Tell my son who God is, but DO NOT put the fear of God in him!
This recent Freshly Pressed blog post by W.T.F seriously struck a chord in me. My inquisitive kiddo has questions, God love him! I appreciate and value when others are willing to engage with him and give him their perspective, but I felt like I need to put some guidelines out there.
For context, I am apathetically agnostic. I perhaps missed out on the God gene? This has honestly been one of my greatest sorrows. As a child, I desperately tried to feel and believe the way others in my religious community did, but I simply didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t. Since I officially left my childhood religion at age 14, I have greatly enjoyed learning about many religions. I have found that nearly all spiritual paths have basic tenets in common, and find the link between religion and historical events to be fascinating. At least these efforts were not entirely in vain, as my knowledge of Bible stories enabled me to understand the allusions ever-present in the Western literary canon, and my growing knowledge of other religions often puts things into context. This background also leads me to use this first rule for discussing religion and spirituality. I’d love for others to use it to!
1. Stress that you are sharing your personal belief or point of view, not an Absolute Truth.
My experiences with and outlook on religion and spirituality have made it somewhat challenging to answer my son’s questions about God, who we are, where we came from, and why we are here. As it stands, he is a self-made Jesus freak. I love it! (Of course, I love blowing his mind by asking who created God, when he is so sure that God created the world. Sadistic, much? I prefer to think of myself as a challenger, but…)
It all began two summers ago when I decided to read children’s stories from the major religions to my son: Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. We cleared out the World Religion shelf at our local library and got to it. Since my son is named after the Dalai Lama, I was really excited to teach him the basics of Buddism. However, the story of Siddhartha and the Four Sights absolutely terrified him! For at least two months after reading that particular story, Tenzin would tell me that he didn’t want to die, that he didn’t want me to die, and that he didn’t want to get sick or old, either. Not really what I was going for.
I suppose this makes me responsible for putting the FEAR OF BEING HUMAN in him. So from now on, Rule #2 is:
2. Focus on the constructive aspects of your belief, not on hellfire! (Whatever form that might take: in my unfortunate Buddhism adventure, the hellfire happens to be reality.)
We both truly enjoyed, however, the stories coming out of Hinduism, especially the story of Ganesh. (He still likes to point out images of Ganesh when we eat at our local Indian buffet.) The Hindu gods are so colorful, flawed, and human, and far more compassionate than the Greek pantheon. The stories are epic and exciting, and provide lots of opportunities for discussion about The Way Things Are. (Plus, the illustrations challenged his already-formed gender schema of “men have short hair, women have long hair.” But, that discussion can wait for another time…) Ultimately, I think that religion can help put a lot of things about our world into perspective. So, I decided to lay out the following guideline:
3. Anchor your discussion with the “How” and “Why” of your beliefs.
Sometime after this, Tenzin started coming home from being with his Great-Grandpa telling stories about Jesus. Not even stories, really, more like abstract images. Basically, he came home telling me about, “Jesus in the sky.” Now, I was delighted that his Grandpa was sharing his religious experience and providing Tenzin with another perspective. That is really what my parenting style calls for. However, I seriously take issue with the way he was being taught. Grandpa meant no harm, and in fact provided Tenzin with the comfort of a Christian afterlife. Tenzin really needed that to help him cope with the reality of mortality! (Again, I know it’s my fault. My bad.) This brings me to guideline item #4, which is a bit of a development of #3:
4. Avoid abstractions, strive for concrete examples and explanations.
The kicker really came around Halloween this past year, when Tenzin instructed me with the following, “Mamma, if you ever see a devil, just do what Jesus says, and you won’t go to hell. Hell is a hot place.”
There was so much wrong with this statement that we spent at least a week coming back to it, trying to put it into context and make it applicable. We talked about metaphor, that actually seeing a devil is not the literal concern. (He thought it was.) That hell may or may not exist, but threatening people with hellfire is definitely a good way to control them with fear. Did he know what Jesus says? Of course not, but I tried to sum it up with “be a kind person, and make good choices, in order to live a good life.” What he ultimately sythesized was, “I want to live a good life, but hell is a hot place.” Gotta love ‘im.
HOW we teach is so important. Almost more important than WHAT, I might think. (I’ll have to chew on that for a while before I decide.) I want him to know wonder and beauty, as well as acknowledge the unsavory bits of reality. Religion and spirituality can certainly have a place in understanding it all, but it, above all, must at least make a little bit of sense. With that in mind, I leave you with my final guideline for discussing religion and spirituality with other people’s inocentes:
5. Invite him to ask questions, share his thoughts, formulate his own belief.
(Of course, it all makes me wonder what his version of my ‘The Way Things Are’ explanations are!)
Have your children picked up some strange ideas from others?
Do you have a method for discussing religion and spirituality?