Teaching my kid about God as an ex-fundamentalist

June 7 | Guest post by Nikki Mayeux
Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

"But Mama, what IS God?"

Shit. I'm really not prepared for this conversation.

I'm sure that's the thought running through many parents' heads when their kid asks this type of question, with an earnestness so intense it sends a chill down your spine. The existential anxiety cluster bomb that this moment detonated in me has been a fairly recent development. For the majority of my life, I envisioned a future where this conversation with my kid would be welcome, and the answer given would be clear and certain. But the last half-decade has changed all that…

The spiritual life that I inhabit now would be unrecognizable to the high school youth group girl, leading Bible studies in a room full of Ikea furniture and Christian rock band posters. It would be questionable even to the older, liberalized, graduate student living in a Christian commune in downtown New Orleans. Because somewhere between then and now, I've found my voice to be able to articulate — out loud and irrespective of the consequences — the deep doubts that I have about my Christian faith, and the concepts that I simply cannot accept, even after two decades of trying.

My parental introduction to God happened when I was not much older than my daughter…

I have vague sensory memories of it, but I can't tell if they're real or manufactured piecemeal from the story that my dad told so often that it became part of our family mythology. He and I were sitting on our front porch on a sunny afternoon, and after explaining the basic tenets of Christianity to me — that God loves us but hates sin, and that because all humans sin we need a Savior to bring us back into right relationship with God, and allow us access to Heaven when we die. Then he led me in what evangelicals call the "Sinner's Prayer," wherein four-year-old me acknowledged these truths and asked for Jesus to enter my heart, forgive my sins, and save my soul.

I can't remember if I felt any different afterwards, because I can't remember how I felt before, and that paradox became the cornerstone of my faith life: I couldn't ever be confident that what I was feeling was real or that what I was "hearing" in my heart was actually God's voice, because I had no reference point for a time outside of that expectation. I had no time to be a human before I was a Christian Human. And this predicament plagued me so much as I got older, that I became privately envious of Christians with "dramatic" testimonies — where their Sinner's Prayer had occurred in the midst of a crippling addiction, a great personal tragedy, or, you know, at least at a point where they were above a pre-primer reading level.

Introducing God to my child with that level of rigidity was something I knew, very early on, that I wanted to avoid. But it begged the questions… what DO I tell them, and when, and how much?

My husband shares my views, but also worries a lot less about What Could Go Wrong if we mess this up, which is due to the fact that his faith has always been stronger than mine even while his theology was less conventional. My husband Marc doesn't worry about our daughter Eleanor developing a harmful perception of God, because he REALLY believes in God. A God so loving and so real that no human blundering could prevent It from making Itself known to her. Me? I'm not so sure…

The bad stuff

I know the damage that fear-based religion can bring. I remember asking what happened to all the people in the world who died without ever knowing about Jesus. At best I heard, "no one can know for sure." At worst it was that they went to hell, and would continue to go to hell until Christians, like me, preached the Gospel throughout the whole world.

I remember having a severe panic attack when I tried to call my best friend in Alabama, and her mother picked up and told me that I may get to see her sooner than I thought because the rapture was coming soon to usher in the apocalypse.

I remember being given a cross necklace by a relative during my intense middle-school battle with OCD, that came with the reminder that worrying was a sin. Every time I gave into anxiety I was telling God that I don't trust Him.

Most of the time I operated under a private, permanent cloud of guilt that I wasn't praying enough, learning enough, or being faithful enough, to please Jesus.

My dad also had many bad experiences with the cult-like aspects of charismatic churches, and held a healthy skepticism about things like prophecy, speaking in tongues, and an atmosphere that he jokingly referred to as "praying about whether your next step should be with your right foot or your left."

The good stuff

But not everything that resulted from being raised this way was bizarre or damaging. In fact, the older I get, and the more I move through this mainstream millennial culture of ours, the more things I find to appreciate about my upbringing — even if I didn't end up buying the whole package in the end.

As an ex-evangelical, I retain a deep, abiding reverence for the inner life of a person. This helps me foster meaningful relationships with others, based on shared values rather than status, beauty, or power. My parents demanded that I view every person I met as being infinitely precious in God's sight, no better or worse than myself. And I got REAL comfortable with asking for forgiveness when I'm in the wrong. There's also an anti-materialist bent to the Gospels that warns against storing up treasures on Earth, rather than spiritual treasure in heaven. So I feel a strong drive to try to keep my material shit simple and sustainable. These are values I still fervently believe in, and values that I want to pass along to my daughter.

Ready or not

Teaching your child Christianity from a starting point of love, rather than fear, is a fairly easy fix. But what do you do once you've reached the point where you're not even sure that Christ IS God, or that the Bible has the spiritual authority you've believed it had your entire life? How do you navigate faith with your child when you're still wandering in your own spiritual wilderness, still healing from the bad stuff and trying to sift through to find the Good and True?

What do you say to your three-year old then?

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  1. I found this very interesting to read. Thank you so much for sharing.

    For what it's worth I grew up Unitarian Universalist for as long as I can remember. At the church I went to that meant a lot of learning about how different religions and cultures around the world thought/believed in different versions of God or gods. It was a fairly diverse congregation, with some individuals/families who came from mixed religious faiths (including a number of Christian/Jewish couples) and some that were more on the agnostic atheist spectrum. I've never particularly identified as Christian, but I do believe in the idea of God as love and/or a sort of over-arching spiritual force in the universe a la old-school Star Wars. My husband grew up in a pretty conservatively Christian household; his dad is a pastor. My husband now identifies as atheist.

    We're getting ready to have kids, and if/when my kids ask about God I think I'll explain something along the lines of: different people believe in and worship different understandings of God, but most of them center around the idea of God as a source of creation and everything that's good in the universe and thinking about God helps them try to be good people. Then I imagine we'd talk about the different beliefs of some people they know, including myself, my husband, and both sets of grandparents.

    I guess it doesn't really help in terms of teaching Christianity (my in-laws certainly don't consider Unitarians to count as Christian, and at least for myself I'd agree), but I definitely think it's possible to talk about God/religion/spirituality and leave space for kids to figure out their own beliefs as they grow.

    9 agree
    • Thanks Alexa! I've had very welcoming experiences at the Unitarian church in my city. I love attending the services they hold during seasonal equinoxes, which involve congregants walking a floor tile labyrinth in the sanctuary and meditating on readings/scripture about the season – rebirth/renewal for spring, harvest/thanksgiving for fall, etc.

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  2. Oh, so much to think about!

    First off, have you ever heard the concepts "Summer Christian" and "Winter Christian"? I just ran across these and found them helpful: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/04/summer-and-winter-christians.html?m=1

    The tl;dr version is: some Christian communities have conflated doubt/struggles with lack of faith. But doubt and faith aren't actually opposites and don't exist on a polar spectrum; they're orthogonal to each other. The author coins the terms "summer Christian" for a Christian whose faith is mostly defined by the joy it brings them, and "winter Christian" for someone whose faith is mostly defined by struggle. I'm a winter Christian. Sounds like you may be too.

    Anyway. My kid is two and so we haven't gotten to God yet. The following is sort of what I want to convey about my beliefs, but I think it is at an older level than 3. I guess I'll do this in bits and pieces? I don't really imagine this as a monologue, more as….well, a summary of what I want to get across. In the simplest language I can manage right now. I think it'll be easier when he asks specific questions? I don't know yet!

    "Well, people mean lots of different things when they say they believe in God. Some people mean that they think there is an enormous Person who made the universe and everything in it and is watching over us. That's probably the most common way to think about God.

    "When I read you stories from the Bible [I do this — I don't know if you do] that's the sort of God they're talking about in those stories.

    "I often have a lot of trouble believing in that kind of God, though I really love the stories about him and they are very important to me. That's why I read them to you. They help me understand God and I always love them even if I don't always believe.

    "Me, when I say I believe in God, what I mean is that I believe things like love and promises and doing the right thing are really, really real. They're not things that you can see or hear or touch, but when I say I believe in God, I mean that I believe those things, especially love, are the absolute realest thing in life, realer than anything bad. We've talked about how everything dies [I have no idea whether death, sex, or God is coming first!] but I trust that loving is more important than dying. Even if the whole world ended tomorrow, which it WON'T I promise but if it did, I trust that it still is important for me to love you today. Because loving always matters.

    "And when I say that I'm Christian, I mean lots of complicated and confusing things, but mostly I mean that Jesus is how I understand loving the best. And so I've promised to follow him, like in the stories.

    "There's no way to prove any of this scientifically, which is why we call it religion or faith. And when I look at the world, often it seems like the awful things are more important, or that the awful things are winning out. So sometimes it's really hard for me to keep believing that love even CAN win, or be more important in the end.

    "You can believe in love without believing in the stories that I like to tell about love, the stories in the Bible and the ones about Jesus. But like I said, those stories are really important to me, and help me understand loving and compassion better.

    "When you grow up, I'd love it if you also believed in Jesus, because I care so much about Jesus — just like I'd love it if you were a nurse or a doctor, because I care so much about medicine [I'm a nurse practitioner]. But I'd also be very proud of you if you became, oh, a researcher or a teacher or a writer or a firefighter or lots and lots of other things, so long as you were doing the right thing for you. And I'll be very proud of you no matter what you believe about Jesus, so long as you are doing a good job of being compassionate towards other people."

    ETA: and I am sorry I took that 100% in an advice direction. I didn't mean to be preachy if that's how I came across! I just am in a very similar spot to you spiritually, I think (though I went at it from the other direction — was an atheist who wanted to be Christian and I have been looking for an authentic way to be Christian for ten years now that doesn't paper over all of my doubts) and I spend just aeons of time thinking about things like this.

    I really loved reading this so thank you. You sound like the sort of person I would love to have coffee with.

    11 agree
    • Not preachy at all, and I truly appreciate the thoughtfulness! Those sound like some great conversation starters for your kiddo and I may have to steal a few of them for my own future conversations. =) I'm super interested in that summer/winter Christian concept and have bookmarked that article to read later tonight!

      I agree, we would TOTALLY have coffee together IRL. =) Thanks for sharing!

      1 agrees
  3. I hate responding to this by telling you to "find a church," because your story suggests that you've been hurt and harmed by church and religion in the past. I want to apologize on behalf of the church and Christians. I'm sorry we did this to you.

    And yet, what I'm going to say really amounts to "find a church." Let me tell you some of my own story to explain why.

    I also grew up in a conservative evangelical household. I remember when I was about 8 that I wanted to be baptized because all of my friends were doing it, and having to go through the whole sinner's prayer business as well. I didn't understand it then, but as I grew into a very anxious and depressed teenager, I experienced the same feelings you did: that I wasn't enough for God, because I had all of this doubt and fear, and if I just had more faith, or prayed more, or spent more time at church, or swore less, or listened to the right music, or had the right friends, or the right thoughts, then I would be enough. But because I couldn't do any of this, I would always fall short. So I left the church when I went to college. And I slowly drifted away from faith…

    … When I went to grad school, I began to drift back. I mostly wanted to find a church because I wanted to find a community that wasn't my small, insular grad school cohort. Even if I didn't believe most of what was said, I still figured that the church had the potential to do some social good. And I missed the music. I focused my search on progressive churches (I wanted specifically some place that allowed women to pastor and that wouldn't turn away my lgbt friends) and through a couple false starts found myself at a United Methodist church. And my faith, though still weak and small, began to drift back.

    I learned that my doubts were ok. That God was strong enough to deal with my questions, and loved me for my mind rather than viewing it as a handicap in faith. I learned that even though I most definitely do not have my shit together, no one else does either, and we can still do great things for God. And even though I still struggle with this on most days, I learned that I am enough.

    The point of this story is that it is possible to find a church, whole denominations even, that teach a Christianity that starts with love and not fear. I don't have children, but I feel like the UMC (and probably most mainline-progressive denominations) do a much better job with children's faith development than the church I grew up in. You linked in your article to an article from Patheos that talks about emphasizing belonging over believing. I know that's what my church focuses on in its children's ministry, and also for adults.

    It's OK to have more doubt than belief. I know I do most days. But the important thing is that we belong. I belong, you belong, your husband belongs, and your child belongs. We belong to this community of God's love. And we are united together in love.

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    • Thanks, Stephanie! I definitely appreciate the nudge towards a spiritual community, and thankfully I do have a wonderful church in my life that has been a safe space for my faith journey in any season, as well as a small tight-knit network of dear friends along the whole spectrum of Christianity. My church attendance has fluctuated a lot in the past few years, but I know I am always welcome there. Being in relationship is so important – we're not meant to walk this stuff out alone! Especially us introspective types. =P

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  4. I could have written this myself… even down to me not going to church anymore but my husband goes… so very similar. I have found peace in that I know what I believe even though it may not be what everyone else believes…. I think God/Christ is love and that trumps everything else.

    I would recommend you look into Momastery/Glennon Melton Doyle (especially the blog) and Rachel Held Evans… both of these women are strong women who promote questioning and community and loving others and kind of rethinking sin and hate and evangelism… I think you would be encouraged to find that you aren't the only one who feels this way… 🙂

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    • Thanks for the recommendations and encouragement! There are several "liberal" or "progressive" or whatever you want to call them Christian bloggers who I resonate with, but sadly in the Facebook Wars Era I find it so hard to engage with any of it because I get too frustrated and deflated by the comments sections lol.

      • Oh, I agree – I get so aggravated by people… but I still would encourage you to read the Momastery blog – I don't know that Ive read a mean comment over there (hard maybe, but not mean)… and look for the book Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans – it got back to the meaning of the basic Christian tenements without all the politics involved

        you are so sweet to reply back!

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        • I just looked up the Momastery blog. Her post about her mother made me cry. She has a lot of powerful things to say. Thank you for the recommendation.

          1 agrees
  5. This is spot on with my life right now. I've been raised by winter Christians and I'm not. They don't know that I'm bi.

    And my 4 year old is asking questions about God, death, etc.

    • Right there with ya. =) The Big Questions are so hard!! And I know it's going to get more difficult as she gets older and we have to start having talks about what the rest of our family believes vs. what we believe. Sooooo not ready for that.

  6. I would definitely talk this over with your husband. Your daughter is only 3, so you need to answer it short and sweet. You'll lose her if you go on for days and days with an explanation. Talk it over with him and come up with a simple answer that a 3 year old would understand.

    By the way, I was raised Catholic and I didn't go through the beliefs you described. I belong to a church now that is so different….Church of Religious Science. There are a lot of churches out there that are not regimented and fundamental as you have described. I found mine through a friend.

    Whatever you do, don't overthink the situation with your daughter. You sound like a very caring Mom. I'm sure you and your husband will come up with an answer that will satisfy her!

    The best to you!

  7. I think it would be okay to tell a child, "What is God? Something much greater than we can understand. God is so big that I know that I can't know everything about Him or Her. There's some good theories out there, and some I believe, and some I'm not so sure. But I do know two important things: That God loves us, and that God wants us to love each other. If you start there, you can find God's will for you, and enough about Him/Her to get you by."

    6 agree
  8. This is beautiful. Thank you so much for writing this.

    May I recommend a book? "God's Paintbrush" by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso might be a really beautiful starting point for these conversations. It's a kid's book about encountering and thinking about the divine, but it's not specific to a particular faith. If your library has it, you may want to take a look at it, and see if it would be a good fit.

    Edited to add a link:
    https://www.amazon.com/Paintbrush-Anniversary-Sandy-Eisenberg-Sasso-ebook/dp/B00A3EUMXI/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

  9. This is a truly awesome and thought provoking post. Thank you for the read!
    I am an Agnostic who was raised in an American Baptist church until the age of nine when we stopped attending regular services. The only reason we stopped going weekly and became "Chreasters" was because the time of the service changed and my mother, a bartender, could not function on the four hours of sleep she'd be able to get between work and services. In my church the emphasis was always that God is loving. He loves us and he forgives us and as long as we are essentially good then we will go to heaven. So it was startling to me when I heard stories of my husband's Catholic upbringing where the whole emphasis was on fearing God and being terrified of going to hell. I often wonder if that difference is why I still believe, although I don't practice, and he's become an atheist. More evidence to that theory is that it's the exact same situation as my father who was raised Catholic is and is know also an Atheist.
    So whatever you end up telling your daughter my advice would be to emphasize God's love and not his wrath. It seems, at least in my personal experience, to make a huge difference later in life.

    2 agree

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