“They don’t believe in the right God."
Those were the words that my friend’s granddaughter recently heard from her teacher in a second-grade classroom at St. John’s in southwest Bakersfield. According to this little girl, the teacher went on to say that “they” believe in many gods. “But we know that there is only one God, Grandma,” explained the child.
As you might have surmised, “they” referred to Hindus, and the subject for the day was India.
India in the second grade — now that is impressive! And, indeed, St. John’s is a great place to send your kid for a quality education. Many think it’s the best elementary school in the city.
But is it wise to teach children the Christian faith by contrasting it to an “inferior” one? If the teacher had said, “They believe in a different God,” that would have been better. If she had said, “They look at God in a different way,” better still.
But there is, I believe, a more fundamental reason for preferring a different approach when teaching religion to second-graders. The plain fact is that the teacher, if she had been born to Hindu parents in New Delhi, would herself be believing in the wrong God. She would have been raised reading the Bhagavad Gita instead of the Bible. Second-graders are in no position to appreciate this fact, but when they graduate from high school and go off to college, their ideology will be challenged, and many of them will feel they were brainwashed and will ditch their faith, often with contempt.
I earned a Ph.D. in theology as a young man, and as the years have gone by, I have continually felt less — rather than more — secure when asked to define God. The one thing I am certain of is that I know almost nothing about God. I choose to believe that He/She is personal (not an impersonal Force), good, beautiful, powerful, wise, joyous, and loving — above all, loving— and that this Infinite Being brought forth the Big Bang and governs in fatherly fashion the trillions of planets spread out through the universe. But I can’t prove this to anyone, even to myself.
There is one more thing I choose to believe: God does not play favorites. When a teacher tells kids what the true God is like, she is acting as if God has chosen her and her kind as favorites. Let her first meet Hindus and see how their vision of God transforms their lives before they speak.
As for my own experience of Hindus, both in India and locally, they seem as noble a people as anywhere on the planet. They love their Krishna, Shiva and Durga as much as Christians their Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And they have as much faith in the inspired words of their Gita as Christians in their New Testament. And their lives are no less transformed.
Some might fear that my non-dogmatic view of religion leads to wishy-washy mediocrity. After all, if a religion doesn’t dare separate true from false belief, the saved from the damned, who will listen? My answer is that thoughtful people will. They will reject this “we vs. they” theology as unworthy of a True God.
A final challenge comes from those absolutists who claim that God can be correctly thought of in only one way: the way He really and truly is in Himself, and not in all the ways we humans imagine Him to be. Fair enough. But who has a monopoly on this information? No one. So let the religions learn from rather than condemn each other. And let them rejoice in the knowledge that men and women from the world’s many cultures have at least a glimpse of this God, as do they.
I am always happy to see a person of faith make sense of the world and its Creator and be inspired by that faith. The teacher we’ve looked at here is probably just such a person. But as one of my graduate school teachers, Ewert Cousins, put it many years ago, “All religions are overwhelmed by their own revelation and are blinded to the riches of others.”
Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield.