What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Depending on the angle, if you were to throw a stone from our house in Brooklyn, chances are that you would hit some type of house of worship. We have the International Baptist Church on one corner, the Pentecostal Calvary Cathedral of Praise on the other, the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the other direction and the Flatbush Shaare Torah Center just beyond that. We hear a nightly call to prayer from our local mosque and live between Boro Park and Crown Heights, two Hasidic neighborhoods with a lot of cross traffic. We have women in full naqib at the playground. Needless to say, we are surrounded by invitations to get to know God and examples of people who have.

Walking around with an observant and supercurious four year old has presented me with an interesting conundrum: As a non-believer, how to objectively explain the concept of a godhead? How to explain faith? How to tell the foundational beliefs of the world’s major religions to a mind that still believes in Santa Claus? How to differentiate Jack and the Beanstalk from Jonah in the Belly of the Whale?

I didn’t grow up in a religious setting, or even a spiritual one. Yet in no way was I ever discouraged in my curiosity: in the third grade, I decided I wanted to be Jewish, so my mom set me up with the one Jewish family in my school. The one time I went to Sunday school, it was at a Unitarian Church and there was a field trip to a Buddhist Temple. In college, I did the joyful romps at Krishna dinners and quiet romps at Zen retreats. I read the Vedas and chanted with Gurumayi. I even tried the step dance with a Higher Power.

Maybe it was a control issue, but I only really felt massive anxiety and not much freedom in the concept of giving away my will. I am, if labels are needed, pretty much secular humanist(ish). I just wasn’t cut out for leaps of faith. I am often jealous of the community of believers; the love, support and comfort they find in their faiths and with their flock, whomever they have chosen as their shepherd. But I know I am just not able to be one of them. I tried, but it wasn’t right.

I want my son to make his own decisions regarding the role of spiritual faith in his life, and I am trying to answer his questions as objectively as I can and provide him with resources for those questions I can’t really answer. The other day we were passing by the aforementioned Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, and he asked what it looked like inside. So we parked his bike in the lobby and sat in the rear pews. He asked why people were kneeling, so I told him about praying, which led to questions of to whom and why. I tried to explain that some people feel that God is like a special friend that they can talk to but can’t really see. At which point he said, “I see God! Over there!” and pointed to the almost-hidden 80-year-old lady practicing on the organ. He has also decided that he wants one of the “little hats with the bobby pins” (yarmulke) and a “Church Hat” (the broad-rimmed hats the Lubavitch wear). We still have a ways to go with the concepts of the sacred and the profane.

But I will feel as if I have done a good job if he feels confident in his right to choose for himself but also to respect others’ choices, not only in terms of faith, but with life’s other big (and small) questions.


  1. Love this. Well said, my friend. With my kids, I too struggle with the question of 'God', especially around holidays (Easter is not really about a bunny) as well as death and complicated family situations (If we have a grandpa how come we never see him?).

    I was raised Catholic and of course thought it was all very 'normal' except that I couln't get past the fact that there were no women priests and that I couldn't be an alter girl. Somehow, as devout as my mom was, when it came time to complete the sacrament of Confirmation - I think around 7th or 8th grade, my mom didn't push me to do it. She actually let me decide, regardless of the massive peer pressure for both of us. This is something I've always loved my mother for, giving me permission to decide for myself.

    In high school we took a non-Christian religions class (very progressive for a Catholic high school). This is when the lightbulb really went on - you mean there are other religions that believe in basically the same concepts of doing unto others, and searching for higher meaning? And some of them seemed like so much more fun than Catholicisim. Once my mom died, 20 years ago now, it's as though the idea of God died with her.

    I married a non-believer, and we (I think sadly) are not spiritual either. I miss the community that I once had and the comfort that God will make everything ok. We are just doing our best to teach through example respect for people's beliefs, and offer up our own brand of guidelines for life. That works for now, but I'm expecting a whole lot of uncomfortable questions after they have their first church expierience in May when we attend a neighbor's baptisim.

    I guess I use the same approach as with the topic of sex - keep an open mind, keep it simple, be honest and don't offer more information than a kid's mind can handle. I confess to the occasional, "You'll understand when you're older." Which is usually returned with, "I don't want to be older." Right on.

  2. This is a beautiful piece. Your guidance is wise and respectful to his developing little mind. He will have a rich and rewarding spiritual life living with you.

  3. Brilliant ! I just found this, i was going through my old e-mails looking how to buy a bike seat and found this. I have often wondered how will i explain what God is to my 4 year old, as an Agnostic ? Your writing was very thoughtful and sensitive and helpful. Just a thought on belief and G-d, i notice in myself that i consider myself although culturally Jewish--- food, family, and worry about having a scarf on in winter so the little one doesnt catch a cold [very Jewish]....but spritually, i just dont know---so i am Agnostic--except when something horrible happens....like i fall down a flight of stairs on my neck, or a lump is discovered and fear of cancer, all of a sudden me who didn't really believe starts praying. I dont know what to make out of that...but i do hope my daughter finds her own answers, maybe she will be just as unclear as me, or perhaps find answers, that will help be become clearer.