Monday, May 11, 2009

Incarnation

My three-year-old daughter doesn't like God.

Thanks to my inept attempts at early-childhood religious education, she seems to regard him as a kind of creepy intruder who hangs around in her bedroom. "I don't want him here!" she scowled when I explained that God is everywhere, even right here in her room. Omnipresence, apparently, is not her favourite doctrine.

Invisibility is also a problem. We've been in the habit of nightly prayer for quite some time now, but only recently has Pie realized that "saying prayers" means "talking to God." She is not pleased.

"But what does God look like?" she demands. I am tempted to foster this instinct of idolatry and reply, "He is pink. And fluffy." Instead I embark upon an explanation of incorporeality. "But," I add, grasping at straws, "did you know that God invented pink? He invented pink knowing that you, Pie, would like it!" We're on stronger ground here, so I add some references to flowers, rainbows, and sunsets, all created by God especially for her. (I'm willing to permit a little egocentrism if it will foster her acceptance of theism.)

But we're moving onto shaky ground. I am impressed, in a way, with Pie's insistence that she will not love or pray to a God she doesn't know. Even peer pressure is of no avail: when all the kids in Sunday School made cards saying, "God loves me," I asked Pie if God loved her. She shook her head adamantly. She can't love God, she explains, because she still doesn't know who he is.

I can't recall having any such reservations as a child. I accepted that God loved me and was extremely useful at times when I was scared of big dogs. I never demanded proof of his nature before inviting him into my heart. Pie is of a much more suspicious nature. This God who creeps around people's rooms uninvited seems a bit of a shady character - someone who seems an awful lot like a stranger, and she knows better than to talk to strangers.

She has anticipated a key question all religious believers must face. Who is this God you worship? And what makes you think that he is worth worshipping?

God, the inventor of rainbows and butterflies, must also inevitably become God, inventor of cancer and tsunamis. The God we infer from the world as we know it is not the same God I worship. The central claim of my faith is that the world around us is a most imperfect reflection of the God who created it, that the touchstone for our knowledge of God must always be Christ's claim that "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

So we pulled out the children's Bible again last night, and I read Pie the story of Mary and Martha (she likes that one because there are women in it), and the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus she will grudgingly accept. He is a man and an adult, as alien to her as the first-century Galilean must in some ways be to us all. Sin and atonement are doctrines far beyond her reach, as are incarnation and immortality. She can begin only with a man who, when approached by an irate Martha, chose not to make Mary run along and do some housework.

27 comments:

Mad said...

I think Pie might've gotten God confused with Edward Cullen.

Veronica said...

Very Barthian. We only know God through Jesus. I still find that my faith in a theoretical omnipotent spirit gets iffy, but Jesus brings me back to it every time.

Andrea said...

That's really interesting. Frances and I have had so far approximately three conversations about religion, and all of them short. ("What's Church?" "Church is a place some people go to to talk to God." "What's God?" "That depends on who you ask, sweetie.") I'm happy to let her find her own way on this one, including if it leads her to the church I abandoned 17 yrs ago, but it's fascinating to see a different philosophy in action.

planetnomad said...

I was always amazed at how young my children grappled with really deep theological implications. At 5, Elliot was asking me the nature of the trinity. Pie is on the right track. As a child, I found the idea of omnipresence really freaky too. And what better place to begin than with Jesus?

Rachel said...

What a sweetie Pie!

This reminds me of a story our vicar once told us about a young child asking his mother about the omnipresence of God. Is he in this house he asked? Yes, came the response. In this room. Yes. In this cup? The Mother, after a moment, well, yes, he is. Child claps his hand over the top of the cup, exclaiming "got him!".

Bea said...

Mad - LOL.

Andrea - I've never believed that there is some kind of religiously neutral position from which one can freely choose among the various belief options. We always start from somewhere, and the position that strikes us as neutral is usually just the cultural norm. I definitely see it as my job to communicate to my children what I believe about God and why, in an atmosphere that makes it possible for them to see the appeal of those beliefs. But I don't kid myself that they'll do anything BUT find their own way. Pie is only three, and already she's quite adamant about exactly how many of my beliefs she's willing to accept (i.e. none).

Omaha Mama said...

Our God conversations have been some of my toughest parenting talks. How can I explain my faith if I don't even always understand it. I'll never forget the What Is God? question in the van during our five minute morning drive. She was two. I was baffled.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

We haven't talked about God much but I've fielded this one: "If people didn't live when dinosaurs lived, then where did people come from?"

So today, out of curiosity, I asked my kids what God looks like. "He's kind of like an angel and kind of like a bird," said my 7-year-old. Said my 4-year-old, "My imaginary friend Little Foot told me that God looks like a bird with a pointy beak."

Apparently I need to discuss this with them further!

Kit said...

My Youngest had the same problem with Father Christmas at about that age. She was terrified and wanted to hang her stocking in another room, so he wouldn't come near her in the night.

Now aged 6 she is fine with the concept of God as a spirit, but I think the way was eased by angels and fairies, which you can't see either, but can still believe in. God is a hard concept to get your head around at that age, especially if you are quite critical as Pie sounds like she is!

Andrea said...

Jennifer, I love teh bird w/ the pointy beak. That is too cool.

Bea, I can see what you're saying, but I don't know. For us, the God talk just doesn't happen, and neither of us are missing it. If one day she has questions for me, I'll answer them.

I don't even know what the cultural norm would be, especially in our neighbourhood. I think the school celebrates pretty well everything, and she's got friends from many different traditions.

Bea said...

Andrea - I'd say the cultural norm right now, in Canada at least, is that religious belief is a private, subjective matter, and that the most polite position is a kind of tolerant agnosticism. A child with no religious training will acquire a number of (mostly unarticulated) assumptions about religion and about God, and these will be derived primarily from school and from the media. Such a child is neither more nor less free to choose what to believe - that choice must ultimately be made by everybody, no matter what their starting assumptions are.

Occidental Girl said...

Funny how things are more complicated when they become their most simple form!

kgirl said...

Yeah, don't blame her one bit.

Anonymous said...

I also admire Pie's skepticism and it will serve her well through her life. But as the tag to this article points out..this is an issue of FAITH. How to teach faith to a young child....a blind trust and belief in loving god when we constantly teach our children to "be careful", "be safe" to "think for yourself"? The concepts contradict to be sure. But there is good reason to make sure your little skeptic has faith, in herself, in her own goodness, in her parents, in her world, in a kind of order...perhaps a god or benevolent spirit that ensures the world will stay on its axis. Faith.

Jaelithe said...

I was the same as Pie. Why can't I see God? Why doesn't God prove to me that he's here, that he made this stuff, that he knows me? Why is God supposed to be a boy? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why should babies die? (Yes, I was asking questions like the last two as early as age five.)

I am an inveterate skeptic and critic of deities to this day, despite my father's, aunt's, and grandmother's best efforts to make me a Good Christian (good and Christian being virtually synonymous in their views, of course).

However, my constant skepticism and curiosity about religion lead me to study it quite a bit as a teenager and college student. I've read four different translations of the Bible cover to cover, and studied and written papers about the history of the text. I've also read several Christian philosophers and studied the differences between Christian sects.

If I were a Christian, I'd be a very well-informed one.

Beck said...

I remember one of my kids being EXTREMELY creeped out by the idea of God being everywhere. But all three of my kids have accepted the idea pretty happily of a loving God, and we really haven't had a lot of theological questions. They actually have - and I'm startled to realize that I'm moved by this - a simple childlike faith. I hope that it remains like that, uncomplicated, a love that knows that it is loved in return.

Andrea said...

I disagree. A family's beliefs can exert a huge influence on what a child will accept and reject, or most people would grow up to find a new religion, not follow the one their parents hold. And there is, in my mind, a big difference between having religious discussions when children are very young (and tend to accept just about everything their parents say--I mean, who would accept the story of Santa Claus otherwise?) and when they are older and have more fully developed their ability to think critically and to see their parents as fallible.

Kids before a certain age are not really capable of disbelieving their parents. What you're seeing from Pie right now is, really, her acceptance of your teaching but dislike of its implications.

Bea said...

Andrea - Absolutely, families have a great influence on a child's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) - and this is no less true for agnostic or non-observant families than it is for Christian or Muslim ones. Many children raised in Christian homes grow up to be Christians - and many children raised in families who observe no religion grow up to observe no religion. (In fact, I suspect the migration patterns in our culture are more likely to reflect a movement away from organized religion rather than toward it.)

Even so, most adults who profess a faith do so as a result of mature reflection, and although they may still belong broadly to the same faith group as their parents, virtually no one I know holds the same beliefs today that their parents do, or that they themselves held as children or teenagers.

The person raised with no religious education will still hold beliefs about God. They will just be different beliefs, and probably less consciously formulated beliefs, than a person raised within a religious tradition.

Amelia said...

What a wonderful thinking child Pie is. I suspect this will torment as well as serve her well in life. :)

Sarcastic Mom said...

Incredible. I love that she "needs more."

painted maypole said...

being a preschool chapel leader has been an experience... some of the kids just get it, and some don't. my favorite comment was after my Easter chapel one little boy went back to the classroom and told his teacher "Jesus died so that we can be with him in Heaven" (i was so impressed he was listening!) "But I don't want to go to heaven today" (his teacher assured him that he didn't have to go today)

EvaV said...

The concept of God is so so hard to understand, even as an adult. Good for Pie for being curious and trying to figure it out! I think that kind of exploration is really important at all ages.

JCK said...

That's really impressive that she has such a mind of her own and isn't willing to just go with the flow.

Jennifer said...

I had very similar conversations with my mother as a child. I grew up loving Bible stories (I still do) but I still do not believe in God.

Anonymous said...

Our sons didn't think too deeply about theology but they LOVED youth group. "They have discovered God and she is Alyssa" we used to say.

The social aspect of "church friends" versus "school friends" served them well. Church friends you know in a more narrow context, doesn't matter who went to the dance with who, etc.

I always believed it best to raise them with some form of organized religion, something for them to reject or not, something for them to explore on their own as adults.

(Your) Anon

Brad Wright said...

Wow, Pie sounds theologically precocious. I'm almost terrified about the mystery of raising children in the faith. How is it that the thing most important to me is something that I can be so unsure of being able to give to my children.

Love and prayer had better work because it's about all I can think to do....

Brad Wright said...

As for your exchange with Andrea, it seems that as parents, our role is to teach children truth and beauty, and we're limited by our own perceptions and experiences. As I see it, the way the world works is with a God, and so that's what comes through almost from day one to my kids. That seems most appropriate for parents to do.