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Nurturing a Belief in God

This guide explores how to discuss God with children; it relates theological concepts to the natural world, human relationships and other parts of a child’s world. It was first published in Creative Jewish Education (editors Rabbis Jeffrey Schein and Jacob Staub); it was later reprinted in The Reconstructionist (1986).



Harold Kushner has demonstrated his customary wisdom and insight in “The Idea of God in the Jewish Classroom.”* Especially valuable are his urgings that we introduce God to our children through their own experiences and feelings and that we do so in a manner calculated to augment rather than jeopardize their self-esteem. My hope here is to make his thesis more immediately usable for parents and teachers by adding specific routings to his general map.

God, of necessity, is an abstraction. Little children are capable of understanding only concretes. As they grow older, how do we help them to move gradually beyond the concrete to the abstract?

Take, for example, the concept of orange as a color. No realistic pedagogue would commence by suggesting to a very young child that orange is a combination of yellow and red. First, the child must become acquainted with oranges as pieces of fruit. Through a series of concrete experiences with specific oranges – seeing them, feeling them, smelling them, tasting them – the word orange comes to evoke a concrete image in the child’s mind. Only later does the same word, orange, acquire meaning as a color, related in fascinating ways to other colors and shades.

Why should our teaching of God be different? The task, to be sure, will be more difficult, because there is no concrete reality with which to commence. Yet our pedagogic method must be the same. As Rabbi Kushner shows so convincingly, we must begin with concrete experience, only later moving on to the realm of abstraction. If I had my way – which means to say, if the Bible, the siddur, and a host of intrusions from the larger world did not interfere – I would not even use the word God until my students had acquired a storehouse of experiential raw materials and attitudes which that word represents.

Theodore Herzl, not generally cited for his theological views, once referred to the word God as ”’that wonderful old abbreviation.” That’s exactly what the word is: an emotionally rich symbol for a whole complex of convictions and values which can result only from concrete experience.

The Raw Materials

What, then, are the raw materials our children need in order ultimately to achieve a mature understanding of God?

  1. An appreciation of beauty and order in nature.
  2. A sense of wonder, mystery, and awe toward the world and human life.
  3. Confidence and trust in the universe.
  4. The experience of friendship and love.
  5. An understanding of and a feeling for the relationship of human beings to the rest of nature, especially to other forms of life.
  6. A perception of our own and others’ ethical capacities.

Appreciating Nature

How can we successfully teach these ingredients to our children? The first two are easiest. A walk trough a park or the woods – especially in autumn or spring – is the perfect setting. Who painted the leaves with such spectacular beauty? Did you? Did I? Did an artist? Free responses to such questions will lead to the conclusion that there seems to be something within the trees themselves, within nature at large, that causes the colors of leaves to change. (Avoid using the word God too quickly if you can, but don’t ignore it if it is used by a child.)

The wise teacher or parent will quietly sequester a twig or branch already bare of leaves, saving it for a similar excursion the following spring. Do you remember what these bushes looked like when we walked here last November? Here the twig or branch is produced as a pre to memory. What caused the buds and leaves to appear again? The same something which was responsible for last fall’s beautiful hues.

Can we recognize anything like this something within ourselves? Does it make us change color or sprout buds? Do you remember how you looked as a baby? (Here a photograph, obtained from the child’s parent in advance, can be displayed.) Do you have a record at home of how tall you were or how much you weighed last year? What are your height and weight now? Can you think of an important idea or piece of knowledge that you couldn’t understand at all last year but that now excites you as it begins to make sense? Is it possible that the very same something that “pushes” inside the leaves and trees and flowers exists also in us?

Do we know – does anyone know – exactly what this something is, what it looks like, how it works? No, neither we nor anyone else really knows. We can wonder. We can guess. We can feel a very deep sense of mystery and awe as we watch it operating in the trees and ourselves. But no one knows for sure. Perhaps, as you grow older and keep thinking abut such things, you may be able to come closer to answers.

There are opportunities almost every day to explore this kind of question, gradually building in our children’s hearts and minds a true feeling of mystery and wonder at the beauty and order of nature. As children grow older, there are news items – a space flight, an eclipse of the sun or man, an organ transplant. Guided tours of the aquarium, the planetarium, the museum of science. The normal course of events brings innumerable occasions for experience and discussion which can reinforce the first two of our raw materials, essential for mature faith in God.

Trusting the Universe

How abut the third – confidence and trust in the universe? The place to begin here is with a realization that the little child’s universe is his or her home. The earliest impressions inscribed on a tender psyche will later be transposed into a cosmic key. All else being equal, the child who learns bough visceral experience that home is a reliable, dependable, trustworthy place will in due time conclude that our universe is reliable, dependable, and trustworthy.

The questions this truth imposes on parents and teachers are imperative: Can your children depend upon your reactions to their conduct? Are these reactions consistent from day to day? Can your children count on being neither foolishly pampered nor sadistically punished? Can they depend upon your expecting of them regular improvement but less than perfection? On your understanding of their worries and anxieties, your forgiveness of their mistakes, so long as they keep trying? On your unconditional love, even when they fail you and themselves? The wrong answers to these queries will lay the groundwork for atheists as well as neurotics. The correct answers will provide a foundation for healthy anonymities and mature faith in God.

Experiencing Friendship and Love

The same approach applies to raw material #4, experiencing friendship and love. Freud was the most precise, but he was scarcely the first to recognize that a child’s concept of and emotional relationship to God are inevitably projections of his or her earliest attitudes toward parents. Long after we have intellectually outgrown the notion that God is a Cosmic Parent, the emotional aura that bound us initially to mother and father still colors our feeling of the divine.

The infant and young child (for that matter, we adults not much less) need love at least as desperately as food. Here again, the requirements of mental health and of mature religion coincide. Only the child who receives love will be able to give love; only such a child will grow to be emotionally healthy; only that child will develop wholesome faith.

Children have an uncanny capacity to sense the presence or absence of love between their parents. Frequently in my pre-marital conferences l ask prospective brides and grooms to evaluate their parents’ marriages and to say whether or not they would be satisfied if their own pending marriage were of similar quality. In response, people often call up amazing impressions from early childhood. Husbands and wives who do not really love each other can often fool others, sometimes even each other, but never their children.

Infants intuit from birth – some observers would say even while still in the womb – the degree of love their parents feel for each other as well as toward their baby. Careful studies have shown that the amount of crying in hospital nurseries increases substantially when the nurse in charge doesn’t really love infants. Lewis Mumford, in one of his books, described a modern, hygienic hospital in which – after doctors had exhausted their utmost medical energy unsuccessfully in trying to heal a very sick baby – a slovenly, unkempt old woman was called in to fondle and cuddle the little patient. Her love often succeeded after every scientific prescription and method had failed. Both trust and love must characterize a child’s family setting if they are to be sensed later as qualities of the universe.

But what if, in truth, they are lacking at home? What if the parents are divorced? So far as possible, they must impress upon their children the fact that they still care for each other, despite the incompatibilities that caused their marriage to fail; that the children are in no way responsible for that failure; and above all, that they both still love the children very much. Broken homes impose a very special responsibility on teachers, rabbis, counselors, and physicians. In our relationships with children who have been damaged by such homes, we must stretch ourselves to demonstrate extra love to compensate for the loss.

Our Relationship to Nature

Now for raw material #5: perceiving the relationship between ourselves as human beings and the rest of nature, most especially to other forms of life. The similarities will be self-apparent even to a very young child. The dog breathes more rapidly and vigorously after running, even as we do. It “kisses” us to show affection. A trained monkey in the zoo swings on its trapeze as we do on the playground, eats with a spoon as we do at the table. At an older age, the anatomical and behavioral similarities between animals and ourselves will become even more perceptible through the study of evolution.

The differences are even more significant. Could our puppy paint the picture you just brought home from school? Can a kitten pass the arithmetic test on which you received an A? Is it possible for the monkey, which resembles us in some ways, to take piano lessons as you do? Has any animal ever composed a symphony, shaped a statue, or written a book?

Does our dog, Tiger, have a conscience which helps him distinguish between right and wrong? (Here we must anticipate and welcome a spirited argument.) Is it his conscience which prompts Tiger to slink away after chewing up Daddy’s sniper, or is it rather that he remembers that the last time he did something like that there was a sudden, painful collision between his rear end and the morning newspaper? Could Tiger, on confronting a brand new situation, figure out, as we often can, the right thing to do?

Little by little, through the repetition of questions and comparisons like these, our children will come to recognize those aspects of human nature by which we are distinguished. There is another dimension, however, in which we are clearly superior even to the smartest and most capable of animals. We call that dimension spiritual; the part of us that enables us to do these things we label soul. There appears to be something in nature which caused life to evolve from its simplest to its most complicated forms. The same something guided us human beings to expand beyond the physical into the spiritual. The name of this something is God.

In these last paragraphs, I have obviously telescoped much experience and many years of development. My purpose, within limited spaced has been only to suggest a course of procedure that can begin with very early childhood experience and then continue at every opportunity through the years. Properly and wisely pursued, this course will enable children to appreciate both the similarities and the differences between us and nonhuman forms of life. It will lead not only to the fifth, but by implication also to the sixth and seventh of the raw materials essential for a mature under- standing and experience of God. Gradually but certainly, our children will come to realize our spirituality, our capacity to create and partake of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Grasping all the raw materials suggested in these pages will predispose them to believe in God.

Nature’s Continuum

They will, moreover, recognize a continuum in nature. The earliest adumbration in animal life of what later develops into human conscience may be in the moment when the wolf desists from attacking the jugular vein of an enemy that, conceding defeat, lies deliberately prostrate beneath it. The first hint of human aesthetics may rest in the bowerbird of Australia and New Guinea, which, able to distinguish colors, chooses to build its nest of only a single hue.

There are deeply significant differences between us and our biological predecessors, but not an abrupt break. In the long, exciting course of evolution, as surely as the hand evolved from the paw and the brain from primitive nerve endings, so the moral has evolved from the amoral, an appreciation of duty from the strictly utilitarian, the spiritual from the purely physical.

To attribute all this only to natural selection is inexcusably simplistic. There is something essential and vital percolating throughout the entire process. While it would be foolish to expect little children to understand this in a sophisticated way, by starting with the simplest and easiest of our raw materials we can help them eventually recognize the presence of an ineffable Spiritual Thrust within all existence and life.

Teaching Ethics

An additional word is in order on the relationship between teaching about God and teaching ethics. Here again, we shall succeed to the extent that we proceed from the concrete to the abstract, from immediate experience to generalizations and rules. Children do not learn ethics by memorizing maxims or reciting pledges. They learn by doing.

Take, for example, the slogan, “A stitch in time saves nine.” Stated as such, it will mean little to children and will affect their behavior even less. But suppose your child has ignored a small rip in his or her coat and the small rip comes an irreparable tear. Or a damaged spot in the binding of a book, neglected, leads to the whole volume’s falling apart. Then, without undue scolding or rage, a wise parent or teacher will ask: ”Why did this happen? Was there any way to anticipate it? Could it have been prevented? How much inconvenience or harm dies the damage cause us? How much would there have been if we had done something sooner?” The “stitch in time” adage may then become truly meaningful as the way in which wise people in the past summarized exactly the kind of experience we have just had with our coat or book.

Similarly, nagging a child who fails to put her toys away or leaves his bike overnight on the lawn may accomplish nothing. But when someone breaks a favorite toy by tripping on it, or the neglected bike is either ruined by rain or stolen – here is a concrete learning experience more likely to impress the child than even our angriest, most emphatic words.

How is God related to the teaching of ethics? In two ways. At a fairly early age children will recognize a warm, pleasant feeling within themselves when they have done good things – even before they are applauded or rewarded. And an uncomfortable, disturbing inner sensation when they have done some- thing wrong – even afore being punished or reproved. We can help them understand these feelings as coming from the same something within us which makes us grow in size, weight, understanding, and love.

Later they will realize that this same precious something in them reflects a similar but far greater something in the universe. That Moral Law as well as Physical Law is a component of reality. That our ultimate welfare as human beings depends on conforming both to the law of gravity and to the highest ethical values we know. That the name our tradition assigns to the something which sustains both aspects of Natural Law is God.

Harold Kushner and I obviously have similar concepts of God. Both of us have been indelibly influenced by the thinking of Mordecai Kaplan and Milton Steinberg, aleihem hashalom. It is neither possible nor necessary that every believing Jew subscribe to our particular ideas of God. The pedagogical principles and procedures suggested by the two of us are equally valid for those who may disagree with our theological conclusions. Based on the essential nature of children and the manner in which they learn, this or something very much like this is the best way to teach about God, regardless of the final concept we may hope to achieve.

We do not give discrete courses on God. We commence with our children’s nature and need. We are teaching them about God, for good or for bad, while teaching them just about everything else.

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