On the night table beside my daughter’s crib we have a book of children’s Bible stories. I started reading to her during and after her feedings. The book begins – just as the real Good Book does – with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
My daughter was just a few days old at the time I started reading to her. Even if she could have understood what I said, she would have no context for who or what “God” is. I eventually went on undeterred (after all, comprehension isn’t a strong suit among five-day-old kids), but it got me thinking:
How do you explain a concept like “God” to someone for the first time?
The magnitude and enormity of God can be as mind-boggling as the first time one walks into a great Gothic cathedral, with its impossibly high arches, its ornate carvings, and its foreign, perhaps indecipherable ritual. I’ve grown up in church, I feel very much at home with faith, and yet I still feel bewildered at times by passages of scripture, or by others’ beliefs.
That’s OK. No matter where you are on the spectrum of faith, struggling from time to time with weighty moral issues, even struggling with what you believe, is normal and natural. Explaining God can feel like a chicken-and-an-egg: learning about God appears to demand a pre-existing knowledge of the type of being God is – God.
So allow me to begin with this notion:
No one – at any age – can fully grasp the whole concept of “God.”
The best way to explain God is not to attempt to capture His true essence, which is impossible, but to use reference points we can understand. God isn’t a human being, but we know what human beings are. Therefore, a statement like “We are made in God’s image, but God is greater than all of us,” is understandable. We know love, compassion, caring for family, and so we understand “Just as your parents love you, God loves all of us.” Such a relative explanation necessarily underwhelms God’s nature, but then again, anything we try to say about God will underwhelm His nature.
Explain God in pieces.
Newcomers to God and to faith, irrespective of their age, shouldn’t be expected to grasp all the concepts immediately. Starting with “God created all things, including you, because he loves you,” provides a digestable bit of theology. Reinforce such teachings with stories from the Bible: God saves Daniel from the lion’s den. He saves Jonah from the whale. He saves the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and rains down food from heaven for them in the desert. Time and again, the story of the Bible is one of a God who earnestly cares for His people.
Embrace generalities (for now).
Explaining God necessarily requires some generalizations. For example, saying “Jesus is the son of God” is true, but lacks the deeper understanding of the Trinity that embraces the “fullness of the Diety” (Colossians 2:9) that is integral to the nature of Christ. In the early stages, as long as I avoid the really poor generalizations that would lead to bad teaching (e.g. the polytheistic “We have 3 gods: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”), I think I’ll be OK.
Focus on faith, not on ritual.
It’s hard for many lifelong, practicing Christians to fully appreciate the mystery and order of the rituals of the church. For early learners, the focus should be on learning the key tenets, on establishing the roots of faith. When to stand, when to sit, what hymns to sing and what verses to recite can all come later. Why we light candles, the nature of communion, the eschatology of the end times – these can all come later.
But – and this is important – they should come. All of us are duty bound as creatures of morality and conscience to strive for greater understanding of our beliefs, for a deeper knowledge of and association with right. No one would say “I am perfect,” which means we all accept that we err and do wrong. And, I believe, no one would cop to a “morally acceptable” amount of immorality, either in us or in the world. If we believe it is right to do right, and if we believe that we should always strive for a better understanding of what “right” is, then we are therefore required to seek ever-closer association with living moral lives.
I’ll close this (rather lengthy) post with one of my favorite bits from C.S. Lewis. In his introduction to Mere Christianity, Lewis writes about his goal to bring adult newcomers to the church by simply advocating Christianity, not a specific denomination. Whether for adults or children, I find his words meaningful. (Emphasis my own)
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of existing communions… It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. … It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. …
But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. … And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this door-keeper?’
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.