fair enough (a 10-year old reminds me how we learn) – a personal reflection

question marksPaul…” On a December Sunday morning, “Jocelyn” approached me; her countenance bright with earnest concern, “…my 10-year old daughter, ‘Allison’, doesn’t think she believes in God.”

“Marvelous!”

Really?”

“Yes! It’s marvelous that she shared that with you and that you received it.”

“Thank you. She’s struggling with science and faith, and right now science makes more sense to her.”

“Perfectly understandable. I’d love to talk with her about this.”

“You would?”

“Of course! I live to have these kinds of conversations.”

Within days, Jocelyn sent an email, the subject line: Talking with a 10 year old Uncertain About God!, in which she wrote, in part, “…as I said to you, my daughter has decided that she doesn’t believe in God because she believes in science. Many thanks for your willingness to engage her on a personal level on this important issue with which she is struggling! (And I am glad we go to St. Mark’s where statements like this are not met with hair on fire, wailing, and gnashing of teeth!)”

Tuesday morning, December 23, Jocelyn and Allison, a polite, winsome girl with a ready smile and a preternatural air of self-possession, joined me in my office. Swiftly, a rich conversation ensued.

“Allison, may I ask you why you wonder about God?”

“I’m not sure I can believe in a God in a world with so much evil.”

“Fair enough. When you say ‘evil’, what comes to mind?”

“War, hunger, climate change and storms where people die, Ebola. Things like that.”

“Again, fair enough.” I scribbled on a piece of paper and held it before Allison. “Can you pronounce this word?”

“The-od-i-cy.”

“Yes. Theodicy is the study of why there is evil in a world created by a benevolent God. This is something human beings have wrestled with for centuries. Are you familiar with the story of Job?”

“I think so.”

“Can you tell me the story?”

“It’s about a man who lost everything…family, everything, and it was unfair. He didn’t do anything wrong. He asked God about it, but God didn’t give an answer.”

“Allison,” I marveled, “that’s as fine a retelling as I can imagine of this story of how bad things do happen to good people. Many years ago, I read a book, J.B., by Archibald MacLeish. It’s a play based on the Job story. One of the characters says, ‘If God is God, God is not good, and if God is good, God is not God.’ In other words, if God is all-powerful, God must not be good because God allows evil, and if God desires the best for the creation, God must not be powerful enough to make it happen. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes, that’s really the question I’m wondering about.”

“Once again, fair enough. Let me ask you another question. Who or what is God for you?”

“God is a person…a being far away and above us.”

“OK.” Again, I scribbled on a sheet of paper. “Allison, forgive my poor drawing skills! Here is a three-level picture of the universe. This,” I pointed to the middle, “is the Earth, this,” sliding my finger to the top of the page, “is heaven, which is above the Earth, and,” running my finger to the bottom of the page, “this is the underworld where people go when they…”

“Die?”

“Yes, thank you. This is an ancient depiction of the universe. So, if we believed in this model, to find God we would look up. But I think we know that right now if we look up all we would see is the ceiling. So, what if God could be found all around us? What do you think about that?”

Allison, looking at me intently, shrugged. “What does that mean?”

“OK. What do you think God is like?”

“I want God to be loving and kind and fair.”

“I like your God. I want that, too. Suppose I told you that whenever you experienced love and kindness and fairness from others or in yourself toward others, there is God. Does that make sense?”

“That’s a nice way to think about it. Um, I’ll have to think about it, though.”

I smiled. “And again I say, fair enough. Allison, one thing I would like you always to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Hold on to your questions. Keep them. Treasure them. Because anyone can answer a question. For example, I could ask you a question and you could answer it, and then I could repeat your answer to your mother who had asked me the same thing. But it wouldn’t mean I really knew or understood the answer. At the same time, whatever questions you, your mother, or I ask, they reveal what interests or concerns and worries us. Our questions, in a way our answers cannot, say a lot about who we are. So, please don’t stop asking questions.”

“OK. I won’t.”

Again, I smiled. “That’s fair enough.”

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