Spiritual Vaccinations for Your Child
by Ben Stevens
My wife is due to give birth to our first child tomorrow. We’re having our last doctor appointment today, putting the final touches on the little baby corner of our apartment, and reading the remaining pages of several parenting books. In all, we are doing everything we can to make sure he’ll have as safe and pleasant an entry into the world as is possible.
So you may imagine how surprised I am about what we will be doing in the months that follow. We, with our doctor, will intentionally and on several occasions expose him to something dangerous. In small doses. And we’ll do so because studies have shown that vaccinations are—counter-intuitively—the best way to help him prepare to fight certain diseases later in life.
Rather than completely shelter him from the kind of bacteria which might threaten his life later, doctors suggest we give him exposure to them in small doses, in controlled environments, so that his body will be more prepared to tackle the full dose when he encounters it “in the wild.”
And I can’t help but ponder what this might suggest for the way we will one day also prepare him to encounter things which don’t have his spiritual well-being in mind. Let me explain what I mean.
Vaccination as a Spiritual Metaphor
Wherever I choose to live, my child will one day encounter ideas that subtly or explicitly challenge the Christian views I want to pass on to him. He will encounter ideas which could jeopardize his “spiritual health,” if you will. In our current setting, this is especially true. My work has taken my wife and me to Berlin, Germany, a city we love. But amidst all its charm, Berlin also happens to be known by some sociologists as the “world capital of atheism.” And that forces us to think harder about this issue than we might otherwise. So what should someone in my situation do?
Well, at other times in history, “sheltering” might have been the strategy of choice for parents like us, and there’s wisdom in not carelessly exposing children to destructive ideas. But even outside of cities like ours, the Internet ensures that such complete sheltering is not an option anymore. A pre-teen in even the most protective of families can easily access videos online in which winsome thinkers attempt to make driftwood of his Christian convictions. The days of being able to totally shield a child from such ideas have simply passed.
But if the medical community’s successes can inform us at all, it seems like a child should first encounter the kind of ideas which pick away at his beliefs in small doses in safe environments, so that he can slowly build up an understanding of and response to them. That’s essentially how vaccination works in the body, and I’m more and more convinced that’s how I will have to handle it when shepherding my own son as well. So how would that work in practice?
How to Administer It
Well, my spiritual responsibility falls much more heavily on the side of knowing God myself, and modeling that relationship for my son. But Christianity builds on life-altering ideas about what God has done in history, so I can’t simply stop with teaching prayer. He needs to know what the gospel means as well.
As far as I can tell this means spending time talking about the big two questions: 1) what does Christianity allege? and 2) is Christianity true? The first handles the faith like a movie script and asks whether the story is coherent and good. The second handles the faith like a crime scene and asks whether the facts add up.
So far, so good, and this is standard practice in many Christian traditions as a part of “catechization.” What I’m suggesting, though, is that we add another dimension to this process by modeling a skeptic’s questions as we go. When talking about what Christianity says about why Jesus had to die, we should pose the kinds of questions which their professors will one day, and ask whether classic explanations add up. Later, when they are older and have begun to grasp the logic of the story itself, we should model some of the questions that they will hear about its historical legitimacy, like whether we can know Jesus rose from the dead, taking care to model good answers as well.
This will require more thought on our part, but I don’t see how we can hope to pass on a level of reflection and maturity in convictions to our children if we don’t have that maturity ourselves?
How often have you heard of Christian students going off to college and being rocked, in their very first semester, by ideas which challenge their Christian faith? It happens so often it’s a cliché. And once they have lost their convictions, how do they start telling their story of de-conversion? They say, “In all my life, no one had ever told me about these criticisms of Christianity.” They were never helped to tackle these ideas in small doses with the help of parents and friends.
If the first time my child hears a powerful critique of Christianity is from his freshmen philosophy professor, or even from an acquaintance in his high school…then I will have failed. Counter-intuitive though it seems: if I want to have a say in shaping my child’s mind, I myself need to be the one who introduces him to the most persuasive ideas which speak against our own convictions. And with the help of God’s spirit, the same power which works in him to strengthen him against bacteria will help him grow strong in his Christian convictions, ready to give a reason for the hope which is in him even in the most difficult of circumstances. That is my prayer!
Ben Stevens (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the author of Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation(NavPress, 2014). He lives in Berlin, Germany, with his wife Becky. Keep up with him on Twitter.
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