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Louisville Seminary’s Spring Convocation takes a loving look at how children learn about faith

The Rev. Dr. J. Bradley Wigger shares stories from a lifetime of research on imaginary friends and religious imagination

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Andrew Ebrahin via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary called on the Rev. Dr. J. Bradley Wigger to deliver the address during its opening convocation for the 2024 spring semester last week, and Wigger — who’s dedicated his professional life to researching how children develop their faith — didn’t disappoint.

Wigger called his talk “Understanding Children (and Teaching).” It can be seen here. Wigger, who’s taught at LPTS since 1997, comes in at the 34:30 mark.

With the “Who is the Greatest?” passage from Mark as a scriptural basis, Wigger reminded those gathered online and in Caldwell Chapel that Jesus asked his disciples to “keep their sights low, down close to the ground, where children hang out.” Wigger invited his audience to do the same.

He recalled an eight-second clip of his young granddaughter offering imaginary food and drink to a Curious George plush. “Of course, all grandchildren are remarkable,” Wigger said. “She is pretending and delighting in the shared occasion. It’s a communion of sorts.”

Last summer, Wigger found his copy of Lewis Sherrill’s 1939 book, “Understanding Children.” The author taught at LPTS and later at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Sherrill’s idea is that teaching, at its best, “is no autocratic process. It’s a sharing of experiences that have meaning both for the teacher and the taught,” Wigger said.

Rather than “grand schemes,” Sherrill invites educators to “pay attention to personalities, social dynamics and intelligence among children.” Years before Howard Gardner’s landmark work, Sherrill named mechanical, social and artistic intelligence, among others.

“This complex, highly relational approach is necessary to the type of learning that fuels a religious imagination,” Wigger said.

The short clip of his granddaughter bridges two streams of Wigger’s research, on imaginary friends and religious imaginations. He’s been privileged to talk to children around the world in pursuit of both.

“Children’s minds and imaginations are much more sophisticated than the development literature would allow,” he said. As established by Sigmund Freud and advanced by Jean Piaget, “children come into the world as bundles of irrationality,” Wigger said. Freud, he said, would hope that Wigger’s granddaughter grows out of offering communion to Curious George.

One child Wigger interviewed, Nicole, had an imaginary friend named Coda who had died, but came back the day Nicole met Wigger. Coda died because he “took too big a bite,” and Nicole did not explain how Coda returned.

After a number of exercises during which Nicole was offered stickers for completing tasks, Wigger asked where the two imaginary friends, Leah and Coda, were hanging out. “Leah’s over there,” Nicole said, pointing. Where’s Coda? Nicole ran through a doorway and into a hallway, motioning for Coda to return. She then took her seat and assured Wigger, “Now Coda’s here, too.”

Wigger wondered if Leah and Coda would also like stickers. “Nicole stared at me and said, ‘They’re pretend!’” Wigger said. “This tiny child knew the difference, and she looked startled when I seemed not to.”

Children are “deeply social,” sometimes sharing their imaginary friends with their other friends, Wigger noted. Often, they’ll make up new friends together.

“Maybe children’s religious imaginations are also more sophisticated” than we used to think, Wigger said. Eleven-year-old River has an imaginary friend named Zoe and wore a T-shirt encouraging people to ask River about pronouns. “It’s they/them” River told Wigger. Wigger asked River how God feels about gender fluidity. “Well, God isn’t just a ‘he,’ even though people say that a lot,” River told Wigger. “God is gender fluid.”

Joy, age 6, drew a picture of God sporting long hair on one side and short hair on the other.

The Rev. Dr. J. Bradley Wigger

Wigger asked River about what makes God happy. River’s answer included courage, kindness, love and self-love, “and don’t have so much pride you’re a narcissist,” River advised. “Clearly, River had given this some thought long before I asked them,” Wigger said. “Kids have religious imaginations. They are working to understand the world around them, and they engage in practices like prayer and communion and singing that stoke imagination.”

Wigger’s wife, the Rev. Jane Larsen-Wigger, sometimes serves as his research assistant. A 10-year-old boy once told her he was never baptized because his father wasn’t comfortable with it “because of what happened to my brother.” The boy’s brother had died of leukemia at age 5. “When he passed away, I felt sick, like it was my fault,” the boy explained to Larsen-Wigger. “How did that make you feel about God?” she asked, and a sister piped in with “It’s good that he passed. He’s in a better place.”

That just made the boy mad, because Larsen-Wigger and friends at church “had been a deep comfort” to the family, including the sister, Wigger said. When the boy prays, “Sometimes I hear a voice saying, ‘Everything will be all right,’” the boy said.

“I share these conversations as powerful reminders that children live with the same dilemmas that haunt adults — death and loss and others,” Wigger said. “I think implications abound for congregations and education. Children are not only objects of religious education — they are subjects that contribute to communities of faith.”

“Children may be more open and more porous to God and Creation,” which is “teeming with saints as well as demons,” Wigger said. An 11-year-old girl told Larsen-Wigger, “We should try to bring a little heaven to this Earth through our actions and our deeds.” Why, Larsen-Wigger asked her, did God create the world? “I guess because there was nothing and he wanted there to be something. Life on your own is just lonely,” the girl said. In their conversation, the girl enlarged her view from God being in charge of just Earth to “the god of other intelligent beings too,” Wigger said. “She could stretch her sense of what can be, wondering how far God’s love could reach.”

“We are trying to understand children better. That has certainly been a motivation for me, and along the way we understand teaching better, this highly relational enterprise,” Wigger said. “If we do, a shift happens away from understanding children as objects of study to subjects whose understandings may have something to teach adults as well.”

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