I have 22 posts jostling for attention at the moment, but a Saturday night conversation with my girls has sent all other topics back to the green room for a smoke.
The three of us were lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling and talking about the day. “Dad, I have to tell you a thing. Promise you won’t get mad,” said Delaney (6), giving me the blinky doe eyes. “Promise?”
“Oh jeez, Laney, so dramatic,” said Erin, pot-to-kettlishly.
“I plan to be furious,” I said. “Out with it.”
“Okay, fine. I…I kind of got into a God fight in the cafeteria yesterday.”
I pictured children barricaded behind overturned cafeteria tables, lobbing Buddha-shaped meatballs, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Jesus tortillas at each other. A high-pitched voice off-camera shouts Allahu akbar!
“What’s a ‘God fight’?”
“Well I asked Courtney if she could come over on Sunday, and she said, ‘No, my family will be in church of course.’ And I said oh, what church do you go to? And she said she didn’t know, and she asked what church we go to. And I said we don’t go to church, and she said ‘Don’t you believe in God?’, and I said no, but I’m still thinking about it, and she said ‘But you HAVE to go to church and you HAVE to believe in God,” and I said no you don’t, different people can believe different things.”
Regular readers will recognize this as an almost letter-perfect transcript of a conversation Laney had with another friend last October.
I asked if the two of them were yelling or getting upset with each other. “No,” she said, “we were just talking.”
“Then I wouldn’t call it a fight. You were having a conversation about cool and interesting things.”
Delaney: Then Courtney said, ‘But if there isn’t a God, then how did the whole world and trees and people get made so perfect?’
Dad: Ooo, good question. What’d you say?
Delaney: I said, ‘But why did he make the murderers? And the bees with stingers? And the scorpions?’
Now I don’t know about you, but I doubt my first grade table banter rose to quite this level. Courtney had opened with the argument from design. Delaney countered with the argument from evil.
Delaney: But then I started wondering about how the world did get made. Do the scientists know?
I described Big Bang theory to her, something we had somehow never covered. Erin filled in the gaps with what she remembered from our own talk, that “gravity made the stars start burning,” and “the earth used to be all lava, and it cooled down.”
Laney was nodding, but her eyes were distant. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “But what made the bang happen in the first place?”
Connor had asked that exact question when he was five. I was so thrilled at the time that I wrote it into his fictional counterpart in my novel Calling Bernadette’s Bluff:
“Dad, how did the whole universe get made?”
Okay now. Teachable moment, Jack, don’t screw it up. “Well it’s like this. A long time ago – so long ago you wouldn’t even believe it – there was nothing anywhere but black space. And in the middle of all that nothing, there was all the world and the planets and stars and sun and everything all mashed into a tiny, tiny little ball, smaller than you could even see. And all of a sudden BOOOOOOOM!! The little ball exploded out and made the whole universe and the world and everything. Isn’t that amazing!”
Beat, beat, and…action. “Why did it do that? What made it explode?”
“Well, that’s a good question. Maybe it was just packed in so tight that it had to explode.”
“Maybe?” His forehead wrinkles. “So you mean nobody knows?”
“That’s right. Nobody knows for sure. “
“I don’t like that.”
“Well, you can become a scientist and help figure it out.”
“Dad, is God pretend?”
“Well, some people think he’s pretend and other people think he’s real.”
“How ’bout Jesus?”
“Well, he was probably a real guy for sure, one way or the other.”
Pause. “Well, we might never know if God is real, ’cause he’s up in the sky. But we can figure out if Jesus is real, ’cause he lived on the ground.”
“You’re way ahead of most people.”
“Uh huh. Dad?”
“Would you still love me if all my boogers were squirtin’ out at you?” Pushes up the tip of his nose for maximum verité.
“No, Con, that’d pretty much tear it. Out you’d go.”
“I bet not.”
“Just try me.”
I told Laney the same thing—that we don’t know what caused the whole thing to start. “But some people think God did it,” I added.
“The only problem with that,” I said, “is that if God made everything, then who…”
“Oh my gosh!” Erin interrupted. “WHO MADE GOD?! I never thought of that!”
“Maybe another God made that God,” Laney offered.
“Maybe so, b…”
“OH WAIT!” she said. “Wait! But then who made THAT God? OMIGOSH!”
They giggled with excitement at their abilities. I can’t begin to describe how these moments move me. At ages six and ten, my girls had heard and rejected the cosmological (“First Cause”) argument within 30 seconds, using the same reasoning Bertrand Russell described in Why I Am Not a Christian:
I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.
…and Russell in turn was describing Mill, as a child, discovering the same thing. I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.
There was more to come. Both girls sat up and barked excited questions and answers. We somehow ended up on Buddha, then reincarnation, then evolution, and the fact that we are literally related to trees, grass, squirrels, mosses, butterflies and blue whales.
It was an incredible freewheeling conversation I will never, ever forget. It led, as all honest roads eventually do, to the fact that everything that lives also dies. We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.
“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.
She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:
“I don’t want to die.”