The Question: Teaching My 3-Year-Old About God as an Ex-Fundamentalist
“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 3-year-old asks this type of question, with an earnestness so intense it sends a chill down your spine. But for me, the existential anxiety cluster bomb 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 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 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, harboring delusions of grandeur about the potential of her 3×5 garden plot. Somewhere between then and now, I’ve found my voice able to articulate—out loud and irrespective of the consequences—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 my dad told so often, 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— God loves us but hates sin, and 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. That paradox became the cornerstone of my faith life: I couldn’t ever be confident what I was feeling was real or 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. This predicament plagued me so much as I got older,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 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, 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, 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 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 “no one can know for sure,” and, at worst, hearing “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 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 worrying was a sin, and every time I gave into anxiety I was telling God, I don’t trust Him. There were these horrific things. 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.
To be fair, 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 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, distinct from plants and animals—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 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 a form of witchcraft. My dad taped over the movie Titanic to create an “edited” version with the sex and graphic drowning scenes cut out. (Remember VHS you guys??) 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
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, which helps me foster meaningful relationships with others based on shared values rather than status, beauty, or power. The doctrine of sin and salvation I was taught, may seem harsh to some, but it was egalitarian if nothing else. My parents demanded 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, a trait 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. 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 I want to pass along to my daughter.
Teaching your child Christianity from a starting point of love, rather than fear, is a fairly easy fix. Even the most hard-lined evangelicals and charismatics I know will agree—in word at least if not in deed— it is Christ’s kindness that leads us to repentance, and if that’s all I were trying to do, I would know where to start. But what do you do once you’ve reached the point where you’re not even sure Christ IS God, or 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 3-year old then?
Ready or Not
“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 God made the whole world.
We can’t see God, but we can feel God, like the wind.
We can talk to God just like we talk to each other.
And God loves us more than we could ever imagine.
I think that’s a pretty good place to start.