What does a four year old really comprehend about religion? God is abstract, an unseen being to whom our elders encourage us to pray. Faith, they inform us, means trusting in his existence without proof. But four year olds need things to be concrete – they need to see, touch and feel for something to be real. In my son’s room, statues of Buddha, Ganesh and Jesus stand guard beside his bed. When his friends visit, he explains, “They protect me when I sleep.” He speaks to each of the deities, carrying on conversations with them before bed. He is familiar with their histories and has brought each statue into school for show and tell. Enthusiastically, he spoke about how Ganesh’s father, in fit of passion, chopped his head off; how to appease his brokenhearted consort, he resurrected Ganesh with an elephant’s head. Studiously, my son informed his class that Buddha spent his life fasting and meditating; he preached compassion and non-violence as the cornerstones to one’s life. And finally, he explained to his class that Jesus was born in manger and that he had two fathers – Joseph and God; when he grew up he would die, but not really, because he is alive in heaven. Innocently, my son confuses theologies and asks if Jesus and Ganesh are friends in heaven. He thinks Jesus is real, he knows Buddha existed and he loves that Ganesh looks more like an animal than a human, but this doesn’t mean that he has internalized any of it or that he honestly believes in God the same way an adult might.
Eleven months out of the year he is Buddhist because I’m teaching him to meditate, Hindu because we attended a religious festival and Christian because he goes to church. But come December, he emphatically declares himself to be a Christian. His reasons some might condemn or label as being less than pure, but remember he is only four. In December, for many Christian children, being Christian means believing in Santa. And unlike God, or the statues in his room, Santa is real. Go to any mall in America and children can see, feel, touch and speak with Santa. There are apps for phones so that Santa can speak directly to children. And best of all, Santa’s existence is confirmed annually by the pile of presents he places under the Christmas tree. Though children never catch a of glimpse of him coming down their chimneys, the gifts are distinct proof that the man in the red suit exists.
As adults, we are wiser. We know that Santa doesn’t exist, that he is just a myth meant to entertain children. But if you think about it, one could argue that he is a metaphor for God, a stepping stone for children to comprehend or even forge a more personal relationship with God. Many Christmas traditions have counterparts in religious worship. Prayers, for many people, are synonymous with petitions to God to have their dreams and desires fulfilled. Dear God, please let my grandmother live, please let me pass this test so I can earn my degree, please let me have the child I so desperately want, please let me find a job, any job. This form of prayer is strikingly similar to letters that children address to the North Pole, requests for toys and games that will make them happy. Dear Santa, please bring me Star Wars Legos, please bring me the book about Beowulf, please bring me a toy gun, please bring me a stuffed animal. If you are good, if you do as you are asked, if you live a good moral life God will reward you by granting your wishes and permitting you to spend an eternity with him in heaven. Children who behave get presents from Santa. Adults who sin or lead reprehensible lives are condemned to hell. Children who cry, pout and misbehave find coal in their stockings. In sort, be a good adult and God will reward you; be a good child and Santa will reward you. Be bad and you will be punished.
But for now, Christmas is over and my son has moved on to obsessing about his birthday. He no longer asks me daily – and I Christian? For the immediate reward of believing in Christ has been removed. But his interest in religion - thanks to his uncle – hasn’t dwindled. His uncle, knowing of his interest in deities gave him a statue of Hanuman – the Hindu Monkey God - for Christmas along with a children’s version of the Ramayana – one of the two great Hindu Epics. The story tells of Rama’s journey of which Hanuman is a central character. Before bed, I have been reading him the story, a few pages at a time. Tonight, when we encountered Lord Shiva in the story, my son’s eyes grew wide as he excitedly interrupted my reading. “That’s Ganesh’s father,” he exclaimed.
“Yes, he is.” I answered, and watched as his face suddenly became pensive.
“Is Ganesh real?” He asked. “Does he really exist?”
“Ganesh is a myth,” I tried to explain. “But Hindu people believe he is real, just like Christians believe that Jesus is their savior.”
“And he lives in heaven.”
“Yes, but it’s a different heaven.”
“No, there is only one heaven,” he announced definitively. “And I believe he is real, so I’m Hindu.”
“I thought you were Christian.” After all Christmas only just ended.
“I am Christian, but I’m Hindu too. I like all the gods so I’m Christian and Hindu and what is Buddha?”
“Yes, Buddhist. I’m Buddhist too.”
And all I could do was smile. Yes, he is only four, but what, I wondered, would the world be like if we all embraced religion in a similar fashion?