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Mar Milithios calls for major revitalisation of approach towards dealing with children

“Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28)

JOHANNESBURG — “Every child born into this world is the fulfillment of God’s promise. We need to accept children as a gift of God with gratefulness for he has been so gracious to entrust us with one of his most precious and beautiful creations. He trusts us with his nature in potential.”

His Grace Dr Yuhanon Mar Milithios, Metropolitan of Thrissur Diocese, was delivering a key note address at the Council for World Mission (CWM) conference on Mission with Children: God’s call and our Commitment in a Post modern World in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week.

The London-based CWM is a worldwide community of Christian churches committed to sharing their resources of money, people, skills and insights globally, to carry out God’s mission locally.

The metropolitan went a step further modifying from the preconceived theme and including “in a post-modern world’ This being a complex philosophical issue there was a need to address the change from modern to post-modern in the world we live in, he reasons.
Mar Milithios evoked some interesting questions with his talk and urges reconsidering the methodology of mission with children. He cautions that post-modernism poses serious challenges. “The influence of the Church in general has taken a serious and decisive turn. We can formulate philosophy and methodology for caring our children. But the question would be, do they care and listen to us? We need to be up-to-date and understand the world they live in. They are not just our children or tomorrows Church members. They are rather children of the time. It is not the Church or its teachings that control their lives any more. It is the time and the trend of the time that moulds them and controls their lives,” he reasons.

Before his talk, His Grace thanked CWM for making his first-ever visit to South Africa a reality which he termed a dream come true. He recalled how since the age he began reading news paper, South Africa, Johannesburg, Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Vinnie Mandela and others became very dear to him for some reason or the other.

His Grace explains: Our children are part of a generation that spends most of the time away from home with friends, teachers and others. The influence of all these on them will be much stronger than that of the family and the Church. The world they confront is a post-modern world with manifold and different characteristics. They see family differently from what their parents and elders saw and lived in. They have not only single parent family and foster parents, they have same sex parents and never married parents. This will certainly influence the value system.

He points out that postmodernism has a negativism inherent in it. “Our children are growing up in this environment. The global economic crisis has made this negativism even more intense. This is where the challenge we have in this regard become even more crucial.”

Quoting from Christian theologian John B Cobb Jr following the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who said: “God and his creation is on a continuous process.” Our faith proclaims ‘God’s salvation of creation at the fullness of time was inaugurated in Jesus Christ and is awaiting consummation’. The globe revolves and times change. Day after day new dawn occur. No day is a repetition of the old though we may call it with an old name. Sociologists call this age, the age of postmodernism. Those days of modernity are gone, now is the time of post-modernism which influences all areas of human life.

His Grace who also led a Bible study on rights of child before and after birth also was part of a panel on including children as communicant members in the protestant Churches.

He explains that when we say, “Welcome Children, Welcome Jesus”, we are welcoming children who are already in this post-modern world and we are welcoming Jesus into the midst of children of that age. This calls for an assessment, revision and revitalisation of our approach and methodology in dealing with children of the time.

He goes on to trace the maiden usage of the word post-modernism which was first used in 1950s and 1960s in relation to a movement in architecture which later influenced every area of human life from arts to literature and religion.

However, he identified few specific features of post-modernism for which there was a general agreement on three primary characteristics. These relate to deconstruction or multiple voices, rejection of meta-narrative and rejection of the claim of reason as absolute and universal. The first relates to post-modernism that affirms radical pluralism and rejects the possibility to synthesise stories into a meaningful coherent system. Post-modernism thinks meta-narratives trivialise other experiences and related to the first characteristic. Thirdly, rejection claims of reason as absolute and universal. To post-modernism reality is contextual and fragmented. “With postmodernity, comes a momentous change no longer can cultural and religious knowledge and value be effectively controlled by the intellectual and political elite” There is a shift from the time of parents controlled their children, teachers controlled students, clergy controlled their parishioners, politicians controlling the citizens.

He further reasons that post-modernism is a world “that has not yet discovered how to define itself in terms of what is, but only in terms of what it has just-now-ceased to be.” They see modernism, as an ideology of Western culture which is a serious trouble, It is a time of incessant choosing, where no orthodoxy can prevail because all traditions seem to have some validity”. The modern world was committed to an objective and knowable world. This is denied by postmodernism.

In a new revelation, His Grace spoke about being a ‘Called out Community’. “We believe that we are being called out; and that is what our theme says and also that is what Christianity as a whole claims. As a matter of fact the whole Bible talks about calling.” He gave an example of the the formation of a new community in Abram, who was called out to go (Genesis 12), This was done with two purposes; Firstly to be made a great nation and the other to be in a given land. These can be seen paraphrased as promise of generations and of inheritance, both having the same fundamental goals.

The goal can be summarised in one phrase in classical terms “to establish the Kingdom of God”. Both these can only be actualised through attitudes to children. In the Kingdom of God, through our approach, the whole world shall receive the Gospel and the world shall truly become the inheritance of the children of God. Liberation of the whole creation becomes a reality through the Church and its mission. This is the foundation of our ‘Mission with Children’. Children of the whole world are on our agenda and not just the children in the backyard. There is a wider spectrum and goal,” he spells out.

Explaining about Kingdom of God and children, he calls for a much needed crucial paradigm shift. we have no doubt that we are called to be co-workers with God for the establishment of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 10:7; Luke 9:2). Now the very phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ could be viewed as a matter of authority and power by those in the post-modern era. How do we explain and how do others understand this concept? On the basis of this either a shift in the phrase or a change in attitude need to be introduced. The way Jesus understood Kingdom of God was unique. He used phrases easily understood by people of his time and explained through parables. These parables told his audience that he was not talking about God as a monarch of the time or ‘Kingdom’ as a kingdom of his time. Those of his time were oppressive, dominating and enslaving. He gave new definition to the old phrases ‘king’ and ‘kingdom’. Jesus presented the Kingdom of God as something to do with inclusiveness, freedom and openness (Matthew 13:3ff. in the parable of the leaven; 13:47ff.

He said “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 29,30). This is the need of the time. It is not the word that matters; it is the concept and definition that makes the difference. If there is a possibility of misunderstanding, we may have to either change or re-formulate the phrase. Through the explanation he gave, he puts confidence in the minds of people, children and the least accounted. Through his approach, he put new meaning to the old phrase.

He gives reference of Jesus with children who were welcomed by Him during his public ministry. But our challenge is, do those who represent him today keep them with or keep them away for any reason as the disciples of Jesus did? It is not the old story or meta-narrative that the children of post-modern times are concerned about. What matters today is, does the Church allow the children to be close to him or not.
He goes further to mention about children’s closeness to Jesus, should include sharing of the Lord’s Table too, pointing it without prejudice. His Ge explains Canon 913 of the Catholic Church which became basis for many Churches to prevent children from the Eucharist table has to be reevaluated. It is here that the question of ‘knowledge’ will be questioned by post-modernism even if we ignore the contradiction in the Canon law itself with the presence of the word ‘mystery’ and understanding side by side. Post-modernism recognises mystery against too much emphasis on rationality.

He reasons that post modernist is not so much concerned of what happened during Jesus’ time as to what happens through Jesus these days. What Jesus means to them today is more what they care. They do not want to accept him as a Lord or someone who controls and imposes structures and guidelines into their lives. Rather they want him to be one who is there with them, who will understand them and whom they can feel the presence of. The children need to feel that they are accounted as equal partners in establishing a new world for them. They need to be given freedom to draw for themselves details of the world into which they shall enter. They need to own it for themselves. They would not accept Jesus because the Church wants them to or because the meta-narrative presents him as one who is concerned or that is what the Bible says.

For Walter Brueggemann, “the focus of the Biblical studies is the specific text, without any necessary relation to other texts or any coherent pattern read out or into the text. In other words, it is the Word of God that is more important than words about God, which I want to stress here. Delving on individual against community, he mentions that there is a tendency in postmodernism to deny community as understood in its traditional way. It is however, not the individualism that emerged after enlightenment that is brought back. Post-modernism believes that in the modern world individualism was promoted at the cost of cultures and indigenous communities. Individualism of postmodernism affirms plurality which is a positive attitude.

What is local and regional becomes as important as what is individual and personal. This is pluralism which is the strength of community. Struggle for recognition and re-establishment of local is highly honoured and acknowledged. Each child has his or her purpose and role in this world and potential to contribute to the welfare of the community, he adds.

“We recognise that each family understands salvation through Jesus Christ uniquely and differently. In this context post-modernism hails liberation theology of Latin America and South Africa’s independence struggle. This makes our task with children more difficult but challenging. Once we acknowledge plurality the immediate step would be to engage in a dialogue to better understand each other.”
He quotes from the book of Genesis and reading between the lines on chapters 3:8-10 and 18 is of a God coming to human, for dialogue. God takes a stroll in the cool of the day and reveals to human the secrets of his creation. It was during those occasions God talked to human about the fruits edible and not. In that story of God bringing the animals he created to name them. He sees the picture of a child bringing a project they undertook at school to the parents for their appreciation. At the dinner table God takes up issues related to Abram and others. This was later elaborated by Jesus during his life time on earth in a more profound, meaningful and effective way.

Borrowing a theme from Albert Nolan, he says: we need to tell the children ‘it is not you who need us, rather it is we who need you’. Mary E DeMuth says, ‘authentic parenting involves engaging children in conversation’

Some time back in the modern era, we used to say, human has ‘come of age’. However, we failed to recognise that our children had come of age. Today it is the children, with communication explosion, who have ‘come of age’ than the adults. They are more educated than their parents. This has to be put in perspective. A respectful dialogical relationship in family and in the community will certainly create healthy situation of mutual respect, acceptance and caring.

Taking children seriously and into confidence will help build better bonds. He gives the classical example of Jesus asking his followers not to prevent children from coming to him. He said “I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17). This will also help us look afresh into our attitude towards children’s active and full participation in the Church life.
This again will open up the question of one single way of dealing with children. While in the past, there has been a general tendency to present what was Western as standard method ignoring many of the local and indigenous cultural elements as either pagan or not developed enough and modern. This attitude is not respected any more.

“In the postmodern era it is no longer taken for granted that development is unlimited or even that certain kinds of development are necessarily good”.

The widely travelled metropolitan says that one of the reason for the widespread terror activities around the world has something to do with ignoring indigenous and local issues and concerns and imposing alien and foreign dominant cultures.

In Orthodox theology we use the phrase ‘composite one’ when we talk about Jesus’ personality. The Hindu philosophy makes a mention about nethi or ‘not that’ when defining the divine. Bringing down something really complex and plural into one single shape is actually narrowing down the possibilities and will only diminish its richness. Post-modernism resists this tendency, he notes.

The metropolitan also mentions about the presence of an element of uncertainty and lack of clarity when mentioning about neti. But that will place the matter on the rail of dynamic momentum by evoking awe and at the same time openness and curiosity. This, he says, also justifies our understanding of God’s kingdom as a ‘small seed that falls on the ground and grows to fullness to accommodate all kinds of living creatures’ (Luke 13:19). This is the process of becoming a community, a community of God.
Children unable to accept the kind of authority that governed the society until the present should be introduced to the authority of love, which is not really an authority at all. This shall decide the shape of the community of God. They need to be told that the society is going to be one of participatory and not dominating and their participation is going to make parents and others richer in understanding.
He says that our task is to work out general ideals guided by the importance of healthy and sustainable community, of individuality and individual freedom and responsibility …”Mentioning about a community of hope, he said one of the objections raised against post-modernism relates to skepticism regarding human progress and future prospects in life and lack of hope for a better future. No one is sure where post-modernism is taking us to. This, primarily is because they say ‘the world is in a period of transition.’ Mar Militios cautions that Christianity has a greater mission towards children. “When God is presented as a loving God and Christ as the incarnation of that love, we need to re-incarnate that love in the life of the child to provide her/him with hope for future and assurance that what is good in human will progress. Only by being a caring community Christian Church can do praxis. But providing a free and comfortable atmosphere to express themselves and be what she/he be and become will help the child see life positively.”
He says the project and programmes need to be planned keeping this in mind where each individual is recognised, honoured and cared for — the best thing we can give to the children. A community in which all are welcome and where no one will be excluded.
This in fact, he says, is a return to the Garden where we have a perfect fellowship with God and his creation even while each has its own identity respected and acknowledged. This calls for continuous re-reading of the Bible, re-interpretation of our faith and re-formulation of methodology towards dealing with children with the change of time.

Dwelling on cliché topics of globalisation and consumerism, His Grace says this had received major criticism against post-modernism evangelised through post-modern economic globalisation techniques.

He says the idea of globalisation in itself is a contradiction to the post-modern ideology. But transnational corporations through cleverly manipulated media propaganda have presented consumerism as a matter of individual freedom and liberty of choice which he sees working effectively in India and in other countries.

His Grace quotes Fredric Jameson for lessons against consumerism with life of Jesus. Fredric’s “the cultural logic of capitalism”, he says is a meta-narrative in itself. “We need to present the individual stories in the Gospels regarding Jesus addressing the issue. Jesus who refused to perform a miracle to satisfy his hunger used it to provide food for thousands. Jesus’ caring love towards individuals who came to him in time of need can also be a lesson against consumerism. They need to be individual stories in the line of what Brueggmann says.”

His Grace comes out with some thriving issues concerning children of today. He says it is our responsibility to see each one of them in its own unique nature and to help God make that person grow to the fullness of that nature. We can do it only by accepting it as it is and in its own given environment both of space and time. God’s nature is beyond exhaustive human understanding. This inexhaustibility is displayed in the plurality of God’s creation that share his image. We shall explore into the ways and means of making God’s dream come true to the best of our ability.

Before concluding his long address, His Grace raised pertinent questions, which could be a topic of much debate later: How much we, as a community of Christ are aware and ready to respond to the socio-political-economic environment we live in and our children growing up? At the end of the address, he threw upon some persistent and thought provoking questions. How seriously we take our children respecting their general context of existence and growth?

How far we are ready to re-read the Bible and re-interpret Biblical meta-narrative to address the ever emerging context? How far we are able to accommodate other cultures and learn from them in our concern for children with an awareness that those cultures also turn out to be genuine cultures?

Mar Milithios will also take part in another seminar organised by CWM in Malaysia later this week.