What we talk about when we talk about God

October 25, 2010 | 25 comments
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photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

Bruce Feiler’s daughter was just five when she pitched him a question right to the gut of religious experience:  “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?”

Feiler writes books on the Bible and God for a living, so he’d presumably given the question some thought. Nevertheless he had no good answer ready for his daughter. So he did what any loving parent would do:  answered the question with an inartful dodge, and then wrote about it in the New York Times style section.

How do we answer our children’s questions about God, he asked, when we are ourselves doubtful, confused, or otherwise conflicted?

Feiler solicited comments on the matter from a formerly-Catholic agnostic playwright, a formerly-Episcopalian agnostic New Testament scholar, and a popular Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles.  It’s not hard to guess the direction their responses took.  Among the educated elite readership of the NYT, a kind of ritualistic doubt partners with a set of tolerant gestures as the yin and yang of the new virtue, and self-disclosure at all times and in all things and in all places is the great personal imperative. No surprise, then, that Feiler’s panel urged conflicted parents to share their uncertainty with their children, even to validate their children’s own budding doubt.  To project an air of certainty when one harbors internal ambiguity is hypocritical, dishonest, and worst of all inauthentic.   “I believe deeply in the power of paradox and contradiction,” said the formerly-Catholic agnostic playwright.

I do sympathize with Mr. Feiler’s dilemma, despite my snarky tone here. I too wonder how I should respond when my children ask me a question on which I have little clarity myself, and it happens with some frequency.  I’m not comfortable voicing a straight-ahead Sunday school answer as if it represented my own conviction.  But unlike Mr. Feiler and friends, I’m not especially enthusiastic about the “power of paradox and contradiction” to shape children’s moral universe.

I suspect that paradox and contradiction—and doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and the whole extended family—are stimulating spiritual states for those who otherwise enjoy a high degree of autonomy, security and certainty in their day-to-day lives. I enjoy a fine paradox and a bit of contradiction myself; after all, I am a part of that educated, affluent NYT readership.  But for children and others who live with some degree of dependence and uncertainty, I don’t know that contradiction offers the balm or backbone they seek.

What I generally do in a situation like the one described is offer some version of “Well, let’s see what the scriptures say about that.”  That is, I try to offer an answer to the question asked, but I predicate the authority of that answer not on my own personal conviction but on the scriptural text.  By turning to scripture, I avoid a situation in which I must either hypocritically profess a certainty I don’t possess or offer a pablum of hedging qualification. (I know, of course, that my children will assume that I am certain that the scriptural answer offered is true—so yes, there is still a layer of hypocrisy in my strategy.)

That’s not to say that I avoid all contradiction altogether. The scriptures rarely offer any straightforward interpretive answer to any question, no matter how basic—-therein lies much of the religious history of the West in the last 600 years.  So I will often point out that the scriptures offer several approaches to a question, and in our family scripture study I am trying to teach them a kind of elementary exegesis, paying attention to context, voice and rhetoric. And as they mature into teenagers and young adults, I expect that my strategy will change somewhat.

Is mine the best approach? To this question I heartily join Mr. Feiler in professing uncertainty. I don’t know. Certainly there may still come some reckoning wherein my children realize that I had my doubts about Santa all along. If I’ve done my job well enough, I hope, they won’t resent that, and they’ll have the moral framework and intellectual tools to launch their own spiritual inquiry.

I’d love to learn from you, though. How do you handle those discussions?

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25 Responses to What we talk about when we talk about God

  1. Dave on October 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Well, one can always marry someone with no hesitation in giving clear and confident answers to all those complicated life and faith questions. That way the kids can grow up with a sense of confidence and security without us dumping all our angst and uncertainty on them before they are ready for that kind of thing.

  2. Rosalynde Welch on October 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    LOL, Dave! I guess that’s what they call the division of labor. Might work for the kids—hard on the marriage, though.

  3. iguacufalls on October 25, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    “I’m not comfortable voicing a straight-ahead Sunday school answer as if it represented my own conviction.”

    I like the strategy of going straight to the scriptures, but is a straight-ahead Sunday School answer necessarily a bad one if you don’t already have a confident answer of your own? Wouldn’t it be just fine to spare our children the existential angst and uncertainty and allow them to develop childlike faith? Often the SS answers *are* the right ones, and then we can use the scriptures to back them up. Obviously, if there are SS answers that you *don’t* agree with, then this comment is rendered moot, except that I’m working under the premise that you don’t have a ready-made Spirit-confirmed answer already.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on October 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for the comment, iguacufalls. I don’t have a problem with teaching my children Sunday school answers—in fact, that is generally what I want them to learn at this stage. But I feel uncomfortable presenting those answers as my own convictions, if I lack faith on that point. That’s when I will reach for the scriptures, using their authority as the basis for the Sunday school approach.

  5. Ken on October 25, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    I know it was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but it’s worth stating that having one or even two parents voice absolutely certainty to their children on every theological or religious issue out there will only bolster the child’s certainty and confidence to a point. Assuming they develop the capacity to put black-and-white thinking behind them as they mature, they’ll ultimately have to grapple with tricky issues personally. When my kids were young and asked tough questions on issues I wasn’t really confident about, I would say,”I think” or “I believe” or “I’m not sure” if I couldn’t honestly say “this is how it is.” I have no regrets and consider my adult kids to be spiritual, ethical, compassionate people who seek truth.

  6. palerobber on October 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Rosalynde, i think you’ve come up with an elegant solution to the problem.

    but the risk you run is that by the time you judge them mature enough to handle the truth about santa, they may have already grown quite dogmatic from the years of being fed certainty by you and other adults far less doubtful and thoughtful than you.

    ( btw, i have no idea what Feiler’s playwright means by the “power of paradox.” as far as i can tell, the main power of paradox is to offer people a way to retain traditional beliefs against their own better judgement. this can indeed prevent or at least repress a lot of anxiety. )

  7. Bob on October 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    I guess everyone must know their own children. My generel rule was if they were ready to ask the question, they were ready for an answer. Yes, the answer should be at their level, but it should be truth as you understand it. They are up to it.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 25, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I am puzzled over what child-level questions a believing Latter-day Saint would have problems answering. On the other hand, if your kid can formulate a more complex question, then she is ready for a more complex answer, presumably the one you tell yourself when you ask the same question.

    Finally, unlike some Protestant denominations, who claim that the Bible is Gpd’s final revelation and therefore must answer all possible questions about everything (at least religious issues), we Mormons believe that “God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of heaven.” So by definition, we are currently ignorant of those things, and we should be ready to admit to our lack of knowledge about particular topics. The one thing that I would tell my grandchildren in such a case is that they can have faith in God, to reveal the answer at a time that is appropriate, so there is nothing wrong with asking God and continuing to ask, despite the answer being withheld for a time.

  9. Kristine on October 25, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    “I am puzzled over what child-level questions a believing Latter-day Saint would have problems answering.”

    Really? Do the kids you know not get to “why don’t girls pass the sacrament?” and “why would God let some kids get cancer?” by 2nd grade at the latest? In my experience, “child-level” questions are much, much harder than the ones well-catechized adults ask.

  10. Geoff of A on October 25, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    My youngest daughter is now over 30. We had a policy in our home that children shouldn’t feel pressured to bear testimony. There was a stage when up to 50% of testimonies were from under 12 year olds.

    As I have struggled to have a spiritual confirmation (recieve answers to prayers), I find it quite difficult to hear all these thoughtless testimonies when the best I can do is believe.

    I bear my testimony every couple of years in testimony meeting because I suspect some of the others in the Chapel are like me, and will feel encouraged that an appeartently strong, elderly member, is also not able to claim they know…..

    I wonder how many of the “rising generation” are unable to get a clear confirmation so they can KNOW and wonder what is wrong with them as they seem to be the only one with this problem.

    I think it is healthy to acknowledge that we are less sure if we are. Even some of the Leaders when asked to explain their testimony seem a little less black and white than the majority do on fast sunday.

  11. DTR on October 26, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Rosalynde–

    Your words reminded me of a talk given by Jeffrey R. Holland some years ago:

    I speak carefully and lovingly to any of the adults of the Church, parents or otherwise, who may be given to cynicism or skepticism … In this Church there is an enormous amount of room—and scriptural commandment—for studying and learning, for comparing and considering, for discussion and awaiting further revelation. We all learn “line upon line, precept upon precept,” with the goal being authentic religious faith informing genuine Christlike living. In this there is no place for coercion or manipulation, no place for intimidation or hypocrisy. But no child in this Church should be left with uncertainty about his or her parents’ devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Restoration of His Church, and the reality of living prophets and apostles …

    Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance. … I think some parents may not understand that even when they feel secure in their own minds regarding matters of personal testimony, they can nevertheless make that faith too difficult for their children to detect. We can be reasonably active, meeting-going Latter-day Saints, but if we do not live lives of gospel integrity and convey to our children powerful heartfelt convictions regarding the truthfulness of the Restoration and the divine guidance of the Church from the First Vision to this very hour, then those children may, to our regret but not surprise, turn out not to be visibly active, meeting-going Latter-day Saints or sometimes anything close to it.

    There are a couple of ways of interpreting Elder Holland’s counsel. One is to see it as advice to lie to our children, to dishonestly tell them that we believe firmly in things we actually question or doubt. I think a better reading is that we should focus our discussions with our children on those matters where we do have solid faith, and where we can honestly testify of the truths we know, and then seek to expand that base. There is no “fairness doctrine” holding that we must give our doubts equal air time.

    I recommend a full reading of Elder Holland’s talk for those interested.

  12. S.P. Bailey on October 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    1 Nephi 11:17 (“I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things”) supplies a useful dodge.

    As in: “I don’t know, son, but I do know that [insert fervent testimony of some relevant gospel principle here].”

    Paradox, contradiction, and all the rest don’t serve children well, but humility (admitting that you are not all-knowing, all-seeing, and infinitely wise) won’t hurt them.

  13. Bob on October 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I hope I taught my children and grandchildren to be comfortable

  14. Bob on October 26, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    I hope I taught my children and grandchildren to be comfortable with their faith, doubt, and skepticism. they will need all of these to begin to find truth.

  15. Jared on October 26, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    I think the best way to approach the problem you’ve outlined is to be honest, honest in saying that you can’t answer the question posed to you by a child. Then add, that you know someone who can answer the question based on their personal experiences with the manifestations Spirit.

    This answer would require finding someone who has received answers to their prayers. I’m certain that in nearly every ward, and certainly in every stake of the church there are qualified witnesses to the workings of the Holy Ghost. These members have clearly defined Spiritual experiences pertaining to the Book of Mormon. Many have experienced the mighty change referred to in the Book of Mormon. They can honestly answer a child questions.

  16. Rosalynde Welch on October 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for the responses, all.

    palerobber, it is true that some of my children may become dogmatic in their thinking, but I can imagine worse outcomes. :) In fact, if my children are privileged to receive strong spiritual experiences of their own when they are adults, it would be a beautiful thing for me to rely on their mature faith.

    DTR, thanks for directing us to that talk, it’s certainly pertinent to the topic. I do try to implement his advice, particularly in living the gospel with integrity—no matter the state of my personal faith, if I am going to enjoy the benefits of the vibrant community the Church provides me, my children will see me doing my best to contribute and edify that community. In that, at least, I am not hypocritical.

    Jared, in turning to the scriptures I suppose I am doing what you suggest: directing my children to sure witnesses of the reality of the Spirit and of God’s love.

  17. Cameron Nielsen on October 26, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    To some, it is given to know. To others is given to believe on their words.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m in the second category, but I can’t deny the times I’ve received guidance by reading scriptures after praying for answers.

  18. Matthew on October 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I don’t know whether the irony in selecting a Rodin sculpture is intentional; it is nonetheless delicious.

  19. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on October 29, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Are children really the innocent, cuddly, smart little copies of adults? Yes, children are innocent, after they are born and up to a certain point in their young life remain innocent. They are innocent of the things practiced in our world, but what do we know about their stature in the Celestial Realm?

    Other than words of Jesus, Christ, and His prophets; God, the Father has His own teacher for our children – the Holy Ghost! Why did the Lord tell us about the 2 greatest commandments of His Father; 1 – love God with all your might, mind and strength and 2 – love your neighbor?

    Joseph Smith revealed another doctrine – the eternal character of the family as a form of governance for His spirit children. The Lord also taught the true purpose of the Temple in the healing of the broken families since Adam and Eve’s transgression. We may take part in that process.

    Mercy and love are very important, when teaching our family the pitfalls in this world.

  20. Paul Bohman on October 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

    “But for children and others who live with some degree of dependence and uncertainty, I don’t know that contradiction offers the balm or backbone they seek.”

    Yes, well, if that “balm” happens to be nothing more than a placebo, what good does it really do? And if the “backbone” happens to be supporting an untenable structure, of what value is it?

    If your goal is to teach children that there is always an easy balm and a steady backbone available for every confusing or hurtful question or situation, you’ve already betrayed them before any words come out of your mouth.

    I actually agree with the quotations from the agnostic, formerly religious scholars. This world is constructed of intense paradoxes and contradictions, and to wish them away in the name of building faith or testimony or comfort is to raise children who will either wrongly and dogmatically defend their precariously misguided understanding of life, depriving themselves of deeper understanding of the issues, or they will eventually confront intense disappointment at realizing the world is not as neatly packaged and understandable as they once believed.

    I believe it is possible to still live fully and optimistically in spite of the paradoxes and contradictions, or perhaps even because of them, so I see no problem with prioritizing honesty and openness over oversimplification and selective distortion of reality.

    It’s true that you also have to keep age-appropriateness in mind as you do this, but I can’t justify an overall strategy of exaggerated or pretended unambiguity at any point along the way. With very few exceptions, unambiguity just isn’t truthful.

  21. Kingsley on October 29, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Paul Bohman (#20),

    Not sure I agree with your either/or—it seems a little simplistic—in fact, writers and thinkers such as those featured in the Times piece often seem to me more simplistic than their supposedly shallow, or at least less deep, counterparts.—”I believe deeply in the power of paradox and contradiction.” OK.—Amen. How does this differ really from “I believe deeply in the power of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.” I mean, as testimony. I think of the beautiful opening section of Fear and Trembling where Kierkegaard says that it used to be that doubt, like faith, was an attainment of a lifetime. “Paradox,” “contradiction,” “ambiguity” roll off the tongue as easily, naively and thoughtlessly as the more churchy sort of words—and have the same power of conferring an instant, favorable status on the speaker, regardless of their actual qualifications. Surely the world is constructed of intense paradoxes and contradictions, but surely it is also constructed, and to emphasize the latter when training a child in the way he should go isn’t necessarily evidence of wishful thinking—it may be merely evidence of thinking. Nor (in my opinion) is it evident that a child thus trained will fly to pieces at the first sign of ambiguity—which isn’t something a parent can teach anyway. Life teaches it, from the get-go.

  22. Paul Bohman on October 29, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Kingsley,

    Your final statement, “life teaches it, from the get-go” is a good one, and I can agree with it pretty easily. And my previous post kind of gives the impression that I’m not giving much credit to the thinking processes of children, as if the only thoughts in their heads are those coming from parents and other adults. I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Of course children are thinking and processing the world around them — all the time.

    You’re also right that there is essentially an underlying “testimony” in the statement “I believe deeply in the power of paradox and contradiction.” Most likely that statement wasn’t made flippantly, though, and it seems reasonable to expect that those making those kinds of statements would recognize the parallel nature of religious testimony and testimonies of other things (e.g. paradox and contradiction). Even if they don’t recognize the analogous nature of the two kinds of testimonies, they ought to. Presumably this kind of testimony has a history behind it, borne of personal thought, study, and struggle, just as a religious testimony ought to have such a history behind it.

    The problem, though, is that in many ways we are taught to suppress some aspects of the natural learning process — the part in which we question assumptions and consider alternative explanations — when it comes to religion. There is a prominent strand in religious thinking that pushes away doubt as an evil influence to be avoided. And if it is not avoided, the penalty is eternally high. Not only is it by faith that miracles are wrought, we are told, but it is only by faith that we can take advantage of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Conversely, it is through doubt that miracles are hidden from us, and through doubt that salvation, exaltation, and other good things are withheld from us. Faith is held in high esteem. Doubt, and anything else that would potentially undermine faith is treated as highly suspect.

    There is quite a bit of pressure in our church as well as others to express certainty and to worry if we don’t possess that certainty. We are taught to say, “I know the church is true.” “I know Joesph Smith was a prophet,” and so on. It becomes quite easy to just go with the flow and express this kind of certainty even when it doesn’t exist. We’re even told to “fake it ’til you make it,” and to “lean on the testimony of others” until we get our own. There are so many safeguards in place in our church, and such fear and worry about those who go astray or who question things. Eternal souls are at stake.

    The result is that those are naturally inclined to a “truth by authority” approach to learning do quite well. Our modern church is especially inclined to this orientation. Those who are more inclined to “truth by experimentation” or “truth by critical analysis” approaches don’t fare as well. Their very methods of understanding the world puts them at risk of losing it all (in terms of eternal consequences).

    That’s a discouraging position to be in.

    At some point (or perhaps at many points) during the life of such a person, this person has to decide how to handle the ambiguities. The two basic paths are to either suppress the urge to follow one’s doubts to their logical conclusions, and not test them, or to take a “leap of doubt,” so to speak, and find out what’s behind the curtain. Of course, this would really be a leap of faith, not doubt: it would be faith and trust in one’s own instincts, despite what others may say.

    So even though it is true that we are always learning from life, from the get-go, as you say, it’s also true that we can unnecessarily prevent ourselves from learning if we don’t feel safe in asking certain kinds of questions, or acting on our doubts.

    I hope to provide an environment for children in which both faith and doubt can be safe topics of discussion, without fear, and without undue pressure to conform to one or the other.

  23. Paul Bohman on October 29, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    quick correction to paragraph 5:

    “The result is that those WHO are naturally inclined…”

  24. Bob on October 29, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Paul, I can only add my voice of agreement to your comments.( And steal them for my files).

  25. American Yak on November 6, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    As somebody who has always found it relatively easy to believe difficult or true things (which can have it’s own set of difficulties), I still think there should be ample room for questioning and doubt. Perhaps because I haven’t felt too challenged in my testimony (this isn’t to say I haven’t been challenged), Sunday School answers have always bothered me. In other words, it feels SAFE to me to question or doubt things, and I believe in a God who provides that safety — BUT — (and this is what seems missing from some (most?) of these comments) –

    If/when my child asks the question(s) that I find challenging or that I don’t have a distinct answer for, even if that answer is not forthcoming in this life, if I am not interested or curious or loving in MY CHILD’S welfare — that’s the more serious error. We can doubt, and that can be okay. We can question. We can stumble, be foolish, and try again and again, but these children are OURS, and I would feel worse not entertaining their questions with sincerity and love, than getting it wrong or just living in the paradox we do live in.

    I know nobody is explicitly stating that children are not our heritage and greatest love, but sometimes expressions of doubt are more expressions of a lack of feeling or love in our children’s surprising questions, and we fear just reassuring them that we may not understand everything, but we love them so, and God is power.

    I mean, as esoteric as the NY Times and its contributors can be, I suppose I am more comfortable with a paradoxical world — albeit, one overwhelmed with our love.

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