Pitkin, Are Children Human? Theology and Worship Occasional Paper No. 12 (Louisville: Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], 2000).

5 Stephanie Paulsell, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), esp. 16-20

6 Wolfgang Trillhass, “Philipp Melanchthon, der Ethiker der Reformation,” Evangelische Theologie 6 (1946/47): 389-403.

7 There is an English translation of an excerpt from the 1553 edition, entitled Liber de Anima, in Philip Melanchthon, A Melanchthon Reader, trans. Ralph Keen (New York: Peter Lang, 1988). Unfortunately, however, this except, like the German student edition on which it was based, includes only the part of the treatise dealing with the soul, and not the discussion of human corporal nature. The 1553 edition was an extremely popular textbook: it was published over forty times in the sixteenth century, was the only psychological writing of the period to have been itself the subject of commentaries, and was used in philosophy courses well into the eighteenth century.

8 Sachiko Kusukawa, The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: the Case of Philip Melanchthon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. chapter 3.

9 See Barbara Pitkin, “Psalm 8:2,” in “Between Text and Sermon,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 55/2 (April 2001): 177-180; “The Heritage of the Lord: Children in the Theology of John Calvin,” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 160-193.

10 Calvin explains this in a sermon on Gen. 6:5-8 (Sermons sur la Genèse, ed. Max Engammare, vol. 11 of Supplementa Calviniana: Sermons Inédits (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2000), 372-73.

11 Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 1-2. See also Dawn DeVries, “Toward a Theology of Childhood,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 55/2 (April 2001): 161-173.

12 Douglas Sturm, “On the Suffering and Rights of Children: Toward a Theology of Childhood Liberation,” Cross Currents 42, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 149-174.

13 Honoring the Body, 3.