Becoming Like a Child

Becoming Like a Child

by Jerome W. Berryman


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Berryman invites the reader into a creative process that explores what it means to be spiritually mature, starting with Jesus' injunction to "become like a child." What does this mean at the literal level? the figurative level? the mystical level? the ethical level? The structure of the process parallels the book's organization and the structure of Christian worship, as well as the arc of life itself. The steps on this journey begin when we enter, and the world of childlike maturity opens to us as we respond with inarticulate wonder and gratitude.

This book, like The Spiritual Guidance of Children, is less academic and has broader scope than Children and the Theologians. Berryman includes stories and examples from his long career working with children, which adds warmth and appeal to the book. He has described this volume as his "summary, theological statement."

Audience: Those interested in Berryman's work; the Godly Play community; those interested in personal spiritual growth; Christian educators; clergy; those interested in the spiritual

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819233233
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/14/2017
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

JEROME W. BERRYMAN is Founder of Godly Play and has wide experience working with children ages 2 to 18. Writer, lecturer, and workshop leader, Berryman is Senior
Fellow of the Center for the Theology of Childhood. He is the author of
The Complete Guide to Godly Play,
Teaching Godly Play, Children and the Theologians, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play and the Future, and Becoming Like a Child:
The Curiosity of Maturity beyond the Norm.

Read an Excerpt

Becoming Like a Child

The Curiosity of Maturity beyond the Norm

By Jerome W. Berryman

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2017 Jerome W. Berryman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-3323-3


Happiness and Maturity beyond the Norm


The lure of lasting happiness is unshakable. Even when we are happy, we seek it. It is usually connected to maturity, which is more mundane, but it takes maturity to know the difference between authentic and frivolous happiness. More of the wrong kind of happiness is not always better — and sometimes it is much worse — so maturity is important when we seek lasting happiness.

When we look for maturity in the norms of society, we sometimes misinterpret or fail to learn from them. They also change. Steven Mintz addressed the changing views of maturity in The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood. Today's definition "took shape in the nineteenth century and reached its culmination in the 1950s. It then broke down in the early 1960s and shifted to a more diverse and individualistic conception ...," which we are still adjusting to.

During this uncertain time we need a "new idea" to challenge our culture's mix of alternatives. There is no shortage of advice from the psychologists of happiness and from the happiness industry that is ready to sell us happiness at any cost (to us). I would rather talk about a different kind of idea that is curious in three ways. It is curious because it is odd and so old that it seems new. It is also curious because it involves our curiosity to make it work.

The "new" idea is to become like a child to be mature. The original speaker of this saying was clearly talking about optimum human development, but he put it in a way that seems strange to us. He talked about becoming part of "God's kingdom," which is a "place" that is both a state of mind and a way of life beyond society's changing norms. That is where, he implied, lasting happiness can be found.

This is a quirky and complex way of speaking, but that is how Jesus talked. We don't have time for such talk, but that is nothing new. Christian theologians across the centuries did not take Jesus' aphorism very seriously either. They are more interested in children today, but children are still overlooked as clues for authentic maturity. Jesus' saying is as counter cultural and counterintuitive today, as it was when he uttered it. This is why we need to explore it with care. How shall we proceed?


We will begin by exploring the child/adult paradox, which is at the heart of Jesus' saying. It challenges us to be fully adult and fully children at the same time. In the second chapter we will think through what the child is like whom we are to be like to enter God's kingdom. We will consult theologians, historians of childhood, child psychologists, and our own memories of childhood to discover this. Chapter 3 takes the opposite approach. It invites us to expand our view of children by imagining them as parables of action. Textual children from the Gospels and living children from Houston will expand our view of their theological intuition. Chapter 4 discusses the nature of the creative process and how it runs all through God's creation. This is why we need to align our deep identity as creators with God's creativity to become mature beyond the norm. Unfortunately this alignment is often frustrated, which brings us to chapter 5. It discusses how our lives can flow in the deep channel of creativity, which is our home, despite the obvious decay and obfuscation of our fundamental identity as creators. The final chapter makes a soft closure that invites further integration and wonder about the book as a whole. It will take the form of an imaginative extension of Jesus' aphorism into a fable.

You may already have noticed that the four middle chapters of the book interpret Jesus' aphorism in a literal, figurative, mystical, and ethical way. This organization approximates the classical four-fold method used by early and medieval Christian theologians to interpret scripture. The four-fold way was sometimes called the quadriga because it is like a Roman chariot pulled by four horses harnessed abreast.

I have added two more perspectives to the classical view. As already mentioned, we will begin with the paradox at the heart of Jesus' aphorism. The chariot represents this paradox. It is suspended between its two wheels, like the meaning of a paradox is suspended between the horns of its dilemma. The last chapter adds a sixth perspective, which is represented by the charioteer. It gathers up the themes in the book and invites further integration and reflection on them to guide the chariot home. As you can see, there are six chapters, one for each perspective.

I did not set out to use the quadriga to organize the book, but when I noticed that the emerging argument resembled it, I made the connection more explicit and found it helpful. This was a surprise! I had considered the fourfold approach to be interesting as ancient history but irrelevant for real use. It is seldom used today, so I was astonished to discover in 2014 that Karlfried Froehlich's Sensing the Scriptures: Aminadab's Chariot and the Predicament of Biblical Interpretation had revisited this tradition.


Before we begin to explore Jesus' saying, let's take a good look at the texts on which it is based. Four of the sources are from the Gospels, and a fifth variation is from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Here are the clusters of relevant references to bring Jesus' aphorism to life:


"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:3–5)


"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." (Mark 9:37)

"Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." (Mark 10:15)


"Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest." (Luke 9:48)

"Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:17)


"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:3–4)

Gospel of Thomas

Jesus saw some infants at the breast. He said to his disciples: "These little ones are like those who enter the kingdom." (Logion 22)

As you can see, Jesus did not say that adults should pretend to be children while in reality remaining adults. We can't help but remain adults, when we become like children, which complicates things and makes the child/adult paradox as perplexing as it is fundamental to Jesus' saying.

It is naïve to think we can step outside our accumulated years and experience. It is also dangerous as well as irresponsible for an adult to become a child. This is what makes Jesus' paradox so curious, doubtful, and challenging. It invites us to increase the intensity of being truly children as well as adults to be mature beyond the norm. Anything less than both is hypocrisy, and Jesus did not like hypocrisy in any form. He called hypocrites "white-washed tombs," beautiful and white on the outside but dark and full of decay on the inside (Matthew 23:27). Authentic child/adult maturity, then, is not a dichotomy of pretense. It is a paradoxical "state," which is both a way of being in the world and a kind of consciousness of God's kingdom. It is a place, both personal and political, where one's maturity is not limited by cultural norms or chronological age.


The horns of Jesus' paradox are the kingdom-adult and the kingdom-child. We are to be both, through and through, so the paradox can't be managed by tearing the horns apart to look at them independently (and kill the bull) or leaping through the horns and somersaulting off the bull's back, like in old Crete. Singing the bull to sleep with our eloquence or avoiding the arena for contests with bulls won't work either, since we need to live the paradox. The child/adult paradox is a challenge, but it is even more complicated than it looks. This is because of the kind of language Jesus used to set it up.

Norman Perrin (1920–1976), a biblical scholar at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, was one of the first to realize that Jesus used "kingdom" as a symbol (standing for something else) and "child" as a metaphor (signifying a likeness in unlikes). Both kinds of language "resist translation into another mode of discourse."

Jesus' aphorism asks us to do the work needed to be open to God's presence as it is conveyed in a symbol (kingdom) and a metaphor (child) to us by his carefully chosen words. He was trying to involve the whole person — the knowing of the body by the senses, the knowing of the mind by reason, and the knowing of the spirit by contemplation — for us to live this paradox. He wanted us to move from logic to narrative. His goal was to change lives, not win arguments.

The symbol "kingdom" stands for God's mighty acts, such as the Exodus, which displayed a power that was overwhelming and unfathomable. The highest concentration of power known in the ancient world outside of nature was a "king," so this word was used to suggest the power in God's kingdom, a power that put earthly monarchs in an ultimate perspective. They ruled on behalf of God. Nebuchadnezzar, who thought he was all-powerful like God, went insane and ate grass in the fields like an ox until he came to his senses (Daniel 4:28–37).

When God reigns in one's life and in society, a transcendent energy is felt that demands the highest standard of personal and social justice, going beyond the practicalities and concerns of the cultural norm. God is eternal, so God's kingdom is also eternal, but Jesus prayed for this unlimited, heavenly reality to come on earth, to our time-bound and imperfect world. He was not more specific about how and when, because he was more interested in embodying God's kingdom to communicate its reality and helping people prepare for living in it than in formulating or discussing abstract definitions about it or speculating about when it might actually arrive.

The power of God's kingdom was associated with the creative process, which is how one can arrive at personal and social justice. We know the creative process was involved, because Jesus talked about the kingdom in terms of creative action — seeds scattered in different kinds of soil, weeds sorted after the harvest, the tiniest of all the seeds growing into the largest of the shrubs, leaven irresistibly leavening dough, a treasure hidden and found in a field, a merchant searching for, finding, and selling everything for the great pearl, and pulling in a net full of fish to be sorted out as good and bad afterward. This seems clear enough, but what isn't clear is why this kingdom of creating, known in the kingdom parables, had no king. Was creating itself the highest power?

The scattering, sorting, growing, leavening, hiding and finding, searching, pulling in and sorting out discloses a Creator who is known in creating instead of by being ruled with majesty and absolute authority from a distance. When Jesus prayed, he invited us to join him in prayer to "our Father" — ours as well as his. As one's father and mother create offspring, so does the Creator, and we are part of that great family.

Jesus inferred that rule in the kingdom is more like that of the father of a family in the Galilean countryside than the rule of Herod's sons or the imperium (power to command) of the Roman Caesar and his representatives. Jesus' heavenly father was a forgiving one, like fathers working closely and personally with their families in the fields, markets, carpenter shops, sheepfolds, barns, and perhaps nearby construction sites such as in Sepphoris, near where Jesus grew up. Galilean fathers were clearly in charge, but they did not rule impersonally from a distance like the royalty at the center of power in Jerusalem or Rome. The father and the mother of the family worked together, each with a role, to create together biologically, personally, and socially, like the parables suggested. Was this inference factually true or an idealization?

Eastern Mediterranean families in the first century, like every century, were complex in their own way. They often included several generations as well as slaves. The father ruled — whether Roman, Greek, or Jewish. He was responsible for the security and continuity of the family and sometimes "abused," as we think of it today, the women, children, and slaves by his exercise of power. Crossan and others have argued that the kingdom Jesus talked about was "contrary to Mediterranean and indeed most human familial reality." This means that God's reign went beyond the normal, cultural view of maturity, then as well as now. This is why discussing the sociology of the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century can only carry us part way toward understanding the kingdom. We need to think theologically as well as historically to understand that Jesus meant something outside the norm for the culture, his or ours, when he talked about the kingdom.

The distinction between theological thinking and historical thinking is an important one. A dramatic example involves Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889). Weiss was a pupil and the son-in-law of Ritschl, who was, perhaps, the leading German theologian of his time. Ritschl thought that the kingdom would be ushered in by the ethical work of loving Christians around the world inspired by God, who is love. Weiss, on the other hand, published his concise, first edition of Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God in 1892. He argued that historically the kingdom was "the breaking out of an overpowering divine storm which erupts into history to destroy and to renew ... and which man can neither further nor influence." History contradicted theology in the same family.

The life of Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) shows this contradiction in a single person. He popularized Weiss' view of the kingdom with a long review and critique of the quest for the historical Jesus, but he observed that the Jesus revealed by the historians cannot bring Jesus "straight into our time as a Teacher and Saviour." The Jesus "that means something to our world" is a "mighty spiritual force." The method of history cannot "call spiritual life into existence." It tells us about the past.

After clarifying the history versus theology distinction for himself, as well as others, Schweitzer entered medical school in 1905 at the age of thirty. After graduation he moved to Africa in 1913 to be a medical missionary most of the rest of his life. He embodied the "mighty spiritual force," whatever one might think today about the limitations of his colonial frame of mind during the early part of the last century.

Both theological and the historical interpretations of Jesus' saying are needed, because the theologian and historian have different methods and goals. This book is informed by historical criticism, but its primary emphasis is on how the child/adult paradox might change lives by God's "mighty spiritual force."

We have now examined the kingdom-adult horn of the child/adult paradox. This brings us to the other horn, the kingdom-child. The kingdom-child is related to the symbol of the kingdom by contradicting the kingly meaning for maturity. The child metaphor carries God's more quiet, indirect, and creative power on its back, like the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem for the last time (Matthew 21:7: Mark 11:7; Luke 19:35; John 12:14; Zechariah 9:9). A king on a donkey is as startling as a child leading an adult into God's kingdom. The metaphor of the kingdom-child asks us what the likeness is in the unlikeness of the child and the adult. This juxtaposition is meant to give rise to thought.

When we focus on the child aspect of the child/adult paradox, the kingdom-adult drops into a subsidiary role but remains in play. When people focus only on the ideal child, they often urge us to become more humble, wondering, trusting, innocent, playful, in touch with our bodies, and laughing to be mature. This is a theological view. It is true, but it is only part of the story for this horn of the child/adult paradox.

People who stress the historical interpretation of the child metaphor sometimes take an opposite view to the ideal child. They stress that Jesus' saying was not about imitating the nature of children to enter the kingdom. It is about God's nature, not the child's. When the child enters the kingdom it means that God invites everyone, even children. This infers rather negatively that if the kingdom includes children it must include everyone because children don't count for much. Dominic Crossan suggested something like this in The Historical Jesus (1993) and put it memorably in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994) when he said that the kingdom was and is a gathering of "nobodies" and "undesirables."


Excerpted from Becoming Like a Child by Jerome W. Berryman. Copyright © 2017 Jerome W. Berryman. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Maturity beyond the Norm
1. Happiness and Maturity beyond the Norm: The Child/Adult Paradox
2. Considering Children as Concepts: A Literal View of Jesus' Saying
3. Imagining Children as Parables: A Figurative View of Jesus' Saying
4. The Creator/creator Affinity: A Mystical View of Jesus' Saying
5. How Then Shall We Live? An Ethical View of Jesus' Saying
6. A Stable Nativity: Responding to Jesus' Creation

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