Thursday, February 25, 2010

Willing to See, Ready to Believe

Kids will ask. When it comes to faith, they have the same questions we all do: Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the point of this life? To be sure, they will include the kind of queries only children could come up with – Does God have feet? Could Jesus lift the car? – and teaching them about religion is our way of saying, “Here’s what we’ve come up with so far.”

This is a delicate proposition, and you want to find the tools that will serve them in later life. Trying to rush, trick or terrorize kids into a particular belief system is counterproductive. To quote Lady Macbeth, pace Hieronymus Bosch, “'Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.” Many of my contemporaries are still recovering from early religious instruction, which prioritized that doing one thing or another would land them in Hell. Besides turning people off, this tack misses the point. Fear might keep you from sin, but it makes you too timid to be much use.

Does Hell exist? Is it anything like Cleveland? Perhaps, but damnation is only one part of God’s story. For me, the handiest definition of Hell is existence without God. If you’re going to teach kids about our relation to God, why get hung up on that unpleasant bit?

A preferable approach is to let kids know they matter. “Let the little children come to me,” a good fellow said, adding that anyone who harmed a child was in for a world of trouble. You can never be too small for God to use, but you can certainly be too big. This message matters to kids and, imparted properly, will stay with them when they grow up.

So, how to do this? Religion, like life, is one big best guess. Some folks think they have the answers, including believers and non-believers alike. Whenever one writes a column like this, one hears from doctrinaire adherents, as well as angry atheists (who, it seems, not only don't believe in God, they also don't believe in spell-check). Ironclad certainty in the face of the infinite cosmos is absurd, even with the Scriptures or Richard Dawkins on your side.

But if you give kids the rudiments, explaining what you believe and why, they have the tools to make choices and adapt. As the adage goes, “A scholar is always made alone.” Eventually, a child will have to make his or her own decisions. They must attune to that compass we all possess, which points toward what is right, and not deny it exists. Shine your light, be an example, and if people want a piece of what you’ve got, more the better.

For my part, I am Presbyterian – which is very much like being Christian, only Scottish – and my faith is based on sacrifice for others and the suppression of self. In particular, I believe each of us is so important that God came to live among us, and to die, in order to reunite us with Him. Come to think of it, those are just about the only things I can tell you with any conviction about my religion.

Where, exactly, Jesus was born, what he looked like, etc., are unknowable, and even the Gospels are at odds on such things. Details aside, I choose to believe the larger truth. That is not so simple as it sounds. Lest we forget, it was Jesus' message that got him killed. Then, as now, people had very definite ideas about how God should be. When Jesus was not as they expected, unpleasantness ensued.

Whatever your religious faith (or lack thereof), how many of your most cherished assumptions could you stand to see overturned?

Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." That is an enchanting yet foreboding remark, but what does it mean? If I had to give my best guess at an interpretation, I’d say: Be open.

We are all someone's children, and we are not in charge. That, in itself, is an encouraging thought. I have seen too many of us wearing socks with sandals to suppose humankind has all the answers.

Fortunate children preserve their sense of wonder and openness into adulthood. The best thing to teach them is to be willing to see and ready to believe.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.