“Daddy, can we see God?”
I had to consciously remind myself that she is five and that she did not want a theology lecture. Since I never know how to answer questions like this, I use a little trick cribbed from Socratic learning techniques:
“What do you think, sweetie?” I asked her back. “Do you think we can see God?”
“No,” she answered.
Well, there you go, straight from the mouth of a kindergartener: we cannot see God. But the curiosity of a child is not prone to merely asking questions it already knows the answers to.
“I wish we could see God,” she said.
“Maybe you do sometimes,” I shrugged.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, can you see love?”
She thought for a moment. “No.”
“But can you see when someone is doing something loving?”
“Then maybe sometimes we can see someone doing something that God would do.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror; I could see from her expression that she wasn’t buying this.
“Well, if you could see God,” I asked, “what do you think God would look like?”
Without hesitating, she said, “A brown bear.”
I had not seen that coming. I’d half expected her to give me the classic WASPy child’s answer of an old man with a white beard, but instead I got a brown bear. I couldn’t help but laugh with surprise. “Is it a friendly brown bear?”
She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Of course!”
“So you think God is a cuddly brown bear?” I summarized. “Sounds good to me.”
After a few moments, she said, “I wish God was in the car with us.”
“Maybe God is in the car with us,” I said.
“No, because I can’t see him,” she snapped.
“Oh, right.” I winced at my insistence on abstract thought. “Well, what would you do or say if you could see God in the car with us?” At that thought, my own mind went straight to all the times that I, too, had wished for an audience with God. My need for answers and explanations; my longing for an accounting of the sufferings I’ve seen; an assurance of some purpose at work beneath everything.
She looked out the window wistfully. “I wish he was here right now so I could cuddle with him.”
I almost pulled the car over so I could let that soak in for a moment. I pictured my child wrapped warmly in the protective arms of a fuzzy brown bear and my eyes filled with tears. “That would be really wonderful,” I said after clearing my throat. “Maybe sometimes God sends us other people who will cuddle us. Maybe that’s how God cuddles with us, by bringing us other people who love us and cuddle us and look out for us.”
She frowned and continued to stare out the window; going abstract just wasn’t getting us anywhere. She asked me more questions about God. How does God eat? How can God be in all places at once? Where does God live? All questions of concrete curiosity about this strange thing called God. I answered as best I could, trying to avoid abstractions, and probably saying more about what I didn’t know.
My child is a concrete thinker. It’s her job; it’s what her brain is built to do right now. Intellectually, there are a lot of things in this world that are impossible to fully comprehend only from the concrete: love, hope, peace, God. However, there is something really grounding and embodied about letting my child lead me into the concrete realities of these things. Because I can philosophize about the nature of God all day long, but my real experiences of the divine are things I’ve felt in my gut and in my bones. I’ve read a lot of books about emotions and love and passion, but the things I truly believe about the nature of love come from the ways I have been loved, and the only ways I’ve ever been loved are by people doing things for me in concrete, real, experienced ways.
I have no idea where God lives or what propels God’s existence or even what God is on any basic ontological level. I do know, however, that when I imagined joined my child’s image of God – that I imagined with her how much she’d love to have a big teddy bear snuggle and protect her – that I felt close to God in that moment. I felt warmth in my chest, felt my twinge of longing in my gut, felt the tears come to my eyes. Those were all concrete experiences even if they came from trying to ponder abstractions.
Even if she dismissed my suggestion, I am right: she is now learning to experience the abstract through the concrete, even if she can’t yet comprehend it. I’m thankful that she has people in her life who will cuddle and hold her and protect her and encourage her. I’m thankful that she has food to eat and a bed to sleep in and shoes for her feet. Her concrete experiences of care and provision will help her trust a God who seeks goodness and blessing for everyone. And I’m thankful that she can remind me of the concreteness of goodness. Not just so I can get in touch with my own blessings, of which I have experienced many, but also that I might seek to be a concrete good for others.