(first updated in Feb 2009. Significantly re-edited in Oct 2015) Recently (2007) a seminar was held in Bangalore on Child Theology, and I must say that for many participants (and presenters) the nature of “child theology” was a little confusing. The seminar mainly dealt with the theological reflection on issues related to children, especially children at risk. The issues ranged from child protection, legal rights, holistic child development and the like.

As I sat through the sessions, that the way “child theology” was used was more like “eco-theology” (theological reflection on issues related to the environment). Like eco-theology, which is largely a theological reflection ON SOMETHING (in this case, ecology), here child theology was a theological reflection ON SOMETHING (in this case, children).

I felt therefore that “child theology” was a confusing phrase and must be clarified, and particularly distinguished from other “contextual” theologies, like feminist theology, black theology or even Dalit theology.

Child theology was different from those other (older) contextual theologies because those contextual theologies were identified not just by the “topic” of discussion (women, race, caste) but also the method of doing theology. In most cases, the method was to see theology from the perspective of feminist, black or Dalit. Those perspectives shaped, even transformed theology. It affected the method of doing theology. The content, in effect, could be anything, but by putting the contextual framework BEFORE theology, it would refer to a particular kind of theology. In this case, feminist, Dalit or in some ways prosperity theology, were all methodological approaches that affected how theology was done.

In contrast, child theology, at least the one represented in the seminar, was ABOUT children (the content was issues related to children); but the theology was not from the perspective of children. Child theology in that case was the practical theological insights concerning children. Rather than just thinking about God, a child theologian would think about what is God’s purpose for children, and more particularly, how to help/defend children at risk etc.

Hence, I feel that there are two different kinds of theologies that deal with context.

First are the theologies, that focus on a practical issue and apply theological discussion to it. This would be like practical theology, or even theology of _(something)__. In contrast, the second kind of theology that deals with context would be the theology that sees the context shaping theology itself.

Child theology as used in the seminar was more like Practical theology; and thus a sub-division of the Christian attempt to reflect meaningfully on issues of the world. It was, in effect, a theology of child/childhood.

I have a feeling, however, that for many Child Theologians, they want their theology to be more than a theology of childhood, and something with actually the child as center. For instance, one Child theology site urges:

In Child Theology, we are invited to take good note of the child in the midst as we think about, for, to, from and with God in Christ. As we do that, we expect our theology to change for the better. In Child Theology, we embark afresh on the journey with Christ into the open secret of God in the world.

Here the effort is literally to affect the way we think about theology and God and discipleship etc as we rethink children.  If this was possible, it would be a new methodological approach to doing theology. However, I argue that putting the child in the center (for adult theologians) is impossible. Because it remains an “adult” exercise… something from the “other” about “another”. In effect, any attempt to put the child in the center, the child is only interpreted, or reinterpreted, from the adult world, and if a voice of the child truly exists, it remains directly inaccessible to adults because of the many interpretions of what that child actually is.

Even Jesus’ attempt at putting the child in the center is like putting a fig-tree in the center of his teaching; I think it is illustrative rather than formative. Jesus’ call was for his disciplines to be children, and not to re-conceive everything they know about God through the eyes of “that” (or any) child. In fact, if there is any reconfiguring that needs to take place, Jesus clearly says that it is He (Jesus himself) who is the door, the way to the father (not the child).

The only way child theology can be possible is the same way that Feminist theology can be possible. A feminist (or womanist, whatever we prefer) reading of the Bible (hence feminist theology) is simply reading the Bible from a clearly woman’s point of view (seen critically, as different from a man’s point of view).  This same unique perspectival approach is reflected in Dalits who form their readings (often in opposition, but certainly different from, the traditional readings of the scripture). Thus, for a child to read the Bible for herself/himself, (especially in the effort to bring out the unique understanding of scripture from the child’s own point of view), we then have the makings of Child Theology. Yet, it is difficult to see children (at what age does a child become a child???), being able to do this, both in view of their cognitional and linguistic abilities. Furthermore, it is difficult to see whether such a reading is even necessary to be systematized, since there are many potential problems (not mentioned here) with Feminist or Dalit theologies per se.

My own assertion is that while a reflection on issues related to the Child is much-needed in the church today (thus by theologians as well), I would warn against any attempt to reformulate what a child is thinking about God in adult terms and purposes. We must recognise that oppressive adults will have an oppressive view of children; so, if an aggressive/oppressive/(or even blind to the actual needs of the child) adult tries to reconstruct what the child actually thinks and needs, it will be within his/her own oppressive(limited) framework.

For instance, I can foresee adult theologians going to children and asking them what they think about God, without realising that the situation(context) as well as the answer can evoke forced reactions from children who can construct their answers according to what they THINK the adults want (for further proof of this, read John Holt’s How Children Fail).

I assert therefore that “Child Theology” is a misnomer if it means something like Feminist Theology (some theology done from the persepctive of a certain kind of woman). Instead, Child Theology that we have today is better understood as the Theology of (and for) the Child, something like Eco-theology, where the attempt is to understand God and His world, but here putting the topic (and issues) of the Child, and especially the Child’s protection, in the centre of Godly reflection.