“Do you believe in God?” asked my six-year-old daughter recently in the middle of dinner.
It wasn’t just her question— that question, some would say – it stopped me in the middle of the bite. Her tone was casual, conversational. There was none of the usual awe I associate with matters of faith and being. It was as if she was asking what was for dessert. Ice cream sandwich, and let me explain my shifting agnosticism to you here.
At the moment I had pryed a piece of cheese from my enchilada. I thought of the Kim Kardashians pumpkin cemetery and wondering if I should take the coyote sightings in our neighborhood more seriously. In other words, my mind was focused on everything except the burning questions of spirituality.
So dumbfounded, I used my most relied upon parenting tool: stalling. “Hmm,” I said. “Tell me more about what you’re thinking.”
My daughter started talking about stardust, the sky and death, one of the subjects that occupy much of her young mind. Part of her wondered about reincarnation. But mostly she was obsessed with God, referring to the Pledge of Allegiance they recited every morning at school and how her grandparents said grace before every meal. She wondered: what did God look like? Was he even one he?
At lunch, she overheard some children at a nearby table discussing the existence of God – a heated conversation for first graders. Some described going to church or temple. They mixed their inherited beliefs with nascent questions or doubts. No wonder she had questions, no wonder children often negotiate their own beliefs even from a young age. It is a rite of passage for many.
And still. I was well into college before I began to explore spirituality that differed from my own. On one of our first dates, my husband and I discussed the religious traditions we grew up with. He was baptized in the Catholic Church. I grew up believing in a version of Buddhism mixed with ancestor worship and bodhisattvas. For both of us, concepts of a higher being were so sacred that there was no room for debate in our families of origin.
In my childhood home, our religion was lived in everyday life. Once a month my grandparents abstained from consuming animal products as a way of honoring our ancestors. We lit incense and filled the family shrine with fresh fruit. The evening was never over before I saw my grandmother kneeling with incense sticks between her fingers and touching her forehead to the floor three times. Before I went to bed, I prayed to my patron, Quan Âm, and kept my eyes downcast before her visual arts. On special occasions, we drove an hour to the temple, where, along with dozens of worshipers, we took off our shoes at the door and handed offerings to monks in mustard-colored robes. The religion I grew up with was deeply purposeful, rich in traditions that centered me, even though I no longer follow its teachings.
One thing my husband and I knew was that we wanted to talk openly about religion with our child and accept any difficult questions, even if we stumbled. We promised that we would be compassionate and release as much judgment as we could. Most of all, we knew we wanted to learn with her, helping her shape a belief system that was as personal or communal as she wanted.
So over enchiladas that Thursday night, we described our separate versions of religion to our daughter. I was afraid we would confuse her. But children have the ability to accommodate more nuances than we give them credit for. My husband went first and explained that he believes in the life we create on earth rather than the possibility of an afterlife. I told her that I saw a divine logic that I could not understand but believed anyway. We also explained what both sets of her grandparents believed and outlined the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the life of the Buddha. I don’t know that we did a good job, honestly. I watched her process our words and fumble over the unfamiliar concepts.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I’ll decide what I believe another time.”
Fair enough. I want that too.
This season brings out something contemplative in me; I ask the same questions as the students in the first grade. Our little trio is spending Thanksgiving on their own this year, but briefly, before we raise our forks at the table, I’ll think of my grandparents bowing before their shrine, fingers dusted with incense. My in-laws mumble the same midday blessing they’ve been reciting for 60 years. Perhaps what unites us is our shared search for grace, as well as the hope that our wonder will eventually find a place to rest.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, will be published in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about motherhood, alternative fathers and physical affection. You can sign up for her newsletter here.
(Photo by MaaHoo Studio/Stocksy.)