Recovering Innocence in a Fallen World
For as long as I can remember, I’ve often found myself thinking about Paradise.
No, I don’t mean I have an early death wish for Heaven. I’m speaking of the original earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve first committed sin. I love to imagine what it would have been like to experience the earth completely free from corruption, suffering, and death, a garden of earthly delights in which the fruits of God’s creation could be enjoyed without worries or concerns, when living in the moment was perfectly natural and effortless, when innocence was second nature — the way our Creator intended it to be.
I’ve found that our culture, and even many believers, never seem to want to linger too long thinking about innocence. We tend to see it as a childish, naïve, and pointless exercise, one that is overly aloof and not “real” enough. We live in a fallen world, after all, one in which Adam and Eve screw up a mere 56 verses into a 31,102-verse story. Most of us are painfully aware of our own guilt — we can’t help but feel shame and regret when we think back on the sins we’ve committed in our lives, while still struggling to overcome habitual, daily failings. Why torture ourselves by thinking about innocence, something we have all lost forever?
Glimmerings of the Garden
Still, whether we want to admit it or not, our human nature continually thirsts for innocence. On a cultural level, we see it in the success of films like “Forrest Gump” and “Rain Man,” which were both box office smashes and won Academy Awards for “Best Picture.” I would argue that the primary reason behind the success of movies like these is that they feature adults who still retain genuine innocence due to their mental disabilities. At some level, we all have an innate longing to experience the world with innocence and simplicity, and films like these pay tribute to the value that innocence still imparts on a guilty world.
We also see it in our day to day lives whenever we have interactions with adults who have disabilities such as Down syndrome. As anyone who has spent any amount of time around people with these kinds of disabilities knows, there is a certain aura of innocence that you can actually feel in their presence. In my experience, without even trying, we find ourselves acting with a little bit more simplicity and innocence in our interactions with those with disabilities. It’s as if their innocence rubs off on us, if only for a little while.
And then, of course, there are children. In order to remind us of our origin story, God continues to bless the human race with innocent babies, approximately 385,000 times a day. I find myself spellbound just watching my eight-month-old son sit on the ground and pick up a toy, stare at it in pure, wide-eyed wonder, and then chomp on it. To witness a child at play, totally carefree and fully in the moment, is to witness a genuine glimmer of the Garden. When distressing world events begin to weigh me down, I sometimes find myself longing for the carefree innocence of childhood. As the responsibilities and stresses of adulthood pile up, thinking about a child’s life can come as a welcome moment of respite.
As parents well know, a huge part of being a responsible adult is taking an active role in preserving and protecting the innocence of our children. This responsibility is especially challenging in our modern culture, which seems increasingly determined to steal away the preciously short years in which a child can enjoy innocence. We see it in drag shows for toddlers, the insertion of LGBT ideology into TV shows for preschoolers and school lessons for two-year-olds, and the increasingly shrinking average age in which kids are first exposed to pornography.
In addition, it’s especially important to be vigilant about minimizing the exposure that small children have to troubling world events, as the Middle East becomes increasingly embroiled in war. Dr. Jennifer Bauwens, a licensed therapist and clinical researcher who serves as director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council, recently described on “Washington Watch” how traumatic world events can affect children.
“[There’s a] difference between ‘big T’ and ‘little T’ traumas, that’s one way we distinguish it in the trauma field,” she explained. “[T]he ‘big T’ traumas are those things that cause what most people know about post-traumatic stress. Those things are unfortunate events like what we’re watching today with this war. And those produce a neurological physiological response in our bodies and certainly in our psyches and our spirits. … But what we don’t always recognize are those ‘little T’ traumas. … [T]hose are things like watching too much television, looking at these kinds of images without inviting God into the process, too. [T]hose things have a low-grade effect on our beings. And there’s a lot of learning that goes on when we have that kind of big physiological dump in our brain of chemicals.”
As parents, it becomes clear that fully vetting what our children consume through screens, in books, and in other media is crucially important in preserving their innocence.
Amid the daily grind of responsibilities and stresses of adulthood and parenthood, thinking about innocence in ourselves may seem pointless, even silly. But as Christians and as adults, we are called to pursue it.
How do we know this? Because Jesus commands it in the gospels. “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” He urges His disciples (Matthew 10:16). A few chapters later, He firmly establishes the importance of the childlike spirit that believers must pursue: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).
What is Christ saying here? Are we to somehow reverse the ravages of time and sin and magically reacquire innocence? Or perhaps become the dreaded man or woman-child who never reaches emotional maturity and expects the world to cater to them?
Nothing of the sort. By saying these words, I believe Jesus is calling us to pursue a spirit of childlike innocence and simplicity. This certainly does not mean that we should be ignorant simpletons — “be wise as serpents” Christ implores right before his demand for innocence. The key here is the virtue that Jesus attributes to a child — “Whoever humbles himself like this child…” When we pursue the virtues of children, we will foster an innocent disposition.
Jesus makes clear the importance of this pursuit elsewhere in the gospels. During the Sermon on the Mount, He makes a stunning proclamation of the importance of another childlike attribute: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Later in His Sermon, Christ underscores the importance of letting our words be free of pretense, just as a child would do: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (5:37).
When we look at our culture, we are clearly far, far away from a childlike, innocent spirit. Instead, a spirit of profound mistrust and cynicism pervades our public discourse and politics. A tendency to expose the young to “the real world” at earlier and earlier ages dominates the thinking of Hollywood and academia.
But as Christians, we are called to be a sign of contradiction in the world (Luke 2:34). I believe that a primary way we can achieve this is in our day to day lives is by pursuing a childlike spirit and disposition, one that counters venom with meekness, complexity with simplicity, pride with humility, willful disobedience to the will of God with docility to the Holy Spirit, and depravity with innocence.
The Garden of Eden was never meant to be forgotten. All of us have the blood of Adam and Eve in our veins, a blood that knew what true innocence was. Through the saving blood of Christ, may we always remember the innocence from whence we came, with the knowledge that what was lost can be found again.
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.