I received today this short email from a friend, which I took very seriously and put a little bit of time into answering. I am offering both the letter (anonymously) and my answer for the readers of this blog.
I can’t begin to imagine the wonderful time you must have had with your visit to Rome. I trust you and the family had a great time.
As an educator in the Faith I desperately need some advice from you.
My 11 year old son Scott is already seriously challenging me with questions about God. He is searching for the hard cold evidence about our faith.
When I say to him our evidence is in the Bible, I am challenged with comments like- Why would you believe the Bible when so much of it is Myth and stories.
For example, he says to me that the story of Adam and Eve is a Myth and if it were true we would all be married to our brothers and sisters.
( I say to myself please Fr in Heaven give me strength before I totally go insane)
Then I get the question- Who made God? This one is so hard to answer for him because his thinking is so black and white. Can you imagine the look I get when I say to him” nobody made God”
Next question- How do we know that some random person didn’t just make up the Bible? I have attempted to explain to him the History of our Biblical Ancestors and the way these stories and letters, psalms etc have been told and recorded. His response is ‘I think whoever wrote it is really smart and is making a fortune!” Any ideas on how to answer this one?
These are only a few of many questions I encounter with him. Usually he waits till I am in bed and nearly asleep!
Then voila here come the questions one after another. This could go on for an hour.
Last Night he said to me that we don’t know that Jesus rose from the dead. He tells me this story is easy to work out the tomb was empty and someone dressed up like Jesus and was seen 3 days later walking down the road. (This is his theory).
I would love dearly to hear from you if you have a spare moment!!!!!
My first reaction is to suggest that you and your husband come to visit our place with your son one day for dinner and he can speak to my 10 year and 8 year old daughter, who would probably enjoy answering his questions. I am lucky with my kids – first, they start from a position of acceptance rather than scepticism and hence when they ask the same questions (and they do) they are rather more ready to accept reasonable answers. Second, they have a Dad who has heard and answered these questions for adults millions of times and so is ready with a thought provoking answer that helps them work it out for themselves.
Where to start? Well, first we have to give our children honest and truthful answers, but also realise what is behind their questions. What, for instance, is behind the “who made God?” question? I would say that behind this question is the idea that God is a person like anyone else, rather than creator of all. You could try a version of the old proof for God’s existence which starts “Think of that which is so great and perfect that nothing greater or more perfect could exist. Whatever it is that you think of in this way, that is God, because perfection and greatness requires existence.” This proof can be changed a little for children. “Who made God?” Answer: if something made what you think of as “God”, then what you are thinking of is not God. What made what you are thinking of as “God” is in fact God. In other words, God is by definition the SOURCE of all that exists. God is by definition that which first and always existed and is the cause of all other existence. This sounds a little deep, but I figure from the level of his questions, your son can handle it. It might give him something to think about for a bit.
As for the bible being “myth and stories”, it is important to start from a healthy understanding of what “story” is. I trust your son enjoys a good story as much as any other kid. Mine are big into stories. When reading Harry Potter or the Narnia Chronicles, we talk about how these are “stories” and yet that the person who wrote them wrote them to tell us something about what is true, not just to entertain us. As my own daughters will tell you, even Little Red Riding Hood has some truth to it (don’t talk to strangers) – while at the same time a story you read today in the newspaper, claiming to be factual, may in fact be largely spin by the journalist. So Harry Potter teaches us that the most important weapon against evil is Love and (secondarily) loyalty. The Narnia Chronicles are a little more complex, because at the heart they are Christian allegory, and are intended to help us – through the means of story – to see the world as it really is. So, yes, much of the bible is story. Yet one must look for what is true in the story, which means a readiness to enter with the imagination into the story just as deeply as your son would enter into the Harry Potter world or the Narnian world. On the other hand, one thing that differentiates our Jewish/Christian scriptures from the sacred texts of other religions is that much of what is written is history. Our religion says that history is important, not just myth, that God actually involved himself in history. Then of course, your son has probably not yet learned that “history” as a scientific endeavour as we know it today is really only very new – it has only been around for 200 years or so. The Gospels, and the older books of Genesis, Exodus, 1 & 2 Kings etc. are all “historical” as history was written in that time. Accepting the importance of history for our religion also means that we accept that it took time for our understanding of “history” to develop – and in fact that it developed the way it did precisely because of the biblical stories (which clearly have a beginning and are working toward an end, unlike the cyclical mythologies prevalent in the ancient world).
As for “who wrote the bible” – if your son is interested in this and is really willing to find an answer, it is perhaps time to buy him a simple introduction to the Scriptures such as the Lion Handbook to the Bible – a protestant undertaking but of really very high quality with many good pictures and explanations.
As for “we don’t know that Jesus rose from the dead”, your answer could be to say that we have the recorded witness of many writers and that it is this recorded witness that has been gathered in the bible as the gospels and the letters of St Paul. This is better “factual” information – with more independant witnesses – about this one event of ancient history than we have for any other event in the ancient world. On top of that, ask him what other explanation he has for the fact that the followers of Jesus ended up travelling the world with their message that Jesus was risen from the dead and were themselves willing to die for this belief IF in fact they had not seen the risen Jesus as they claimed? Their own writings attest to the fact that following Jesus’ crucifixion they were scared and in hiding and confused (no other religion has such stories of doubt and confusion about its original founders told on their own admission). Something changed all that. What? The only explanation that exists is that Jesus rose from the dead. For yourself you might like to read someone like N.T. (Tom) Wright on this one. His web page has downloadable pod casts and essays on precisely this question. See: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/
As for Adam and Eve, that is a difficult one, and in fact brings all these questions to a head. Questions of origin, questions of myth and history. I have taught my daughters to understand that we have TWO stories about our origins. One is the story (or strictly “stories”) in the Bible: God made us and when he did he made us in his image like him; and the other is in our science rooms: we evolved from a lower life form until one day there was something which we could call and recognise as “human” (this latter story has dinosaurs in it – the former one does not). Both of these – creation and evolution – are stories; both are told with different “truths” in mind. That having been said, I think we can “marry” the two stories in a way that is true to the faith. One of the biblical stories of the creation of human beings (Genesis 2) has God making Adam from clay. Before he breathed his spirit into Adam (lit. “The Earthling”), there was a thing that looked like a man but was not a man. The important thing here is that this story does not deny that there was something BEFORE man from which man was made (the story in Genesis 1 treats the creation of man from an entirely different perspective, but note that that story does not name the man and woman as “Adam and Eve”) which was not man. That at least gives an opening for saying human beings evolved. But as one theologian I heard recently pointed out (I was listening to Gil Baile of the Emmaus Road Initiative, we cannot speak of a “gradual” evolution of humanity. The first human man and woman – whoever they were – did NOT have human parents. That is to say that more than just biological appearance is involved in being human. At some point in the evolution of homo sapiens, the homonid became a human – and that point was sudden, not gradual. The speaker I was listening to said that what characterised this change was the “first non-instinctual act of self sacrifice on behalf of another”. You could argue about that, but the point is this: just as a newly conceived baby receives all its physical genetics from its parents, the baby does NOT receive its soul from its parents. The soul is created directly by God. So too, the first man (“Adam”) and the first woman (“Eve”) may have had previous ancestors, but they became human IN THAT MOMENT in which they first imaged God who made them (perhaps by an act of “self-sacrifice”). So there can be some marrying of the two stories – the biblical and the evolutional – if that is needed to satisfy your son. I prefer not to mix the two stories personally, because I believe that they are fundamentally different stories meant to tell fundamentally different truths. For what it is worth, the bible tells us that Cain started the first city (Gen 4:17) and so not even the bible imagines that the first human family were alone on the earth. This might help for those who struggle to understand the place of the Neanderthal “man” in our history also.
These are just some of the ways I tackle these questions in discussion with my own daughters, who are just a little younger than your son. I would say that it might be helpful for you to read some good apologetics works on this. Cardinal Schonborn’s stuff is really good (you can read some of it by following the links on this post on my blog), as is stuff by Peter Kreeft Eg. Your Questions God’s Answers (see google books preview) or the Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial questions (see google books). Another one is by Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown (whom some think was too liberal, but I like him generally, he died in 1998). His book is called 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible (see google books).
As a faith educator in schools these days, it is really helpful to have clear answers that you can both understand and repeat when you get these sorts of questions. As a parent, it is even more essential.