Word Magazine April 1975 Page 9-13
YOUR CHILD ASKS ABOUT GOD
By Chris Long
Children ask us and everyone else in their lives — a lot of questions. They inquire about every point between “Shall I wear my raincoat today?” through “Can God really do everything?” Sometimes they ask their questions persistently with a repeated “why?” Sometimes their questions remain silent, lonely attempts to make sense of experiences beyond their powers of understanding. All of their questions are ways children use to make connections.
Growing up is just that — it is a process of making connections. Children are like recent immigrants in this world of ours: they are involved in finding the limits, learning the language, locating their places. Their questions are urgent expressions of the work they are about. We can choose to hide reality from them or we can choose to help them discover the dimensions of the real world. The style of answers we provide them expresses our choice with regard to their task.
Answering any question is really a matter of making a link between the inside of the questioner and the outside reality he is asking about. Effectively answering any question requires that both poles be accepted and understood: the questioner and the reality. The truth “out there” and the truth the child is capable of understanding must somehow meet and become one. That process should be one which is increasingly accomplished by the child for himself.
What Demands Do the Child’s Questions Place on Us?
There are questions and there are questions. We can deal with the raincoat question by helping the child decide what the weather report for the day implies or by telling him what to do since “mother knows best.” The style matters but the matter itself is not serious. Frequently, however, the child’s questions touch on areas which are — and should be — puzzles to us. It is then that we tend to escape into absolutes. Every adult wishes to sound more sure than he really is when he speaks to a child!
Perhaps that’s why the questions children ask us about God are such a problem to us. Long ago we memorized answers to questions which were not really our own questions. We memorized the catechism. Later we found that we had still not come to grips with the realities that those questions professed to solve. We found that the answers were not our answers — perhaps because the questions had been cast for us in a form that we could not make our own. Those first questions — “Who made me? Who is God? Why did God make me?”— had somehow remained questions even though we had been provided with the “proper” answers. The link between our reality-at-that-time and the reality of God was not forged so strongly as it might have been.
Today it might be helpful to us and to our children if we considered both those realities — the nature of children and the nature of God. Very likely we shall end with more questions. But the questions themselves might be the means of forming those necessary links for ourselves and for our children.
How Can We Know God?
All through history, in a multiplicity of ways, men have sought God. They have tried to make contact with him through the power of human reason alone — and their work has been called philosophy. There have been poets of God — the mystics — who sought God in their innermost experiences. Others studied the words about God contained in scripture and brought human reason to bear on those words — and have been called theologians. Each of those paths is a real way to the knowledge of God — and yet each is inadequate. The “professional” philosophers, mystics, theologians have not completed the task of knowing God. Nor have we — the non-professional philosophers, mystics, theologians. God is like every other person — he cannot be known fully, completely, and all-at-once. Yet, knowing this, each of us pursues knowledge of others and of God.
And we know that there is yet more to be known, that we cannot know all.
We experience God as a paradox.
Perhaps one of the most serious failures of the memorized answers was their very clarity. The words we learned were true, but not enough. They did not help us to face up to the paradox of God: that he is deeply within us and so far beyond us that he does not need us; that he communicates himself to us and we cannot contain him; that he is eternally changeless and he is dynamic, creative activity; that he is eternal and outside of time and he has acted on behalf of men in time. Paradox is the only way of talking about God. We must affirm and deny everything we say about him. We affirm — because we cannot be silent before his reality. Yet we deny our limiting ideas — so that we can be truthful to his beyondness. We must assume that he is consistent with what we experience in his world — otherwise he is irrelevant. Yet we must indicate his transcendent unlikeness so that he does not cease to be really God for us.
We discover God from what he has done.
All those qualities of God — those paradoxical attributes — are inferences that we can draw only because we know how God has acted. It is difficult for us men to understand justice, love, righteousness, anger as qualities floating around unattached. Those qualities always exist for us in a someone, in a person. We know the someone through his actions — and ascribe those words to the person who has acted. He is just, loving, righteous, angry. God, most especially, is known through what he has done. That’s really what the professional God-knowers have been about. They have looked into the world, or into themselves, or into the scriptures and have attempted to make a systematic statement about the God they have recognized through some of his actions.
And, truly, that is what each of us does when we ask about God or when our children ask about God — we attempt to discern something of God from what he has done. Sometimes we find the answers we need from our faith in the statements others have made; sometimes we seek to address the question from our own experiences. Always our answers are an attempt to come into relation with the doing of the living God — if the answers are to be of value.
We can make contact with what God has done through Jesus Christ and through other men. It is most especially through the person of Jesus Christ — the lord of history and the center of all the Father’s acts on behalf of men — that we can come to know the living God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the living God. But he is the living God incarnated as one of us, as a man who lived the human life each one of us also lives. It is in Jesus that all the paradoxes about God are most paradoxical. Even his disciples experienced him as a paradox. Philip once asked Jesus to show him the Father. The response Jesus made began with a question: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father….“ This person Jesus, with whom the disciples walked and talked, claimed to be one with the Father, the unseen and transcendent God. And they came to believe that claim to oneness because of what he did. He was man as they were men. That they knew. Yet, he was more — his mission was to enable men to “have life and have it to the full.” His life, his teaching and healing, his death and resurrection, were one act of God among men. Having experienced him, they came to believe that they were experiencing the one and holy God.
But that was so long ago. So far away. What of us?
God’s self-revelation continues through the living Jesus in his church. He is with us when we gather in his name. We can know him — and therefore the living God — because he is present among men. He is present in the union of believers which is the church. He is present “in the breaking of the bread.” He is present in his identification with the hungry, the dispossessed, the suffering: “If you did it for one of these you did it for me.” He is one with men as the resurrected Lord. And as much as we come to know and love those with whom he is one, we know and love him.
It is through the historical Jesus and the living Jesus that we can come to know the living God of whom he is the envoy. What he did and what he does tell us of the God who is beyond knowing.
What are the Qualities of Children with Regard to the Knowledge of God?
If it is true that we can know the qualities of a person from what he does, it is also true that we can discover the limitations of children from what they ask. The questions children address to us are often difficult. They are basic questions — and yet we are insecure in the answering. We hear in them echoes of the child’s confusion. We recognize that his understanding of words and of ideas is not the same as ours.
Childhood religion is an expression of childhood thinking on God and is not the result of particular denominational membership or form of religious education. However, those adults who deal with children have the option of freezing the child into immature thinking or of eliciting growth to new levels of thought. Gordon Allport, a distinguished psychologist, once listed the characteristics of the religion of childhood:
1) 1) The religion of childhood is accepted on authority; it is imitative of others.
The child is a pre-believer who is in the process of becoming a believer through his faith in the significant adults in his life. He can firmly hold the hands of his parents and be led into the life of faith. His pre-belief should be transitional. One of the means by which this transition takes place is behavior: children do what they see done. They inquire about the meaning of what others do — and for that reason they require answers of us. However, they are pre-disposed to do what we do — even without reasons.
One child, writing a letter to God, expresses the limitation of this sort of religion. He is faced with the conflict between religion-given-by-authority and the demands of imitation-of-authority. He says:
My mother says if I pray I will not get mad at my brother. Yesterday he broke the car window and she got mad. She said her grace at lunch. What now?
In time, the religion that has been accepted on authority must become one freely chosen. Religion which is imitative of others must become the authentic possession of the now-grown child. Obviously a style of parenthood which loosens the reins of authority gradually and which is itself authentic in its claims is the best preparation for such a goal.
2) The religion of childhood is verbalistic and ritualistic.
Children are more concerned about words than about meanings, about actions than about informed behavior. They believe in the magic that words can perform. So, for them, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me,” is a cry without foundation. Names do hurt, curses are real, words have as much power as the reality they represent. What is more some actions share the same kind of power as do words. No child steps on a crack if he can help it! Every child believes, with this one, that his words and ritualistic actions are guarantors of his desires:
I blew cut all the candles on my cake with one breath. And I didn’t tell my wish. Where is my Barbie doll? It didn’t come yet.
Mature religion is not verbalistic and ritualistic. Rather it uses words and ritual to accomplish meaning, not magic. The thrust toward adulthood is responsive to the Spirit which moves however and wherever it will.
3) The religion of childhood is anthropomorphic.
Children think of God in the most simple of human terms. He is like grandfather or Santa Claus, but older. He is modeled on whatever human figures seem God-like in the child’s environment. Those figures, however, bring their negative qualities into the child’s God-definition along with their positive or neutral qualities.
Is your beard like Santa Claus or like a hippie? My brother says that the Santa Claus at our store is a fake. But I like him. Is that all right with you?
4) The religion of childhood is egocentric.
“Me” is the most important reality for the child. Even God is perceived in terms of me: he is always watching me or he will give me the things that I want.
I want to make a deal. If you will make it so that I can be invisible when I want to I will do all the things you want. OK?
We know, however, and need to present to our children a God who is involved in each me who has ever existed: he is God to each man.
5) The religion of childhood is non-reflective.
While “me” is the most important word in the child’s vocabulary, he is unable to consider deeply what demands others place on his “me.” He cannot conceive of the interlocking responsibilities and relationships in which human beings are involved. He cannot introspect and then relate that inward-turning to the outside world and to God. He cannot even evaluate the quality of his desires as “good” or “bad,” “selfish” or “generous.” Fostering reflection can be accomplished. Parents can repeatedly aid their children in looking to the why’s of things and of behavior. The scrutiny of why’s is the beginning of introspection for the child.
Would you make it so that everything is all right everywhere? So that there will not be any more war. And so everyone will have plenty of things to eat. Also make fun for everyone to have. I hope that you do not think this is too selfish.
One of your friends
These qualities of the religion of childhood listed by Allport must be left behind if the child is to achieve adult faith. We experience these qualities in our children with every question they ask—and with every answer of ours they misunderstand. Yet there is no cause for pessimism here. Allport listed two other characteristics of the religion of childhood. These are the ones that are catalysts for growth. These are the ones to be fostered and preserved for the sake of the adult that each child will become.
6) The religion of childhood is spontaneous.
Children are ready to act immediately on what they understand. They are attuned to doing. If their understanding of God can grow in an open atmosphere, they will act on that understanding without inhibitions. The key to the open atmosphere that children need is the quality of emotional life they experience among their significant adults. Children are far closer to adults in the sphere of emotional experience than they are in intellectual activity. Your child does not think as you do. He does, however, feel the same way as you. He has access to adult values through spontaneous responses to adult emotional experience. Only a child has the spontaneity to ask God curiously “do you like what you do?” Adults might shield themselves from that sort of question. But if they do, it is because sometime in their histories spontaneity was discouraged and playful thinking was inhibited.
7) The religion of childhood is full of wonder.
Children get excited. They glow with aliveness. They are natural sharers in the life that Jesus said he had come to give to the full. They are ready to participate with others in that life if we give them the opportunity. They are able to experience the present, the now, as the most valuable of commodities. Perhaps because they have so little past to burden them, perhaps because the future is not yet a source of anxiety — the present is the source of wonder to them. And they are right. The present is, after all, the moment in which each of us comes to salvation. Our children have not yet lost that natural understanding which the professional God-knowers are painfully recapturing. They need not lose it. We can, instead, enable them to preserve this important value.
What Should be our Style of Answer to Children’s Questions About God?
It is impossible to catalog all the questions children ask about God. No list could ever be long enough. What is more, such a list would kill spontaneity and wonder — the two qualities of the religion of childhood that Allport found so valuable. Nevertheless there are strategies that we adults can pursue in answering our children. We can deal with their questions as means of creative growth rather than as conclusions to difficulties.
We need to accept the limitations of childhood religious thinking. The greatest blessing of childhood is that it lasts for such a long time. Children are involved in a lengthy process of moving from limited relationships with themselves, others and God to an expanded vision of their place in the world. The God who created children is surely consistent to his creative work. Even as he is beyond us, he is beyond children. Yet the limitations inherent in children’s religious thinking are not inconsistent with the truth about God. Rather, they are signals of insufficient maturity of thought— and can be modified by time and understanding adults.
Those limitations appear in all the dimensions of childhood thinking. We recognize immature thinking in many areas of child-life and deal with it without anxiety. It is only when the content is about God that we respond with distress. Some of those immature qualities are really “secular” in nature, but they have implications for childhood religious thinking as well. Some of these are:
1) Children are literal-minded.
When a child hears the language of imagery he takes it as literally true. If one says that it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, one might find a child trying to do it. When one speaks in the language of spatial imagery about God — about the God who is “up there” in heaven or who lives at the church building — he has been put in his geographical place so far as the child is concerned. God, if he is to be really God, cannot be given an address or even a zip code! We can avoid trapping God in literally understood imagery if we speak of him in personal terms. He is present to the child as he is present to each of us. “God is always with you” is a growth-fostering response to questions about where he is.
In addition, we need to avoid descriptive imagery about God’s appearance. There are no photographs to be had of God. He is not an old man with a beard who sits on a golden throne. Nor is he a triangle with an unblinking eye in the middle. And the Holy Spirit is not an incarnate dove! Those images of God are only images. They are no more portraits of the reality of God than is the language of the lover who speaks of his beloved as a flower or a star. Those images have a long and valuable history. They are, however, the language of adults communicating with other adults about their experience of the living God. Children will inevitably search out man-centered descriptions of God. However, we adults need not provide them with additional input. If we avoid confirming their immaturity, it will be easily given up with the development of more mature ways of thinking.
2) Children seek simple and direct answers to their questions.
Children cannot deal with paradox or with complexity. Rather they compartmentalize an unlimited series of contradictory notions. For example, if you show a cocoon to a child and ask him if the creature inside is dead or alive the child will respond with one of the two options you offered him. If he says “dead” and you suggest that a butterfly will emerge from this cocoon, the child will change his answer to “alive.” On the other hand, if the child says it is alive and you point out how dull and dry the cocoon is, he will change his answer to “dead.” The possibility that neither answer is correct will not present itself until the child is more mature. The child has not really changed his mind during this interchange; he has operated from two separate categories sealed off from one another. If you were to point out the contradiction, the child would respond with dogged frustration: “It’s both dead and alive!”
Transfer this limitation to the area of religious thinking and the difficulties multiply. The paradox of God’s omnipresence coalescing with his transcendence/immanence is simply beyond the conceptual ability of children. In order to avoid a distortion by oversimplification it is well to emphasize both poles of such issues.
The child says “Is God here?” We best respond, “Yes he is here and everywhere.” “Is he everywhere? “ “Yes, he is everywhere and he is with you as well.” Oversimplification is a dangerous thing when we speak of God. The child nurtured on a simple God is apt to give him up along with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus at a later stage of his development. It is likely that he will give him up in a spirit of resentment as well. He will believe that faith is trickery — rather than recognizing that trickery is anti-faith in orientation. The process of growing up in religion might well be one of discovering the paradoxical nature of God.
3) Children have no historical sense.
Most mothers have been threatened by having one of their children speak of them as contemporaries of Martha Washington. They ask about “what was it like in the olden days when you were little, Mom?” Children lack a developed historical sense. But Christianity is a historical religion. Jesus lived in a particular time and place. However, Jesus taught — and so must we —that God and his works are not limited to special times and places. Whenever we deal with the historical Jesus or with God’s acts on behalf of the Jews we must allow the presentational to include the abiding quality of God’s gracious acts. In time the ability to think historically with accuracy will be a skill available to the child. Middle childhood is the time at which a presentation of the history of Jesus and of the people of God is best begun.
4) Children are often fearful of what they do not understand.
Because children are limited to simple, direct and concrete self-explanations of their experiences they sometimes create fearful answers to their questions. They are often ready to burden themselves with guilt for occurrences for which they are not responsible. They see the world which they cannot control as a threatening place. There is pathos in one letter written to God by a little boy:
What is it like when someone dies? Somebody else wants to know.
Frank is afraid of death. He recognizes emotionally that others are afraid as well. But he is even more afraid to admit to his own question. The very asking of the question seems dangerous to him so he must hide behind “someone else wants to know.” So far as possible we adults need to enable children to ask their questions. We need to forget our own fears long enough to support our children in their quest for a meaningful life.
We need to encourage the qualities of spontaneity and wonder. The outward-turning qualities of spontaneity and wonder are the most creative forces, by which faith comes alive to children. We can encourage them by the very texture of response we give to our children. To really listen to a child’s question is a valuable thing. To really think about the answer we give is equally valuable. A child’s question is a sacred thing: it is an expression of his trust that we care about him and his future. To shoot back a canned response without personal reflection is not to encourage reflection in the child. He is entitled to see us do what we hope he will do as well. We need to be able to accept any question. There is nothing that human persons are not free to ask about. We need to be able to admit that our knowledge is inadequate. — And we need to be able to admit that inadequacy out loud — to our children when such is the case. (And we need not fear that they will lose respect if we admit to our limitations. After all, what human knows all the answers about God?) We need to answer questions with more questions so that we, too, become involved in an open-ended concern with reality that is God.
We need to know the nature of our own belief and the persons who are our children. We cannot provide real answers to the questions our children present to us if we have not reflected on the meaning of those questions and answers for ourselves. We learned catechism answers many years ago. If those answers were filed away at the backs of our minds and not seen the light for a dozen years they will not prove helpful as we attempt to respond to our children. What do those answers mean? What do they mean to me? This is the direction in which we must search.
Each child is unique. An answer satisfying one can be the cause of anxiety to another. The child who is fearful is not helped by emphasis on the God who sees everything he does. Understanding the child’s personality and level of development are vital when one is trying to forge the links between him and God. The answers we give need to be answers which are true to the nature of God and true to the inside of the child.
Jesus spoke to those who have ears to hear — he commanded that they listen and allow God’s word come to fullness in them. He had spoken so much of the reality of God. He answered questions. Yet he knew that the reality of the God-out-there had to make a connection with the person-in-here. He spoke in terms of his listeners. In some of them God’s word came to its fullness. That’s what we are about when we answer the questions our children ask about God.
Regardless of whether we teach children about God or not, they have certain notions of him. Some of those notions come out of their immaturity, some from what they infer from the way in which we speak about God. It is the privilege of parents and teachers to help children grow out of their immaturity in every area — including that of their thinking about God.
Some things to avoid in the way we speak about God:
1) The most common childhood image of God is that of Judge. We should avoid speaking of God as one who is always watching the child, eager to catch him in some offense.
2) God is not a policeman for parents. Our authority is sufficient for our task. To say such things as “see, God is punishing you because you disobeyed me,” is to use God and to abuse ourselves.
3) Children are very much centered in “me.” When we speak of God we should not place him at the service of the wishes of the child: “Ask God for good weather for the picnic tomorrow.”
4) Children are verbalistic — words are magical for them. God is not a definition, however. He is a person. When we speak of God to children we should avoid using abstract words removed from the experience of the child: “God is a pure spirit, infinitely perfect, creator and master of all things.”
5) God cannot be situated in a place as things are. When we speak to children about God we should avoid the materialism of placing him into a geographical place: “God is up in heaven. God is inside of the tabernacle.”
Some things to seek in the way we speak about God:
1) God is someone, he is a living person. Children infer, from the way we speak about God whether he is alive to us. They need to hear us speak about him as one who matters in our lives more than they need explanations of his nature and attributes.
2) We express God as being present for us and avoid situating him in a place, if we speak of him thusly: “God is always with me.”
3) Jesus Christ, the son of God, is the full expression of God’s doing on behalf of men. When we speak of Jesus we should speak of him as the kind of mature person he is. “Baby Jesus” was a stage in Jesus’ historical life: now he lives in glory with the Father and the Spirit and acts among men.
4) Children are spontaneous and wondering persons. Those are qualities we should foster — not only in our children, but also in ourselves! When we speak about God let us express him freely and with delight for his care for us.