By Gary Suttle
All Time was Eternity, a Perpetual Sabbath. Is it not Strange,
that an Infant should be Heir of the World, and see those Mysteries
which the Books of the Learned never unfold?
17th century poet
"Fig Beetle! Fig Beetle!" shriek the girl and boy as they chase a large flying insect, hands grabbing wildly in the air. "I caught it!"woops the girl. She slowly unclasps her hand to marvel at the large bright iridescent green creature (Cotinus texana). The beetle lumbers on the girl's open palm for a moment, then suddenly lifts off on powerful wings and flies away, as the children, mouths agape, watch it disappear into the sky.
For youngsters, time seems endless, everything's new, everything's amazing. And for many kids, everything is god.
An authority on childhood spirituality says "most children...believe that god is all around, in the sky, in flowers, and in people too" (David Heller, Dear God, Children's Letters to God ).
Such clear-eyed, seemingly inborn, pantheistic perception all too often dims, blurred by religions that place divinity above creation and by schools that reduce natural wonders to dry facts and formulas. Bereft of enchantment, the physical world becomes a backdrop instead of a wonderland.
All of us love our children more than anything in the world and want the best for them in every way. How can we bolster youngsters sacramental vision and counter society's wonder-robbing ways?
"Let us recollect our sensations as children," advises the poet Shelly. "What a distinct and intense apprehension we had of the world and of ourselves.... We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute one mass....There are some persons who, in this respect, are always children."
This outlook doesn't indicate a regressive state, as some have surmised, but rather a progressive one, perhaps the highest state of human consciousness-- the sense of oneness with Nature-- feeling interconnected to all and at home in the world.
Pantheist parents know this feeling well. They can plumb their deep reverence for Nature to help kids stay in touch with wonder and connected to something greater than themselves.
Children tend to mirror adult behavior, so grownups exhibiting pantheistic joy in Nature make fine role models. The fig beetle-chasing children, my then 8 year old daughter and 5 year old son, gleefully followed their father's example, who bolts up to glimpse butterflies, birds, and whatever!
Conveying enthusiasm is easy. Conveying sacred feelings is something else.
Every parent will share their beliefs in their own special way. I started out with "Mother Nature." I said we're all part of Mother Nature and her mysterious life-giving energy. She made us and the birds and the bees and bee stings, too. Later, as the kids got older, I started calling " Mother Nature" simply "Nature." Later still, I told them "Nature" and "God" can be thought of as two words for the same thing, and then I introduced "Pantheism" as the word that means all is God, all is Nature, all is one.
Occasionally, when enjoying a beautiful natural place together, or looking for shooting stars in the night sky, or at other times that seem right, I affirm my belief in the sacredness of the Earth and Life, and my faith in wildness, in Nature as a wondrous creative force.
Parents displaying their reverence for Nature easily discuss caring for the Earth and its life. Messages like "hold the beetle gently and then let it go," and "let's leave the park cleaner than we found it" can stimulate ecological consciousness.
Similarly, by explaining right from wrong, and by modeling good conduct, parents can stimulate moral consciousness without reference to supernatural reward or punishment (surveys, of course, find disbelievers in a traditional Deity to be just as moral and ethical as believers).
Good books offer ways to help expand youngsters appreciation of Nature/God. Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth by Jean Fitzpatrick and Curriculum of Love by Morgan Simone Daleo provides thoughtful guidance on how to nurture spiritual values in children. Curriculum of Love "celebrates the great gift of life and recognizes the importance of taking care of ourselves, our human and animal families, and the world we inhabit."
Earth Child by Kathryn Sheehan and Mary Waidner presents a rich array of games, projects, and exercises (some fundamentalists accused this book of promoting Pantheism, which bespeaks its value). Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell and The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson bring additional insights. A raft of books invite hands-on Nature activities including Nature Crafts for Kids by Gwen Diehn and Terry Krautwurst, 50 Nature Projects for Kids by Cecilia Fritzsimons, and Nature in Your Backyard by Susan Lang.
All of these titles encourage activity in the natural world, rather than passivity in the artificial world of computer games and television. Less is more. "Turning off the television," says media authority Michael True, " may be the most important step a parent takes in protecting a child's verbal, visual and perhaps moral imagination."
Another invaluable step is simply to read together 20 minutes a day. In the first years of life, children learn so much about love and trust, and about the big wide world through the books you choose. In later years, reading aloud together remains a special time for closeness and discussion. At any age, shared reading offers golden opportunities to instill pantheistic ideas.
In My Grandpa and the Sea by Kathrine Orr, a wife chides her husband for not going to church. But the husband responds: "God is in the sea and sky, and in the fish and in ourselves... I don't need to go to a little house to meet God."
In Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles, an aging Navaho grandmother announces that she will die after finishing a rug. Her granddaughter sneaks out at night to pull threads from the loom so the rug won't get done. But she's soon caught in the act, and the grandmother gently speaks to her:
"My granddaughter, you have tried to hold back time. This cannot be done... the sun comes up from the edge of earth in the morning. It returns to the edge of earth in the evening. Earth, from which good things come for the living creatures on it. Earth, to which all creatures finally go." Annie realizes "she would always be a part of the earth, just as her grandmother had always been, just as her grandmother would always be, always and forever. And Annie was breathless with the wonder of it."
Usually the books you select won't have pantheistic overtones, but you can often sprinkle your beliefs and values into your reading.
We intersperse illustrated stories, fairy tales, and natural history books with volumes on myths and religions from various cultures, noting how bible depictions of creation, angels, hades, and so forth often had antecedents from earlier cultures. We point out similarities and differences between others belief systems and ours, emphasizing respect for varying traditions (except in cases of religious fanaticism which deserve no respect and receive strong repudiation).
Established religions provide answers to the big questions children sooner or later ask: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Pantheism has answers of its own. We came from stardust. We're here to live and pass on life. We're going back to the Earth. Explanations can be as simple as the grandmother's view of mortality in Annie and the Old One. Basic answers can be elaborated with facts from modern cosmology, biology, ecology and other disciplines as youngsters grow older.
Unlike some religions, Pantheism acknowledges that a few questions remain unanswerable. For example, why is there something instead of nothing? Accepting the ultimate mystery of existence leaves us awash in awe and wonder, readily transmitted to offspring. I told my kids it would be a much less interesting universe if we knew all the answers, and that satisfied them.
Established religions also provide holiday celebrations, rituals, and a sense of community. Here, Pantheism comes up short.
While Pantheists readily enjoy the pagan elements of Christmas and Easter with their children, and can celebrate the equinox and solstice days, as well as Earth Day, and other holidays, opportunities to practice group rituals and to cultivate a spiritual sense of community are as rare as palm trees in Greenland.
In some cases, parents may initiate their own ceremonies. For example, I "baptized" our kids in the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. In other cases, parents may opt to participate in selected activities with a mainstream church or synagogue.
The Judeo-Christian concept of deity permeates our culture, so kids naturally begin to wonder what it's all about. My wife and I chose to let our children experience a local church firsthand to satisfy their curiosity and to give them a taste of what many of their peers do on Saturday or Sunday.
Additionally, the church youth group provided a wholesome setting to enjoy dances, singing, and excursions ( I happily recall social activities galore in a large church youth program that emphasized play over piety).
Understandably, some parents see little or no value in orthodox exposure, and even think it harmful because the dogma may soak in. But most of today's Pantheists experienced traditional spirituality of one sort or another as youngsters, then moved on freely to embrace Pantheism as adults.
Given the power and predominance of organized religion, perhaps inoculating children with small doses of what might otherwise later beckon inordinately because of its absence in their lives serves a valuable purpose.
In our case, the kids gained exposure to orthodoxy, and enjoyed some activities, but chose not to continue going to church as they got older. After all, they had earlier been given a larger concept of church as all outdoors!
Regarding their current beliefs, our 16 year old daughter says "I believe in some kind of creative force but not a man in the sky," and our 13 year old son remarks "I'm not really sure. I believe in a creative power that made eveything and now works just through evolution." That sounds familiar.
If the kids wish to further explore other religions in the future, we'll continue to support their freedom of choice. They may find another faith more meaningful to them than ours, or perhaps they'll choose none at all.
The choice of Pantheism isn't as easy as it might be. Until the number of Pantheists in an area reaches a level that can support a youth program and offer a fellowship and create a liturgy to mark birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, a certain spiritual vacuum is almost inevitable.
Some kids may feel isolated and left out when their friends go off to fun activities in a temple or tabernacle. Some parents may regret their children missing the trappings of traditional religion-- the built-in spiritual community, the hymns, the sermons, the rituals -- these elements afford adherents real comfort and serenity. Families seeking more structure may find a place to fit in among the growing number of pagan groups and liberal churches that recognize Nature as sacred.
Although Pantheism lacks infrastructure, it doesn't lack inspiration.
What could be more inspiring than to believe that the world is divine? The realization that "all is God" gives Pantheism profound religious standing. Inspired by love, guided by knowledge, resourceful parents can focus on Pantheism's strengths and largely transcend its shortcomings while raising their kids.
One of the greatest things parents can bestow, after all, is a spacious religious faith that brings meaning and direction to young lives.
By sharing the truth and beauty of Pantheism, you can give your children
a sparkling sense of meaning, wonder and joy, kept bright by a faith in
divinity as vast as the Universe.
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© Copyright 1999 Gary Suttle
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