“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?