Thursday, December 17, 2009

Searching for God with a Three-Year-Old

I have an interesting relationship with God. I don’t really believe in any Deity.

For the first 19 years of my life (at least the ones in which I had a basic understanding of theology), I believed in God like just about everyone else. I imagined him to be a kindly but authoritative old white man, sort of a cross between the Wizard of Oz (the fiery image) and the heroic airline pilot, Sully Sullenberger.

Then I hit college, that godless and secular universe. I was in a Sociology of Deviance class when I was a sophomore at Columbia University and the professor was talking about moral relativity. That was the first time I began to seriously doubt God’s existence.

My mother freaked out and begged me to make an appointment with someone at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was also an undergrad in the combined program between the two schools. I phoned the secretary of Neil Gillman, who would later win a Jewish Book Award and was a noted Jewish philosopher and scholar. He’d been my freshman Jewish philosophy professor and was the head of JTS’ rabbinical school.

He made me nervous. He was clearly very smart and had a finely honed arrogance to his classroom manner. I never really studied in his class and squeaked by with low Bs and Cs. I figured of all the students who’d sat in his classes over the years, he resented me most for wasting his time.

So I sat down in his office amid shelves and shelves of books, and he asked me, “What brings you here?”

I said, “I already explained it to your secretary.”

“I know,” he said. “But I want to hear it from you.”

“Well,” I stammered, “I don’t think I believe in God any more.”

He got up from his desk, walked over to me with an extended hand and said, “Welcome to the club.”

Professor Gillman, who also wrote The Death of Death, and I spent the next few weeks discussing God and theology. He gave me readings. One of Gillman’s points was that people move back and forth over their lives on a continuum of belief in God. Some times we are closer to the believing side and other times we move to the other end and become agnostic.

I haven’t really budged from the not-really-believing side since 1978. But now that I have kids, and don’t want to ram my views down their throats, I see my role as a father and transmitter of values and beliefs with greater urgency.

In addition, since Verna was first diagnosed with cancer and has now seen it metastasize, I am searching for some deeper meanings and connections with the spiritual side of the world.

When Verna was in the hospital in 2006 after she’d delivered Maya, six days after we found out she had Stage III breast cancer, we had a powerful moment with one of her night nurses whom we’d asked to pray for us. She said, “We could do it right now.”

So we held hands and she politely and slightly apologetically issued a prayer to Jesus (“He was Jewish, you know,” she said.) and the Divine sense of healing on our behalf.

Several weeks later, after Verna had just about wrapped up her chemo treatments, she and I had another powerful moment in front of my brother in church on Easter. Verna kneeled in prayer before a small altar at St. Raphael’s parish in our hometown and I did the same. It felt natural and supportive. I didn’t pray to Jesus, but I did want to be present for Verna.

Before any more of my Jewish family rises in indignation over the two examples I’ve cited, yes, I had powerful moments in a Jewish context as well. But I selected these two because I can’t write about everything.

I still don’t really believe in God, powerful moments notwithstanding, but (and this is really weird) I teach at a local synagogue and tutor bar and bat mitzvah kids and officiate at their ceremonies. I am Jewish guy.

While I am searching, I do feel drawn to the precepts of Reconstructionist Judaism. Reconstructionism, founded by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan nearly 100 years ago, sees God as a human construction and posits that each of us possess a ‘spirit’ within us that calls us to act morally and ethically.

Spirituality and the Divine have been on mind lately not only because of Verna’s cancer, but also because I read The Bedtime Shema to Maya every night before bed. The book is a prayer of sorts and ode to the comforting words of the Shema, Judaism’s most important prayer, an affirmation of God’s Oneness, to let young people know they are not alone as the darkness envelops them before they drift off to sleep for the night.

“I rest myself in God’s hands. God is with me and I am not alone,” are the last two lines in the book, which Maya basically has memorized.

Listening to her sweet voice sing the first two lines of the Shema, an ancient prayer, is almost enough to make me believe in God. She is so genuine and filled with grace that her recitation of the book and prayer takes my breath away.

So I decided to ask Maya about God. I can’t remember how I phrased the question, but it was something like, “Maya, what do you think about God,” which is probably unfair to pose to someone who isn’t yet four.

She answered that God is in heaven with Grandma Chela. I probed some more but I could feel she was confused, so I dropped the subject. I didn’t want her screaming to Verna, “Mommy, why is Daddy making me talk about God? We just finger painted in school today and I am looking forward to the cookies you are making for the holiday party. All this theology is giving me a headache.”

I don’t have any answers or neatly packaged solutions. I am still searching, probing, trying to figure out the big and small questions and answers. I met with a Rabbi friend a few weeks ago and he said, “I don’t know if I believe either. But it is nice and comforting to feel that there is something greater than ourselves out there.”

He still prays and is a fairly observant Jew. He said he had recently spent 25 minutes during morning prayers just meditating one thought: God please help me get through this. I never asked the rabbi to elaborate, preferring not to intrude on his inner pain.

So I will see where my journey with God and the Divine Spark takes me as Maya gets older and Miguel lies on the cusp of being a teenager and seeing the world differently. They will need Verna and me to help guide them. Right now, I can only guarantee that I will be there as a moral force. The God stuff is still a work in progress.

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