While driving down Route 96 to Ithaca recently, I heard my wife, Erica, say something that sounded like the word “Yahweh.” She and Isabel were debating a fine philosophical point by saying back and forth, “No way!” “Yeah way.” “No way!” “Yeah way.” Isabel, having never heard this word before, asked, “Mommy, what is yaaway?”
It is truly amazing to me how quickly the human brain can think—I had three or four fully formed questions pop into my head in the two seconds of silence before Erica answered: “She is not really going to answer that one, is she?” “If so, how?” “Why don’t I ever have a tape recorder when I need one?” “How can I change the subject, quickly?”
I perked up my ears, wanting to hear exactly how Erica was going to field this one. To my shock and consternation she very matter-of-factly stated, “Yahweh is what some people call God.”
You can guess what Isabel’s next question was, having never heard the word God used to refer to an actual being. “What is God, mommy?” If I had been drinking coffee I would have snorted it onto the inside of the windshield. As it was, I just looked at Erica and said, “I cannot believe you answered that one. Now what?”
We haven’t really discussed how we would like to talk with Isabel about God and religion.
Thankfully it was all just a false alarm. Possibly sensing the momentary panic her question and Erica’s answer had thrown us into, our child mercifully let the question drop.
And a week later, there the question still sits, lurking in the dark shadows, begging an answer. Now that the holiday season is approaching, I am pretty sure we are going to have to find a way to answer her question—or to at least explain who that baby in that barn is everywhere we go.
Erica and I were both raised in mainstream Christian churches, but neither of us is a member of any church now. Isabel is not quite three years old, so she is not yet aware that there is such a thing as a “church.” I was hoping to avoid the whole topic until some vague future date (ideally, as we were driving her up to her first year of college). But the false alarm in the car has made me realize that we will be doing Isabel a disservice by ignoring the topic indefinitely. She is going to see religious imagery, she is going to go to church with my parents once in a blue moon, she is going to have classmates who talk about God, and she is going to have questions she will want answered.
As a teacher of world history, I am well aware of the human desire to make sense of the world. That desire is often met by the creation of belief systems that involve a creator and a plan and teachings and rules and consequences. Religion seems to be as deeply rooted in humans as the needs for food, water, and shelter. To ignore it is to blot out a large part of what it means to be human.
It strikes me as funny and a little ironic that my mom or dad could have written this same article thirty-four years ago, only the subject would have been sex instead of religion. Both are deeply felt human needs that have been known to cause all sorts of havoc at times. My parents never once spoke with me about sex, and maybe as a result of their silence I am committed to being up front and open to any questions Isabel may ask about sex. Conversely, religion was a big part of our family life, yet I find myself shying away from questions about God.
I still don’t have a set answer in mind for when the question comes out of Isabel’s mouth again, but I do know that I won’t ignore it and hope it goes away. I know the attitude I hope Isabel will adopt toward God and religions, but I also know that she has been an independent thinker and separate from me and Erica since shortly after she was born. Her beliefs will be totally her own.
Having said that, I hope that she approaches religion with an open mind and a willingness to learn. One yardstick I hope she will use to measure religions is kindness. I hope my girl will have a respect for all faiths, but also a willingness to judge each by how well it upholds human dignity. With natural disasters, human cruelty, and the vagaries of life, the world is a hard enough place; a person’s faith should give a sense of comfort and forgiveness and not lead to self-loathing and hatred.
It is hard being the only species alive that is aware of its own impending death. Not only that, but we also know beyond doubt that the same fate awaits everyone we ever love. Because of this knowledge, religion should try to provide a universal and inclusive salve for the pain.
All of this sounds very vague and theoretical, even to me. The real question I should be asking is this: what will I say to Isabel in a couple of weeks when we come across a manger with a baby Jesus in it and she says, “Who is that?” Will I say “That is a baby in a barn,” or will I give her more information?
I think I will give her more information and let her start the long process of making sense of the world and the human need for spirituality. (If not, she’ll probably just pick up a bunch of misinformation on the street when she is a teenager, and then where will I be?)
Sometimes I really do miss the days when I was part of a religion that had a book and a system. It sure would save a lot of anxiety and stress about how to talk with Isabel about God and about other people’s beliefs. I could just show her the book and say, “This is what we believe.” That is harder to do when what I believe isn’t in a particular book. Rather, it is in many books, from the Torah to Of Mice and Men, and from the Koran to Anna Karenina.
I need to trust that when the time comes to talk with Isabel about religion and God, Erica and I will know what to say. In the meantime, I am going to have to avoid words like “cod” and “yeah way!”