Shaping Moral Imagination
Betsy Childs Howard
If you want to influence a child’s spiritual formation, shape their moral imagination.
Moral imagination refers to the way we ascribe meaning and value to some wider pattern or order. The reason Christians make sense of the world differently than non-believers is because our imagination has been “set apart” (i.e. sanctified). Our unique way of seeing the world is why the imagination—particularly the moral imagination—is so important to the formation of a child’s Christian faith.
We should recoil at moralism, yes, but not moral formation. To even understand the difference between moralism and the gospel, you have to understand what sin is. Without some understanding of what is right and wrong, we wouldn’t know our own need for a Savior.
Beyond simply giving children an understanding of their need for salvation, moral formation helps us learn to live as our Creator intended. Moral formation involves teaching children that they can’t trust their feelings to determine what is right and wrong. God has given us commands to show us what is good, and they should guide our lives. We can never perfectly fulfill his moral law, but following his commands in the power of the Holy Spirit brings delight to us—and to him (1 Thess. 4:1).
In contrast, stories that aid in moral formation don’t divide characters strictly into good and evil categories. Often, they will show the “good” characters (those we identify with and root for) make bad decisions and then repent of them. This sort of storytelling is wholly compatible with the gospel and helps children learn about right and wrong as well as repentance and reconciliation.
When it comes to moral and spiritual formation, stories uniquely help us see and feel the true effects of sin.
C. S. Lewis wrote about how stories, like his own Chronicles of Narnia, can help children understand the truths of the faith on a deeper level:
I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Having an expanded moral imagination doesn’t mean that children or adults will necessarily make the right choice when faced with temptations, but it does mean we will have additional evidence to combat the lies of the world, the flesh, and the Devil.