Nico Botha on Children as Theological Hermeneutic

I recently read an article by Professor Nico Botha of the Association for Education and Research in Europe (GBFE) in South Africa. Entitled “Children as Theological Hermeneutic: Is there a New Epistemological Break Emerging?”, the article argues in favor of seeing children as providing contemporary theology with a new stage in theology. That stage is one of doing theology with children, which requires an epistemological break of seeing children as sources of theology. Botha argues this new theological stage is similar to the advances of liberation theology. As I believe his hermeneutic is similar to the hermeneutic of child liberation theology, I wanted to examine it here.

Botha begins by pointing out that theology has long neglected both children in general and specific children in its work:

A gross understatement is to speak of the neglect of children in theology in general and Missiology in particular. As a matter of fact, children are quite conspicuous in their absence in the theology we write even when such theology is purportedly aimed at the entire human race or the whole church.

This is often a charge made by liberation theology against more traditional theologies: that they are aimed at humanity in a universal way but have little to say about the most marginalized groups in our world. But Botha is going to take an even further step in suggesting that even liberation theology has neglected the topic of children. Children are absent in both traditional and contemporary theologies. In Botha’s mind, therefore, a new attention to children in theological work involves a completely new hermeneutic—a new way of thinking about and studying the Bible. Botha writes,

The main purpose of the presentation is to advance the following argument: that children are forcing a new theological hermeneutic on us which is beginning to make some wonder whether we are not confronted with a new epistemological break. Are children challenging theology and the church to rethink, or should it rather be, to re-enact or re-do the manner in which we arrive at theological and ecclesiological knowledge? In the same manner that the poor in their struggles against oppressive economic systems, women in their battles against de-womanising patriarchy and mother earth in her cry against the object- subject scheme of reality created by human beings for the plundering of nature, have challenged theology and the church to develop new theories of knowledge?

For Botha, this is not an abstract set of questions. These questions have relevance for his own social context: the patriarchal culture of South Africa. In that context, churches often resist efforts to lift up children from the margins and include them in spiritual practices. Botha explains that,

In the continent of Africa with its prevailing patriarchal cultural patterns this is indeed quite a challenge as the following example might illustrate. Much as the General Synod of a particular denomination has resolved almost a decade ago that children could be served with the Holy Communion on condition that a proper pastoral process is followed with families who wish that their children partake of the table of the Lord, there is still fierce resistance in many a congregation.

From his social context, Botha reads the story of Jesus placing a child in the midst of his adult male disciples as a critique of power. While the adult male disciples argue who will be the greatest in heaven, Jesus places someone who is considered the least during his social context—a child—in their midst to highlight the last will be first and the first will be last in the Kingdom of God. This is an inversion. And to Botha, that inversion means a call to conversion:

The context in which Jesus foregrounds or centralises a child is that of heavy debate amongst his disciples about issues of power… At the very moment that adult males were concerned about their status and positions of power when the restoration of the political state of Israel has taken place, Jesus responds metaphorically. Not by merely inducing a child in metaphorical sense, but by placing a physical, bodily child in their midst… In a word, the identification of a child as a sign of the Kingdom, is a call to conversion.

For Botha, inverting power structures includes power structures within the study of hermeneutics. That is, children should be considered sources of revelation just as much as adults are. This means that part of conversion is repenting from prioritizing adults in the hermeneutical process and excluding children. Botha says,

Of particular importance for this paper is the idea that children are sources of revelation. The issue of changing the gaze when it comes to children and to respect them as a new mission hermeneutic, has to do with the challenge to accept the witness, prophecy and revelation from children as representatives of Jesus (:26).

Lifting up children, however, requires more than just a new hermeneutic. It requires more than just a new way of approaching the Bible. It also means a new way of knowing—a new epistemology. To Botha, that epistemology is the act of “joining children in their world”:

I want to suggest that the emergence of children worldwide as agents of mission, necessitates a new epistemology. One of the building blocks of such an epistemology is the suggestion by Strachan (2011:283) of “joining children in their world”. She implies quite strongly a shift in paradigm in hinting a “redress in favour of the children”. The new missiological epistemology can only come to the fore if we start in the world of children and learn from their experiences.

Botha ties this idea of joining children in their world (as a new epistemology) to the idea of a theology from below. Just as theologies from below are “with” theologies, the new epistemology is a way of knowing with children.

In a theology from below, the very first act is commitment. And therefore a theology from below is a “with” theology. In concrete terms, and in the context of the paper, a theology where purportedly children are the interpretive key, cannot be a theology about or for children, but a theology “with” children.

This is, again, not an abstract concern for Botha. In Botha’s social context, children hold a lowly position. It is clear that he hopes that this new hermeneutic and epistemology can inspire the people around him to better consider children:

In Africa the challenge to develop a theology “with” children might be greater than anywhere else. It is not for nothing that in his reflection on the matter, Malherbe (2004) entitles his piece in the form of a question: Child Theology in Africa? The hesitancy derives from “the lowly position children generally assume within African society” (:5). “We may say”, contends Malherbe, “that in many parts of the continent children have not yet been discovered”. Even in South Africa which is generally seen to be a more advanced and privileged country, the situation is far from ideal if a survey is to be taken seriously in which the country is exposed as “child welfare negligent” (quoted in Malherbe 2004:6).

It is in his concluding thoughts that I think Botha most challenges contemporary theologians, and especially contemporary liberation theologians. Botha calls out liberation theology in particular for neglecting the topic of children in its analyses:

Initially I was tempted to come to the following conclusion: the most we can say is that this new hermeneutic forced upon us by children, is an extension or a prolonging of the same break in theoretical framework that has emerged in theological flows around the world in the late nineteen sixties, early nineteen seventies. I have had a rethink on the basis of a set of very simple, but pertinent questions: Is the poor, destitute child factored into Latin American liberation theology? Is feminist or womanist theology informed by the context of the lowly, marginalised girl child? Is Black theology based on the experiences of the black, hungry, dis-eased, illiterate township child? Are these mere rhetorical questions? Academic questions for that matter? No, these are life and death questions and the categorical answer to them is, NO!

To remedy this, Botha calls Christians to his new hermeneutic and epistemology: a way of knowing God that involves knowing with children and reading the Bible with children at the center of that reading. This is an embodied, practical theology and it is distinct from the hermeneutics of the Child Theology Movement. The Child Theology Movement’s founding document makes clear that children are a new lens—but they are a lens used by adults to better know God. Botha challenges us to consider such theology inadequate if children are simply lenses and not partners in the act of theology.

Featured image: Madonna and Child, Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

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