By: Shannon Ralph
I need to figure out what I am going to teach my children about God. And quickly. Recently, I had the television on PBS and some program came on about uncovering the mysteries of the life of Jesus. My eight-year-old son, Lucas, is crazy about science documentaries. If he ever catches a glimpse of Nova or Nature, I can’t get him away from the television. It doesn’t even matter what topic they are covering. Any area of science will suffice. When the program about Jesus came on, he thought it was just another science program. Just another program about archeology or anthropology. I let him watch a little bit of it because he begged me, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. It was eight o’clock in the evening —bedtime —and it was a school night. I didn’t feel like being sucked into a deep philosophical conversation with Lucas, so I shut the television off and quickly shuffled everyone off to bed. Unfortunately, I could not avoid the uncomfortable conversation. As I was putting Lucas to bed, he began with the questions. Who was Jesus? Is he a myth or was he real? How is he God’s son? How did he die? What was Jesus famous for?
What was Jesus famous for? If ever there was an impetus to get my heathen children some religion, that question right there sums it up. What was Jesus famous for? My son is eight years old and needs to ask what Jesus was famous for. By the time I was his age, I could recite scripture. I could tell you the entire story of the birth and death of Christ. I could sing you a few verses of Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. I had been baptized. I had confessed my innocuous childhood sins to a priest for the first time. I had received my First Holy Communion. I had dressed up in a pint-sized wedding dress—complete with veil and ruffled socks —and committed my life to Jesus. (Yes, that is me in the picture above.) Why is it, then, that my firstborn son must ask me what Jesus was famous for?
I am not sure why I have not talked about religion with my son. I have a complicated relationship with organized religion —made even more so by being a lesbian. I was raised Catholic. I am the proud survivor of twelve years’ of Catholic schools. I know the answers to all of Lucas’s questions inside and out. At least, I know the answers I was taught as a child. However, I am not certain how I want to approach the topic of God and religion with my children. I believe in God. I believe that God is a loving God. However, I have trouble getting past all of the ugliness that is perpetrated in this world in the name of God. I am no longer a practicing Catholic. However, I have a very real soft spot in my heart for the Catholic Church. There are many things I loved —and will always love—about the Church. The community. The pageantry. The symbolism. The ritual. To this day, when I have trouble sleeping or I am worried or my mind will not settle itself, I recite Catholic prayers in my head. The Our Father. Hail Mary. Glory Be. Prayer to Our Guardian Angel. The Act of Contrition. I don’t know how much of my “praying” is an actual spiritual act and how much is merely rote recitation. Regardless, the simple act of reciting these prayers from my childhood calms my brain and settles my soul. They have become my mantra on my craziest of days.
Regardless of my affection for the Catholic Church I grew up in, I can’t get past some other aspects of the Church. I can’t get past the history of corruption and abuse in the Catholic Church. I can’t believe in a system that treats women as second-class citizens —a system so entrenched in feudal patriarchy that it completely ignores the phenomenal leadership abilities and talents its female members could bring to the Church. And even more relevant to me personally, I can’t get past the Catholic Church’s treatment of gay people. I can’t bring myself to be a part of a church whose leader, the pope himself, has publicly equated gay people having and raising children with child abuse. And that was Pope John Paul II, “The People’s Pope”. It is such a backward ideal, and a blatant slap in the face to all gay and lesbian parents.
So that leaves me with a burning question. What do I teach my children about God? About religion? And how do I teach them? I want my children to believe in a loving God. I want them to know that a person can be spiritual without necessarily being religious. I want to instill in them a moral code based on love and respect and service. However, when the topic of God arises, I feel extremely ill-prepared. Lucas is asking questions. He is beginning to talk about God and wonder about God and inquire about God. I don’t want him to learn about God from people who do not share my beliefs. I do not want him to think of God as a punishing, manipulative being who is out to “get” him if he misbehaves. I want him to think of God as a creator. As nature. Love. Compassion. Righteousness. This is what God is to me.
I make a concerted effort to answer all of my children’s questions as they arise. But what do I say to him? How do I approach the topic? I have tried answering all of his questions with the answers I memorized from my own childhood. However, these answers feel trite. I have yet to figure out how I am to teach my children about God and religion when my own relationship with both is fraught with struggle. How do I teach my son that God loves humankind —God loves him —passionately and completely, when one only needs to flip on the television to see the destruction being perpetrated in the name of God? Perhaps I am over thinking it. I’ve certainly been guilty of that on numerous occasions in this whole parenting adventure. I am a lesbian —over thinking and over “processing” issues is part of my genetic make-up. But I do want to be thoughtful about this. I want to be deliberate. Like all parents, I don’t want to completely screw my children up for life. At least not where religion is concerned. They will have enough to talk about with their future therapists. I just want my children to believe in something greater than themselves. Something greater than this world. And to experience the calmness of heart that this belief can bring with it. I just don’t know that I am the person to teach all of this to my children. Unfortunately, however, I am the only person for this job.
Perhaps a Hail Mary is in order…