The meat of this essay will focus on simple pedagogical practices for young children, but first I must necessarily speak philosophically to the parents of these youngsters. In case it has been a while since you took your college philosophy class, and in case you have let such bits of understanding slip through the cracks of your wealth of information, I would like to reintroduce to you the idea of First Cause.
We—in Christianity, the academy, and the West–are indebted to Aristotle for many things. He has taught us to think in ways that benefit us in understanding, defining, and defending our faith (I would never make the assumption that his actual thoughts were worth emulating, although his thought processes were). I do not want to mislead anyone into thinking that Aristotle was a Christian or a Yahwist in any traditional or classical sense of these words. Through common grace, however, he becomes a tool for the Christian mind to articulate our doctrines with clarity, precision, and concision. In short, Aristotle taught us how to think, not what to think.
Aristotle gave us an introduction to the concept of the Unmoved Mover; for those of you who love Latin, this is Primum Movens (the First Mover). By this Aristotle meant that we cannot absurdly go back ad infinitum (to infinity) to find every cause of every effect; there must be one entity that is the single cause of all effects, which then themselves turn into causes for additional effects. Aristotle hinted that this is energy—or perhaps is a deity, or the cosmos itself. In any case, I do not believe any thinking Christian would agree with his identification options, while at the same time Christians would recognize the truth of the theory of the Unmoved Mover. In simple terms, we can grab hold of this concept and with the purest of conviction identify this as none other than God himself. Medieval theologians, especially Aquinas, sought to prove the existence of God with the help of Aristotle’s line of reasoning.
We have taken this concept and have redubbed it as the First Cause. Now let us get down to the pedagogy by which we can use it to train our children to think in terms of a First Cause. We can adjust this idea of First Cause, appropriate it to the level of understanding and intellectual capacity of our children, and introduce second causes as our children grow into them. Allow me to offer some concrete examples.
My first example comes from some simple catechetical techniques I use with my four-year-old son. I ask such things as, “Who made you?” Answer: God. “What else did God make?” Answer: God made everything. “Why are you my son?” Answer: God’s good pleasure. “Why is the sky blue?” Answer: God made it that way. “Why did it rain today?” Answer: God wanted it to.
I could go on and on questioning in a variety of areas and his answers are few, very similar, and will fit nearly every question that could ever be asked. In short, I am teaching him to think in terms of the First Cause. He is not quite ready for second causes, but he is rapidly growing into them. He should only be eligible for answers in second causes if he has a grasp on the First Cause.
As all parents know, children become very inquisitive in their toddler years; they want to know the reasons for all sorts of things. These are teachable moments that we must take advantage of, especially if we do not catechize our children; we can teach them as they catechize us. Again, let me provide some examples.
Here are some typical childlike questions. “Where do babies come from?” First Cause answer: God makes them. As their level of understanding grows, give children more from second cause categories: Babies come from mommies’ tummies. Note here that I would never say, “Babies are delivered by storks.” Simplicity is acceptable; lying is not. At some point you will have to backpedal, tear down your initial response, and start from ground zero. The First Cause answer, “God makes them,” and the second cause answer, “From mommies’ tummies,” are truthful foundations upon which you can build when the time comes for the talk that some of us dread.
Children might also ask, “Where do rainbows come from?” This is not only an invitation to address the First Cause (God makes them), but it offers the opportunity to spread biblical literacy. To answer this question without the accompaniment of the story of Noah is a lost opportunity and, frankly, a travesty. If we are ever tempted to jump straight to second cause answers and ideas about water molecules that work as prisms that separate light into its individual color strands, then we ought to pray for the strength to resist temptation and the wisdom to prioritize First Causes before second cause answers.
This is my crucial point: Never discuss secondary causes without emphasizing the First Cause. If we give second cause answers without the foundational First Cause answer, we inadvertently teach our children that second causes are first causes and that God is not integrally connected with His own creation as the Cause behind all of existence. If we jump straight to second causes as first causes, God becomes a secondary thought; God is divorced from the very thing for which He is responsible. Knowledge becomes something we can acquire without the Revealer and Maker of knowledge. God becomes optional in our pursuits. Nothing could be further from the truth: God must come first in all things, even at a sophisticated level of intellectual pursuit; First Cause must still be the starting point. Perhaps we too—and not just our young children—need to retrain our own thinking to put the First Cause first, and only then explore second, third, and fourth causes. Our intellectual acumen must never look down upon or despise childlike faith when saying, “Because God made it that way.”