A few weeks ago our dishwasher, an old Kenmore that came with the house, gave up the ghost. After decades of barebones apartment living washing dishes by hand, the thought of not having a machine to do that chore was anathema to my middle class soul. So my wife and I immediately purchased a new one – a high end whisper quiet Bosch 800.
After our plumber installed the new machine, I showed it to my daughter. “We got a new dishwasher,” I said, showing her all the fancy lights and buttons. “Isn’t it great?”
“Where’s the old one?”
“On the porch.”
“Where’s it going?’
“The garbage dump,”
“Don’t throw it away!” Natalie wailed. “Put it back! I like the old one better.”
“But this new one is super quiet. And it’s very cool looking.”
“I like the old one. It made noise. This one is not cool.”
I should have seen this reaction coming. A few weeks after Buster died my wife got rid of the old oriental rug on our living room. He’d peed on it during his final year and it was beyond saving. When Natalie came home from pre-school and saw the bare wood floor she cried her eyes out. Replacing the rug with a much nicer one didn’t allay her fury in the slightest. “I want the old one back!” she yelled. “She’s not upset about the rug,” I told my wife, later. “She’s upset about the dog.” Buster was Natalie’s first experience with death. Never having known life without him, she initially fantasized about him coming back but, as the months past, the reality of his loss took hold. So, when the Kenmore died, this was just another change over which she had no control. In her mind it was another loss. Not cool.
“Natalie,” I said, gently. “The old dishwasher didn’t work anymore.”
“You can fix it!” she said. “I want it back.”
“Nothing lasts forever, dear,” I said. “Things get old and worn out.”
Turning on her heel, Natalie pierced me with the thousand yard stare she got from her old man. “Are you old enough to die?”
I once heard a comedian joke that if you die in your forties people say, “He went to soon!” But if you die in your fifties they’re like, “Yeah, I can see how that might happen.” Since I’m over the half century mark I guess I’m old enough to die. But then again, anyone of us can die at any time. But you can’t tell a five year old about Death’s random sense of timing. That’d just freak them out.
“No Natalie,” I lied. “Daddy is not old enough to die. I’ll be here for a long time. Don’t worry.”
“Buster was old and he died.”
“Yes, Buster was very old.”
“How old are you Daddy?”
“Are you older than Buster?” Goddamn. My daughter’s smarter than I give her credit for.
“Dogs are not like people,” I said. “They don’t live as long.”
“But are you going to die?”
“Not for a long time.”
“Am I going to die?”
“Yes dear. But not for a long time.”
“Where do you go after you die?”
“You go to heaven with God, Natalie,” I said. “And everyone you’ve ever loved will be there safe and happy.
“Will Buster be there?”
“Yes. And Felix, Mommy, Daddy, your grandparents and all your friends. Remember how we went to Disneyland and you were so happy? Heaven is like that all the time.”
I could hear my old theology professors rolling over in their graves. Disneyland? Quite a few adults would argue that The Happiest Place on Earth is actually Satan’s summer home. But cut me some slack – how do you explain the afterlife to a five year old? Something told me discussing eschatology with a child wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, there are adults who think heaven’s going to be a divine amusement park where they’ll finally get to meet Elvis.
But Natalie wasn’t done. “Daddy,” Natalie asked. “What’s God?”
Leaning on the dishwasher, I took a deep breath. I knew my daughter was going start asking “the big questions” eventually. But how to answer a question that countless prophets, philosophers, theologians and scientists have asked for ages? I studied philosophy, scripture and theology in college. Over the years I’ve read the Koran, the Upanishads; works by Aquinas, Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Rahner, Bonhoeffer, Schillebeeckx, Tillich, Berger, Barth, De Chardin, Bentley Hart, Von Balthasar, Ratzinger, Nouwen, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, the Desert Fathers, Maimonides, Avicenna and a bunch I’ve forgotten. At this point in my life I should have a good answer – but I don’t.
I’m not entirely convinced God is real. Despite all those fancy books I’ve read I sometimes think all that theological razzmatazz is just plain bullshit. When I hear about mass shootings, babies dying in hot cars, genocides, starvation and the wretched poverty billions live in, God seems like a foolish notion – a crutch for the weak minded and delusional. Why innocents suffer and die horribly is the best argument atheists have in their arsenal. It’s the one that resonates most with me. But the ex-seminarian in me knows that argument isn’t really about whether God exists – just if He’s worth knowing.
But billions of people throughout history have believed in God in one form or another. Not all of them were feeble minded idiots. If you read some of the theological texts of antiquity you discover very sophisticated, systematic and probing examinations of metaphysics and humanity. Just because those people didn’t have electricity, anti-biotics and iPhones doesn’t mean they were stupid. Even with all our modern knowledge, many of their ideas have held up to millennia of scrutiny. We’ve never been able to totally dismiss them. Believing in God, despite what many wags on television will tell you, doesn’t make you dumb or antediluvian, But I still wrestle with the whole concept.
That’s because, in my experience, people who are 100% sure of what their religion teaches have mentally checked out. Often using faith as a narcotic to avoid thinking about the unpleasantness of the world or themselves, they start valuing creeds over people and become joyless, pedantic and judgmental killjoys. And when you point out the inconsistences in their belief system they act like you’re trying to take their crack pipe away. Faith, if we’re honest with ourselves, is a one step forward, two steps backward affair. Besides, holding two inconsistent positions within oneself is a mark of emotional maturity – allowing you to see other points of view. To not be terrified of differences. A wise theologian once wrote. “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. It is essential to faith.” Doubt keeps you humble.
When you strip away the doctrinal differences, the world’s religions, at their core, describe God pretty much the same way – that He is Existence itself. The utterly unknowable, transcendent, immanent and timeless Reality in which in “we live and move and have our being.” Being Itself. Try wrapping your head around that one. Created and finite beings have issues trying to describe something infinite and not contingent on anything else. It’s like trying to remember what you were like before you were born. Therefore, there’s a lot of room for second guessing – for doubt. But I have to answer my daughter.
“God is why anything is here at all, Natalie,” I said. “You, me – every animal, plant, rock, tree and star.”
“Black holes too? ” Natalie, said. She just got back from a trip to the planetarium.
“Everything, my dear,” I said. “He keeps everything going because he loves us. And because he loves us then we have to try and love other people. Don’t worry about heaven too much. Just worry about being nice to people.”
“You told me to be nice to the man at the gas station.”
“Yes,” I said. “And waiters in restaurants, the lady who cleans our house or people who don’t have lots of money or nice houses. And people who have money and live in nice houses. We have to try and love them all. And that’s not easy – even for grownups.
“Want to watch Charlie and Lola? Cookies and milk?”
Popping open a beer, I joined Natalie as she munched on Oreos and watched British cartoons. As I listened to her laughing I thought about the first time I held her in my arms. In those earliest moments of life Natalie was already her. And though she can now walk, talk, draw and almost ride a bike, she is still the same her. My wife and I had something to do with Natalie getting here but who she is, her aliveness, her being, is something we can’t take credit for. That came from somewhere else. Children, as any parent will tell you, are a mystery.
God may be Being Itself but ontological arguments about his existence seem unreal. People however, are very real. And, as I get older, I think God is found in the relationships we make – no matter how great or small. How we treat one another makes all the difference. That might be a tough gig, but I hope that’s the lesson I’ll always teach my daughter. Because, despite all the inconsistences, if you have faith in God you also have to have faith in His creation.
Leaning forward, I kissed my daughter on her head and smelled the shampoo her mother used to wash her air. As the dishwaher labored silently in the background, I realized Natalie will always be Being’s gift to me, a wonder to behold.
Whether He exists or not, today at least, God seemed worth knowing.