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Credulitas, Part III: Children, Belief, and the Medicine of Faith

It is true that we are to “take all thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ.” But sometimes this injunction seems to mingle all too easily with Modern skepticism. Christians, for instance, will readily acknowledge “belief” in God; some of them can perhaps even articulate those beliefs in the creeds. But the willingness to believe is another thing. That Jesus was born of a virgin we can believe. That Peter healed a paralytic at the gate called beautiful we are able to accept. But that Laurentius was scourged by St. Peter in the 6th century, or that the fire bent like a full sail around the body of Polycarp so that he refused to burn at the Roman execution—well, can we really be sure of such stories? It appears today that some Christians seem more suspicious of the claims of Mother Church than of that unimpeachable phrase “studies show.” Alas.

Let us imagine that credulitas, what I am calling “a willing belief,” is a good thing. (I explored this in my last essay through some of the writings of C.S. Lewis.) Let us now ponder what the Scriptures might say about it. Can we find a link between belief and the imagination in the Bible? Is unbelief ever portrayed as a good thing? Perhaps credulitas might be more recognizable as a virtue if we called it fides. Consider Abraham’s credulity.

Credidit Abraham Deo. He left his country, “not knowing whither he went” and “obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance” (Hebrews 11:8). His belief was the first step to his obedience, which God accounted to him for righteousness. God was pleased. And because Abraham believed God, he gained the imagination of God. The grammar of that famous phrase of Hebrews, “by faith,” illustrates the relationship between belief and imagination. In Latin this is made clear by author’s use of the Ablative of Means in fide, suggesting that Abraham’s faith was the “instrument” of his able imagination. In other words, his belief made it possible for him to “consider [how] God was able to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Thus, there is an order, a grammar to the possession of a strong imagination. Just as Lewis claims that “credulitas must precede all instruction,” we might also conclude that credulitas must precede all imagination. It seems then that the strength of the imagination depends, to some extent, on the strength of the belief that precedes it.

In chapter 4 of Romans, St. Paul shows the extent of Abraham’s credulity in those beautiful lines, how Abraham “against hope believed in hope” (the Latin, contra spem in spem credidit, preserves the chiasm). When God told Abraham he was “the father of many nations,” Abraham believed God, knowing that God “quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17). This business of creating, says Shakespeare, is also the poet’s vocation:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy…

In this sense, we too can gain the imagination of God, for we are truly “sub-creators,” as Tolkien and Barfield acknowledge, participating in the poetic life of God by calling those things which are not as though they are. Consider for a moment the medieval imagination, which possessed what Lewis calls “the principle of plentitude.” Credulitas drove monks to populate the empty marginalia of their books with birds and beasts, men and elves, serpents and saints, as if the barren parchments themselves where the place to make new Edens. Compare this with our own books today; even the most annotated text seems sterile by comparison, and one might further suppose that the same can also be said of most modern poetry. Credulitas breathes life into the imagination, which in turn breathes life into life, awakening the soul from the baser sense of apprehending joy to the higher sense of comprehending “some [B]ringer of that joy.”

We know that we cannot even begin to imitate Christ, let alone “please God,” without faith (Hebrews 11:6). The gospels also tell us about the efficacy of belief. No sane person who has really read the New Testament can ever accuse Jesus of preaching a “prosperity gospel.” And yet more than once do we hear Jesus proclaim, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” and “Go in peace; your faith has made you whole.” And though this is no justification to name it and claim it, faith, it seems, contains some healing properties, some pre-creative nature. Let us apply this to the imagination. If faith is able to play a part in healing the flesh and making it whole, can faith at least play a part in healing the weak eyes of the mind and making whole the sickly imagination? For an answer to this question, consider Christ’s praise and defense of children:

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence. (Matthew 19:13-14)

Clearly, his disciples did not remember what their Teacher had taught them a chapter earlier:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)

Much can be said about these passages. Suffice it to say that Jesus radically inverts the expectations of all. Although both passages expound on the same subject (the kingdom of heaven), the Lord’s remonstration in Matthew 19 and his moral instruction in Matthew 18 emphatically tell us about the nature of children. And here lies the irony, which can be felt as much by us as by Christ’s hearers in the first century, for the general hostility of the antique world towards children bears a striking resemblance to our own epoch. The “of such is the kingdom of heaven” is perhaps the best translation; the Vulgate uses talium, the genitive plural for “such great” or “distinguished” persons. Why does he use this language? Why does Christ say children are the “of such” in the kingdom of heaven? Why does Jesus further suggest that we need to “become as little children” ourselves? Certainly, he cannot mean to say that we must toddle around more, or that we must reenroll in kindergarten, or that we must enter a second time into physical toddlerhood, as the gross and unimaginative literalism of Nicodemus might suggest. What is it then in the soul of a child that Christ says we lack? What is it about children that Christ says we must recover?

Most would answer innocence. But that does not satisfy. There’s more at stake here than a hackneyed “loss of innocence.” Rather, it is deeper, some quality of wonder in the soul, some inclination towards Meaning in language and story, regardless of whatever the deconstructionists might say about the “slippage” in semiotics. Children possess a virtue that Christ says we all lack. It is, in a word, credulitas. The faith of children is simple. It is whole. It is not fragmented with modern skepticism. The belief of children is pure, unlike the gloomy scowl of Young Goodman Brown or the sullied the “pink ribbons” of his Faith. Children accept the stories you tell them. They are the true believers. No wonder Christ says we must be like them.

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