Our dinner began in a most unremarkable fashion, with the usual chatter about school, the requisite spills, and the endless requests for items already set out on the table. (“Can I have a fork please?” It’s right in front of you. “Can I have a napkin please?” On your lap, dear.) But the meal took a hard left as we tucked in to the main dish, when, in response to my most ordinary request for ketchup (“Pass the ketchup, please?”), my son threw down a theological gauntlet instead: “If God is indestructible, why can’t God stop all the bad guys in the world?”
I responded with as much eloquence as I could muster in the moment: “I’m sorry… what?” My little one asked again: “If God is indestructible, why can’t God stop the bad guys in the world?”
Flummoxed as I was, I also marveled at how someone so young could already identify this seeming paradox, how he instinctively knew that creating a theology is a complicated business. Little did he know how elemental his question was, pitting the theory of the omnipotent being against that of free will. He was a philosopher at work, a theologian trying to make sense of the empirical evidence before him.
My little guy and his siblings, like so many children, are full of questions about God. All day, every day, their inquiring minds want to know: Where is God? Why is God? Who is God? And the most oft-heard question of all: Is God a boy or a girl? Or neither? Or both?
Sometimes, my kids ask about God at the most predictable of times, like when they lie down to sleep at night and wonder, “Does God live in the dark?” But other times, they ask about God at the most unpredictable of times and places. I’ll never forget when my then 3-year-old, called out to me from the bathroom to ask, pointing to the, uh, material floating in the toilet, “Is this how God made it?” (Trust me, I couldn’t make this up if I tried.) The truth is life, at its most and least grand, is full of mystery and awe. And though we adults take many of these miracles for granted, our children are sage observers of the wonder in their midst.
But even more so, our children are deeply curious about the world in which they live and the laws by which that world operates. They have big questions about living and dying, and they are intensely concerned with right and wrong. They long to discuss matters they regard as unfair (“Why don’t some people have enough food to eat?”) and circumstances they consider unjust (“What happens to the people living on the street?”). Many of these feelings can find expression in our children’s questions about God.
God is the medium through which our kids can ask these big questions about life and death, sickness and health, and the seemingly random nature of prosperity. And God is the vehicle through which our children can explore their worries and fears, their anxieties and insecurities. The more we listen, the more we see that questions about God are essentially questions about us and about this life we live. As my youngest son says, “God helps us talk to us.”
We will soon celebrate Shavuot and the moment of revelation that included the giving of our Torah. Much has been written about that space in time; about the experience we call “revelation.” Revelation did not end with Sinai; it continues today, and we can see it most clearly through the eyes of our children. It is they who invite God into our lives with such openness and excitement. It is they who offer God a place in the most intimate spaces of our hearts. It is they who trade trivialities for profundities with their extraordinary questions and thoughtful reflections. Indeed, it is they who bring God into the conversation, and by extension, potentially lead us closer to God in the process. (And even if God isn’t a concept that resonates with you, it can still be a way into conversation that your children might want to have.)
I found myself searching for God the other night, in pursuit of an answer to my son’s prime-time dinner challenge. I knew he wanted a resolution, and I wanted to give it to him. What would I say to him? What could I say? Ultimately, I said the only thing I knew to be true: “You asked a wonderful question, my love.” I added, “Let’s put our heads together and see what we can find.” And I realized: When we pursue God, we find ourselves drawing nearer to our children, as well.
Now pass the ketchup, please.