August 12, 2019/ David Baggett
A vital part of Fred Rogers’ compelling and irrepressibly optimistic vision of the world was his understanding of human beings as spiritual creatures—every last one of them. Young and old, saints and sages, bullies and bombasts, all of them are sacred, eternal creatures with a divine stamp on them. And owing to that stamp—the very image of God, the imago dei—each person is imbued with infinite value and worth.
Fred was an ordained Christian minister, and Christianity has a lot to say about our imperfections and fallings short, which introduces the need for forgiveness. Fred even sang about it. First used on The Children’s Corner and later on the Neighborhood (until it had to be removed because of the explicit reference to God) was the song Goodnight, God. The words and music were by Josie Carey and Fred, and it went like this:
Goodnight, God, and thank you for this very lovely day.
Thank you, too, for helping us at work and at our play.
Thank you for our families. For each and every friend.
Forgive us, please, for anything we’ve done that might offend.
Keep us safe and faithful, God. Tell us what to do.
Goodnight God. And thank you God for letting us love you.
Goodnight God. And thank you God for letting us love you.
Fred wasn’t the sort of practical theologian to start with the bad news of our faults and failures and foibles. He was much more wont to start more positively, and this wasn’t just because of his own preferences; he had an important theological reason for doing so.
Readers may know that in a framed print on his office wall he prominently displayed his favorite quote “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” from the children’s book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Its translation is that what’s essential is invisible to the eye. Fred liked to emphasize what’s essential, rather than what’s merely apparent, peripheral, or accidental.
Our sinful condition is not essential to us. Even if everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, sin is universal, but not essential. It’s not who we are; it doesn’t define us. If there’s hope that by God’s grace our sin can be forgiven and defeated, that shows that sin isn’t central to our identity. It can go away and we can remain. Essential features have no such property. Sin is rather what we might call merely contingent.
In contrast, though, if all of us as human beings, as Fred believed, have been made in God’s image, like the Bible teaches, then that is essential to who we are. In the biblical narrative, sin didn’t enter the picture until the third chapter of Genesis. Fred went farther back to the creation narrative and its rich theology. Our creation in God’s imago dei reveals something that not only all of us hold in common, but something absolutely central to our deepest identity.
Like the Oxford luminary Austin Farrer taught, Fred thought that learning to love our neighbor involves nothing less than learning to see God in our neighbor and our neighbor in God. Farrer was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and advanced a version of the moral argument. For a taste of Farrer’s argument, consider the way we normatively ought to think about other people. It is of great importance, Farrer argued, that we value them rightly, that we think about others in such a way as to regard them properly.
The only limitations that such deep regard for others should encounter are those that cannot be avoided. Such regard should be at once so pure and so entire that it leads to a sort of frustration that derives from the incompleteness of our definition of those we so regard. Thinking of our neighbors in too garden variety a way can’t sustain the esteem we intuitively think they deserve. The conclusion to which Farrer felt compelled is that what deserves our regard is not simply our neighbor, but God in our neighbor and our neighbor in God.
Such a vision deeply resonated with Fred’s own, because for Fred, too, recognition of the sacredness of our neighbors should have profound implications. They’re not mere collections of atoms and molecules; not just cogs in machines or means to ends, but eternal, sacred beings who possess infinite value, worth, and dignity. Created by and in the image of a God of all goodness and perfect love, they’re capable of loving and being loved.
Baylor’s C. Stephen Evans has written Natural Signs and Knowledge of God, where “natural signs” serve as pointers toward God—though nothing like absolute demonstrations. Natural signs, on his view, provide a measure of good evidence for belief in God. He refers to two moral natural signs, one of which is human dignity and worth, this very reality that captured Fred’s imagination.
Catholic novelist Graham Greene, in his The Power and the Glory, has written, “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
As God loves us without conditions, so we too should strive to love our neighbors. Fred would often say that love isn’t a state of perfect caring, but that it’s an active noun like ‘struggle’. “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, here and now.” He always kept these words from a social worker in his pocket: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”
Fred would agree with C. S. Lewis that we’ve never met an ordinary person. And with Marilynne Robinson, who wrote in Gilead, “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.”
Editor’s note: David Baggett is currently writing a book about Fred Rogers tentatively entitled Why Mister Rogers Bowed.