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Prof. Brad Wigger named Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology

Mar 06, 2017

Fellowship supports Wigger's research in the religious imagination of children.


Dr. J. Bradley Wigger (pictured), the Second Presbyterian Church Professor of Christian Education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has been selected as a 2017-2018 Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology. The Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology program was established in 1993 to identify leading scholars in theological studies and provide them with the necessary financial support and recognition to facilitate their work. Selected on the basis of the strength of their proposals to conduct creative and innovative theological research, the Fellows will engage in yearlong research in various areas of theological inquiry.

Wigger’s project focuses on the religious imagination of children and puts three sources of research in conversation: (1) theories of childhood cognition/imagination; (2) theological understandings of children; and (3) empirical information derived directly from children. He argues that prevalent understandings of childhood and children's faith are rooted in an often unrecognized Freudian-Piagetian developmental picture that itself is suspicious of religion. The young mind, in this view, is unable to differentiate fantasy from reality; the Id throws up fantasies (including “God”) to compensate for frustrated desires. Development becomes stages of overcoming the egocentric, irrational mind. Childhood and religion then become problems to overcome - forms of “primitive” thinking.

“Such a view makes it too easy to devalue childhood thinking, imagination, or faith itself,” said Wigger. “When adopted in the practice of ministry, for example in Sunday school or a theological seminary, learning is oriented to overcoming inadequate (irrational) thinking in favor of a more accurate (rational, realistic) way. Similar implications flow for other practices of ministry. Yet, a theological vision suggests that something deep and powerful may already be at work in childhood.”

Influences on the imagination of children have been a focus of Wigger’s research for nearly a decade. From 2010 to 2014, Wigger interviewed children in the United States, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and the Dominican Republic - over 500 children in all – as part of his John Templeton Foundation and Oxford-funded project, “Theory of Mind and Invisible Beings in Childhood.” The aim of the study was to examine the manifestation and influence of invisible (or “imaginary”) friends on children from different cultures and countries. In addition to talking with children about imaginary friends, he also interviewed them about other kinds of invisible beings, depending upon the culture—God, the ancestors, spirits, angels, fairies, various Hindu deities and even Santa Claus. Conducting what cognitive psychologists call “theory-of-mind” tests, Wigger explored the ways children think about the minds of these extraordinary figures.

"Dr. Wigger's research into the religious imagination of children is among the most original and potentially important work being done in religious studies and practical theology today,” said Louisville Seminary President Michael Jinkins. “Louisville Seminary is proud of Dr. Wigger's extraordinary scholarship, and we are eager to see what he learns in the next chapter of his research. I know it will benefit scholars, church leaders and families throughout society."

Wigger sees important implications for understanding children’s development, their religious and moral formation, and the imagination.

“Children around the world have no trouble reasoning about the minds of invisible beings,” said Wigger, who also recently published a children’s book, Thank You, God (Eerdmans). “They do it as naturally as they think about the minds of people.”

Upon completion, Wigger plans to publish a book that illustrates his research.

“Professor Wigger's sustained and highly creative research is shifting the way Christian educators think about religious imaginations of children, and has profound implications for the nurturing of faith in upcoming generations,” said Louisville Seminary Dean Susan Garrett. “I am thrilled that the Luce Foundation has recognized the extraordinary quality and importance of Professor Wigger's work, and hope that receipt of the award will enable this work to become more widely known.”
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