Truth. It’s a word that holds a lot of power isn’t it? Power to both unite and divide us, especially in areas where the meaning of “truth” is so open to interpretation, as it is when it comes to faith and religion. And it is that power that has so truly terrified me when it has come to sharing my own truth with others in the past. But more and more I am learning that the only power truth really holds is what we give to it, and in that respect I am determined to encourage my child to find his own truth and be confident in living his life in harmony with what feels right to him.
You see, as a child I had a simple idea of faith. I truly believed that a belief in God meant the same thing to everyone. And the beauty to that simplicity was that I didn’t feel the need to explain my thinking or put my thoughts into little boxes labelled as one thing or another, it all just blended together perfectly.
I remember laying in bed, thinking about what I might do when I grew older, and thinking “it doesn’t matter if I don’t get to do everything this time around, I can always do something else in my next life,” which was clearly a belief in reincarnation. Where that idea came from, I do not know, but it sat quite easily beside the idea that Jesus was born of Mary and that God was up in Heaven and listened to all my prayers, and (as I grew older) that the Spirits of deceased loved ones watched over and guided us.
When I look back, I see that all of these ideas come from different faith traditions, and that I somehow managed to create my own truth based upon nothing more than what felt right to me. I didn’t know, at that time, about the intricacies of different religions, nor how similar and yet somehow so different they could be. There was no need for me to do that, not when I was young.
Of course, as I have grown older I have learned so much about the nature and history of religion and how it shapes (and is shaped by) both individuals and societies. There have been times when this has made me question what I once accepted to be true, and there have also been times when it has led me to affirm that which feels as true to me now as I did way back in my childhood. It’s not always easy scrutinising faith, especially when you have strong ideas about it and how it affects your life. But it is a privilege to do so, especially when you’re provided with the right tools and environment, such as the writings of scholars and the testimonies of people from each faith.
Just recently I have been slowly working my way through some fantastic free online courses led by teams from Harvard University. The series has focused on religious literacy, that is understanding religious scripture in its historical and cultural context rather than trying to define what it says as true to all people in all times, as if it held a single truth. And this has been a revelation to me – I have long discussed my idea of “truth” as being something which is flexible, found within all walks of life, and so equally available in all spiritual paths. But I have never been able to express that fully, especially when presented with the counterargument that there must be some “universal truth”, which makes some things inherently right and others wrong. And this has worried me incessantly when I have thought about how I’m raising my son, (WB), in a way that can only be described as religious pluralism – how do I possibly explain that to him in ways he can understand, when I can barely explain it to myself?
And therein lies the heart of this blog post – our children do not need to understand it, not in the same way we strive to as adults anyway. When I think back to my childhood, my faith was exactly the same as it is now in terms of religious pluralism, and I never thought twice about it. Never once did I have to explain my thinking or justify the reasoning behind it, that came later. And I certainly didn’t need to seek out those ideas or experiences in order to find my own truth, it simply happened through cultural observances. I went to church occasionally. We watched TV as a family. I read books with gusto. I built my truth based on what felt true to me, at each stage of my development. And that’s before we had the advantage of a truly global society thanks to the internet and tablet computers!
Just this evening WB lay next to me in bed and started talking to me about Angels. This didn’t surprise me, as we’ve talked about Angels before. Every time he sees a white feather on the ground, he excitedly declares it’s an “Angel Feather” and we sometimes ask the Angels to bring us nice dreams when we go to sleep. But we’ve never really talked about who or what Angels are, he’s never asked, so I’ve never said anything. Until tonight. Our conversation went like this:
WB: When you do good things, you turn into an Angel
Me: Oh, do you? That’s nice.
WB: And when you eat Angel food, you get rid of the baddies!
Me: You get rid of the baddies?
Me: Who told you that?
WB: Yesterday, Jerry turned into an Angel and flew into the sky
Me: Jerry? You mean Jerry the mouse (from Tom and Jerry)
And in that one little conversation, I suddenly understood what I needed to do. I needed to stop worrying so much about how to teach WB all about faith and religion and let him simply find his own truth as he grows. If he can develop such a clear idea in his head about what Angels are based on a Tom and Jerry cartoon, then why not let him? We all develop our ideas about faith and the truth through what we see, hear, read, and experience, and that’s no different for our children. We need to trust them to explore the world in their own time and guide them through how we live our lives, and answer questions when they arise, rather than trying to second guess the best way to teach them what we think they need to know.
Faith isn’t a science, it isn’t something we can map out a syllabus for. It’s something you could study for the whole of your life and never truly experience. And it’s equally something you can experience as truly amazing without ever once studying a single thing – just look at the faith of a child!
Now, before you point out that there is a need to watch what our children see and hear, because there are dangerous ideas out there that our children could easily come across with such open access to the internet, I agree. I’m not suggesting you don’t talk to your children about this and ask them what they think. I’m also not saying that as our children grow into teenagers and young adults we shouldn’t offer them opportunities to study world religions, spiritual practices, historical cultures, and anything else which might expand their understanding of their own truth and that of others. I think talking with our children, asking them questions (and answering theirs) and providing them with opportunities to expand their knowledge is crucial to empowering them in their own lives.
What I am saying is that we need to do this all with a certain degree of trust in our children’s inherent ability to explore deep questions about the nature of life and faith in ways that we sometimes make so overly complicated with our analytical adult minds. Instead of getting in the way of that natural inquisitive nature all young children have with our worries over teaching them the “right way”, whatever the “right way” is, perhaps it is time we encourage them to find their own truth. You never know, they might even teach us a thing or two!