Christianity, the Invention of Childhood, and the Failure of Total Success

895 - Suffer the Little Children
Still image from video, “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” Click image to view.

There is an idea, I believe I first encountered it when reading Free to Choose, that prior to capitalism material comfort was the rare privilege of the elite, and as a result no one much wondered at its scarcity. But after capitalism fueled tremendous rise in standards of living that made comfort accessible to a very large number of people, the question of why some still had to do without became acute. When everybody is poor, poverty is taken for granted. When only some are poor, then poverty becomes an outrage. Before, it demanded no explanation. Now, it did. Thus, by making most people substantially better off than they had been, capitalism became its own worst enemy. It was blamed for the evils and inequalities that it had exposed as though it had caused them.

A recent article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week makes a similar case for Christianity and the idea of childhood: How Christianity invented children. The first task of the article is to convince the reader that the way we view children today (“Today, it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care.”) is an anomaly that requires an explanation rather than the natural state of affairs.

By contrast, “in ancient Greece and Rome, children were considered nonpersons.” Part of this is due to high infant mortality (it’s hard to get attached when your child is likely to die), partially this is due to the fact that children were associated with women (and women were already considered feebler, weaker versions of men), and partially it’s just a consequence of the eternal oppression of the vulnerable by the powerful. Particularly, in this case, as men viewed young children (especially boys) as objects of sexual gratification. Against this context, Gobry argues that:

This is the world into which Christianity came, condemning abortion and infanticide as loudly and as early as it could. This is the world into which Christianity came, calling attention to children and ascribing special worth to them.

Gobry concedes that “like everything else about Christianity’s revolution, it was incomplete,” but he insists that above all:

Christianity’s invention of children — that is, its invention of the cultural idea of children as treasured human beings — was really an outgrowth of its most stupendous and revolutionary idea: the radical equality, and the infinite value, of every single human being as a beloved child of God. If the God who made heaven and Earth chose to reveal himself, not as an emperor, but as a slave punished on the cross, then no one could claim higher dignity than anyone else on the basis of earthly status.

That much is beautiful and inspirational, but Gobry ends on a bittersweet note that gets back to my first paragraph describing the curse of capitalism’s success:

That was indeed a revolutionary idea, and it changed our culture so much that we no longer even recognize it.

In this particular area–the invention of children–Christianity was so successful that people have forgotten that it was ever any other way, and have therefore forgotten the important role Christianity continues to play in our society. Like the prosperity afforded by capitalism, the special protection afforded to children is not naturally occurring and–if we discard the social infrastructure that guarantees it–can and will be lost once more.

10 thoughts on “Christianity, the Invention of Childhood, and the Failure of Total Success”

  1. What Mr. Gobry fails to mention is that most, if not all of the societal reforms he mentions were already in place through the Jewish revolution; Christianity merely inherited (and widely promulgated) them from its social and theological predecessor. One great source of superb information on one part of the revolution fostered by Judaism is an essay by Dennis Prager titled Judaism’s Sexual Revolution I’ve read it many times and each time I’m surprised at how much great information is in there.

  2. Nate-

    What Mr. Gobry fails to mention is that most, if not all of the societal reforms he mentions were already in place through the Jewish revolution

    Although this isn’t my area of expertise, my understanding is that in this case Christianity was acting as an extension of Judaism. So you’re quite right to say that a lot of the groundwork pre-dated Christ. I do think, however, that the particularly specific teachings of Christ with regards to children probably gave some additional emphasis to that tradition, however, and then of course Christianity’s global spread gave the ideas a powerful new vehicle through which to impact societies.

    Also: thanks very much for mentioning Dennis Prager. I read an article about his research at First Things in the last few months, and it was very, very interesting. I just tried to find it, but I couldn’t. Instead, I found this excellent article (by Dennis Prager) in which he reviews a book by Cahill and discusses 10 of the major concepts gifted to humanity by the Jews: Cahill’s Gift.It goes along with your point very nicely, and provides great examples of various social and philosophical revolutions dating to the Old Testament.

  3. Has this guy read anything by Dickens? Or any history of Ireland from that era? Being an orphan in those very Christian environments sounds awful. Still, maybe that was an improvement? This is far from my area of expertise, but I’m skeptical. I’ve never heard that ancient native american, african, or any east asian cultures treated children too badly.

  4. Oliver Twist certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon, but he wasn’t abandoned to die either, let along “rescued” from abandonment so that he could be put to use as a child sex slave. So, relative to historical treatment of children going back to Rome or Greece, his treatment did reflect the incomplete advances of a Christian conception of children, yes.

    (I don’t know anything in particular about native american or african or east asian cultures, either.)

  5. While Second Temple Judaism was certainly miles away from the religion of ancient Israel, pointing to Genesis as an example of a desexualized God is a bit confused. The Priestly account in Gen. 1 implies that God is married and the Yahwist account in Gen. 2 depicts sexuality as a characteristic of the gods.

    See Michael Coogan’s book ‘God and Sex’ and David Bokovoy’s dissertation “Yahweh as a Sexual Deity in J’s Prehistory” (David is working on turning his dissertation into a book).

  6. Can’t login from my phone, but I’m glad that Nate Oman pointed out the role of Judaism. I think that Prager misses quite a bit in his piece, but more on that once I get off work. The sexual revolution is less the key here than education and societal roles.

  7. Like the prosperity afforded by capitalism, the special protection afforded to children is not naturally occurring and–if we discard the social infrastructure that guarantees it–can and will be lost once more.

    In general, one is not licensed to infer from “A caused B” to “If not-A, then not-B”, even for non-naturally occurring phenomena. I’ve no reason, for example, to believe that the U.S.S.R. was distinctively bad to its children (beyond bequeathing them a Communist system, with all that that entails). Have you any support for the quoted claim? Or do you perhaps mean “the social infrastructure that guarantees it” very broadly?

  8. Kelsey, the USSR (for the most part) took over a very Christian society . Atheist and progressive the rhetoric may have been, but the social underpinnings were Christian, and the society definitely valued a middle-class morality which is unthinkable without Christian roots. The USSR was actually rather good for children in the late 50s and 60s, but the whole topic is complicated.

  9. Allen, you suggest that the “social infrastructure” is separable from Christianity, at least for periods of only a few generations–that we can have the social underpinnings and middle-class morality common to Christianity without the Christianity, and that this was what happened in the Soviet Union. Am I interpreting you correctly?

    Would it strike you as contrary to Nathaniel’s assertion if there were a clearly non-Christian, non-Jewish society which placed substantial value on children?

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