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Adult Christianity

"When I was a child, I thought like a child ... but as an adult, I put away childish things." The Apostle Paul

(Note, the term "Adult Christianity" was popularized on the Net by Poppy Dixon, whose imaginative site is well worth a visit.)

In chapter 13 of his resounding first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I gave up childish ways." Adult Christianity. Paul doesn't spell out with much detail the differences he sees between "childish ways" of thinking and the ways that are appropriate to maturity, but his words are provocative. They prompt me to ask: What are the characteristics of a childish, as opposed to a fully developed, mature form of  the faith?

Let me suggest that faith development follows much the same trajectory as moral, intellectual, or psychological development. There are certain qualities of mind that are characteristic of a child, others more often associated with adolescence, and others that belong to the adult. What are these respective qualities? Children, in my experience enjoy a good story. Tell a wonderful story, and they will listen, spellbound. God. Santa Clause. The Easter Bunny. All these are readily and eagerly believed. Where do babies come from? A child will accept the story that the new baby in the household has been delivered by a stork. Why not? The mental image of a bird flying through the sky with an infant swinging from a diaper is so clear. Jesus walking on water.... Fairy God Mother.... Angels, monsters, demons. The world of the child is populated with strange and wonderful beings, all readily believed.

But then there comes a time of disillusionment. There is no Santa! One's parents have actually been telling lies! And if Santa, the Easter bunny, the stork and even fairy God Mother are fakes...what about Jesus? What credibility is there to the story that this world was created by a just and loving God? Is this, too, one of those comforting tales of early childhood that is exposed as a falsehood in later life? You can do all the right things, obey all the rules, accept all the teachings of the church, and still end up dead, or out of luck, early on in life, through no fault of your own. So what's the point of it all? And who can you trust? Adolescents, in my experience, react to this disillusionment in many different ways. But there are some common themes. Are the stories of childhood false? Are the rules articulated by parents and other grown-ups purely arbitrary? Well, then, why not break all the rules. Question parental authority. Rebel! Drugging and drinking aren't as bad as the adult propaganda says! Try them and see.

There's another, seemly different reaction that adolescents often take. Replace the false stories of early childhood with ones that are TRUE. Replace arbitrary rules imposed by hypocritical parents with passionate conviction held with evangelical zeal! Drop out of your parents' hide bound church, which is filled with gray haired, elderly men and women listening to sober organ music. Join a new church where there's a rock band on stage! Something solid to believe in. A conversion experience. A full and unfettered commitment to the Lord. Thank you, Jesus, I've been born again!

Then there comes a time when both the rebel's anger and the evangelical's zeal are tempered. When one has children of one's own, one begins to appreciate how complicated life can get...and fast! One finds that evangelical zeal doesn't ease a complicated relationship with a co-worker, colleague, or next door neighbor. Faced by any of the major challenges of adult life, the mature person of faith realizes that one needs all the help one can get. A trusted friend, the professional assistance of a doctor, self-help books, continuing education courses, an inspirational sermon. Things are no longer black or white, true or false, right or wrong. The real decisions are hard! How many children can one afford to have?  The answers to such questions can be found neither on M-TV nor within the pages of the Bible. The real mind benders require ample quantities of knowledge, critical thinking, and self-awareness.   Sometimes one has to entertain ideas that seem incompatible and even contradictory.   After all, how can one get along with a boss whom one doesn't respect, a colleague whose religious beliefs seem totally off the wall, or paying taxes to a government one can neither understand or control? Even more difficult, how can one reconcile oneself to the realization that one's personal decisions have caused harm to others?

Among the qualities of character that make for maturity, I find, are these: a deep sense of self-awareness, humor, healthy skepticism, appreciation for people who are very different than oneself, patience, the capacity to cope with complexity.  These are some of the things which, added to a child-like trust, and youthful idealism, make for a maturity of  faith. Of course, the apostle Paul was not promoting maturity for its own sake. He had his priorities clear. "Faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love." Maturity of faith can ultimately be measured, not by an IQ test, or examination of one's orthodoxy. The real test is whether faith serves that far larger, wider, and ultimate purpose: love.   Does faith draw one into closer relationships with other people, with the world, and finally with God?  If so, then it is indeed, exactly the sort of faith that Paul had in mind when he wrote: "When I became an adult, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.  So faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love."

Welcome to the world of an adult Christianity!

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.