This question is part of a series on difficult questions we hear from our children. These can be questions can be anything – faith, race, death, unicorns, or the Bible. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll offer some suggestions, both of ways I’ve failed to answer well the questions I hear as well as some resources for how you might respond. As with all things parenting it takes a village, so if you don’t like what I say, or would say it differently, add your voice in the comments. If you have a question you’d like us to tackle feel free to add it in the comments.
“Mom, did God create the world like it says in the Bible?”
This was a recent question I heard from my almost-6-year-old daughter. There have been a lot of “did God make that?” questions in our house lately, and we had also been reading the story of Creation in Genesis 1. On this night, around bedtime, she wanted to know, “did God create the world like it says in the Bible.”
A million things went through my mind, and I thought about how I had answered this question for parishoners and college students in the past:
The Bible is not a science book. And Genesis isn’t meant to be an exact guide for scientists exploring the origins of the universe. It’s a poetry book that tells the story of how God was with us and for us from the very moments that the earth came into being. It’s the beginning of a love story. Did Creation occur in a literal six days? Maybe, but doubtful. Did God create the universe? Absolutely.
I tried to give a kindergarten version of this explanation to my daughter. And it didn’t go over well. She was confused and frustrated. I hadn’t answered the question. Did God or didn’t God?
The answer I should have given her, and eventually did, was “yes.”
She’s begin to enter into the “mythic-literal” stage of faith development. (These stages were established by the developmental psychologist James Fowler and are closely in kinship with Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson.) A main attribute of this phase is working out the difference between fact and fiction. What do we read that are fairytales and what do we read that are stories that actually happened? At the same time, children at this stage of faith development still think strictly in concrete terms. There is no metaphor. A thing is what the thing is, so approaching the idea of creation as a poem is going to be meaningless for most children ages 6-12.
What children are looking for at this point is affirmation that the things we are telling them about faith are true. “True” may not be the same thing as “factual” for adults, but children can’t make that distinction at this point. My child was asking: are these stories a true thing, a thing I can rely on, a thing I can depend on. The answer to those questions is “yes.” Later, when my daughter is older we’ll be able to talk about poetry and metaphors. But now, in this stage, I’ll be helping to ground her in the true story of God’s love for her that extends back before time, a story that is so wonderful that it’s beginnings are mysterious and holy and inscrutable.