Theology and Toddler Talk

These days, I’m pondering the nature of theological reflection in light of my interactions with my sixteen month old grandson. Every day he learns more words and repeats his favorite words over and over again. In the spirit of liturgical language and congregational litanies, he repeats the words “monkey,” “moon,” “star,” “car,” “truck,” and “clock” as many as hundred times a day. I am sure that some of his repetition, especially in the first few minutes of the day, is a recitation and reminder of what he knows. But, more than that, I believe he is creating the song lines that define his world whenever he brightens, smiles, and shouts out “flag” when he sees a flag or “star” or “moon” when he is out at night or “monkey” when he is looking for the consolation and company of his favorite stuffed toys. Of course, in the spirit of Jesus’ “abba,” he repeats “mama” and “dada” when he hears familiar voices or wants reassurance. Sometimes, I am sure, he is not fully certain about what he is invoking as he repeats his favorite words, but these words shape the way he frames his day and focus his attention.

Theological reflection is similar to toddler talk. We sing words we don’t fully understand and repeat affirmations over and over that stretch our imaginations, shape our interpretation, and create the song lines that guide our pathway from day to day. Even our doctrines push us beyond our known worlds.

I like the comparison of theology, toddler talk, and song lines to describe how we frame our worlds spiritually. In the language of the aboriginal people of Australia, songs (song lines) describe the landmarks by which we orient ourselves and find direction in lives. Our songs help us navigate familiar landscapes and give us guidance as we explore new frontiers. When we are lost, they help us find our way home.

Toddler talk is always evolving and growing in meaning. It is never complete, nor does it need to be. It provides enough orientation for today’s needs, but will continue to develop as we have new adventures. It doesn’t claim to be all-encompassing, but provides enough light for where we are today. If you observe a toddler, you will notice that new meaningful words are constantly emerging and with each new word comes a new way of looking at the world. Surely, that is a good model for theological reflection: in a dynamic world of 125 billion (and more) galaxies, evolving over 14 billion years, we have a lot to learn. New words for God constantly emerge and we should welcome them, even as we remember the limitations of our words and experiences.

The notion that our theologies can ever be complete or that our words describe God’s fullness will always be challenged by the realization of our finitude amid the immensity of the universe. That is the message of Psalm 8, “when I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” And, yet, we have a vocation and despite our finitude, we can catch a glimpse of divinity in ourselves and the world. We can sing songs to help us find our way.

In the weeks ahead, I will reflect on emerging theology from a variety of perspectives. Next week, I will begin with apophatic (without concepts and images) and kataphatic (incarnational) theologies and then consider themes related to God, Christ, healing, Spirit, history, and afterlife. But, I will be guided by the wisdom of my toddler grandson. He grows in experience and language every day. He grasps at novelty and reaches to new possibilities moment by moment, propelled by an inner energy and eros. He is not content with standing still but is moving forward in every way. I am sure that’s the way God works in his life, luring him forward in every encounter. Tragically, theologians as well as laypeople often quit learning, scorn novelty, and fear change. We need, as Jesus asserts, to become like toddlers, like children, to live fully in God’s realm. If it’s good enough for Jesus, then it’s surely good enough for me – and moreover every theologian.

So, consider your own theological toddler talk – repeat your words for God and embrace new words as they emerge in your experience. Like my toddler grandson, never stand still, but grow constantly in your openness to God’s movements in your life and the world and always embrace new and life-giving words and images for which is always more than we can fully fathom.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

  • http://throughtheportal1.blogspot.com/ Philip

    Over the years as my three children grow, I have been teaching them, and learning myself, the value of words. To cherish and respect them as treasured items.

    Words are living…always evolving, wether quickly or over long periods of time. They are powerful and, as we have seen in history, have the ability to alter the future. They give hope, knowledge, and awareness. We have all heard, at young ages and in adulthood, from our parents, elders, and even peers that there are some words that are bad and should not be said. How many of us have had our mouths washed out with soap?

    My children are learning that there are NO! Bad Words only bad ways of using them. It is our attitudes, motives and reasonings behind our speech that we must hold check, not the word. For this reason many have become confused and unjustly accuse the word, and/or speech, of being foul… when all along it was the attitude behind it that they so disagreed with. My children thus learn to conduct their thoughts, feelings and speech in respect, honour and love of others as well as words. My family and I, thank God, have the privilege of making this journey together, as I never was taught this important differentiation.

    Language, words and the use their of… are of vast importance, I fear I sound like an old dud when I say this… but in our age of abbreviations(txt) and grammatical brutality in the form of short point information (twitter, facebook) we may have deaden, not words, but our minds conceptualization of them and their use.

    *Please, I mean no offence to those of you who use these particular forms of communication. They have their place and importance, and like words they themselves are not bad, it is how and what they are used for that have made them a nauseant to some.

  • Lisa Domke

    Bruce, this is a beautiful way of thinking about our ever-changing theological ideas and conversations. Really looking forward to exploring process theology with you and others at the end of the month. Thanks.


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