The Faith of Girls: Children's Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood

January 12, 2012

Where once it was only poets who believed that childhood had a distinctly spiritual flavour, more recently a body of research evidence from psychology, theology and education concurs that children do have a rich, natural spirituality. Children are not dependent on others to "impregnate" them with a spiritual life. Its concepts, emotions and questions are profoundly there already, while being inevitably shaped and buffeted by the physical, emotional, cultural and religious situations that frame their lives. Anne Phillips, hoping to catch a glimpse of an age when this mix of forces is perhaps at its most interesting, offers a study of church-attending girls on the cusp of adolescence in the UK.

The result is powerful on many levels. The Faith of Girls has an excellent account of newer areas of scholarship about both girlhood generally and about children's spirituality in particular. This serves to underscore what a pity it is that most social science research with children pays scant attention to faith issues, and that most studies in theology overlook how personhood is not just about being adult.

Furthermore, the discussion about the methodological challenges of such a topic could be recommended to any post-graduate qualitative researcher. For example, as well as navigating how far a girl's faith can ever be "her own" rather than socially constructed, Phillips also explores the minefield of the researchers' role: their faith, their gender, their adult-ness. Interestingly, she clearly makes full use of her own (Christian) faith perspective in sections of biblical and theological reflection, yet casting herself as a "stranger in the world" of her young subjects, she consciously avoids drawing on her own experience of being a young girl herself.

Knowing that this area requires such interdisciplinary thought is one thing, but it is not easy to handle the very diverse epistemological discourses it requires equally well. But Phillips does. This demands an almost impossible maturity that is precisely at the heart of the spiritual struggles faced by her young research participants as they strive to integrate so many different domains of their experience and knowledge: mourning the end of childhood, negotiating the onset of puberty, examining their religious understanding, feeling shifts in patterns of relationships and power and much more. Ultimately Phillips' analysis suggests that this is a rather fragile state of transition that, like a womb, has to be a safe enough holding space: a temporary home to both possibilities of growth and loss. This "womb" metaphor is clearly apt and well developed, triangulating theological, psychological and biological aspects of girls' experience. But although there are plenty of data quoted to get to this point, the discussion might have let the girls' solo voices sing out more and the adult theological voice of interpretation remain a little quieter.

What kinds of care and relationships are needed to support all this? Completing the reproductive imagery, Phillips offers sensitive reflection on a metaphor of midwifery for spiritual educators and faith communities. Crucially, midwives respect the fundamental agency of their charges, they accept the natural course of the sometimes painful, messy or erratic process taking place, and they accompany rather than try to control or claim the experience for themselves. For some faith communities this may represent quite a shift in thinking away from a more invasive, perhaps risk-averse, "doctor knows best" attitude towards girls. Perhaps oddly, there's not a single mention of what all this means for boys. Is there a different, equivalent role to the midwife for their spiritual transitioning of these borderlands of puberty? Certainly this scholarly book sets the bar pretty high for anyone hoping to study that area.

The Faith of Girls: Children's Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood

By Anne Phillips. Ashgate, 218pp, £45.00. ISBN 9781409421986. Published 1 August 2011

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