The speaker during the Wednesday forum on October 14, 2009 was Ms. Melanie Nyhof, a doctoral candidate from Pittsburgh University, and the moderator was Roy Alan Brango Tolentino, an ICRS-Yogya student. Ms. Nyhof presented her paper entitled “Allah’s shape is like the sky: Children’s Understanding of God)
In the discussion, she examined the foundation of religious and supernatural concepts which should not be taken for granted; it must be organized in cognition. The focus of Ms. Nyhof’s research was on Indonesian children’s development in examining the concept of God; children with Moslem and Catholic background. Using quantitative and qualitative methods, she accounted and narrated the concept of God according to Indonesian children based on age, psychology, culture and religion. Ms. Nyhof stated that most researches related to children’s development on the concept of God are based on Christianity.
Traditional research suggests that children’s view can fuse the natural and supernatural. Children perceived God like a man, sometimes god is like a sky and parents. Ms. Nyhof calls it “God as an anthropomorphic” where God can be interpreted concretely like human. It is opposite to the traditional theology where God is constructed like an alien and abstract. This recent research indicates that some abstract property and characteristics of God may actually be really understood by young children. When Ms. Nyhof revealed her findings, it showed that there are degrees in children’s perspective seeing God, from the very abstract to the very concrete one. Even though God is seen from the perspective of Anthropomorphic, but God still has special mental power.
The respondents of the research were children aged 3 to 12 old years, both with Christian and Moslem background. There was an interesting finding that Moslem children’s perception of God is more abstract than the Christian children’s perception of God. It might be because of the embodiment of Jesus Christ which helps them imagine who God really is, or sometimes Christian children state that God is their parent, whereas Moslems children don’t have real reference and shape of God like Jesus.
In the qualitative research, Ms. Nyhof’s tentative research emphasized more on the open-ended interview with the main question about the outward appearance of God, where God is and how does he/she look like? What is heaven, soul, and after life from the children’s perspective.
She interviewed sixty-six (66) children, fifty-five (55) of which are students from Islamic schools. When Melanie asked where God is, most of the respondents answered that God is in the sky, heaven, in the seventh sky. A few children responded that God is in the heart or everywhere. When she asked what God is doing? She was answered: watching human and the universe, sitting and sleeping etc. When Melanie asked how does God look like? The children told her that Allah is bigger than the sky, than a building, bigger than a rocket.
Overall, it seems that children are not confused on the concept of God, even if adults view children as individuals who still cannot distinguish between the mental, physical and biological appearance of God.
Several responses, comments and questions were addressed to Ms. Nyhof after her presentation.
One of the attendees asked what is supposed to be done when children ask about the existence of God and how does God look like, because most Indonesian parents are confused to answer it. Another comment which arose was that the concept of God is not only influenced much on religious background, but also on cultural background. Besides those question and comment, there were several people who criticized Ms. Nyhof, because for them she did not explain the sex or the gender of God according to the children’s perspective, the difference of urban and rural children, and children who have Muhammadiyah and NU background in seeing God etc.
The interesting discussion ran for more than one and a half hour, which was informally continued after the forum.
Ms. Melanie Nyhof earned her master degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She received several awards of honour and fellowship, like the Intercultural Research Qward, Fulbright Award, Commission and Religion Theology Project Grant, and the North American Science and Religion Travel Grant. She has been living in Yogyakarta for more than ten months. Her research will conclude at the end of this year.
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