Moral Imagination

Exactly how do we teach right and wrong to children born under the influence of sin?  Is it by behavior modification, the right balance of sticks and carrots to nudge them toward what is good?  Do we teach them ethical values as a series of rules that govern human life?  In today’s society for most parents most of the time, that describes almost the entirety of the teaching of right and wrong.  In light of Scripture and human history, it’s also perhaps the worst way possible.  The Scripture teaches that human beings are not in need of reformation, but transformation.  We don’t need the right information communicated to us in the correct way.  We need a new heart and a new mind.  But how does this happen?  We become what we behold.  One of the greatest Scriptural statements of this reality is found in 2nd Corinthians 3:18 (see below).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.  And this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” ESV

The Apostle Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 1 as, “having the eyes of your heart enlightened”.  Jesus used the picture of a different sense, “those with ears to hear”.  God gives people a faculty to apprehend spiritual truth that changes us for the better

Another way that we learn right and wrong is by story.  Societies throughout history saw storytelling as a primary means of teaching children virtue.  The word virtue (as opposed to modern term “values”) refers to the character of full humanity, the development of men and women as they were intended to be.  It contains the idea that people have a purpose, a place in the world that is uniquely theirs to fulfill, a station in life that in some sense is assigned to them.  This does not diminish the idea of human freedom, but disabuses of the idea of some autonomous moral agent, responsible only to be “true to oneself”.  Right and wrong is not just about the individual, but about community and one’s relationship to God.  Stories illustrate life in a way that appeal to the faculty for spiritual truth.  They give children a grid that makes moral choices make sense.  The contemporary philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre puts it this way.

“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…, that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words” (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edition Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p.216)

A final way is in the example we as parents set.  Children learn by watching the way others act.  We give them cues whether we intend to or not.  Is there a place for rules and principles?  Of course, but they are nowhere near sufficient.  We teach our children best by facilitating opportunities for them to behold God’s glory and experience His presence.  We teach them by telling them stories that fire their imagination with struggles of good and evil, heroism and betrayal, redemption and rescue.  We teach them by living out right and wrong in front of their eyes.  This does more good than lectures and rules, rewards and punishments.  Our children are not a mere set of behaviors to modify, but men and women in the making, ready to be drawn into the great adventure of living.


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