“Mommy, what does God look like?,” my four-year-old innocently asked me as we lay together in his bed one night.
“Well, buddy,” I began. “God looks like all different things. We see God in His beautiful creation — in the clouds, the flowers, and the ocean. Things like that. We also see God in the kindness of people, and in love. I kept rambling. Remember when we gave money to the man on the street who didn’t have enough to buy food? That was showing God to him. And when you share your toys with your sister, that’s showing God to her…” I trailed off, searching his little face for any hint of understanding, hoping my answer was enough.
He thought for a minute, then said, “Okay, but can you just show me a picture of God on your phone?”
Oh, to be so young and innocent. To fit the vastness of God, and religion, into a neat tiny box of Jesus Loves Me on Sunday mornings and a quick Google search on an iPhone for a picture of the divine. My children’s big questions call for concrete answers, and yet for me, a mom who has been deconstructing her faith for several years now and is unsure of who God even is anymore, I am floundering for answers that will convince them and even myself that I’m not full of shit.
At this point, I’m more afraid to broach the topic of faith and God with my kids than I am to talk to them about sex. At least the mechanics of sex, what it actually is, is clear, albeit uncomfortable, to explain. At six and four years old, they just really want to know how they got in my belly in the first place. But God? How do I explain God to children in a way that leaves them curious but not traumatized, and open to religion but not tied to it with fundamentalist fear, like I was?
It took me almost four decades to be free of a God who required me to set aside my curiosity, my intellect, and even my common sense in order to earn his favor. I now see the Bible not as a book of rules and instructions for moral living, but as a collection of stories and parables that beg more questions than answers. I side-eye anyone who has ever shared the dreadful phrase, God said it, I believe it, that settles it. This trope is not only intellectually lazy, it’s privileged, and flat-out untrue. The Bible, God’s word, is full of contradictions, and there are religious scholars who spend their whole lives trying to make sense of the text, its cultural implications and various interpretations. Sorry, Brenda. You do not, in fact, get to say the matter is settled.
As a child, I believed in a God who actually destroyed the entire earth with water, sparing only an old man, his family, and a bunch of animals on a boat, because they obeyed God and what he said. The lesson: God is to be feared, and has the power to destroy me too if I don’t obey him.
But now? Now I believe that mankind doesn’t need God to destroy the earth, because we’re doing just fine with that on our own. As I watch the clips of children begging older generations to do something about climate change, I don’t need to believe in a literal afterlife hell anymore — because if we don’t make major changes to the systems that enable the lifestyles we desire, in a few short years, we’ll all be in hell right here on earth. How will I explain that one to my children? How can I look them in the face and tell them that the earth may not be around to sustain life for their children and grandchildren?
I don’t need to believe in a literal afterlife hell anymore — because if we don’t make major changes to the systems that enable the lifestyles we desire, in a few short years, we’ll all be in hell right here on earth.
I have never been the burn it all down kind. People are complicated, systems are even more complicated, and often there are pieces worth saving. I don’t want to completely turn my children off to religion, and yet, I worry about the influence American Christianity and its marriage to political power will have on their developing worldview. How can I turn away and pretend I don’t know about the man behind the curtain, pulling the puppet strings of control disguised as goodness, love and morality?
The prospect of my children growing up without religion seems so foreign to me, and wrong, but why? Most things about the church repel me now, mostly because so much of what I believed to be love was actually a means of control. It’s not love to tell a teenage girl in absolute terms what she can and cannot do with her own body. It’s not love to tell half the population that their gender disqualifies them from the pulpit. And it’s not love to tell anyone who they should love and who they can’t. But, that’s religion, and that’s the church I’ve always known. Is it possible to separate all the bullshit from the truth, the white, American Christian version of God from who God actually is?
One thing I know for certain — my children will not grow up being taught that they are worthless, that their bodies are sources of shame, and that the Bible should be taken literally, word for word. And the next time one of my little ones asks what God looks like, I’ll show them pictures of children in cages at the border, pictures of children marching for climate justice, and pictures of themselves. Because what’s the point of believing in a loving God without also believing in a God of justice? And while some of their big questions still make me squirm and feel like an inadequate teacher, I welcome them because they make me face my doubts and refine my own beliefs.