“Dad, is GUT a bad word?” My son asked this, and I knew a half-hour of what’s-a-bad-word-and-what-does-it-mean questions were about to start. He has already learned to draw and say FUK at school and knows why we don’t say shit, bitch, or damn it, and why dam and damage are okay to say in the right context. He also learned hell but he always forgets the last hockey stick.
“Gut? No, Gut isn’t a bad word, it means your belly or your stomach, like your guts,” I say, wondering why my six-year-old would be asking me about GUT but knowing I’m not going to get off that easily. He really is the best kid, and has so many questions, most of them (lately) about bad words.
“No dad,” he says emphatically, “not GUT, GOD. Gee Oh Dee. Like Oh My God.”
Great. My kid is asking about God. I’m actually excited, and afraid. And some other emotions too. We’ve already talked about death and feelings and just about everything you can and should talk to a six and four year old about (my brilliant daughter picks up on just as much and will always take me to task on this stuff), and all of these talks have gone over well or better than good. My son and daughter know that you never really die, that you just live forever in people’s hearts and memories even though you can’t physically be with the person and yes, that makes us sad. And that death is when the brain and heart stop working. And that’s it. No flowery notions of heaven or angels or rainbow bridges – so far we’ve raised them not to mentally travel to fairy tales when talking about real life things – they do that enough on their own. They both know all about Disney-type magic and the Force and all the fairy tale kid things they will grow out of, much like their milk teeth. They also know about gravity, electricity, and Natural Selection, to a degree.
I have been waiting for this moment for a long time – and in just a few moments I ended up explaining that God was something people take very seriously, and that we don’t say Oh My God or Thank God because we just don’t need to. At the time we were just getting home and we were in a bit of a hurry, and he stopped asking after a few minutes. But the believe in God and God is in us, through us, everywhere stuff, I haven’t talked about with them at length.
Disney’s Hercules almost did it for me. Just kidding. Well, not really. Explaining Zeus and Hades to my kids took a little finagling, and explaining the idea of Hell to my kids was more like describing a dark, sad volcano (without telling them why Hell would exist). The Gods in Hercules? They are “kings” in the sky, sort of like giants (and thank you Disney for making Zeus a one-woman, one-species God, unlike the “real” mythology). When Hercules’ girlfriend dies and comes back, my boy asked about her spirit, and we had a quick conversation about that because it also happened to Tom in Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny. The seeds have been planted (thanks, tv!). And fiction, for us, is a good place for fiction. But reality is precious, and I don’t want the two to overlap.
How do you convey the concept of what a God is to children without telling them to believe in Gods, and at the same time not telling them Gods are all make believe (even if that’s how you really feel)? Because when they’re older, if they know that dad and mom don’t believe in Gods, and we’re telling them they can, or should, or whatever, how fair is that to them? We’ve waited to tell and teach them about the idea of God because, well, we live Gods-free: my kids know how to be good, where we came from, that monsters aren’t real, and that nobody loves them more than we do. Myth, superstition, and religion go against all of that! I even have a hard time with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, although we’ll let the kids grow out of those fun notions. I won’t be disappointed if one day, when they’re old enough, my kids become religious, but I don’t want them to be religious. Life is hard enough. And at this age all they want to do is please their parents.
But I’m also not afraid of the God talk either. When I was my son’s age I was already born again and had years (yes, years!) of Sunday School, Bible Study, Youth Group, and Church packed inside my little Id brain. By ten I was getting saved every day, you know, just in case (oh the sin of a ten year old!) and by fourteen I had all the answers I thought I needed and was and would go on to evangelize as much as I could to friends, strangers, and all types in-between until, at eighteen I was on my way to becoming a pastor. By nineteen I had given up the belief ghost because somewhere along the way, God disappeared; God broke up with me; God stopped coming around to the neighborhood of my heart. There was no God anymore, and so that was what I pursued, and what made sense, and what was most comfortable. I tried to get Him back – asking, seeking, knocking – a process taking over the next few years – but there was an empty canvas where there used to be a very detailed painting. I had acted my way through those years of faith, never realizing (until it was too late) that there wasn’t ever anything there except a need to please my family and community, and a sense of a higher reality that promised all the right things. I wasn’t lost as much as I was freed from logical fallacies that kept me up at night, and I ended up finding my true self outside of the metanarrative I had once held so dear. My studies of other religions, philosophy, and Zen Buddhism followed, all the while I was gathering a historic and scientific explanation of all that is (you have to have an error-free, foundational platform for belief-making, after all). In addition to this I had a close-nit group of friends who loved to talk as much as I do – and most of them were religious scholars or something close to it.
I sit comfortably with labels like skeptic, secular humanist, nontheist, nonbeliever, nonreligious, et al. My nonreligious testimony now rivals any religious testimony I once had or thought I had. But there’s no way I can have that talk with my children until they are old enough. But I also trust my kids to take things at their measure and pace, and feel good about asking me anything, at any time, for any reason, and know that, like bad words, no one is keeping track of how many times you say it (which isn’t how I was taught – there were angels writing down every little bad thing you did, so watch out, kid!).
God is a serious thing for me, like it would be to a believer, because I’ve put years of thought into it as a concept; however, the belief-based lifestyle I just can’t reconcile to the parts of my brain that rebel against mysticism and spiritualism. It’s just not…me. I can’t do it. For the believer reading this, it would be like me asking you to, well, believe in a different god or worldview as much as you believe in your own. A lot of people can believe, and do – but not me. But it’s something I am going to have to teach around instead of teach to because it’s a layered, touchy subject for those who haven’t subscribed to a narrowed, vetted, particular religious view. If you tell a kid there’s a magical, invisible force in the sky and all around us who you can to talk to every day and who has rules that you have to follow, then you have to follow that up with some sort of reality, like why does that magical force ignore us but love us? And why can’t we see that magical force? And then from there you have to literally make up all the answers for the kids, which is just more make believe. And with thousands of religions and millions of Gods to choose from, it just seems impossible to logically sort out all of that without being adamant about one particular God during one particular part of history, and then you have to make up a theology that isn’t all-inclusive based on that one God (unless you go the UU route), otherwise you’re just inventing a God and telling your children they need to fit that invented God into the way they think. Oy vey!
In daily speech if you’re really thanking God, or calling upon God in prayer (OMG! hear my call!), or calling upon God to damn something, then you’re taking the word seriously, which I try never to do, although culturally it seems like we’ve all be tricked into OMG-ing everything. It’s like the “Under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance debate: if God was precious to you, why would you want to make the phrase a thing people are forced to say, making the special nature of the phrase become boring? Or why would you want to put God’s precious name on money? Using God incorrectly seems as bad as not using it at all, which I just happen to do on a daily basis. Like I have explained to the kids: when talking, you don’t have to say anything at all when bad or tumultuous or good or surprising things happen, just to show your emotion. Oh wow or ay de mi or oy vey works just fine. Words are the most powerful tools we have, so use them wisely.
In the end, they are going to believe or act the way they truly feel guided to believe or act, and hopefully they won’t do anything in life just because they want to make me happy. But I won’t ever be dishonest with them about the things that matter most to us, or how we see things that matter most to other people who we love (who might see things differently).
The talk awaits. I might have it today. I’m ready.
Thanks for reading.
(C) Jeremy McKeen 2014