The Original Vision: Edward Robinson and the Spiritual Life of Children

The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form . . .
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

A few years ago, I was in Denver visiting with Jerome Berryman, creator of a well-known Montessori-based children’s catechesis program known as "Godly Play." We had begun corresponding a couple years earlier because I had been teaching a course on children’s literature and theology at my university, and had adapted it for a seminary audience. Dr. Berryman discovered somehow that I incorporated Godly Play resources in my teaching. An online conversation led to an invitation to travel to Colorado. Before long, I was en route.

Jerome keeps a library and archive near his home. Like all academics, Jerome’s pride in his book collection was evident. We lingered amongst the shelves. Maria Montessori, Sofia Cavaletti, and other members of Montessori’s inner circle are all there. Jerome sparkled as he recounted his own training at the Montessori School in Bergamo, Italy. We talked about Heidegger, Rowan Williams, Pope Benedict XVI, poetry, and history.

He casually handed me a book and asked me if I knew it. That book was Edward Robinson’s The Original Vision. Always one to jump on good book recommendations, I snapped up a copy of The Original Vision, an American edition published by Seabury Press in 1978.

The Religious Experience Research Unit

Edward Robinson, the younger brother of the controversial English bishop, John A. T. Robinson, was an English educator, botanist, sculptor, and researcher. The son and nephew of well-known priests in the Church of England, Edward read classics at Oxford and began his career as an educator in former English colonies on the African continent, where for fifteen years he collected numerous specimens of grasses, discovering and naming several species (fifteen of which are named after him), some of which are housed at Kew Gardens. Robinson was known to have one of the largest personal collections of grasses in the world.

About three years after Robinson returned to England, he received an invitation to join a new research program at Oxford University, called the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU). Founded just a year before, the RERU was the brainchild of Sir Alister Hardy, a marine biologist with a voracious intellectual appetite and an artistic temperament.[1]

In 1963-64, Hardy was invited to give the Gifford Lectures. “Evolution and the spirit of Man” (later published as The Living Stream and The Divine Flame) challenges a purely material theory of evolution, and argues that religious/spiritual experience is a phenomenon tied to reality. Spiritual experiences are a natural part of human life.

What Sir Alister presented as a research interest in the early sixties became a research project by 1969, collecting and analyzing responses to his invitation to the British public to answer the question: “Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?”

Hardy described his team as “naturalists hunting specimen of human existence . . . anthropologists in our own society—indeed, of course, the anthropologists are the naturalists of mankind.”[2] Their question ultimately generated around 6000 responses, 400 of which were processed by the RERU research staff between 1970 and 1977. Today that data is held in an archive at the Sir Alister Hardy Trust Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales Trinity St. David. In 1985, Sir Alister received the John Templeton Prize for his work in religious research.

Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson joined the RERU in 1970, invited by Hardy himself, who was drawn to what he and Robinson shared in common: a propensity to scientific classification as well as a curious amalgam of capacities in religion, education, and botany. Within seven years Hardy had stepped down as Director, and Robinson took the helm.

During his first seven years at the RERU, prior to his appointment as Director, Robinson combed through, classified, and published findings related to the initial 4000 responses to Sir Alister’s question. Throughout this first phase of his work, he noticed something remarkable in the data. He recounts, “Some 15% of our correspondents . . . started by going back to events and experiences of their earliest years.”[3] That 600 respondents narrated meaningful experiences of a religious, spiritual, or mystical nature in early childhood is significant, Robinson clarifies, because it bucks the received canonical understanding of a transition from “childhood incompetence to the adult ability to give correct solutions.”[4] The testimonies provoked Robinson: “I began to wonder whether there were not in quite young children capacities for insight and understanding that had been underrated by the developmental psychologists. Here it seemed might be a valuable source for information to complement the prevailing view.”

As he dug deeper into the initial testimonies collected by the RERU, simple complementarity became less tenable, not because Robinson wanted to reject developmentalism tout court, but because the a priori imposition of a chronological framework obscured what Robinson found most fascinating in the responses. Not only that, but Robinson notes that a developmental model would automatically raise questions about the validity or objectivity of a childhood memory simply because it was from childhood.[5] “How reliable . . . are such records? . . . How far can we really trust [a 50-year-old narrative, for instance] as a historical record?”[6]

For Robinson, however, the perduring quality of such a memory, the way it grounded and illuminated subsequent life experiences, thoughts, and values overrode historical concerns.[7] The question is not whether the knowledge of childhood is objectively correct, but whether for the knower it is certain. “She may have been wrong, but the idea never entered her head, either at the time [whilst a child] or subsequently.”[8] Moreover, Robinson points out that questions of historical veracity only attends to one aspect of an adult’s ongoing experience and misses what he refers to as an everyday, ongoing process, initiated by “childhood,” and in which religious experience is not, typically, a rare and dramatic thing, but “really quite ordinary.”[9]

Critiquing Developmentalism

Robinson believed that developmental psychology, however valuable for its introduction of epistemology and clinical observation to the psychological process with children, could not comprehend the role that childhood religious experience played in the lives of his adult respondents. Fundamental to his critique, Robinson saw an implicit bias in Piaget and his heirs, and one that continued to plague education. “Piaget,” he accuses,

Is . . . continually setting children an exam in a subject that adults are good at and children bad. Predictably, the children fail . . . if children are really to be thought of as little more than inefficient adults, then the prime function of education is to turn them into efficient ones.[10]

Looking at testimonies of experiences as early as four or five years old,[11] he rejected psychological commitments like Ronald Goldman’s “negative and patronizing” conclusion that “religious insight generally begins to appear between the ages of 12 and 13.”[12] Piaget and Goldman prized the acquisition of analytic thinking, which Piaget located in the formal operational stage, beginning as early as 11 years old. Goldman himself made analysis an epistemological prerequisite for religious experience. Robinson pushed back on all this: analytic thought does not undo the immediacy or solidity of childhood experiences, at whatever age, or even the ways they continue to shape the person.

Robinson pressed against this solipsistic, isolated, and cognitively overdetermined understanding, as if religious experience is merely self-revelation or the revelation of an abstract God. Instead, these experiences are “immediate” and “unquestionably real” experiences of “something real” outside of the child, experiences that constitute a “self-authenticating” “original vision” that informs the self through adulthood.[13]

What I began to see emerging from Robinson’s critique of this epistemologically overdetermined theory of childhood was twofold: 1) the relationship between forms of knowledge and religious experience needed to be entirely rethought; and 2) religious experience is perhaps so commonplace in children that we who look for the spectacular might be overlooking the actual religious lives of children. Robinson’s constructive proposal would shift the narrative completely, and would reframe the relationship of childhood to personhood.

Mystery & Synthesis

Robinson saw a mysterious quality of childhood that sequential thinking was not able to see. “Unless we think purely in chronological terms, childhood can never be a simple concept.”[14]

Robinson’s initial data set, as well as the qualitative value of the testimonies themselves, gave him what he needed to look for an alternative to developmentalism. Robinson issued nine additional questions to “about 500” respondents, 360 of which responded (the questions and data analysis are all included as appendices).[15]

The result of this additional study led to The Original Vision, which is not only a theoretical alternative, but an interpretation of the RERU’s in-depth study and the additional questionnaire. Robinson classifies the additional 360 responses into nine kinds of experience, or ways of getting into the experience of childhood.

In summary, Robinson argues that childhood is a “self-authenticating . . . form of knowledge,” akin to “mystical” experience (although he takes issue with how vague that word can be), that must be studied over time as a “natural” and “religious” phenomenon, “in purposive terms,” and with “sympathetic insight.”[16] By self-authenticating, Robinson distinguished between self-authorizing and self-aware, and embraced both. First, the experience of childhood that is retrieved in reflection needs no external confirmation for it to hold authority in the person’s life. Second, the experience “bring[s] to the person . . . an awareness of the true self as individual.”[17]

The bulk of The Original Vision is comprised not of Robinson’s analysis, but of the correspondents’ testimonies. These first-hand accounts are disarming and raw. Often, there is an immediacy to them, as if the correspondent is relaying an experience that happened days or weeks ago, rather than decades.

One of the first accounts that Robinson shares comes from an interview that he conducted. The interviewee recounts a sense of certainty in his experience along the lines of the first sense of self-authentication. He says,

From my present age, looking back some half a century, I would say now that I did then experience—what? a truth, a fact, the existence of the divine. What happened was telling me something. But what was it telling? The fact of divinity, that it was good? Not so much the moral sense, but that it was beautiful, yes, sacred.[18]

Here we see that the interviewee is not so much caught in the reverie of make-believe (a la Piaget’s pre-operational stage), but conscious of an experience of otherness and, indeed, beauty.

Importantly, the respondent admits to not having the linguistic capacity to convey his experience at the time. However, the sense of surety that arose in that moment remained with him, right up to the moment of the interview, “some half a century” later. If not linguistically mediated, whence this certainty? Robinson prods this question early and throughout the book, curious about what model of childhood can accommodate and respect these adults’ claims to some variety of real experience, experiences that Robinson maintains are more commonplace than esoteric.

Most respondents recall experiences that begin with quotidian activities or surroundings—walks, school, kitchens, shops, etc. A sixty-four-year-old woman talks about sitting in her mother’s lap at five years old, feeling sorry for her mother’s small-minded notions of God.[19] Another respondent, a forty-nine-year-old woman, recalls hating her mother and doctor for taking her tonsils out.[20] Men and women of all ages recall experiencing “otherness” and “individuation” and “flashes [of] awareness” at early ages amidst ordinary activities like walking to and from school or visiting their parents in workplaces, all experiences that developmental staging arguably preclude.[21] One respondent tells of her grammar school teacher’s invitation to practice the loving presence of Christ “who was above all a friend to children,” and how this invitation led to her certainty that she was understood.[22]

Whereas developmental thinking maintains the distinction between the fantastical, imaginative lives of young children and the practical, discursive, and analytical thinking of older children, Robinson is fascinated by the way that adults continue to ground their adult lives in the experiences, and even knowledge, of these early years.[23] “The great majority of those whose experience led me to this study are men and women in whom the original vision of childhood never faded.”[24] Of course, he acknowledges, this will be a problem for many. “Some may still feel it intolerably paradoxical to base a study of childhood on the records of those who have in years at least left it so far behind.”[25]

But where cynics see distance, Robinson posits something like the nutrient-rich soil of a garden. “To have attempted an assessment of the childhood experience of any of these writers at an earlier age would have been in some respects at least premature; that they would not yet have had their experience, or not yet had it sufficiently for a proper judgment to be made of it.”[26]

Without saying it explicitly, Robinson has articulated a vision of childhood that is not defined or delimited to years of a person’s life, but rather a “slow process” of reflection on a kind of knowledge,[27] stretched out over a life like a lens, not to obscure nature, but rather to more faithfully reveal it. “Metaphysics must start with personal experience.”[28] The vision of childhood is a vision that helps us see both the limits of our own seeing and infinite capaciousness beyond our personal experiences. “This significance of the insignificant is a theme central to the biblical, the Christian tradition. The still small voice, the grain of mustard seed, the one coin lost, the single sparrow dead—these are the stuff of which religious experience is made.”[29]

This concluding theme is captured rather powerfully near the middle of the book by one respondent, a forty-five-year-old woman.

I think I have been simply trying, in adult life, to grow towards the vision of childhood, and to comprehend more fully the significance of the light which was so interwoven into those early years. The original impact of light was so powerful that my inner world still reverberates with it. Later logic chopping, analysis and interpretation have in no way diminished the immediacy of that impact. Very importantly: this same consciousness of light has proved to be translatable as the light of common day living. In my own extremis, I have tried to remember the light and stand by it.[30]


Developmental thinking alone cannot comprehend childhood as Robinson saw it expressed in the lasting influence of his correspondents’ ongoing experience of their own childhood. The analysis of childhood testimony of religious experience in The Original Vision is eye-opening to those who may have adopted a certain kind of model of childhood that is dependent on development or injury. Instead of childhood as a developmental phase[31] or symbolizing a traumatic repression or recovery,[32] we see emerge from the first-hand testimony of these responses a vision of childhood that provides adulthood with the possibility of an integrated, mature wholeness.

The Original Vision provides a starting point by framing childhood as a “synthetic comprehension” that is not destroyed by the later acquisition of analytic thinking. Rather, it remains as a holistic knowledge that makes possible the condition of other kinds of knowledge throughout life.

It is unfortunate that aside from several reviews and scattered mention in few articles, The Original Vision has faded into obscurity. A study similar to Robinson’s was undertaken by Edward Hoffman.[33] Yet, developmental thinking continues to dominate the way we treat childhood, if not in the academy then at least in popular thinking and practice.

Robinson’s observation of adult testimony of childhood experience bids us to ask, “What happens, or what is gained in childhood that makes it possible to tell our stories as adults?” A fulsome answer to this question depends on our ability to see the enduring power of childhood throughout the entirety of human life.

[1] Like many naturalists, Hardy was artistic in skill and imagination. During WWII, Hardy’s army career consisted in designing camouflage patterns.

[2] Hardy, “Forward,” in Robinson, The Original Vision, 4.

[3] Robinson, The Original Vision, 11.

[4] The Original Vision, 10.

[5] For a “genetic epistemologist” like Piaget, a childhood memory lacks credibility because of its non-clinical origin but also because most of memories collected by the RERU come from the pre-operational stage (two to seven years old). In the pre-operational stage, a child lacks the concrete reasoning to be able to distinguish between symbol and reality, or to abstract the symbol as representative of concepts. Robinson’s respondents, on the other hand, claimed to have experiences while in the age range of the pre-operational stage, and to be able to distinguish their experiences from symbolic make-believe, and arrived at conceptual outcomes.

[6] The Original Vision, 13. Cf. Robinson, This Timebound Ladder: Ten Dialogues on Religious Experience (Oxford: The Religious Experience Research Unit, 1977), 71-72.

[7] The Original Vision, 23: “The possibility that there is something here that must be taken serious is clearly felt as some kind of threat; to question the authenticity of the records is the first and most obvious defense.”

[8] The Original Vision, 20.

[9] The Original Vision, 15.

[10] The Original Vision, 10.

[11] The Original Vision, 11. On studying the first hand accounts, “I began to wonder whether there were not in quite young children capacities for insight and understanding that had been underrated by the developmental psychologists.”

[12] Goldman, Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 226, cited in The Original Vision, 11.

[13] The Original Vision, 16 and 22.

[14] The Original Vision, 15.

[15] The Original Vision, 157-71.

[16] The Original Vision, 16. All emphases original unless otherwise noted.

[17] The Original Vision, 16.

[18] The Original Vision, 35.

[19] The Original Vision, 69.

[20] The Original Vision, 111.

[21] The Original Vision, 113-15.

[22] The Original Vision, 84.

[23] The Original Vision, 19.

[24] The Original Vision, 148.

[25] The Original Vision, 144.

[26] The Original Vision, 145.

[27] The Original Vision, 145.

[28] The Original Vision, 146.

[29] The Original Vision, 147.

[30] The Original Vision, 55.

[31] Cf. Jean Piaget, “The theory of stages in cognitive development,” in D. R. Green, M. P. Ford, & G. B. Flamer, Measurement and Piaget (McGraw-Hill, 1971), and Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, tr. J. & A. Tomlinson (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929), 62, cited in Robinson, The Original Vision, 9-10.

[32] Cf. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Childhood gives rise in the adult to an “unpleasurable tension” that originates in a traumatic neurosis which is a repressed memory of a childhood event.

[33] See Hoffman, Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood (Boston: Shambhala, 1992).

Featured Image: Ludwik Stasiak, Nun Praying with Children, before 1924; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70. 


Daniel McClain

Dan McClain holds a PhD in Historical and Systematic Theology from the Catholic University of America, and previously taught theology at the General Theological Seminary (NYC) and Loyola University Maryland. Dan's current areas of expertise and interest include children and children's literature, theological education and formation, and the relationship between church practice and doctrine.

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