The Evolution of Faith

four sons

For if it is wicked to seek meaning, then I am wicked.  If it is wicked to seek and build community, then I am wicked. 

Pesach is over, but I am not over Pesach.  In the Diaspora, Pesach lasts eight days. However, Pesach is such a richly symbolic festival that it takes more than a week to explore all of its meanings and relevance.  And so I ask your patience and indulgence with this post-Pesach Pesach post.

During Pesach, I attended a number of different seders, from a community seder to a family seder to a fun (thanks primarily to Lily and Sophie) interfaith seder.  The community seder I attended was held at Wake Forest University.  During the seder, the wonderful Director of Jewish Life at Wake Forest (whom I love in all the meanings of the word) presented me with a new way of thinking about, what has for me always been, one of the more problematic metaphors in the haggadah: The Four Sons (whom I will call the Four Children to remove the patrimony).

Why is the child who wants to know the meaning behind the rituals “wicked,” and the child who only wants to know the rituals to follow “good”?

For those of you unfamiliar with the metaphor, The Four Children represent the four types of questions children ask about the rituals of Pesach.  There is the “Good” Child who asks, “What are the rituals and laws?” There is the “Wicked” Child who asks, “What does all of this mean to you?” There is the “Simple” Child who asks, “What is this?”  And there is the child who does not enough to ask. The haggadah then instructs us as to how to answer each of these children.

The first problem I have with The Four Children is their labels (particularly the “Good” Child and the “Wicked Child).  Why is the child who wants to know the meaning behind the rituals “wicked,” and the child who only wants to know the rituals to follow “good”?  The haggadah tells us that the “wicked” child is wicked because his question, “What does this all mean to you,” removes him from the obligation of performing the rituals.  In other words, he is accused of removing himself from the community of observers by using the pronoun “you” and not the pronoun “us” in his question.  The “good” child is good because he does not separate himself from the community of observers.  But, is his wanting to know only the rituals and laws “good” or just obedient?

Part of this problem was solved for me when WFU’s Director of Jewish Life suggested we think of the Four Children not as individuals but rather as four types of scholarly inquiry.  We sometimes approach a subject like the child who does not know what to ask.  In other words, we do not know what we don’t know so cannot begin to ask a question.  The Simple Child’s question is not simple but pure.  In other words, it encompasses all other questions and is a desire to know purely for the sake of knowing.  Once we begin our quest for knowledge we can ask for details (what are the laws) and for meaning.

As the seder continued, thinking about the Four Children as different aspects of the same person growing in their scholarly approach to a subject, I began to wonder about applying this model to faith.  If we redirect the questions and offer new labels for each child, the Four Children become a way of explaining how an individual’s faith evolves and grows.

The first time we encounter the ineffable, we are, as Heschel describes, literally and physically in awe.  Because the ineffable connects with all of our senses all at the same time, we are incapable of understanding or explaining the experience.  We do not even know enough to ask.  Once we are separated from that moment, we may now be able to formulate a simple, pure question about the experience: What is this?  We now have a basis for inquiry regarding our faith.

The first place many have turned to in this inquiry is religion, which is primarily about laws and rituals, the lingua franca of faith.  Ritual and ritual practice is how we attune ourselves to the possibility and desire to encounter the ineffable.  But, as has been discussed many times in this blog, ritual alone is insufficient: we also desire meaning.  The search for meaning often times requires the help of others, so we seek a community of others and ask them, “What does this mean to you?”  We invite others of faith to share their experience in hopes of placing our encounter(s) with the ineffable in context.

At this point it is important to understand that what I describe here are not discrete phases in a linear process.  The questions are forces which act upon our faith at different times, sometimes at the same time.  And the answer to one question may lead us back to an earlier one.

If we accept this metaphor for the Four Children, their labels change.  The Child who does not know enough to ask becomes the Child in Awe; the “Simple” Child becomes the “Pure” Child; the “Good” Child becomes the “Observant” Child; and the “Wicked” Child becomes the “Seeking” Child.  This change becomes most important for the “Wicked” child.  For if it is wicked to seek meaning, then I am wicked.  If it is wicked to seek and build community, then I am wicked.  And, if you are reading this post or a follower of this blog, you too may be “wicked.”

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