Jesus loves me—this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
“Jesus Loves Me,” is among the most familiar and most powerful songs in the Christian hymnbook and was one of the first songs that I learned as a young child. The hymn’s power comes from the simplicity both of its language and of its melody, making it easy for young children to learn. Like virtually everyone else who grew up in a Christian faith, I sang the song scores of times, at a point in my childhood when my mind was especially plastic and uncluttered by competing ideas.
It’s undoubtedly true that, as young children, virtually none of us spent time parsing the meaning of the hymn’s words. None of us questioned whether Jesus really loved us or even if he actually lived. And none of us questioned whether the Bible really said that Jesus loved us or, perhaps most importantly, whether the Bible was actually true. Instead, we just learned the words and accepted them as truth, along with virtually everything else our elders taught us.
Before a certain age we simply have not developed the cognitive tools to enable us to think critically about the things that we are told. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, we have not had the variety of experience that would allow us properly to evaluate what we are taught, to judge by other life experiences the truth value of what we are told. Second, we are, I suspect, evolutionarily hardwired, at least during our early years, to accept what our elders teach us. There has to be a survival advantage in accepting without question in early childhood the instructions of one’s elders.
But even though it is natural for us to accept in our early years what we are taught by our parents and others in authority, we do in time develop critical thinking skills, as our experiences expand. As a result, we discard many of our early beliefs—but not our religious beliefs. To illustrate, let’s contrast the course of belief in Jesus with the course of belief in another myth, Santa Claus.
Nearly all children raised in Western Christian culture are taught to believe in Santa Claus, just as they are taught to believe in Jesus. At some point virtually all children abandon their belief in Santa Claus. But few of those raised in a Christian faith abandon their belief in the Jesus story, at least not during their youth. Why is that?
Most parents foster belief by their children in Santa Claus. It’s fun to see the excitement that children experience in thinking that Santa Claus will bring them gifts at Christmas time. And for a time parents encourage the belief, even as their children begin to develop critical thinking skills. If a child points out that not all Santas look alike, the parent might explain that not all Santas are the true Santa; some are just “helpers.” There are also the questions of how Santa can distribute gifts all over the world in just one night or of how he gets down the chimney. But eventually parents no longer support the myth, allowing the child to come to the realization that Santa doesn’t actually exist. After all, no parent wants their child to grow up still believing in Santa. Encouraging belief in the Santa myth and then allowing it to fail can be a good thing, as it helps the child to realize the value of independent, skeptical thought.
But that is not how Christian communities handle the Jesus myth. Instead of encouraging children to ask questions and to develop their critical thinking skills in the context of religious belief, parents and others in authority discourage skeptical thought. Parents do not encourage their children to question why we should accept the writings of men who lived two to three thousand years ago and why those writings should be accepted as true when other mythologies of similar vintage are understood simply as myth. Instead, parents and religious leaders place such scriptures in a separate exalted category. Nor do parents encourage their children to question why Jesus’s death should somehow serve to redeem mankind from a perdition to which God had otherwise consigned them. And then there is “Jesus Loves Me,” as well as all the other hymns and rituals designed to perpetuate the myth.
Having said that, I am not placing special blame on Christian parents. They are simply doing their best to raise their children by repeating what their parents did in the prior generation. But I would ask the following: If the Christian story is true, then why not encourage children to question all beliefs, including those of religion? Why not handle belief in Jesus in the same manner as belief in Santa Claus?
© 2016 John M. Phillips