[love and hate]

Dear Donagh,

.…I heard you say recently […] that the Catechism you learned in school never mentioned that God loved us.  I was really shocked by that and I asked my three grandchildren if God loved them.  They all tried to get in first – they said “Yes because God is love.”  They are better taught than the people of our generation – in that respect at least.  When I asked them about the commandments they hadnt heard of them.  At least they know that God loves them.  But will it make them better?  Will knowing the right answer make them grow up to be more loving people…?  Tom

Dear Tom,

Aged seven, I was a bit of an expert on the ten commandments.  I knew, for example, that the eighth commandment forbade “rash judgment, calumny and detraction.”  But I thought these were sicknesses, like measles, whooping cough and mumps – things I had direct knowledge of.  (The word ‘rash’ put me on the wrong track from the start.)  If your grandchildren really know that God is love, that’s more important than knowing a lot of things by rote but knowing nothing really. 

As you suspect, a right answer doesn’t guarantee that we will live accordingly. Still, it is better than a wrong one, or none at all.  Hearing the word ‘God’ in conjunction with ‘love’ must be better than hearing it in conjunction with ‘guilt’, ‘fear’, ‘punishment’, and so on.  That catechism I mentioned (which was raised from rightful death – republished – by some well-meaning person) told 7-year-olds that God is the creator, the ruler, the judge, the rewarder of virtue, the punisher of evil, and that “he sees all our secret thoughts and actions.”  In the absence of love, these divine attributes helped create a religious ice age. 

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,” said the guilty king.  But thoughts are just as weightless as words, and can fly up just as easily.  Unless the heart flies up, in some sense, it is only a show.  It is the experience of love that raises the heart, and most people, even children, are expert at distinguishing the real thing from the show.  A catechism, no matter how modern, could never substitute for a loving family.    

In the 19th century William Blake wrote:
The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, “Little creature, formed of joy and mirth,
Go love without the help of anything on earth.”
That's a rather bleak landscape.  We know from reading about feral children that such a little creature wouldn’t get very far without a lot of help from many people.  A human baby has potential beyond measure, but if it is not evoked it never surfaces.  The Wild Boy of Aveyron was a contemporary of Blake’s.  That boy never learned anything much, despite being taught for five years by a genius.  He never learned to speak, for a start.  Dr Itard (whose ingenious methods of teaching were later adopted by Maria Montessori) admitted sadly that he had also failed to socialise the boy, whose emotional faculties remained “subject to a profound egoism.”  “In the ‘pure state of nature’, Itard wrote, “the human being is inferior to a large number of animals.  It is a state of nullity and barbarism… a state in which the individual pitifully hangs on without intelligence and without feelings, a precarious life reduced to bare animal functions.”  Victor (that is what they called him) had tried to live “without the help of anything on earth,” and by the time help came, it was too late.  He never learned to love anyone. 

We are taught how to love by being loved.  This idea seems to go all the way to the top! – “We love because God first loved us” (1Jn 4:19).  In the previous verse, fear is specifically ruled out as a motive: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

I think a particularly important part of the pedagogy of love is the dismantling of hate.  Think of it as somewhat akin to defusing landmines.  Children need wise and patient grown-ups who will sit down with them and listen to their hatreds, as well as their fears and their anger – and talk them through, taking time, not running ahead with moralistic answers, helping them to understand their emotions.  This is where words can have full effect – certainly fuller effect than words learned by rote and without context. 

Grandparents are especially important here!  Traditionally they have more time than parents have, and are less weighed down by anxiety.  The transmission of culture has usually been from grandparents to grandchildren.  Older people often suffered from arthritis and the like, so they were not up to romping around with their grandchildren.  Instead they kept them quiet by teaching them songs, poems, telling them stories…. I know that today you will have to compete with computers and iphones.  So you will just have to make a bigger effort, Tom! (I find it so satisfying, at times, to sit on the sideline!)

God bless the work.



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