The Irish poet William Butler Yeats says, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I resonated with this as I think my way through Unfundamentalist parenting. Fundamentalism fills a young child with theological propositions, assuming they are empty buckets in need of strict religious instruction so they can perform according to the formulas they have received.
Memorize these Bible verses.
Listen only to Christian music.
Study the catechisms and the doctrines so you don’t stray from the ways of the Lord.
Drip by drop, cups by ladles, young children are like pails being filled by anxious parents, concerned whether their children have enough ammunition to face the worldly ways of larger culture outside of their home.
The problem with a pail of water is that it is dead. It may have come from the cascading waterfalls of a beautiful mountain, but landing in a pail it no longer flows. And when it is poured out it douses fires and generally makes a mess of everything. Rachel Held Evans in her book, Searching for Sunday, tells the story of Christian school yard taunts where she and her friend argue over whether one has to be baptized to go to heaven. My agnostic friend tells me about the boy in her neighborhood who goes around condemning his neighbors to hell for not being saved. When children are like pails they literally pours cold water on others. Proselytizers are disliked for good reason—they shut down conversation by heaping doctrinal certainties on their evangelizing targets.
What does it mean for Christian parents, instead of filling a pail, to light a fire in our children when it comes to passing on our faith?
First, to be clear, it does not mean we do not give our children any spiritual input, just as Yeats did not mean to say we refuse to educate our kids at all. The critique is not in the content given to our children, which mostly come from our best intentions given our limited knowledge, but on the nature of who the children are. Unfundamentalist parenting is to first recognize the child not as empty buckets, but an active spiritual agent who is becoming. Our job is simply to cultivate what is already there.
This changes everything. If we are filling a bucket, we are parenting with a one way interaction with zero engagement. But if instead we are lighting a fire, we gently offer up instruction but are careful to listen to how it is received. Instead of spoon feeding our children, we are inviting them to our family table. Unfundamentalist parents don’t evangelize our children, we are seeking to be evangelized by them, believing they have just as much to teach us as us, them. Every child God brings into this world has the capacity to bring us before God in a brand new way.
For me, this means I share my Christian convictions with my children in earnest. I tell them about a God who loves, a God who suffers, a God who stands with the marginalized and sometimes gets angry at those who don’t. But then I wait, and I listen, and I wonder if they have glimpsed that kind of a God in their own hearts.
It means I let my children be exposed to many other ways people know and experience God. And as hard as it sometimes is to let them learn from people I disagree with, I also trust my children aren’t empty buckets who will receive every message passively—they are fast developing their own faculties and hearing that still small voice inside of them steering them on the way they should go.
It means I try not to freak out when they say things of God that sound theologically bizarre or far too simplistic because I know their faith isn’t and won’t remain static. As much as my evolving faith has involved deconstructing pain and angst, it has given me a tremendous gift of understanding that faith can change. It can grow, evolve, and unfold into mystery. This is the thing about a fire—it’s wild and its flames can’t be tamed. When we light the fire in our children, they will shine uniquely, and our job isn’t to control it, but to hold witness to it. And while the pail of dead water drowns those around them, a living fire lights the way for others. If we lend our light to our children, we’ll get to watch them light the way for those they encounter in their lives.
Education isn’t about filling a pail, and the God of the universe certainly cannot be contained in a bucket. The more the light of faith inside of me grows, the more it illuminates a world of wonders and mystery still to be discovered. I only hope it burns bright enough to ignite the spirituality of my children.
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