God Talk: Who Me?
I know what you are thinking. God? Gulp. God Talk? Double gulp.
Talking about God, whether in the classroom, at home, or from the pulpit is a difficult subject to broach. Over the years, I have noticed that educators and parents feel very insecure when it comes to discussing God. As a result this topic has not received the attention it deserves. In this article, I want to empower educators, parents, and families to have conversations about God. No parent or educator should feel ashamed or uneasy about discussing the divine. The benefits associated with conversation about the divine or a higher being-whether you or your students are believers or skeptics- are beneficial.
Science now offers strong evidence that biologically, neurologically, and psychologically, spirituality is part of our nature and is foundational to thriving. The way we nurture spirituality, from birth to adolescence, can either spur the growth of this developmental pathway or shut it down.
In her groundbreaking book The Spiritual Child, Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller states that belief in God or a higher being has a protective effect. Children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more flexible and better equipped to deal with life‘s ordinary traumas according to Miller. Teenagers with a solid spiritual life are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in risky sex, and to cope with depression.
This upcoming school year, I will continue thinking a lot about how to talk, access, and discuss God in my new educators’ network, “Cultivating Thriving for Lives Well Lived.” We will share a variety of practical, adaptable ideas to get educators and their learners thinking and talking about God, among other topics.
So, what can God Talk look like? For Whom? From my years of thinking, teaching, and talking about God and God talk, I have formulated four rules that help learners know the unknowable and find clues for constructing a personal and meaningful image of God.
Rule Number 1: Begin God Talk conversations at the earliest of ages, as often as possible.
Research shows that religious symbols and language are so pervasive in our society that virtually no child reaches school age without having constructed an image or images of God. Children are waiting for the opportunity to talk about, and to, God. And according to Miller, the earlier the better. The more we can talk about God, and the earlier, the more comfortable we are with thinking and attributing the many wonders of the world as gifts from God.
Rule Number 2: Allow access to be individualized and personalized
People access spirituality and the divine in different ways. Some see the divine paintbrush through animals. Others through flowers, and yet others through the resilience of people. According to Miller, there are four access points for spirituality: nature (including flora and fauna), a truer sense of self, through other people, and of course through the divine.
How do we help our learners of all ages find their access points? The easiest access point is nature. A lot of people connect to nature- flowers, animals, sunsets - in a very deep way. Ideally, educators strive to make prayer personally relevant and inspiring as much as nature.
I once led a group nature walk in which each participant was given a paper bag to collect “interesting” or “beautiful” things they found. At the conclusion, the content of the bags were shared, and categorized into a beautiful display of colors and fauna. Then the participants answered the question: “What does this tell us about God who created a world for us with all of this?”
We got many beautiful answers. A little girl said, “Well… God created the world with so many different types of people, and so many different animals, so, of course, the places they live in have to be different too. Because God wants us to live in a beautiful world with beautiful surroundings. “
Determine how you best access your spiritual side. Once you have identified yours, you can better help others access theirs. Whether it is through a nature walk, drawing, or a dance class, it is important to ensure that our learners find their own way to experience spiritual transcendence and the divine.
The possibilities I outlined here are only the beginning of the conversation about creating moments to think, talk, and experience God and spirituality. Judaism is embedded with built-in modes from acknowledging the divine, expressing gratitude from Brachot, and becoming more mindful about the gifts with which our world is imbued. Check out Part II for more on these topics.
Susie Tessel is a Senior Educational Consultant for The Jewish Education Project and the network facilitator for Cultivating Thriving for Lives Well-Lived: A National Conversation on Jewish Education.