Chapter 13 Some Unconsidered Aspects of Religious Training

Chapter 13
Some Unconsidered Aspects of Religious Training

Authority in Religious Education.––I should like to preface my remarks on Religious Education by saying that there is not the slightest pretence that they are exhaustive. My treatment has for its object indication of practical lines for religious education, and I very earnestly hope that the reader will find I have left out things I ought to have said, or said things I ought not to have said.

Let us first consider how the principle of authority bears on religious teaching. The sense of duty, more or less illuminated, or more or less benighted, is always relative to a ruler with whom it rests to say 'Thou shalt' or 'Thou shalt not.' It is brought home, to most of us who are set in authority, that we ourselves are acting under a higher, and finally, under the highest rule. A child cannot have a lasting sense of duty until he is brought into contact with a Supreme Authority, who is the source of law, and the pleasing of whom converts duty into joy. In these rather latitudinarian days, there is perhaps no part of religious teaching more important than to train children in the sense of the immediate presence and continual going forth of the supreme Authority. 'Thou art about my path and about my bed and spiest out all my ways,' should be a thought, not of fear, but of very great comfort to every child. This constant recognition of authority excites the twofold response of docility and of reverence. It is said that the children of our day are marked by wilfulness and a certain flippancy and want of reverence; if this is so, and in so far as it is so, it is because children are brought up without the consciousness of their relation to God, whom we are taught to call 'Our Father.' This divine name reminds us that authority is lodged in the Author of our being, and is tender, pitiful, preventive, strong to care for and wise to govern; as we see it feebly shown forth even in the best of human fathers.

Questions in the Air.––But there are questions in the air about the authenticity of the Scriptures and what not, and we are all more or less at the mercy of words; and, because the so-called higher criticism finds much to question as to the verbal accuracy of passages of the Scriptures, we get a dim idea that the divine authority itself is in question. One part of the work of this Union13 is, no doubt, to strengthen the hands of parents by comforting them with the sense of the higher Power behind theirs and always supporting them in the exercise of the deputed powers they hold as heads of families. There is another notion in the air which tells against the recognition of authority, and that is, the greatly increased respect for individual personality and for the right of each individual to develop on the lines of his own character. But it is a mistake to suppose that the exercise of authority runs counter to any individual development that is not on morally wrong lines.

How Authority Works.––The supreme authority (and all deputed authority) works precisely as does a good and just national government, whose business it is to defend the liberties of the subject at all points, even by checking, repressing, and punishing the licence which interferes with the rights of others and with the true liberty of the transgressor. The law (that is, the utterance of authority) is for the punishment of evil-doers, but for the praise of them that do well; and the association of harshness, punishment, force, arbitrary dealings, with the idea of authority, and divine, is an example of the confusion of thought to which most of our errors in conduct are traceable. It is not authority which punishes: the penalties which follow us through life, of which those in the family are a faint foretaste, are the inevitable consequences of broken law, whether moral or physical, and from which authority, strong and benign, exists to save us by prevention, and, if needs be, by lesser and corrective penalties.

It seems to me that reading and teaching on the following subjects, for example, might help to focus thought on a subject of vital importance––our relation to the supreme authority, not a relation of choice, but as inevitable as the family relationships into which we are born; the duty of loyalty and the shame of infidelity; the duty of reverence; the duty of docility to indications of the divine will; scriptural revelations of God as the ruler of men, as saying to Abraham, 'Go, and he goeth'; to Cyrus, 'Do this, and he doeth it'; revelations which history affords of God as the ruler of nations, and as the benign ruler of men who prospers the ways of His servants; how the sense of the divine authority may be imparted in the home; how reverence for holy things may be taught; definite Bible teaching on this head.––Indeed, the subject is capable of great amplification, and suggests trains of thought very important in these days.

The Habits of the Religious Life.––The next point we must set ourselves to consider is the laying down of lines of habit in the religious life. We need not enter again into the physiological reasons for the compelling power of habit. My present purpose is to consider how far this power can be employed in the religious development of a child. Let us consider the subject as it bears upon habits of thought and of attitude, of life and of speech; though indeed all these are one, for every act and attitude is begotten of a thought, however unaware we be of thinking.

Habit of the Thought of God.––It is said of the wicked that 'God is not in all their thoughts.' Of the child it should be said that God is in all his thoughts; happy-making, joyous thoughts, restful and dutiful thoughts, thoughts of loving and giving and serving, the wealth of beautiful thoughts with which every child's heart overflows. We are inclined to think that a child is a little morbid and precocious when he asks questions and has imaginings about things divine, and we do our best to divert him. What he needs is to be guided into true, happy thinking; every day should bring him 'new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.' He understands things divine better than we do, because his ideas have not been shaped to a conventional standard; and thoughts of God are to him an escape into the infinite from the worrying limitations, the perception of the prison bars which are among the bitter pangs of childhood. To keep a child in this habit of the thought of God––so that to lose it, for even a little while, is like coming home after an absence and finding his mother out––is a very delicate part of a parent's work.

Reverent Attitudes.––The importance of reverent attitudes is a little apt to be overlooked in these days. We are, before all things, sincere, and are afraid to insist upon 'mere forms,' feeling it best to leave the child to the natural expression of his own emotions. Here perhaps we are wrong, as it is just as true to say that the form gives birth to the feeling as that the feeling should give birth to the form. Children should be taught to take time, to be reverent at grace before meals, at family prayers, at their own prayers, in church, when they are old enough to attend. Perhaps some of us may remember standing daily by our mother's knee in reverent attitude to recite the Apostles' Creed, and the recollection of the reverence expressed in that early act remains with one through a lifetime. 'Because of the angels' should be a thought to repress unbecoming behaviour in children. It is a mistake to suppose that the forms of reverence need be tiresome to them. They love little ceremonies, and to be taught to kneel nicely while saying their short prayers would help them to a feeling of reverence in after life. In connection with children's behaviour in church, the sentiment and forms of reverence cannot be expected if they are taken to church too young, or to too long services or are expected to maintain their attention throughout. If children must be taken to long services, they should be allowed the resource of a Sunday picture-book, and told that the hymns and the 'Our Father,' for example, are the parts of the service for them. But in these days of bright short services especially adapted for children the difficulty need not arise.

Regularity in Devotions.––The habit of regularity in children's devotions is very important. The mother cannot always be present, but I have known children far more punctual in their devotions when away from their mother, because they know it to be her wish, than if she were there to remind them. They may say, like a little friend of mine, aged four, 'Mother, I always worship idols.' 'Do you indeed, Margaret? when?' 'Why, when I say my prayers to the chair.' But it is a great thing for all of us to get the habit of 'saying our prayers' at a given time and in a given place, which comes to be to us as a holy place. The chair, or the bedside, or the little prayer-table, or, best of all, the mother's knee, plays no small part in framing the soul to a habit of devotion. In this connection it is worth while to remark that the evening prayers of children and of school girls and boys should not be left until the children are tired and drop asleep over their evening exercises. After tea is a very good set time for prayers when it can be managed.

The Habit of Reading the Bible.––The habit of hearing, and later, of reading the Bible, is one to establish at an early age. We are met with a difficulty––that the Bible is, in fact, a library containing passages and, indeed, whole books which are not for the edification of children; and many parents fall back upon little collections of texts for morning and evening use. But I doubt the wisdom of this plan. We may believe that the narrative teaching of the Scriptures is far more helpful to children, anyway, than the stimulating moral and spiritual texts picked out for them in little devotional books. The twopenny single books of the Bible, published by the Bible Society, should be a resource for parents. A child old enough to take pleasure in reading for himself would greatly enjoy reading through the Gospel of St Mark, bit by bit, for example, in a nice little book, as part of his morning's devotions.

Children Formalists by Nature.––But while pressing the importance of habits of prayer and devotional reading, it should be remembered that children are little formalists by nature, and that they should not be encouraged in long readings or long prayers with a notion of any merit in such exercises.

The Habit of Praise.––Perhaps we do not attach enough importance to the habit of praise in our children's devotion. Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight; and the habit of soft and reverent singing, of offering our very best in praise, should be carefully formed. Hymns with a story, such as: 'A little ship was on the sea,' 'I think when I read that sweet story of old,' 'Hushed was the evening hymn,' are perhaps the best for little children. Children should be trained in the habits of attention and real devotion during short services or parts of services. The habit of finding their places in the prayer-book and following the service is interesting and aids attention, but perhaps it would be well to tell children, of even ten or eleven, that during the litany, for example, they might occupy themselves by saying over silently hymns that they know.

The Habit of Sunday-keeping.––The habit of Sunday observances, not rigid, not dull, and yet peculiar to the day, is especially important. Sunday stories, Sunday hymns, Sunday walks, Sunday talks, Sunday painting, Sunday knitting even, Sunday card-games, should all be special to the day,––quiet, glad, serene. The people who clamour for a Sunday that shall be as other days little know how healing to the jaded brain is the change of thought and occupation the seventh day brings with it. There is hardly a more precious inheritance to be handed on than that of the traditional English Sunday, stripped of its austerities, we hope, but keeping its character of quiet gladness and communion with Nature as well as with God. But I cannot pursue the subject further. The field of the habits of the religious life should afford many valuable matters for reflection and teaching; as, for example, the habitual thought of God in a family; the habit of reverence in thought, attitude, act, and speech; the habit of prayer as regards time, place, manner, matter; the habit of praise and thanksgiving; the habits of attention and devotion during a service (or part of a service); aids to devout habits; the habit of devotional reading.

Inspiring Ideas of the Religious Life.––The most important part of our subject remains to be considered––the inspiring ideas we propose to give children in the things of the divine life. This is a matter we are a little apt to leave to chance; but when we consider the vitalising power of an idea, and how a single great idea changes the current of a life, it becomes us to consider very carefully what ideas of the things of God we may most fitly offer children, and how these may be most invitingly presented. It is a very sad fact that many children get their first ideas of God in the nursery, and that these are of a Being on the watch for their transgressions and always ready to chastise. It is hard to estimate the alienation which these first ideas of the divine Father set in the hearts of His little children. Another danger is, lest the things of the divine life should be made too familiar and hackneyed, that the name of our blessed Lord should be used without reverence; and that children should get the notion that the Lord God exists for their uses, and not they, for His service.

The Fatherhood of God.––Perhaps the first vitalising idea to give children is that of the tender fatherhood of God; that they live and move and have their being within the divine embrace. Let children grow up in this joyful assurance, and, in the days to come, infidelity to this closest of all relationships will be as shameful a thing in their eyes as it was in the eyes of the Christian Church during the age of faith.

The Kingship of Christ.––Next, perhaps, the idea of Christ their King is fitted to touch springs of conduct and to rouse the enthusiasm of loyalty in children, who have it in them, as we all know, to bestow heroic devotion on that which they find heroic. Perhaps we do not make enough of this principle of hero-worship in human nature in our teaching of religion. We are inclined to make our religious aims subjective rather than objective. We are tempted to look upon Christianity as a 'scheme of salvation' designed and carried out for our benefit; whereas the very essence of Christianity is passionate devotion to an altogether adorable Person. 

Our Saviour.––But, recognising this, there is still a danger in these days of adopting a rose-water treatment in our dealings with children. Few grown up people, alas! have so keen and vivid a sense of sin as a little transgressor say of six or seven. Many a naughty, passionate, or sulky and generally hardened little offender is so, simply because he does not know, with any personal knowledge, that there is a Saviour of the world, who has for him instant forgiveness and waiting love. But here again, the thoughts of a child should be turned outwards to Jesus, our Saviour, and not inward to his own thoughts and feelings towards our blessed Saviour.

The Indwelling of the Holy Ghost.––One more salient truth of the Christian verity I have space to touch upon. Most Christian parents teach their children to recognise the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter; they expand the ideas expressed in––

   "Enable with perpetual light
   The dulness of our blinded sight."

   "Anoint and cheer our soiled face
   With the abundance of Thy grace."

But it would be well if we could hinder in our children's minds the rise of a wall of separation between things sacred and things so-called secular, by making them feel that all 'sound learning,' as well as all 'religious instruction,' falls within the office of God, the Holy Spirit, the supreme educator of mankind.

Many other inspiring ideas concerning the religious life will occur to every parent and teacher, ideas of more value than any I can suggest. Teaching, reading, and meditation, for example, on any one of the several clauses of the Lord's Prayer and of the Apostles' Creed, or; again, on the clauses of that Duty towards God in the Church Catechism which all who receive the Old and the New Testament Scriptures must accept, should be profitable.

I have touched very inadequately, not upon all that is necessary to bring up children in 'the nurture and admonition of the Lord,' but on a few of the principles which seem to me essential.

13The Parents' Union