The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The question of God

It wasn't just the free babysitting that lured me to stick around at the temple this morning after I had dropped Julia off at school. Sure, Evan was excited about the prospect of a morning spent playing with other kids and unfamiliar toys. But it was the topic of the rabbi's discussion group, so timely given some of the things I've been grappling with lately, that made staying irresistible. "Talking To Your Children About God," the flyer had advertised when it came home in Julia's backpack a few weeks earlier and I immediately though "wow, I wish someone could teach me how to do that." And so there I was, with Evan happily deposited in the playroom and Julia painting pictures down the hall, ready to talk about a subject that I'm not even sure I believe in at all.

I dutifully jotted down the names of the authors who were mentioned as being particularly good at handling this subject with young children and I nodded my head as each of the rabbi's suggestions and ideas were laid out. Plenty of useful tactics to get kids talking about God, to be sure, and plenty of lovely ways to frame the answers to complicated questions. But at the end, when the time came for questions, my hand went up. The subject I really wanted addressed, and the one which hadn't been touched on at all yet, was how to handle a situation where the children are the ones who seem abundantly clear in their ideas of what God is and how their faith should be incorporated into their daily lives, and it is the parents who have all of the questions.

As I type this entry, Julia is upstairs in her bedroom, singing Hebrew prayers at the top of her lungs and instructing her stuffed animals in the correct way to celebrate the Sabbath. When she performs puppet shows, the villains are always characters like Haman and Pharoah, two of the most notable "bad guys" in Jewish holiday tales. The stories and ideas of our religious heritage permeate even the most unexpected aspects of Julia's daily life. I don't know why this surprises me so much, given the fact that we have chosen to send Julia to a Jewish preschool. Julia is a very teachable child, and her school has taught her well. For the most part, I embrace and celebrate the wonderful ways that she is learning about and experiencing Judaism. I'll happily light Sabbath candles every week and read countless Jewish picture books, if that's what makes her happy. I love sharing my culture with Julia. But the one area in which I feel a little uncomfortable is where the whole God thing is concerned.

I first realized that Julia had an awareness of God and a clear vision of who and what a God might be at a Tot Shabbat a few months ago. Following that day, I asked Julia what she knew and understood about God. "God is everything and it's all around us," she replied promptly. "God is in me and God is in you and in the flowers and the trees and the ways we love each other and live our lives." Her response, so automatic and clearly learned, was as matter-of-fact as her answer to a mathematical equation. God is everywhere. 1 + 1 = 2. What's for lunch? The conversation took my breath away, in part because what she was expressing was such a beautiful notion, but in larger part because it was something I wasn't sure that I myself believed to be true.

In securing for my daughter a religious education, I have offered her exposure to a set of ideas and ideals that are her heritage and her birthright, and I've given her an opportunity to develop her own faith. But at the same time, I have exposed her to a set of explanations and beliefs which her father and I, to differing degrees, both find to be problematic. And those concepts have been presented to her not as ideas but as facts. I think it's lovely that Julia has such a pure faith in her religion and her idea of what God is. But truth be told, I also think the whole thing smacks of rote memorization and sounds almost frighteningly cult-like when recited back to me by a 3 year old.

I've been very on the fence as to whether I should challenge some of the ideas that Julia's been taught or simply support her beliefs. It would be so easy to say to her "you know, there are many different ideas about what God is, and some people don't even believe God exists at all. It's up to you to decide what you believe. I think that the God you describe is lovely, and I'd like to believe in something similar, but not everyone would agree." But it seems unfair to prematurely challenge what she's been taught when she seems so happy and comforted by it. There's no harm in a young child believing in God, even if her parents don't. There could be harm, however, in not teaching a child to think for herself. Which value do I hold more dearly -- supporting my child's faith or encouraging her to question?

The rabbi nodded when I asked presented my dilemma (in a far more concise way than I've presented it here). "That's the crux of the problem," he agreed as parents all around me nodded their heads and whispered "good question." His advice, in the end, was to continue to provide an opportunity for Julia to talk openly and honestly about God and to increase my own level of personal opinion and invitation to question as she grows cognitively. "She'll ask the questions on her own one of these days," he told me, "provided you've created an environment where she feels comfortable voicing her ideas and doubts. That would be the ideal time to share the questions you're grappling with yourself." It's good advice, both from a religious leader and a more experienced parent who's been down this road already, and I'm inclined to take it. So for now, I'm going to stay quiet and wait for Julia to grow up a little bit. I look forward to the day we'll be able to have a more interactive conversation about God, but I'm pretty sure it would simply be confusing to start that discussion now.

I must confess, there's a large part of me that hopes that Julia will continue to hold onto her faith even after she matures enough to question it. I envy the way she believes so completely. I wish that I could feel it, too. Maybe when the time comes, she'll be able to teach me how. But if not, hopefully I'll be able to show her that one can question and doubt, yet still identify strongly as a Jew. However temporary it might turn out to be, my daughter's faith has made me more connected to my religious roots. And now that I've come to know this part of myself again, I suspect I'd miss a lot more than just the challah if we stopped celebrating Shabbat.


At 3:44 PM, Blogger Kristy said...

Um. Wow. There's a lot to digest here. Certainly more than I'm able to in a comment. Your questions are so personal, honest and universal at the same time. A lot of heads were nodding in that room, for good reason. The best we can do, like I've said before, and you've said here, is be honest with ourselves and with our children. Just because you can't answer a question, doesn't mean the question hasn't any answer at all.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Suzanne said...

I have begun thinking about this, too. I would like my children to be raised in my religion, but like you I have many doubts about it myself. Will acknowledging my concerns about our religion to my kids diminish their own capacity for faith?

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

At 8:30 PM, Anonymous Jordan Emmart said...

I know that my own religious background differs greatly from Judaism, but I must say, one of the most important moments in my life was when my mother told me she wasn't sure God existed. I went to her with the question, "what does God look like?" as I drew a picture for my 1st grade Sunday School class. She was the teacher that day.

This is one of my earliest memories overall, and certainly my first memory of my mother not knowing the answer to something. She was a genius until that moment. Now I know that her answer to my question is what makes her even more of a genius to me. After all, without doubt there is no faith.

It was, and still is, so important to me that my mom was really honest with me at that time, and that she encouraged me to qustion things and make my own decisions about something that seems so much like a family belief. I felt special and mature and trusted because my mom was honest from the beginning.

I know you will be honest with Julia and talk about everything in an open forum (that's a family trait that we don't possess which is why the incident sticks with me, I think). Religious identity continues to be a source of much conversation between my mom and me. I value that time. I should really tell her that.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Rosemary said...

I find it very exciting to have found another parent who has approached religous education from a similar point as myself. I was born and bred Catholic, it's written on my DNA, but I don't, seemingly, have the faith of my parents or some of my siblings. I find a lot of the Church teachings to be suspect, though the history and theology is fascinating to me. Still, it was the birth of my first child that brought me back to the Church. I wanted to give to her the best of everything, and that most certainly included a firm philosophical and theological foundation. The Catholic Church was the best, most consistent, theology that I knew. So, that was how I raised my children. We went, as a family, to Catholic Church (and to Protestant Bible school for a while - til I couldn't take that much church in one day). My daughters went to Catholic grade school and high school.

My daughters never came home with quite the earnest faith of Julia - though Alex, my 2nd, did state, quite emphatically, that she would be Pope and no boys better try to stop her. Still, I was the one to offer up the questions when they came home. I was somewhat troubled about the idea of being the skeptical influence in their life - but, really, in the end I followed my heart, my nature. I asked the questions that were not being asked in school. I didn't offer answers because, frankly, I had none to give. I had worried about being an "insider" questioning the faith, as though it should only be questioned from the outside. I still believe that is true if one wants to go on the attack against an organization - but questioning, ?, that has to always be an acceptable mode of faith community.

My children no longer go to Mass. When I stopped enforcing it, they stopped going. So did their father. Eventually, so did I. Not much of a faith role model, am I? I "envy" you your religous traditions in the home. There really aren't such traditions in Catholicism and so giving up Church is essentially giving up one's religous identity. I didn't want to do that. I just don't do group-speak / group-belief. I don't believe what the other people in Church believe. C.S. Lewis made very good fun of people with such pretensions in "The Screwtape Letters". Think I'll go read some Wordsworth again for some much needed personal validation after this thought flow... :-)

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Wonderful post, Rebecca. My husband and I struggle with this issue as well. We, ourselves, cannot say we are strong believers. We actually have trouble even saying we'd like our children to be strong believers. Yet something pulls me to raise them with religion. The one thing I do know for certain is that it has to be ok for there to be questions.

The (Episcopal) church we attend is not only open to questioning religion, but questions are openly discussed each week. Maybe my children will grow into strong faith, maybe not. But they will be able to question. Maybe they will find the answers that so far have not found me?


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