This Live Science article, “How Children Learn About God and Science,” by Robert Roy Britt, summarizes a new survey of scientific studies about the way children learn. It seems that an interesting conclusion has surfaced from these studies: “Among things they can’t see, from germs to God, children seem to be more confident in the information they get about invisible scientific objects than about things in the spiritual realm.”
There’s no conclusive explanation for why this is the case, but there are plenty of speculative options. Let me add my own theological proposition: as fallen human beings, our noetic apparatus for the perception of spiritual realities is naturally impaired. There’s a problem here both of intellect and will, although the greatest determining factor may well indeed be that of willful ignorance. In Calvin’s words,
Bright, however, as is the manifestation which God gives both of himself and his immortal kingdom in the mirror of his works, so great is our stupidity, so dull are we in regard to these bright manifestations, that we derive no benefit from them. For in regard to the fabric and admirable arrangement of the universe, how few of us are there who, in lifting our eyes to the heavens, or looking abroad on the various regions of the earth, ever think of the Creator? Do we not rather overlook Him, and sluggishly content ourselves with a view of his works? And then in regard to supernatural events, though these are occurring every day, how few are there who ascribe them to the ruling providence of God—how many who imagine that they are casual results produced by the blind evolutions of the wheel of chance? Even when under the guidance and direction of these events, we are in a manner forced to the contemplation of God (a circumstance which all must occasionally experience), and are thus led to form some impressions of Deity, we immediately fly off to carnal dreams and depraved fictions, and so by our vanity corrupt heavenly truth. This far, indeed, we differ from each other, in that every one appropriates to himself some peculiar error; but we are all alike in this, that we substitute monstrous fictions for the one living and true God—a disease not confined to obtuse and vulgar minds, but affecting the noblest, and those who, in other respects, are singularly acute (Institutes, 1.5.11).
He goes on to note that it is only in faith that we can come to true and saving knowledge of God: “In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path. Some sparks, undoubtedly, they do throw out; but these are quenched before they can give forth a brighter effulgence. Wherefore, the apostle, in the very place where he says that the worlds are images of invisible things, adds that it is by faith we understand that they were framed by the word of God (Heb. 11:3); thereby intimating that the invisible Godhead is indeed represented by such displays, but that we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God” (Institutes, 1.5.14). It is entirely understandable, therefore, why human beings in such a state would feel less certain about spiritual and divine realities.
This does not necessarily determine, however, whether Christian faith is objectively less warranted than belief in the invisible conclusions of the empirical world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Faith alone is certainty; everything outside of faith is subject to doubt. Jesus Christ alone is the certainty of faith. I believe the Lord Jesus Christ who tells me that my life is justified. So there is no way toward the justification of my life other than faith alone.” But indeed, the reality of the fall into sin does give us some reason to expect a relatively less sure subjective sense of certainty, also known as doubt. (See also John 20:29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”)
Even more reason, therefore, to take seriously the apostolic dictum to care for the education of our children in the truth of spiritual realities, that is, to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 NIV).