One of the stories that was emphasized regularly in the Baptist Sunday school of my youth was Jesus’s apparent love of children from Matthew’s gospel. Matthew provides a couple of vignettes in back-to-back chapters that often get conflated. In response to the ubiquitous, “adult” questions about who is going to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses a kid for a “show-and-tell” moment.
Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives on little child like this in my name receives me.
Then in the very next chapter, when the disciples try to stop people from bringing their children to Jesus for prayer and blessing, presumably because Jesus has more important things to do than hang out with kids, Jesus tells the disciples to knock it off.
Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
I must confess that I had no idea of what Jesus was talking about, since the children I knew, myself included, exhibited none of the characteristics that one might think would be important in the kingdom of heaven (whatever that is). Petty, mean, nasty, ignorant–hardly the values worth promoting in any kingdom worth being part of. No one wants to be “childish,” but Jesus apparently thinks that there is something valuable about being “childlike.” What is it?
I had the opportunity to explore this question with my sophomore students recently as we read and discussed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in my “Apocalypse” colloquium. In a post-apocalyptic world, an unnamed father and son wander through a close-to-dead landscape covered in ash, several years after an unnamed cataclysm (Nuclear holocaust? Meteor strike?) ended human civilization. The man and the boy are hungry, close to starving, scrounging to find whatever sustenance they can as they wander south through the ash-covered former American southeast. The majority of human beings remaining have reverted to cannibalism in order to stay alive. The land is dead, civilization is dead, hope is dead, the man and the boy are likely to be dead soon—“dead” is undoubtedly the word most frequently used in the novel.
Yet according to Tony Hillcoat, the director of the 2007 film version of The Road, Cormac McCarthy once told him that although his previous novel Blood Meridian is about “the worst in human nature,” The Road “is very much about the absolute best.” If we are to take the author seriously, it is clear that he intends us to find “the absolute best” that humans can be in the nameless boy.
Throughout the story, the man tells the boy, who was born after the unnamed apocalyptic event(s) occurred, stories of heroism and values. It is clear that the man loves the boy unconditionally—his son is the only reason he has to continue living. But the boy has a natural and powerful moral goodness that cannot be accounted for by stories from his father or any of his own experiences. The boy repeatedly confirms with his father that they are “the good guys,” that they are “carrying the fire,” and that they would never eat anyone, no matter how hungry they got.
He shows compassion and mercy for those who do not deserve it, often against his father’s contrary wishes, including for a thief who intended to leave the father and son provisionless. When the man and boy stumble across an underground bunker stocked with sufficient canned goods, powdered milk, and dried meat to keep them alive for another week or two, the boy offers a simple prayer of thanks to the people who left the provisions, even though they have undoubtedly been dead for years.
The man recognizes a small glimmer of hope and beauty in his son in a world that otherwise is devoid of both. On the third page of the novel, as he observes his son from a short distance, the man says “If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” Later in the novel, the man and boy spend a short time with another wanderer, an old man whom the boy insists on sharing his food and blanket with. The two adults discuss the boy’s generosity that night as the boy sleeps next to them.
You should thank him, you know. I wouldn’t have given you anything.
Maybe I should and maybe I shouldn’t.
Why wouldn’t you?
I wouldn’t have given him mine. Why did he do it?
You wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure I do.
Maybe he believes in God.
I don’t know what he believes in.
He’ll get over it.
No he won’t.
That is the crux of the matter. There are some things we should grow out of, that we should “get over,” and some things we should not. I presented this tension to my students by asking them, in preparation for our seminar, to consider the difference between being “childish” and being “childlike.” What is McCarthy proposing to us in this boy? What, for that matter, did Jesus have in mind?
It was clear from both their weekly intellectual notebook entries and class discussion that my students were not in agreement about how best to understand the boy. Some found him to be “annoying,” others “unrealistic” or “naïve,” agreeing with the old man that if he survives into adulthood, real life will beat this childish, black-and-white ethic out of the boy in favor of a much grayer, but also more “realistic” and “pragmatic” approach to the world. Others, however, found something profoundly attractive, almost holy, in the boy’s commitment to moral principles and goodness in the darkest of circumstances. One student tackled the issue head on in her notebook entry:
We generally accept that children are typically associated with purity and innocence. If we agree with this generalization, then the next question is; “is the son childish or child-like?” This question asks, are children pure because they are temporarily naïve and innocent due to their age or are they the truest representation of human nature before it is overridden with responsibility and the experiences that cause adults to act immorally?
This student raises the classic question “Why be moral?” then takes the side of those who, like Plato, argue that human beings are naturally good, a goodness that gets warped, sometimes beyond recognition, by life. Can this goodness be preserved? My student continued:
Acting childish is a fleeting moment based on the situation but being child-like defines you. I think this question is answered by the last part of the quote. The father claims his son will not get over ‘it’. The ‘it’ refers to the son’s goodness and generosity that the rest of the world seems to have given up on. The son is child-like. Therefore, it is my belief that the son represents humans in their most natural form. He is going to continue to see and act morally because he will not be faced with the external pressures of a society which can change his nature because civilization doesn’t exist. The father represents a person who has overrun their natural human pure instincts because he faces the responsibilities the son is not burdened with.
Whether or not my student’s position that we are naturally good but then are corrupted by society can be supported or not is a matter for discussion. But she, as Cormac McCarthy and Jesus, believes at least that there is something good and pure at the core of our being, something that we would do well to locate, nurture, and preserve. The best evidence for it, at least in The Road, is that the boy is a completely believable character. We know, in other words, that no matter how encrusted with real life it becomes, each of us has at our core a spark of goodness—something that may be the best evidence available for the reality of the divine.
Believing in such natural goodness, even in the face of so much contrary evidence, is a matter of choice and commitment rather than of objective data. It is a reason to respect the dignity and value of all persons, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or any of the other reasons on the basis of which we deny human equality and value. As Simone Weil writes,
Whoever recognizes that reality . . . holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which each of us is bound to show respect. This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings.