As a parent, I am witness daily to the mysteries of my daughter's growing-up and find myself rehearsing memories of my own childhood. This is an experience that many parents have. Noticing the substantial theological influences from books, cartoons and games in my daughter's life has made me reflect on the ones from my boyhood.
I always found public television's "Mister Rogers" an inviting and endearing presence. I grew up on his show, alongside Sesame Street and Electric Company. And when I was a young adult, I read a profile of Fred Rogers in a magazine and related to him in a new way. I learned about a man who went to seminary, continued to read and think about theology, and was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Of course, as a child I had no idea about the grown-up spiritual questions he lived with behind the scenes, but learning even a little more about his "private" theological life, that he still read and thought about the great questions that theology constantly puts before us, allowed me a small vantage into the nobility of a great teacher who had found the magic of living in two registers at once: the experiential worlds of childhood and adulthood, and of the fantasies and realities whose intertwining make each experiential world a journey worth inhabiting with as much consent and appreciation as one can muster.
Recently, some clips of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" were remixed into an auto-tuned song, "Garden of Your Mind," by John D. Boswell for PBS, apparently to help carry Fred Rogers (who died in 2003) and his message to a new generation, and to help spread the word about supporting PBS. I think this quality remix (see above) gives a good taste of the show, and more deeply, of the revelatory power of falling in love with the world that Rogers advocated. The song also provides a taste of the gentle psychedelia, a bidding strange and welcome, present in the show. This uncanny element -- a way of entering into the depth of things ruminatively -- occurs throughout the song: "scary things," "cat's eyes," the mysterious delivery of whistles and Rogers' brief rococo solo, and the recurring reference to "the garden of your mind."
Feeling directly addressed by Mister Rogers is an example of what every child deserves from their childhood teachers, and is one way that the education of children should inform the education of adults. (Here is a reflection from Rogers' friend and co-worker Rev. Eliot Daley on the God of Fred Rogers evident in his approach to educating children.)
I think about this especially when I teach my undergraduates, mostly 18-22 year olds who are in the midst of exploring fantasy/reality in the coda to the long conclusion to their childhood -- a conclusion never really concluded -- and the simultaneous commencement of their long entrance into adulthood. When their soul-explorations are brought intentionally into the curriculum of our classes, I am more able to remember what it means to teach persons who are well underway in their own journeys, persons who are not just wrestling with ideas, but who are, in the words of educational theorist Madeleine Grumet, "other people's children."
Curiosity has been a contested virtue in Christian traditions, but the cultivation of curiosity was one of Fred Rogers' most fundamental spiritual exercises. I agree with theologian (and Fordham colleague) Jeannine Hill Fletcher who argues for the experience and practice of "wonder" as a good of interreligious encounter, and I think that curiosity and wonder can anchor much more of a theological life than has sometimes been acknowledged. In Rogers' mantra, "It's good to be curious about many things."
This curiosity seemed to be the fruit of and reason for the deep gratitude for existence that Rogers taught. His 1997 acceptance speech upon receiving a lifetime Emmy award shows with an almost ancient-feeling equanimity what he was able to let through in his life. The keynote is gratitude for gifts received from others:
Fred Rogers talked about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as "a place where friends help friends find the courage to grow." I hope that the theology classroom would always strive to become that sort of an environment, in service of the experience and practice of curiosity and of wonder. Thank you, "Saint Fred."