On the way to church one Sunday morning, my daughter said from the backseat:
“Daddy, can we see God?”
I had to consciously remind myself that she is five and that she did not want or need a theology lecture. Since I never know how to answer questions like this, I use a little trick cribbed from Socratic learning techniques:
“What do you think, sweetie?” I asked her back. “Do you think we can see God?”
“No,” she answered.
Well, there you go, straight from the mouth of a kindergartener: we cannot see God. But the curiosity of a child is not prone to merely asking questions it already knows the answers to.
“I wish we could see God,” she said
“Maybe sometimes you can,” I shrugged.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, can you see love?”
She thought for a moment. “No.”
“But can you see when someone is doing something loving?”
“Then maybe sometimes we can see someone doing something that God would do.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror; I could see from her expression that she wasn’t buying this.
I didn’t want this to be the end of the conversation; I wanted to rescue this conversation so she would feel as if talking about such things were ultimately a worthwhile endeavor. “Well, if you could see God,” I asked, “what do you think God would look like?”
Without hesitation she said, “A brown bear.”
I had not seen that coming. I’d half expected her to give me the classic WASPy child’s answer of an old man with a white beard, but instead I got a brown bear. I couldn’t help but laugh with surprise – and not a little delight at her rich, if unintentional, subversion of stereotypical God images.
“Is it a friendly brown bear?” I asked, suddenly struck by one possible problem with this metaphor.
She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Of course!”
“So you think God is a cuddly brown bear?” I summarized. “Sounds good to me.”
After a few moments, she said, “I wish God was in the car with us.”
Again, my silly need to protect abstract theologizing overcame me and I said, “Maybe God is in the car with us.”
“Uh, no he isn’t,” she snapped, “or I would see him.”
“Oh, right,” I winced. “Well, what would you do or say if you could see God in the car with us?” At that thought, my own mind went straight to all the times that I, too, had wished for an audience with God. My need for answers and explanations; my longing for an accounting of the sufferings I’ve seen; an assurance of some purpose at work beneath everything.
She looked out the window wistfully. “I wish he was here right now so I could cuddle with him.”
I almost pulled the car over so I could let that soak in for a moment. I pictured my child wrapped warmly in the protective arms of a fuzzy brown bear, no need for answers or explanations or assurances beyond warmth and presence. My eyes filled with tears.
“That would be really wonderful,” I said after clearing my throat. “Maybe sometimes God sends us other people who will cuddle us. Maybe that’s how God cuddles with us, by bringing us other people who love us and cuddle us and look out for us.”
She frowned and continued to stare out the window; going abstract just wasn’t getting us anywhere. She asked me more questions about God. How does God eat? How can God be in all places at once? Where does God live? All questions of concrete curiosity about this strange thing called God. I answered as best I could, trying to avoid abstractions, and probably saying more about what I didn’t know.
My child is a concrete thinker. It’s her job; it’s what her brain is built to do right now. Intellectually, there are a lot of things in this world that are impossible to fully comprehend only from the concrete: love, hope, peace, God. However, there is something really grounding and embodied about letting my child lead me into the concrete realities of these things. Because I can philosophize about the nature of God all day long, but my real experiences of the divine are things I’ve felt in my gut and in my bones.
I’ve read a lot of books about emotions and love and passion, but the things I truly believe about the nature of love come from the ways I have been loved, and the only ways I’ve ever been loved are by people doing things for me in concrete, real, experienced ways.
I have no idea where God lives or what propels God’s existence or even what God is on any basic ontological level. (Sorry, theology professors who taught me in seminary.) I do know, however, that when I joined my child’s image of God – imagining with her how much she’d love to have a big teddy bear snuggle and protect her – that I felt close to God in that moment. I felt warmth in my chest, felt a twinge of longing in my gut, felt the tears come to my eyes. Those were all concrete experiences even if they came from trying to ponder abstractions.
It is essential that we have images for God. We are imaginative creatures who make meaning through stories and symbols. How can we understand a thing like the divine without the stories of scripture and our own lives? Without the taste of bread and wine among friends? Without the cleansing coolness of water or the sweet smell of oil and incense? Without the hands of parents or the laughter of friends or the exhilaration of air in our lungs and sunlight on our cheeks?
I overlook all the concrete experiences that inform my understanding of God’s presence in favor of the vast and arcane theological arguments, but it is impoverishing for me to do so. My child has no choice but to live in the concreteness of her life and it would do me good to join her.
A significant concrete experience of her life is living in her body. Toes and fingers and curly hair and yes, the things that lead her and those around her to identify her as a girl. Even though inclusive language is a theological concept adhered to with strict discipline in both our household and our church, she has still absorbed the tendency to speak of the divine with masculine pronouns.
For now, I don’t correct her; the abstractions of gender and language don’t seem particularly illuminating without the capacity for formal operational thinking. But she sees a woman in the pulpit every Sunday morning at our church. For the ways in which she sees pastoral leadership embodied by a strong, confident, thoughtful woman, it is well worth pleading with her to sit quietly while Pastor Amy preaches. And as a church and family, we must continue to help her see herself in the divine, as we tell stories of faithful women disciples and of God as friend, Spirit, mother, midwife, sister. As she uses the concrete world around her to learn to imagine, her mother and I want her to include as vast an array of images as possible in her make-up of divine possibilities: women, bears, and anything else she can dream up.
Of course, she is learning to experience the abstract through the concrete, even if she can’t yet comprehend it. I’m thankful that she has people in her life who will cuddle and hold her and protect her and encourage her. I’m thankful that she has food to eat and a bed to sleep in and shoes for her feet. Her concrete experiences of care and provision will help her trust a God who seeks goodness and blessing for everyone.
And I’m thankful that she in turn can remind me of the concreteness of goodness. Not just so I can get in touch with my own blessings, of which I have experienced many, but also that I might seek to be a concrete good for others. Goodness – indeed, Godness – comes in many, many forms.
Post author Rev. Daniel Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain and an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor. He works at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and is an active member at Park Road Baptist Church. He lives with his spouse and five-year-old daughter and loves craft beer and vinyl records. You can read more of Daniel's blogs at Shaken Parent Syndrome.
Photos by www.nathanlovas.com