Thank you for visiting Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. This site is not being updated on a regular basis while we are developing new projects for the future. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the videos, podcasts and articles currently available on the site.

The Table Video

Justin Barrett

Give up Childish Ways or Receive the Kingdom Like a Child?: Spiritual Formation from a Developmental Perspective

Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary / Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development
May 10, 2014

Justin Barrett (Fuller Theological Seminary’s Thrive Center for Human Development) presents a programmatic challenge for Christian scholars to think more developmentally with regards to spiritual formation. He suggests that when considering character strengths and virtues (including spiritual fruit), spiritual disciplines, and knowing God, we often think in terms of what adults need to be spiritually formed. An important supplemental approach to Christian spiritual formation is to consider spiritual formation as a life-long process with important steps in childhood.


Thank you very much. Thank you all for hanging in here. I know that it’s been an enriching, full two days. And I’ll try not to end on a sour note. I’m gonna do something a little bit different for me and that’s not use a PowerPoint and not hit you with a lot of data slides and things like that, because of where we are in the program. Because I know I am the only thing standing between you and root beer floats. [audience laughing] Which is probably gonna be more spiritually enriching.

Really rather than give a full-on argument I just want to give a suggestion here. And that’s what I’m gonna do is I’m just going to suggest that the study and the practice of spiritual formation take more seriously a developmental approach, a developmental perspective. That’s all I wanna do really. I’ll try to flush that out a little bit. By going, sort of be in the last plenary as well, I have an opportunity to really congratulate Center for Christian Thought for putting together such a wonderful conference.

And for really touching on, I think an important an important topic. For public for most people here, it’s sort of a trivial observation that maybe psychology has something to contribute to spiritual formation, but I don’t think it is trivial at all. And in fact in a lot of quarters, it’s a radical idea, in a lot of good sensible people’s heads, it’s a radical idea, and I say this because about two years ago, I was teaching an intensive course overseas on cognitive signs of religion, my sort of native area of study, and my host and I got into this really great conversation about what it might look like to use psychological science to look at spiritual disciplines, and their impact on spiritual formation and the development of character and virtue and spiritual growth and so forth.

And one of the other people at the table was a professor from a very good seminary that is probably well known to most of the people in the room, so I won’t say what it is and know that it’s not here. And this professor is on their spiritual formation team as well and her reaction to our discussion was why in the world would you bring psychology into any of this? Psychology doesn’t have anything interesting to contribute to spiritual formation.

I was shocked and so we got into this discussion of how it might matter, and I’ll return to that point, but I do want to congratulate Steve and Tom and the other members of the Center for Christian Thought team for bringing together such a wonderful conference. My talk has six parts if I have enough time to get to them. We’ll get a little bit of a late start, so maybe it’ll have five parts, but six parts and the first three are really just ground clearing.

First I want to make some preliminary comments about psychology and spiritual formation I’ve actually sort of started that. Second I want to say what do I mean by spiritual formation at least for my presentation. Third I want to raise a couple of key developmental concepts concepts from developmental psychology, and then this sort of meat of the presentation is that my fourth section will be giving some reason to suspect that little kids actually can do a pretty good job getting to know God and fifth, then the fifth section will be just giving some reason to suspect that looking at spiritual formation with regard to spiritual fruit cultivation would benefit from a developmental perspective, and then I’ll conclude with some implications.

Okay so that’s where I’m going. My impression is and I could have this wrong, but my distinct impression is that when people talk about spiritual formation, most of the attention is actually on adults, usually what we have in mind is adult spiritual formation or young adult spiritual formation. Lots of people interested.

Fuller is one of these institutions who are really interested in the spiritual formation of students, and I know Biola is very interested in this as well, and so there’s a lot of talk and the increasing interest and research in this area, but I think the models that we tacitly bring to the task of both the scholarship and the application of the scholarship is targeted at, and it sort of epitomized by or the prototype in mind is the young adults, okay, and I think that wow that’s a wonderful thing, and I don’t want to stop that. I think that we’d be enriched by broadening the scope. I mean maybe in line with what was suggested in the previous plenary, we think about spiritual formation as a much broader window of development that maybe starts at birth or before birth and continues after death.

Okay I’m not going to focus on the before birth or the after death, but I’m gonna try to focus at least on the sort of the pre-college years and why we might want to take them seriously. Okay, like I said my impression is there’s this focus on adults. We want mature faith, we want mature spiritual formation, so we need mature people right?

And so we might be thinking in terms of say first Corinthians 13:11. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Okay that’s spiritual formation right? And you know of course all good evidence for these kinds of things, Wikipedia, if you look that up if you look up spiritual formation on Wikipedia, you will not find a reference to child, teens, adolescents, babies, it’s not there.

I checked today just to make sure, because somebody was bound to do it. Well actually Wikipedia has this entire section on it doesn’t. [audience laughing] I know somebody can put it up before I finish talking and then I’ll be wrong, but we might be thinking children don’t have the conceptual tools to think about God, to understand God, to really get into the spiritual formation game right? I mean that would be a sensible thing to assume, and now I think there’s some exceptions to this. I think occasionally in this conference actually is an exception looking at the program, but I think occasionally we do look at kids, but we look at kids primarily for their ability to inform the mature form, okay, so we might be looking and say at particular virtues and well what do they look like early in development?

Okay that gives us insight to the mature form that we can then use to create interventions or spiritual disciplines for older people, but not what can we do for kids to help them in their spiritual formation, or we might just sort of when we do think about children’s spiritual formation, what we might do is just take adult spiritual disciplines say and just kind of make kids do ’em, and by kids here I do mean sort of up through what we might call even late adolescence. Adolescence is a lot of you might know it’s been growing and growing and growing, and a lot of developmentalists are putting it pretty much 23 now is when adolescence ends, and yeah I know it’s shocking and a little upsetting.

So, then college students suddenly are part of adolescence, why because they haven’t established themselves as independent adults doing adult like stuff. Okay they’re still kids in a way, and so what’s you might see, and I know this is the case because this was my son’s experience at a place very much like the one we’re at today. In one of his classes he was introduced to a lot of spiritual disciplines, and the way they were introduced to this was both given that some of the theological background, but then asked to try these things out, and while I’m sure that fasting is a wonderful discipline and an aid to spiritual formation for many people, for an 18-year-old athletic male, a day without food leads to lack of attention, poor performance in class, misery, abject misery.

No, how I was so bonded with God, because I didn’t have to think about food. It’s all I could think about was food. I couldn’t think about my class. That prof is up there blah-blah-blah, I just couldn’t understand what he’s saying. It looked like a big chili dog to me. [audience laughing] Okay I’m being a little bit glib with this, but you get the point right?

Oftentimes we just say oh the adult model, well let’s try that out with a kid because it worked for me personally as an adult without taking into account the development of the people involved. All right, so why they have certain aspects of spiritual formation are ready for growth earlier than adulthood or what if at least in some ways early cultivation will reap greater harvests or borrowing from Adam Pulser’s presentation earlier today, what if Huckleberry Finn is right and a body that don’t get started right when he’s little ain’t got no show.

Okay, Mark 10:15 says truly I say to you whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. And maybe there’s something interesting there. Okay another preliminary sort of comment. I think it’s, no doubt we’ve got a wide range of views of the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual formation. And I want to go ahead and address that directly. I’m sure it’s been leaking around the edges here throughout the last two days. Behind that seminary professor’s reaction about what does psychology have to do with it, I think was a theology that basically said, spiritual formation is the work of the Holy Spirit full stop.

There’s nothing to be said for psychology. When I was doing some work looking at Young Life and the effectiveness of Young Life’s ministries, one of the push backs I got from Young Life staff people was well in your psychological models, where’s room for the Holy Spirit? Which I found disturbing. I thought that phrase your room for the Holy Spirit was what we use to keep you know coeds apart from each other.

Leave room for the Holy Spirit there, but in this case, there was the clear implicit god of the gaps kind of thinking going on. You have to leave space for the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that there’s there’s a continuum of ways for thinking about how the Holy Spirit works in the cultivation of spiritual fruit, and I’ll use the metaphor of plants, since we see that in scriptures a lot, and the continuum ranges from spiritual formation is the Holy Spirit doing what the Holy Spirit does in people’s lives, natural processes, psychological mechanisms are irrelevant.

Okay it’s sort of a far end, but I think even if we take that very seriously, we would say but if the Holy Spirit is regular, if this is a predictable person, as I think we often think the Holy Spirit is, as opposed to chaotic, arbitrary, capricious, then there might be actually some predictable patterns in how the Holy Spirit acts. And we might be interested in that. Okay so even if we take that kind of view, we might be interested in what the science can tell us about how the Holy Spirit usually acts in people’s lives given certain kinds of factors around them.

On the other end, we might think what the Holy Spirit does is it grants new desires and those desires get cultivated through practices of the church, both individually and collectively. So, Galatians 5:16 and 17 is sometimes interpreted this way, but I say walk by the spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh, for the desires of the flesh are against the spirit and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh for these are opposed to each other to prevent you from doing what you would. So, in that we often see that interpreted as, well the Holy Spirit gives new desires, but then it’s up to the church and the individual and communities to work out that discipline, to bring that fruit.

So, in that planters metaphor, the Holy Spirit plants the seed and in that seed is the potential to grow into the tree that bears the fruit but the cultivation of that tree, the watering and the care for it happens in another way. All right that we have to be active in that process and I think there’s some middle grounds in here too and the parabola, so we suggest it that we collaborate with the Holy Spirit in spiritual formation. I think regardless of which of these views you take, the sciences have something interesting to offer.

Maybe it’s a description of how the Holy Spirit typically works or what obstacles might sort of interfere with the good activities of the Holy Spirit or maybe it’s on the order of well how can we be most effective in taking that good gift of the Holy Spirit and bringing it to maturity, but anywhere in here I think we have something to learn from the relevant sciences. You can see I get excited about this.

Okay what do I mean by spiritual formation? For my sake here today, I’ve got sort of two components of what is spiritual formation. I’m assuming that it means knowing God and I mean that relationally, but I also mean that if it’s God as opposed to just some sort of a being out there, then God has certain kinds of properties that we have to at least conceptualize in some minimal sense.

So, knowing God and then that knowing God that relationship with the Creator leads to certain kinds of fruit of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, self-control against such there is no law, and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:22 to 24. Okay I’m going to take that as a snapshot of spiritual formation.

Okay part three, so yeah I’m going pretty fast right? Two key developmental concepts that I want to introduce. There are the idea of a sensitive period and the idea that we lose flexibility in the course of development. Okay sensitive period. When cognitive or other developmental psychologists talk about a sensitive period, they’re talking about a window in human development in psychological development such that exposure to particular kind of stuff in the environment stimuli has a huge impact on the processing of that information, a much bigger impact than elsewhere in development.

Okay, an easy example is binocular vision. If both of your eyes are not exposed to visual information right there, you know coming out of the birth canal, your brain sort of, say one eye is covered up, the brain area that was supposed to work that eye gets taken over by the other eye, and you lose the ability to have binocular vision. So, even vision has to be tuned up by receiving the right kind of stimuli from the environment at the right time.

The fun example is imprinting in say chickens or ducks. All right so baby duck hatches out of the egg, in fact there’s this apparently this is a little viral video about a cat raising ducks, that’s fantastic, so the backyard farmer gets the little, this is I mean really right now I’m so with it. Anyway so this farmer gets these eggs right, incubates them comes home, “Oh no the eggs have hatched while I’m gone. “I’ll bet the cat got them.” Goes finds the cat where the baby ducks have imprinted on the cat and thinks that the cat is mom.

And fortunate for them mom has just had a litter of kittens and so she actually accepts the ducks as part of her litter, and they’ve imprinted on her. Well that’s only a very small window of opportunity to imprint, otherwise the ducks will be confused. There are lots of domains like this. Sound discrimination seems to be one of these. When we’re young we can hear pitch better than when we’re older and I don’t just mean we lose acuity or something like that, but the ability to discriminate different consonant sounds. If you have perfect pitches, a musician, you almost surely were exposed to music training in your first six years of life.

Okay part of the reason why it’s hard when you learn a second language later in life is you lose the ability to distinguish certain kinds of sounds. So, when my Chinese roommate in college was trying to teach me Mandarin, I couldn’t hear what he was trying to get me to hear. I’d lost the ability. My sensitive period had closed.

Language acquisition is often thought to have this sensitive period. Okay with sensitive period but sometimes independently there’s this loss of flexibility that I was just referring to. Okay we sometimes think and it’s sometimes true in many domains that the older we get the more we can sort of acquire in terms of knowledge and ability, but in many domains it works just the opposite way. We lose abilities as we go. Okay there’s this pruning of possibilities.

Apparently discrimination of sounds is one of these. Discrimination of taste seems to be one of these too. Okay there are lots of different domains in which there’s this pruning of possibilities. If we aren’t exposed to the idea early, we lose the ability. All right those are two key important developmental ideas.

Maybe you can anticipate where I’m going with this already but I’m not gonna let the cat out of the bag just yet. Okay part four so now this is, if you’re looking at your handout on knowing god developmental perspectives, I’m assuming that part of spiritual formation is you’ve got to know who God is. You need to form a relationship with God and so we might wonder well can kids do that or do we need to wait until adulthood.

And let me suggest I think kids can do that and maybe not just do that, but maybe even do that better than adults. Oh yeah really. If I can’t hear you acting shocked, I have to add it for myself I guess. Look this idea that children have special receptivity to the divine, you see shades of this across different faith traditions.

As I’ve been giving talks on my book “Born Believers” I’ve had for instance a lot of Muslims writing in to me and saying things like look this idea of Fitura is very comparable to sensus divinitatis in Christianity. Okay and in both cases this concept is this idea that children are born with some kind of natural instinct or disposition toward belief in God. My impression is the Muslim version is actually a lot more tightly specified than a sensus divinitatis for those who know that term from the reformed tradition.

But both capture this idea of a natural instinct or disposition toward God, and then I’ve been running into these funny anecdotes. Okay so you know I’ll give a lecture and then afterwards say I’ve had Danish and Swedish colleagues, for instance come up who are atheists, come and tell me about their preschool age children who believe in God. And they have no idea how these kids acquired these beliefs. And even when they push back at the kids and tried to discourage them, the kids actually resist that.

So, it’s pretty obvious parents didn’t just indoctrinate them with this belief. They picked it up. They’re really susceptible to the idea. Now I know this is anecdotal. In some of the studies we conducted in Oxford, we had a mom say well yeah you can have the kid participate in the experiments, but she’s not going to know what you’re talking about. Actually this was a he. He’s not gonna know what you’re talking about ‘cos we’re atheists and he doesn’t know who God is, and the kid answered all of the questions about God actually theologically accurate, and the mom was just flabbergasted. “How in the world do you do this? Do you believe in God?” “Well of course mom.” Mom was puzzled, okay but we’re not just gonna rely on anecdotes.

We’ve got experimental evidence, and we I mean, the developmental cognitive developmental community generally, that a lot of the properties that previously people thought were difficult about God for kids to understand, maybe aren’t so hard. Let me start with invisibility. So, you might think well the idea of an invisible being, a minded being who’s invisible is really tough for kids. I mean that’s an abstraction isn’t it? And didn’t we learn from Piaget that these sort of abstract concepts kids can’t pick up till about eight or nine years old, something like that? Well Piaget might have thought that, but he thought wrong if he did.

Okay Marjorie Taylor for instance has done a lot of work looking at imaginary friends. Looks like by the time kids are about seven years old, 65% percent of them have had an invisible or imaginary friend. All right and these aren’t weird kids. They’re not pathological kids. They’re not kids who have been neglected or abused or abandoned or are lonely. They’re just ordinary kids and in fact the kids who don’t tend to have a weaker sort of social intelligence, and what’s often called theory of mind ability.

The ability to think about others in terms of their belief states, their mental states. Okay this seems to be a fairly ordinary part of development. What does that show? Well it looks like kids even without a body present are really good at reasoning about the beliefs, desires, emotions and actions of intentional beings. Body don’t need one. God doesn’t have a body that is visibly present, so what? That’s not a conceptual problem for me. What about other super attributes?

Well knowing is knowing and perceiving are ones that my students and I have worked off and on, for a decade or so now. And we’ve done a number of different tasks that seem to suggest that children actually do pretty well again with God’s maybe superhuman ability to know. Part of this looks to be a developmental default. That is it seems to be the path of least resistance for kids. Let me explain what I mean.

So, a very sort of now textbook kind of task in the cognitive development is these false belief surprising contents tasks. You present children with a familiar container like a cracker box and you ask them what kind of container is this? What kind of box is this? Well, it’s a cracker box. That’s right, it’s a cracker box. What do you think’s inside the cracker box? Crackers. Yeah well you might think that it is a cracker box, but actually I’ve taken the crackers out, and what have I put in the box? Rocks, that’s right, there are rocks in the box Steve. Now I’m gonna close the box back up, so that you can’t see inside of it.

Now what’s in the box? Rocks, that’s right there are rocks in the box. Well what kind of box is it? That’s right, it’s a cracker box. Now if your mom came in and she saw this box for the first time what would she think is inside of it? Oh there’s some disagreement. Okay adults would say crackers. Three-year-old would say rocks. Okay and sometimes usually by five, they’ve figured out mom would have a false belief, and she would say, mom would think there are crackers in the box. Well we decided to ask not just about mom, but what would God think is in the box? Okay and in our first study with this, of course we picked kids who knew what God meant, and what kids said here was well, God would think that there are rocks in the box at all ages.

Okay we’ve since gone on and run a similar kind of task with Mayan children asking about various gods and animals and all kinds of things. This has been replicated in the UK, the US, different versions in Israel, Albania. Recently in China and Ecuador. I’ll explain those in just a moment, but the general pattern we’re seeing is that children seem to begin with an assumption, well begin by giving the benefit of the doubt to others in terms of what they know. Okay they err on the side of attributing knowledge and perception and then through development, they pair that back. So, mom, a tree, a bear, a dog would all think there are rocks in the box okay? Now you might think well that’s funny because I mean maybe what’s happening is they have this curse of knowledge.

They can see that it’s a crack, they know that there are rocks in the box, and that sort of swamps everything. So, recently we’ve done a more challenging version of the task, where we use an unmarked box. So, here’s my unmarked box, if I can get a lid right, okay and then we say all right you see these two toys, we’ve got Pooh and we’ve got Tigger. All right, I’m gonna put one of them in this box. Okay and we’re gonna do it secretly and it’s hard to with a see-through podium. All right, one of them is in the box. Do you know which one I put in the box? No, okay.

And now we can ask the same kind of questions. Would God know what’s in the box? Would your mom know what’s in the box? Would a friend know what’s in the box? All right and here too, our Ecuadorian kids and our Israeli kids and our British kids begin with the default assumption, that yeah God would know, mom would know, a friend would know and with development they start saying, no, no, no, but they need not do this with God. All right, in some ways God’s super knowledge or super perception it’s not clear which is going on here seems to be easier. At the very least it’s not a problem okay.

We’ve got other tasks that have looked at God’s perceptual abilities and other agent’s perceptual abilities and so forth, and we get the same kind of tendency. We’ve also been asking about immortality. Not immorality. And it looks here too that at least with our Ecuadorian kids and our British kids in particular, those are two populations where the results are strongest, begin with an assumption that everyone just keeps going on living forever and ever. And they have to learn then that mom will eventually die. Their friends will eventually die, so forth. Well they need not learn that God will eventually die.

Okay, so they get God right, theologically. About two years before they get mom right. All right so it looks like they’re these various developmental defaults that favor super knowing agents, super perceiving agents, immortal agents. These aren’t necessarily very difficult tasks, conceptually difficult tasks for children. So, maybe thinking about God isn’t so hard after all. What about other theological concepts though, like say grace? Here we haven’t studied it yet, so I’m flagging this for students in the crowd, PhD to be had, study grace please. But we have reason to think that one of the, okay look, especially in evangelical Christianity, the little participant observation going on.

We talk about grace an awful lot right? You’re gonna hear hundreds, hundreds of sermons about grace. Why? Why do we have to keep teaching about grace? Because everyone gets it wrong. Okay it seems to not fit our conceptual equipment very well. We seem to want to twist grace, the doctrine of grace into some kind of reciprocity agreement. A tit for tat. I give, God gives, especially when it applies to someone else. The idea that Tom is gonna get off the hook for all of his sin really irritates me, because I’ve been so much better than him. But [laughs] I heard an amen. [audience laughing]

That’s why I’m laughing, but maybe the idea of grace just a suggestion, isn’t so hard for kids. And maybe that’s when we need to start learning it. It sure looks like kids can be grateful without any kind of expectation of reciprocation. When grandma gives them a really good gift, they don’t think, “Oh gee, now what am I gonna do in return? “I have this obligation now.” At least if that’s kind of how it looks. So, I wonder is there a possible sensitive period for learning about God? For learning about grace? For learning about all kinds of theological concepts that actually sort of suit children’s developmental equipment and then we lose that ability if it isn’t properly cultivated. I’m just wondering all right.

Now of course the particulars of which God, how we’re gonna think about God of the religious tradition, these need to be filled in culturally through cultural learning. But one of the things that developmental psychologists have been showing is a really important, maybe even a critical component to whether or not children are going to acquire the faith of their parents has to do with their attachment to their parents. Okay real quick, you can think of it this way. A kid who is securely attached to mom, comfortably sort of explores their space around them checking in on mom periodically. “We good mom? Yeah thanks” and then I can go and I can talk to people and so forth and I can explore. They’re secure. They have enough security and mom’s appropriate responsiveness to me relationally that I feel free to explore the world.

An anxious kid though, I’m gonna hang on to mom’s leg and can’t branch out because I’m terrified of exploring the world out there. If I leave maybe mom will leave me or maybe I don’t trust mom at all, and so I run away from her and I never come back. That’s more of an avoidant kind of kid. Well research suggests including some of the research that I’ve done with Young Life folks that having a secure attachment with parents is a very strong predictor of adopting the faith of your parents in a nice incremental gradual sort of way. All right, so that parenting that leads to that secure attachment seems to be really important for acquiring faith.

If you want to know more about that Lee Kirkpatrick and Perr Grandquist have done a lot of work in that area and it’s I think a really interesting area. All right, how are we doing? Cultivating spiritual fruit section five.

A lot of folks in my neck of the woods, cognitive science of religion are captivated by the work of Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph on what’s sometimes called moral foundation theory. And the idea here is that there seemed to be these cognitive emotive little inference engines that we all have by virtue of being human beings living in the kind of world we do. Maybe they evolved to solve certain kinds of adaptive problems or something like that as Haidt and Joseph certainly cast these in evolutionary terms, but they talked about five or six depending on which publications of these foundations. Harm care and this generates the intuitions that yeah it’s bad to harm members of your in-group. You ought to care for them.

Fairness reciprocity is the idea that well I mean generates intuitions about what’s fair especially in exchange relationships. I gave you an apple. You ought to give me something of comparable sort of value later or something like that. Authority respect. You have to respect those in authority and there’s a proper way of acting with regard to them. You should respect them. Ingroup stroke loyalty. This is the idea that I should be loyal to my people. I have certain obligations to my group that I don’t have to my out-group, but I understand that they have it to their group. Purity sanctity. This is the idea that certain kinds of things are marked off as sacred or pure. Some things are disgusting to do.

Okay, now these five moral foundations, I don’t have time to get into them, but they’ve been derived from cross-cultural observations and some developmental research suggesting yeah they’re all over the place but there’s an interesting thing about them is that Haidt argues that three of the five, the latter three, are actually underdeveloped in a sub section of the American population. People who call themselves progressives politically. I’m not trying to make any kind of political statement on this.

The observation is important for the following reason. Okay so what they’re saying is the whole world except for Western sort of progressives, the rest of the world reason in terms of five moral foundations and you can categorize their moral reasoning in reference to these five things. But political progressives only reason in terms of does it hurt somebody or is it caring for somebody? So, harm care and fairness reciprocity. They tend not to think in terms of authority, loyalty, or purity. Okay now Haidt actually considers himself one of these people, and he finds this fascinating.

When we see this kind of pattern that the bulk of the world reasons a certain way but a sub-set doesn’t, we don’t think that well the five foundations then have to be culturally cultivated or they’re not there. We think actually you have to do some interesting thing culturally for them not to be there. That is they’re the developmental natural default that’s gonna show up in normal human societies unless you get in the way.

And if you reflect on how our education system works, question authority, not mine, classroom teacher, everyone else’s authority. Question authority, that right, we’ve been hearing that for 40 years or so in say American school system. So, there has been a push against this kind of thing, but those who have spent time in other non-western kinds of cultures, “Question authority, are you mad?” “I mean that is so immoral. “What are you talking about?” so, maybe this foundation has been atrophied, why do I raise that?

Well it opens the possibility again just possibilities here then that kids are naturally more receptive to certain kinds of moral reasoning than our adults, who have already had that sort of tamped down. Just a possibility, and so I just want to talk real fast about three of the ninefold fruit. Faithfulness. Let me suggest that faithfulness, the ability to be faithful, to be loyal to others and or exercise appropriate devotion to appropriate authority figures, including God, seems to spring from two of Haidt’s moral foundations. Authority and loyalty. Numbers three and four. Two that have been shown to be vulnerable to loss with a certain type of enculturation.

Okay waiting until kids have already had that kind of counter enculturation against those foundations maybe actually is the wrong move in terms of trying to cultivate faithfulness. Maybe kids need to learn faithfulness before they’ve been taught not to follow those intuitions, okay just a suggestion. Kindness.

This appears to be part of the harm care moral foundation. Okay kindness, being kind to others. Seems to be triggered by care, care impulse. And there are some really interesting evidence-based intervention programs for schools now that are being developed. One of those is the roots of empathy program that was developed in Canada and is now used in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia at least most widely in Canada is my impression and there are a couple of published refereed studies showing the effectiveness of this program, and the program at its center involves these classroom demonstrations in which a mother and their infant child come in for nine times once a month throughout the school year, and are sort of the central object for lots of discussion about the baby’s emotions and responding in a caring way to the child’s needs and developmental points there.

One of the really interesting things I think when I’ve read these studies exploring its impact on pro-social behavior, on caring behavior and anti-bullying behavior and so forth in school kids is that, yes it’s effective overall, but it seems to be most effective with the youngest kids, the kindergartners, and particularly the kindergarten girls actually. Now that could be because of the type of intervention that it is, but maybe it’s the case because younger kids just have more capacity to naturally care. Yes it needs cultivated. I’m not an idealist about children. They can be little monsters, but think of that what I talked about we reduce our possibilities with aging. Okay they’re more open to this kind of intervention perhaps.

All right and they lose that as they get older. It is the case that these studies showed that overall we see a decline in pro-social behavior throughout the schooling years, that these kids get okay meaner as they get older. I hope that’s just not the natural slide, but maybe it is or maybe it’s part of the school systems that they’re in we teach them to be antisocial and that would be a sad thing if that’s the case. Something we’ll take up at the AME conference next year, the Association for Moral Education.

We’ll be meeting and passing in the next November, if you’re interested in these kinds of things. CK Cook or Peter Samuelsson. Okay what about self-control? This is an area that actually has been receiving some really cool attention in psychological literature. Roy Baumeister among others have shown that you can actually exercise self-control a little bit like a muscle. That it’s like a muscle in the sense that if you work it, it gets tired, but over time little bits of work pay really big dividends in terms of your self-control muscle getting stronger.

So, little funny things like trying not to start sentences with the word I or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand for a period of three weeks leads to better results in say smoking cessation or over drinking or all kinds of self-control issues even the hand caliper tasks that are completely unrelated to whatever the task you were doing. Well Sarah Schnitzer up at Fuller in My Centers is now adapting these kinds of methods for adolescence and our reasoning is this.

We know that there’s this radical reorganization and growth and development in our prefrontal cortex during the adolescent years. The area of the brain that’s often associated with what’s called executive function, including self control and self regulation. We’re starting to get results that looks like yeah adolescents can benefit from these kinds of interventions too. So, the next question is maybe they’d benefit more than if we wait until later because that is when the self-control muscle seems to be developing. All right just a question.

All right, I see that I’m out of time. Let me just end then by saying I hope that these observations what all that I’m really hoping to do. As you can see I’ve got, there isn’t a really strong argument here, what they’re is a number of little bread crumbs, think of them as bread crumbs out there suggesting a possible path that has implications for scholarship and practice.

For scholarship, maybe we should be asking questions like which investments in spiritual formation are most effective at which parts of the development? Are there sensitive periods for knowing God for particular virtues or character strengths? How do we understand immature versions of the various aspects of spiritual fruit? For instance what does gentleness or self-control look like for a five year old, for a 12 year old, for a 20 year old, for a 40 year old, what does self-control look like at different ages? What does kindness look like?

For practice maybe we need to be more aggressive about teaching kids about God early, really introducing kids to God. I see that a lot of religious education curricula still say yeah until kids about eight or nine, just tell them nice little moral Bible stories. You can tell them little stories about Jesus and draw a moral implication, but don’t bother with any theology. It just looks like a mistake to me. Expose them to the idea of God. The Holy Spirit is invisible but present in their parents lives, so if you’re a parent, give them opportunities to think about God’s beliefs, desires and actions in real life. Don’t be afraid of the super attributes. Kids might find them easier than you do. A little bit like kids find second languages or languages easier than you do. You’ve outgrown that.

Kids needs secure attachment with their parents and parents I think need skills training in this area. We’ve got a serious parenting problem, warm, not responsive, non-anxious, predictable parenting perhaps with spiritual fruit that’s tied is closely tied to moral foundations, train kids up in these things early. I would love to see lots of churches. Before they’re going to marry somebody in a church, they send them through premarital counseling.

Wouldn’t it be cool if churches, okay maybe I’m crazy, say before we’re gonna dedicate or baptize your kid, you need to go through some pre parenting training too. How to raise up these kids, to be in a process of spiritual formation from the very beginning, because maybe that’s gonna bear the best fruit, the greatest harvest later. Thank you very much. [audience applauding]

Moderator: We’ll take some time for a few questions.

It was Tigger by the way. Tigger was in the box. [audience laughing]

Participant: Justin that was a great talk. I learned a lot and I really think you’re right about almost everything I heard there, everything. But here’s two worries. One is could it be that they’re a good deal of what we want Christianly to put in our kids comes naturally, but there’s still some stuff that isn’t so natural like loving your enemies.

Yeah, yeah.

Participant: Just the out-group thing. And then this is just, and I don’t know the answer to this, but Kirker actually has a lot to say about children’s religious development, and he was based on his own experience, and so it may be completely wrong, because it may have been idiosyncratic, but he felt like he was sort of damaged and scarred because he was in still, a very, a guilt ridden thing was sort of thrust on him at a very, very early age, and he felt that he suffered his whole life from that.

And his own advice was this that a lot a lot of religious concepts should be given to children very early and I think everything you were talking about would be things he would say yes, but he thought that what he called the strict Christian concepts of sin and atonement should wait a little while. I don’t know what you think about that idea.

Thanks, great questions. Look Steve you’re pointing to exactly why I think we need a lot more research in this area, to start determining well which are those areas that kids have a natural propensity and when in development are these different kinds of concepts appropriate, because I think you’re probably, well I think Kirker Gaard is probably right but there are certain concepts that introduced at the wrong time probably are not gonna do good work or introduced in the wrong way.

With regard to loving the out-group, that one strikes me as having an interesting potential as actually being an area of, where early development might be important. So, it looks like we naturally established in-groups out-groups and so forth. It’s just what we do. It seems to be part of our sort of relational propensities, but it’s of course very fluid. It’s very flexible and my concern is if that kids are not introduced the idea that your out-group is a whole lot smaller than you thought and your in-group is a whole lot bigger, that can get too cemented. So, actually I think that’s a really good example of a place where some early investment might be exactly the right thing, but I’m speculating right? I mean again PhDs to be had.

Participant: Justin, I just want to echo Steve’s comments. Looking at the Haidt and Joseph’s five moral foundations, it seems like you can have a more mature adult form. For example, the harm and care we talked about, taking up our cross and dying itself, is an interesting sort of counter balance to that. Fairness and reciprocity, turning the other cheek, or authority and respect, we are going to fight against the counter cultural maybe the way they think about us.

It seems in each of these, that there’s also sort of an opposite that we have to hold attention to the child like notions of these things as well as adult forms that we see as [muffled speaking]. Just what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah great thanks. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not romanticizing the child’s sort of native intuitions as being fully formed or the way we need to go. I think there’s some serious problems. In fact when thinking about what’s cognitively natural or psychologically natural for us to believe in terms of certain kinds of religious concepts, I think there’s actually a really fun potential study to be done in showing how much of Jesus’s ministry is actually in trying to debunk a lot of very natural kinds of thinking.

Purity is one of these interesting areas where look all over the world, the purity rites and rituals are very common, and in Mark Chapter 7, I didn’t go to Biola, so I didn’t memorize it all. I believe its Mark 7 where he’s fighting with the Pharisees over the washing of hands right? And he basically says, “Look you’re thinking all wrong “about this,” but what he’s challenging is a very natural tendency.

So, I actually think that what I want to suggest is that there we pay more attention to instead of making the assumption that children are either little adults or just stupid adults or that they are tabula rasa, that we learn more about what are the natural contours, and then how do we work with those contours. So, disgust is an interesting domain and it’s related to the purity kinds of stuff. Okay so everybody has a disgust mechanism.

It’s easy to gross people out and it’s easy to attach being feeling disgusted by something with moral kinds of evaluations. I don’t know if I want to use the typical example on film. Okay I will because I just said that. With my apologies, not my example. I think this is Haidt’s but he’s probably taken it from some philosopher and philosophers can be disturbing, as you know Steve. [audience laughing] Haidt will say things like ask people is it okay to have sex with a dead chicken?

And of course everybody just says no, but then ask people to try to generate sort of reasons for that, if they’re trying to think in terms of harm care or fairness reciprocity, they’re not gonna get anywhere. Disgust seems to be the really what’s driving those intuitions, we go, “This is just wrong” and now I might be able to sort of articulate exactly why it’s wrong, but he’s got an intuitionist model here.

Well that disgust mechanism has a tuning up period too, what you’re going to find disgusting. There’s an opportunity to tune that thing. Is it going to receive certain kind of cultural inputs such that those people are disgusting. Okay so there’s an opportunity. so I don’t want to romanticize about the child, and say yeah just let them go. You put them on an island all by themselves. “Lord of the Flies” no absolutely not. I mean no, it’s the New Jerusalem. No it’s not that that I’m suggesting, thanks. [upbeat music]

Continue the conversation with this video from Justin Barrett.