This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
We’ve been raising our two kids in a mixed religious home for about 10 years now. I have no idea what path (or paths) my kids will eventually take. I am proud of how my children have developed so far, but I admit I am also concerned.
There’s an episode of Dharma & Greg where the main characters decide to have a baby naming ceremony. After a “tasteful druid ritual” and a dance by a Pagany lady referred to sarcastically as “Mother Earth”, the baby is blessed by a priest, a rabbi, and a Native American shaman. After the blessings, the rabbi leans over to the priest and says, “Boy, is this kid going to be screwed up!” (Cue the canned laughter.)
I remember watching a rerun of that episode and thinking, “That’s going to be my kids.” By that time, I had left the Mormon church and was identifying as Pagan. My wife continued to be a faithful Mormon, although she was supportive of my Pagan spirituality. She encouraged me to include our family in it, but for many years I practiced alone. It was the baptism of my daughter into the Mormon church when she turned 8 that spurred me to start to include my wife and children in my Paganism. I created Pagan prayers for bedtime and for meals.
We celebrated the quarter and cross-quarter days. And we attended a few CUUPS rituals. We even had a Pagan baptism in Lake Michigan where we invoked the Goddess as the ”womb and the tomb” (Goethe) and “an eternal ocean; changing, glowing, roaring, life in ferment” (Teilhard de Chardin).
For the last few years, our kids have been rotating between the LDS and Unitarian churches on Sundays, and we have family rituals on all the Pagan holy days. I have tried to educate my kids a little about the variety of religions, Christian and non-. They’ve been to other Christian churches, to a Reform Jewish temple, and to a Hindu Holi celebration. I’m a firm believer that giving our kids a “choice” in religious matters means they have to be presented with options, not just left to wander without direction. This means not only exposing them to a diversity of religions, but also sharing my own spirituality with them. Maybe it is just a remnant of the Mormon missionary in me, but I feel that I have discovered something beautiful in Paganism and it would be a disservice to my children not share it with them. Does that mean that they have greater exposure to a few religions (Mormonism, UUism, and Paganism)? Yes, but I don’t see anything particularly problematic with that. Looking at my two amazing kids, I can confidently say that our religious eclecticism did not “screw them up”, but rather has set them on the path of growing into religiously sophisticated adults.
My son, who is now 14, has always been precocious. I remember with pride (and a little bit of wicked joy) attending his baptismal interview with the Mormon bishop (at the age of 8 when Mormons are baptized), and listening to him openly disagree with the bishop about the nature of God. My son had fixed on a trinitarian view of God, while Mormons are non-trinitarian. Where my 8 year-old son even encountered trinitarianism is still a mystery to me; as far as I know, he just arrived at the conclusion on his own. More importantly, I was proud that he felt confident enough to respectfully disagree with an adult ecclesiastical leader.
Subsequently, my son went though an orthodox phase during which it was very important to him to figure out what Mormonism was and conform to it. More recently, his fascination with science (especially theoretical physics) has deepened, and he has started to wrestle with some LDS doctrines, which I wrote about here. He has told me recently that he believes in a God that is consistent with the findings of science. He suspects that God may be like the Forerunners in the video game Halo (he can analogize anything to a video game): a super-advanced alien race that has withdrawn from human contact and may not even know of our existence. When I asked him when he feels spiritual, he said that he feels it most strongly when people get together to do some good for the human race. I think he is well on his way to being a humanist.
My daughter, who is 11, is another story. I’ve written about her free-spiritedness before in a post entitled “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your religion.” The one thing she believes strongly in is reincarnation — which is strange, because neither I nor my wife believe in it or have taught it to our children. She has a vague notion of a creator God, but is certain about very little else (which is probably a good thing). Although we pray to the Goddess every night, I don’t think the Goddess is a presence in her life. Much to my chagrin, I think my kids tend to default to a belief in a transcendent male personage when they think about God. When I asked her what makes her feel spiritual, my daughter said “music”. She feels it especially when she sings songs — both secular and religious — that have a meaningful message.
I know my wife would like our kids to identify as Mormon, although not necessarily in an exclusive way. Their being “Mormon-Unitarian-Pagans” is okay with her (as long as Mormonism is in there somewhere). Do I wish my kids identified as Pagan? Yes, that would be nice — but only because I would like the company. Mostly, I would like my kids to embrace certain values that I identify as Pagan, but which are really not exclusive to Paganism. These include:
1. Humility and skepticism of claims to absolute, unconditional truth or other forms of religious exclusivism.
2. Respect for other religions and other peoples’ religious experiences.
3. A feminist consciousness which appreciates how patriarchy has shaped the way we think and live.
4. Equality in all social relations, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
5. An ethics based on wholeness and healing rather than sin and purity.
6. A healthy attitude about their bodies and sexuality.
7. An experience of that divinity that can be found within themselves.
8. An experience of that divinity that can be found in nature.
9. An appreciation for myth and ritual as vehicles for connecting with the divine.
What I used to most fear was that one of my kids would become a fundamentalist, of any variety — Christian, Islamic, or Pagan. Now, I think I am more concerned that they would become non-religious, that they would become disconnected from the experience of mystery and reverence which impels us to reach beyond our limited consciousness. I think I would rather hear my kids say, “Only Jesus has the power to save”, than hear them say, “I’m not really interested in religion.”
I wonder if my kids are really developing a spiritual sense, what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called the “mystical spiritual tone” at the heart of life, giving it meaning and reminding us that our significance is as “parts of the unimaginable whole”. Mormons call the “feeling the Spirit [of God]“. UUs sometimes call it the “Spirit of Life”. I sometimes call it the “divine” or “God” or “Goddess”, but I think it’s all the same thing. Both my kids have recently expressed some doubt as to whether they have had “spiritual experiences” or “felt the Spirit”. I am as disturbed by this as my wife was. Is it possible that what I have been educating my kids about the trappings of religion and not the experience of re-ligare or re-connection. Or is it possible that kids don’t need to re-connect, because they already dwell in the life of Spirit like fish in water. Is religion something that only adults need, because only adults experience the spiritual alienation which necessitates a re-connection?
Or perhaps my kids have made the common mistake of thinking that spirituality is about having special experiences, rather than noticing the specialness in all experience. As Teo Bishop explained recently, religious ritual should
“draw people into a deeper awareness of the extraordinary reality that already exists everywhere around and inside of them. The rituals themselves aren’t fabricating the awesomeness; they’re simply reminding you that the awesomeness is already there.”
This is what Paganism does for me. In Novalis’ words, it educates my senses “to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It brings out the holiness of the everyday: the epiphany of the sunrise, the mystery in the act of eating, the transcendence of genuine encounter with another person, the miracle in a blade of grass. This is what I hope to teach my children, whether they call it Paganism or not.