The Question: talking to your kid about God when you doubt your faith
an earlier version of this essay appeared at Punkymoms.com
“But Mama, what IS God?”
…..shit. I’m really not prepared for this conversation.
I’m sure every parent isn't ready when their 3-year-old asks this type of question, with an earnestness so intense it sends a chill down your spine. But for me, the anxiety cluster bomb that this moment detonated in me has been a recent development. For the majority of my life, I envisioned a future where this conversation with my daughter would be welcome, and the answer given would be clear and certain. But the last half-decade has changed all that, and the spiritual life I inhabit now would be unrecognizable to the high school 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 harboring delusions of grandeur about the potential of her 3x5 garden plot. Because somewhere between then and now, I’ve found my voice to articulate the deep doubts I have about my Christian faith and the concepts that I simply cannot accept, even after two decades of trying.
My own parental introduction to God happened when I was not much older than Eleanor, 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—he led me in what evangelicals call the “Sinner’s Prayer,” wherein 4-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 at such a young age was something I knew very early on I wanted to avoid, even before I found my own beliefs drifting from the confines of mainstream Christianity. But it begged the question, what then DO I tell him/her, and when, and how much? And this was under the assumption that I would be the one initiating the conversation, not getting blindsided by The Question like a lazy guru caught dozing in my mountaintop shrine. 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. Marc doesn’t worry about 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 Rough Stuff
I know the damage that fear-based religion can bring. I remember asking my grade school Sunday school teachers what happened to all the people in the world who lived and died without ever knowing about Jesus and at best hearing that “no one can know for sure,” and at worst hearing 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, and 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.
Most of these beliefs were instilled not by my parents, but by the more charismatic churches I began attending on my own as a teenager. I was drawn to what I viewed as a more primal, authentic form of religious expression than I found in the reserved Lutheran and Southern Baptist pews where I spent my early childhood. My dad had 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.”
Our household’s brand of Christianity was less flashy, but every bit as intense. My entire worldview was built on an understanding of myself as part of God’s creation—a special part—whose sole purpose in life was to bring Him glory and whose unique ability to sin left me destined to eternal separation from God save for the cross of Christ. Everything I did was expected to emanate from that belief, from the type of clothing I wore, to the music I listened to, to the career path I chose. Chose is even a tricky word to use. It’s more Christianese to speak of being “called” to a job, spouse, or ministry.
There were lots of trivial-seeming ways that this trickled down into everyday life. For example, I wasn’t allowed to have the troll dolls that were popular in the early 90’s because you made wishes on them, and that’s a form of witchcraft. I was instructed to prayerfully consider whether or not God would really want me listening to Rob Zombie, and besides, there was a perfectly wholesome Christian band that sounded just like him.
The Good Stuff
There’s another side to the coin, though. 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 religious 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, which helps me foster meaningful relationships with others that are based on shared values rather than status, beauty, or power. The doctrine of sin and salvation that I was taught may seem harsh to some, but it was egalitarian if nothing else. My parents demanded that I view every person I met as being infinitely precious in God’s sight, no better or worse than myself. I got real comfortable with asking for forgiveness when I’m in the wrong, a trait that I find scarce in a generational landscape where we tell ourselves “if they can’t handle us at our worst they don’t deserve us at our best” and label any criticism of our actions as the work of “toxic” people who need to be weeded from our lives. There’s also an anti-materialist bent to the Gospels that warns against storing up treasures on earth rather than spiritual treasure in heaven and being good stewards of Creation, so I feel a strong drive to try to keep my material shit simple and sustainable, which benefits everybody. These are values I still fervently believe in, and values that I want to pass along to my daughter.
Ready or Not
Sometimes I wonder if there were aspects of Christianity that my parents privately struggled to explain to me, and if raising me as a Christian ever prompted them to question their own doctrine. A sizable part of me wonders if it isn't my parental responsibility to shoulder that spiritual doubt, pull myself up by my existential bootstraps, and present my daughter with a vision of the world that is created and ordered by a loving God, even if I only wake up thinking that every other day. Don't we all do that to some degree? Tell our kids that everything is going to be okay even when we have no idea if that's true? My parents loved me fiercely and passed their faith on to me because they believed it. I love my daughter fiercely but I don't know what I believe anymore.
“But Mama, what IS God?”
I’m not ready for this question, so I do like most parents and make something up on the spot. And like most people, what I blurted out in that moment probably reveals more about what I really think than all the carefully-written, edited essays I could dream up.
I told her that God made the whole world.
That we can’t see God but we can feel God, like the wind.
That we can talk to God just like we talk to each other.
And that God loves us more than we could ever imagine.
I think that’s a pretty good place to start.