One of my children says he doesn’t believe in God.
This strikes me as a risky sentence to write; to admit that the child of someone who does believe. . .who works for a church. . .doesn’t believe.
The fact of the matter is that this isn’t new information for me. He has told me this quite a few times and at first I thought it was just the wiley impatience of a child who didn’t want to attend Mass. . .who didn’t want to attend religious education classes. I didn’t say much except, “Get in the car. . .we are going.” I thought his doubt would pass as he matured and the halo of reverence would descend upon him. It hasn’t. . .yet. . .
Usually his denials of God’s existence were made to just me. . .until a couple weeks ago when he told his faith formation teacher. After the class, he told me that he had told this person that he didn’t believe. For an instant I thought I should track that person down and try to explain. Instead I asked, “What did she say?”
“She said it was okay and that when she was my age she wasn’t sure about God either.”
And, you could hear his entire body sigh in relief. I had no idea how hard it might have been for him to carry this secret. . .especially when surrounded by people who seemingly are believers in–or at least do not question–God’s existence.
I sighed too. Then the following week the person whom he had spoken with stopped me in the hall to tell me what happened and how she responded. And I cried with relief.
This amazingly beautiful and insightful woman told him that it was okay not to believe. She showed empathy and understanding: she knew what it was like not to believe. She knew not to try to convince him. . .not to throw out trite examples of God’s love and therefore his existence; she knew not to give him platitudes or bumper sticker phrases. She listened lovingly.
She honored his non-belief by recognizing its existence: the elephant in this child’s room.
I’ve been listening to TED Radio Hour’s presentation called Believers and Doubters. It coincidentally appeared on my downloaded podcasts last week even though the show is from last April. Lesley Hazelton, one of the speakers on this particular show and an agonistic Jew, says that in fact you can’t have belief without doubt. To go further, one has to have doubt to have faith. “Abolish all doubt,” says Hazelton, “and what is left is not faith but absolute heartless conviction.” Our desire for certainty and perfection is actually less human because as humans we are imperfect and so are our doubts and beliefs. It is the imperfections that makes us interesting. . .that sets us apart from others even as it joins us to others. We are united because we are all imperfect.
Hazelton goes on to say that the people she knows with the greatest faith have doubts, but they have faith despite their doubts. They know that it isn’t rationale but they commit themselves to their beliefs.
Honestly, I’ve also felt this delicate dance of faith and doubt in my own life. . .haven’t you?
My four year old came home from preschool he attends at a local Methodist church, and told me the story of Noah’s Ark. It really captured his imagination. . .and unveiled a bevy of questions. Did God really send that flood, Mom? Why would he do that? And when I explained that in the story God was angry at the people, Dylan asked innocently enough, “Even with the babies, mom?”
Sometimes we can make the leaps and bounds into faith while other times the boxes of questions and doubts bog us down.
Our family is part of a faith community, even though we might still have doubts and questions and uncertainties. I’m thankful that this community has someone like my child’s teacher who sees faith–and doubt– as our journey and not certain destinations. I’m grateful that she could acknowledge his doubt. . .and through that acknowledgement give him hope, faith and love.