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Where have the goslings gone?

08 April 2016

John Pridmore finds a ‘new science’ not without blindspots

The Spiritual Child: The new science on parenting for health and lifelong thriving

Lisa Miller

Bluebird £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70


LISA MILLER introduces herself as “a leading scientist in the now booming field of spirituality and psychology, mental health and thriving”. Her argument in her fine — though flawed — book is that we are “hardwired for spiritual connection” and that the existence of this innate human capacity is no longer a matter of opinion but a scientifically established fact.

We can also now be certain — again there is “cutting-edge” science to prove it — that the nurture of our inborn spirituality is crucial for our overall health and well-being throughout childhood and adolescence.

All who wade in these waters must tell us what they mean by “spirituality”. Miller understands the term to denote “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding”. That higher power may be God, nature, the universe — or whatever. What matters is that this capacity is relational: it attunes us to a “higher presence”.

Sometimes the briefest turn of phrase can capture what many words fail to convey. Miller finds such a formula with her fertile concept of “the field of love”. The field of love is what the child’s world must become if it is to foster the child’s flourishing. It is — in another happy choice of words — “a picnic blanket”, the relational space inhabited by the child, by those closest to him or her, and by — a third presence — the transcendent other.

Miller’s thesis will warm the hearts of all those who believe in the paramount importance of the nurture of the child’s spirit. Miller understands what matters most for the making of what we are meant to be. Here then is a publication to be saluted with a fanfare.

That gladly said, there remain a few “yes, buts”. There is, first, the reference in our book’s puzzling sub-title and in many of its pages to “The New Science”. By “the new science” Miller is referring specifically to the work she and her colleagues have done in their laboratories over the past 15 or so years. It is thanks to their recent “findings”, we learn, that we now know that natural spirituality is an innate human capacity.

But perhaps “the new science”, like many new things, is not so new. Miller does not cite the work of Alister Hardy 50 years ago. Nor are we referred to David Hay’s Something There: The biology of the human spirit (DLT, 2006). Children’s spirituality, Miller rightly insists, is essentially relational. But that we already knew from Rebecca Nye’s research (The Spirit of the Child, Fount, 1998).

More seriously, Miller does not send us back to the poets and the prophets — Jesus among them — who have always recognised that there are things hidden from adults but revealed to children. Miller writes excitedly about what scientists have lately discovered in their labs. She does not mention what Wordsworth long ago discovered by a lakeside.

Second, Miller does not recognise that “the other”, of which the child is often aware, is not always benign. Her understanding of spirituality, with its appeal to “a higher power that is loving and guiding”, defines away the darkness. But the shadows at the top of unlit stairs and the horrors that they may conceal cannot be so easily banished. Children, too, experience “the dark night of the soul”.

Third, Miller talks about the potentially formative relationship of the child’s encounters with nature — “from goslings to galaxies”. But she does not take account of what Richard Louv has described as “nature-deficit disorder”, the plight today afflicting most Western children (The Last Child in the Woods, Workman, 2005). Polluted skies now hide the galaxies from the child’s sight and his or her umbilical attachment to an Xbox — not to speak of parental fears of paedophiles lurking in the farmyard — mean that he or she meets very few goslings.


The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.


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