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What if God is a child?

14:27 02/04/2024
What if God is a child?

Is it time to re-imagine God as Child, asks Graham Adams in his new book God the Child? In today's blog post, he introduces us to his ideas.

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Even as the range of metaphors for expressing the mystery of God has expanded in recent times, it’s so striking that the overwhelming presumption remains that God is Adult. Of course, there are exceptions. After all, the nativity demands at least some focus on divine childness – but it’s not usually very sustained. The Trinity can draw some further attention to divine childness – the divine child (son) of the divine adult (father/mother) – but this childness only concerns one of the persons, and even there, we are generally more interested in the Child when they ‘become’ Adult (the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus). Thankfully, however, on the basis of these trinitarian relationships, some have argued that childness is inherent to God’s nature (see, for instance, Janet Pais’s Suffer the Children, and very recently, Ryan Stollar’s The Kingdom of Children).

But what if we imagine a more comprehensive re-conception of God as Child? If Jesus tells us that we need to become like little children to enter God’s new realm, might that say something not only about the realm but about the God who shapes it? What if childness is a pertinent metaphor for the whole of God, not only one ‘person’? While my focus is not the Trinity as such, I do propose that the be-child-ing of God has repercussions for how we think of God as a whole, with different metaphors flowing from it. It is as though such reimagining brings different possibilities to the fore, some of which are not entirely new but intersect with other kinds of liberative theology, but overall, the effect is a disruptive possibility still perhaps in its infancy.

The other movements specifically in play are Black, disabled and queer theologies, each helping us to reconceive of God, not as an abstract concern but as part of the story of effecting liberation for particular constituencies. So too, for children and their recognition and liberation, God must also be Child – which is part of the Child Liberation Theologies of Pais and Stollar. But my point is that Blackness, disability and queerness help to illuminate specific dimensions in the be-child-ing of God. The goal is not to collapse any differences between the respective movements and childness, but to build creative, intersectional alliances in pursuit of the alternative horizon - together challenging the 'matrix of power' which restricts the possibility for this new future. 

So, to revisit God's omnipresence through the lens of a Child's smallness, is to recognise that, while we may affirm God is everywhere, God is especially present in sites of smallness. God is in places and situations of hiddenness, overlooked and unarticulated – both in terms of inexpressible struggle or loss, and unrecognised potential. To see this, is to see God's location as partisan, on the side of those struggling for recognition and dignity. In this sense, it bears similarities with God's Blackness, a commitment to solidarity. So I conceive of God the Child in terms of a child's open palm, not only present in sites of smallness and potential, but deeply receptive, alert to what may otherwise go unnoticed. This also represents a particular approach to God’s grace, not only as an outpouring of vast treasures, but as the tiniest of presences, almost imperceptible yet deeply receptive to all that may be received. It is presence where deep loss is felt, where no words can suffice, where absence remains; and it is presence where new possibilities wait to emerge.

Having affirmed the Child's presence, we must then consider the nature of the Child's agency - or in other words, is God actually omnipotent? After all, if God is not only present in places crying for change, but effects such change, how does God do so? I argue that God acts primarily as chaos-event - a 'weak' kind of power, but nevertheless evoking disproportionate ripples, in particular through making relationships of mutuality possible. This is allied with disability theologies. After all, God cannot do everything, and there are systems which obstruct the outworking of God's will; but even so, weak actions contribute playfully, defiantly, to the pursuit of justice. This connects too with our struggles in the face of the economic/ecological crisis: God the Child points to the vitality of ‘degrowth’, an appropriate downsizing under the nose of overbearing and deadly systems; the basis of a renewed economy/ecology.

But what happens at the places of encounter, between one person’s horizon and another’s, or between the world as it is and the world as it may become? Crucially, rather than God having pre-knowledge of all such complex encounters, I affirm that the Child's curiosity is vital here: seeking horizons but not knowing them exactly. This is a queering of omniscience, but encourages faith as an act of imagination – God’s own faith, in fact, as well as our own. There is a lively curiosity about what is and what could be, so connecting the Child's inquisitiveness with a hunger for change: for the one who is intricately present, and evoking just possibilities, is also the one who pursues new horizons in empathetic solidarity with a whole host of agents and players. To pursue deeper understanding of one another's horizons, one another's unknownness, calls for deeper friendship in the margins, to build this alternative social reality which is both ‘not yet’ here and close at hand. This also connects with an approach to theological education, as a process of curiosity and reimagination, together with intra-Christian relationships and interreligious encounter – a rich fusion of encounter and reimagining.

What emerges through these conversations is a vision of God expressed in these alternative metaphors (childness as a whole, and open palm, chaos-event, horizon-seeker in particular) - and an understanding that these help to make possible the alternative social reality of God on earth as in heaven. It’s almost as though Micah could ask, ‘What does God the Child require of us, but that we love openness, do chaos/justice and humbly seek alternative horizons.’

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God The Child is published later this month, and available to preorder now via our website.

Revd Dr Graham Adams is a Tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at Luther King Centre for Theology and Ministry