I have received a number of letters from parents asking how their children may obtain a “religious education” outside of a church setting. These parents are familiar with trinitarian churches where children are taught that human beings are naturally bad, and all people will be punished by eternal torture in “hell” unless they believe that Jesus died as a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. These parents do not want their children to be taught such irrational and inhumane beliefs.
I am writing this essay in response to these parents and others who are interested in religious education for their children. In my view, religious education is too important to turn over to anyone other than parents (or whoever is rearing the child). I am writing this essay from a Christian Deist viewpoint.
Let me begin by recognizing that most parents want to help their children grow and develop as healthy and happy individuals. Parents usually know (or can learn) how to meet the physical and intellectual needs of their children. Parents know that a child needs good food, exercise, rest, and medical care to develop a healthy body. Parents know that a child needs education to develop academic knowledge and skills.
But parents also know that a child needs some kind of overall view of life that will help the child (now and as an adult) to cope with the questions and experiences that he or she will inevitably face in life. This “overall view of life” may be called a “philosophy of life” or “religion.”
I will use the term “religion” in referring to an individual’s “life view.” A person’s “religion” provides a framework that is useful in evaluating life experiences and choosing personal responses to those experiences.
“Deism” is a name given to a religion known naturally by everyone. Deists who recognize the principles of deism in the teachings of Jesus are called “Christian Deists” because the name “Christian” is commonly used to refer to whoever claims to follow the teachings of Jesus.
THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS
Jesus was a man who lived about 2,000 years ago. He summarized his religion as “The Lord our God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself” (Mark 12:29-30).
Christian Deists believe that religious education should be based on love for God, love for “neighbor,” and love for oneself. Before proceeding with a discussion of religious education, it is important to define the words “neighbor” and “love.”
Jesus was a Jew and his statements above refer to teachings found in the Hebrew “Bible.” The “Shema,” the basic affirmation of the Jewish faith, is stated in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 17, we find the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.”
So was Jesus only teaching what he had learned in his Jewish religion (which is now called “Judaism”)? The answer is “No” because Jesus defined “neighbor” in a very different way.
Leviticus 19:17, in its entirety, reads as follows: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This requirement meant that the Jews should love their “Jewish” neighbor. The only exception to this is found in Leviticus 19:33 which required the Jews to treat “sojourners,” or guests in their land, as “neighbors.”
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Jesus expanded the definition of “neighbor” in his parable about the “good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 30-37). In this parable, Jesus used a Samaritan as an example of a good “neighbor.” At that time, the Jews looked down upon the Samaritans as persons of mixed race and unorthodox religion. In fact, the Jews and Samaritans considered each other as “enemies.”
In the parable, a Samaritan rescued a Jew who had been beaten and robbed. The Jewish priest and Levite, in the story, appeared to be indifferent and uncaring toward the injured man. In this parable, Jesus not only redefined “neighbor” to include persons who are different from ourselves, Jesus also included “enemies” as persons who should be “loved.”
We usually think of an “enemy” as someone who has hurt us. So how can we “love” an enemy? We need to look at the meaning of the word “love.” To “love” someone does not necessarily mean that we approve of that person’s behavior. If someone does something wrong to us, we can defend ourselves but we should not seek revenge by doing something wrong in return.
So how shall we respond to injustices done to us? Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5;43-45).
Just as God does good to everyone, sending sunshine and rain for everyone including the “just and the unjust,” we should always be ready to do good to those who hate us.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and do good . . . . for he (God) is kind to the ungrateful and selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). Here, Jesus defined “love your enemies” as meaning “be merciful.” We can be merciful even toward someone whom we view as an “enemy.” The parable of the “good Samaritan” teaches us to be merciful when we see our “enemy” suffering.
From the above discussion, we should recognize that Jesus used the word “neighbor” to refer to all human beings other than oneself.
The word “love” means having “respect for” or “appreciation for” someone. It means recognizing that someone has “value” or “worth”. Love is expressed by human behavior (words and deeds). Words and deeds come from what we think (our thoughts).
Religion, as described by Jesus, consists of three parts: Love for God, love for all human beings, and love for oneself. A person shows respect or appreciation for God, other human beings, and oneself by particular kinds of behavior (words and deeds) which we call “good.” These good behaviors are also called “virtues.”
Religious education consists of the processes by which a child (or adult) develops the kinds of behavior (words and deeds) that demonstrate respect for oneself, other persons, and God. A child learns these behaviors from other persons and from the child’s own observations and experiences. In the beginning, a child learns primarily from the child’s caretaker, usually the parent or other person who provides daily care for the child.
A parent can help a child develop his or her virtues, or good behaviors, by giving recognition when the child demonstrates a particular virtue. A parent can also help a child recognize when the child needs to develop a virtue that will help the child deal more successfully with some situation or problem.
Some kinds of behaviors (virtues) are primarily related to self-respect, or to respect for other persons, or to respect for God. Some virtues may relate to respect for self and/or other persons and/or God.
For a clear definition of individual “virtues,” why each is needed, and how to practice each one, I would refer parents to a book The Family Virtues Guide by Linda Kavelin Popov, a Plume Book published by the Penquin Group.
This book also offers some good advice to parents about how to help children develop their virtues. Christian Deists view personal religion as the demonstration of love, or respect, for oneself, other persons, and God, so the essence of religious education is learning to practice “virtues.”
The “virtues” described in The Family Virtues Guide are generally recognized in all cultures but you can use your own judgment regarding which should be emphasized, or omitted, in your own use of the book. Also, you may choose to identify some virtues that are not mentioned in the book.
Below, I have taken the virtues mentioned in the book and divided them into those that relate primarily to (1) self-respect, (2) respect for other persons, or (3) respect for God. Of course, some virtues may relate, in part, to more than one of these categories.
VIRTUES SHOWING SELF-RESPECT
VIRTUES SHOWING RESPECT FOR OTHER PERSONS
VIRTUES SHOWING RESPECT FOR GOD
COMMENTS REGARDING THE FAMILY VIRTUES GUIDE
The Family Virtues Guide lists “love” and “respect” as virtues. As I explained previously, I consider that “love” means “respect.” And I consider all “virtues” to be the expressions of love (respect) through good words and deeds (that come from good thoughts). So I did not include the words “love” and “respect” as separate “virtues” in the lists above. Nevertheless, there are some good thoughts about “love” and “respect” under these titles in the book.
Also, three other virtues are described in the book but are not included in the lists above. These include “detachment” and “excellence” which are worthwhile virtues, as they are defined in the book, but I am not sure the words “detachment” and “excellence” are the best way to label them. The other is “loyalty” which is a virtue only if the loyalty is related to something good. There is no virtue in being loyal to a wrong cause or wrong persons.
One important virtue, which is not listed in the book, is “self-judgment.” Self-judgment is the ability to evaluate one’s own behavior and recognize when some behavior is hurtful to others or to oneself. It includes being willing to admit hurtful behavior. Self-judgment is of no value unless it leads to “repentance” which is a desire to stop hurtful behavior and to make amends, if possible. Repentance leads to seeking forgiveness from anyone who has been offended. Repentance is important in the practice of Christian Deism.
The Family Virtues Guide is an excellent book, in my opinion, but no book is perfect. I question two statements in the book. One is about “treating holy books and other sacred things as very special.” Christian Deists do not view any book as “holy.” Some so-called “holy books” contain untrue statements and bad ideas.
Another statement is “Believe that there is some good in everything that happens.” This is not true because there is no good in some things that happen. Of course, sometimes a tragic happening motivates someone to do something good. I’ll buy that.
Anyway, you do not have to be a slave to a book but The Family Virtues Guide can give you some good ideas that you can use with your children in their religious education.
VIRTUES AND GOD
I would like to point out the importance of relating the practice of “virtues” to a belief in a Creator with the intelligence to design the world and govern it through natural laws that are inherent in everything.
Jesus’ statement about love for self, other persons, and God begins with an affirmation of belief in the existence of God. As stated in the Jewish Shema, quoted by Jesus, “The Lord our God is one.” So let me comment on the Christian Deist concept of God as our Creator.
Christian Deists believe that it was necessary for God to create the world to operate on its own in order for us to be individuals with freedom to direct our own lives. The world is designed to operate according to natural laws inherent in everything, including human beings, but sometimes failures in operation occur accidentally or by human mistake or intention. The possibility of failure is an inherent risk in a free world.
The fact that God created the world to operate on its own does not mean that God is a “Great Watchmaker” who creates the world like a clock, winds it up, and takes no further interest in it. The “Great Watchmaker” description of God is an invalid stereotype used by the opponents of deism, but it does not represent the views of Christian Deists. An analogy of a watch and a watchmaker has been used by some deists to refer to “intelligent design” in the world as evidence of the existence of an Intelligent Designer (God) but the analogy was never intended to imply that God is aloof from and uninterested in the world. Christian Deists believe that God is interested in us, as human beings, to whom God gave the greatest gift of all — our freedom to live as individuals.
The world is not perfect. The creation of the world is an on-going process and we, as human beings, have a role in the development of the world. Jesus used the term, “Kingdom of God” to represent an ideal world in which God’s law of love reigns, and everyone can enjoy life. Jesus’ message, or gospel, is “The kingdom of God is at hand (here and now), repent (turn away from lovelessness) and believe the gospel (good news)” (Mark 1:14).
Children (and adults) need to know that they have a role to play in helping to create this “Kingdom of God on earth” that Jesus prayed for and worked for. Children need to know that each of us has been given a life to invest in making the Earth a better place for everyone to enjoy. This is our mission as Christians.
“Christian Deism,” as it has been called for the past three centuries, begins with the affirmation of belief in an intelligent Creator as evidenced in “intelligent design” that is found in the universe and in human nature. Christian Deists see “intelligent design” in how our planet Earth rotates around the sun at precise distances that allow life to exist on our planet. We see “intelligent design” in our human body. My hand is designed with my thumb opposite to my other four fingers. If this were not so, my hand would be almost useless. Modern biochemistry has discovered that the human body consists of trillions of cells which are complex “machines” that operate chemically, reflecting “intelligent design.”
Christian Deists do not presume to describe “God” but we believe that God is more than what we are. Since we have consciousness and intelligence, it is reasonable to believe that God has these powers and more. It is important for a child to have a belief in God as an intelligent Creator.
Some may believe that the “virtues” need not be related to a belief in God. This idea is most often promoted by persons who believe that the world and human life originated through an accidental process. If this were true, there would be no such thing as “good” or “bad” human behavior. If human life was never intended to exist in the first place, then it does not matter what a person does with his or her life, or how an individual lives in relation to others. If people were never intended to exist, there is no loss in killing them. “Virtues” are “virtues” only if human life is intended to exist.
Every child needs to know that he or she is a unique and special person who is important. A child can learn this from how a parent cares for and guides the child. In a way, a parent represents “God” to a child.
When a person is mature enough to wonder about his or her own existence, the person will face three “big” questions: “How did I get here?” “Why am I here?” and “What comes next?” In other words, the person is asking about the source, purpose, and future of human life, especially the person’s own life.
From a Christian Deist viewpoint, I have already addressed the first two questions. The answer to question number one is “God created us.” The answer to question number two is “To enjoy the world and make it more enjoyable for everyone.”
Question number three is, “What comes next?” The answer is, “It is God’s responsibility to GIVE life, and it is our responsibility to LIVE life. If we take care of our responsibility by living as God intends, we can count on God to take care of God’s responsibility. We know that God has the power to give us life. We are the evidence of this. We will trust in the goodness of God.”
PARENTS AS RELIGIOUS EDUCATORS
And now, a word to parents about being “religious educators” for your children. I realize that many parents do not feel capable of doing this because they have had very little experience with organized religion or churches. Actually, this may be to these parents advantage because they have not been indoctrinated with negative beliefs.
For example, a man named Paul, who called himself an “apostle,” wrote: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me (Romans 7:18-20). Here, Paul denies his personal responsibility for his actions, and he excuses his bad behavior by saying that he has no control over what he does. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT CHILDREN SHOULD NOT BE TAUGHT !
Religious education for children should be based on the child taking responsibility for his or her actions. Children should not be taught that they are naturally bad, or helpless in resisting wrongdoing. Paul’s pessimistic view of human nature can damage a child’s mental health, and discourage a child’s efforts to develop the virtues that the child is capable of developing.
If you, as a parent, are wondering about your ability to be a “religious educator” for your child, I would say that you are ALREADY a “religious educator.” Your child is going to learn more from your thoughts, words, and deeds than from any other teaching source. Your role as “religious educator” started the first time you held your baby in your arms. How you demonstrate your loving concern and respect for the well-being of your child will teach your child more about “God” and “life” than anyone else can teach. In view of this fact, you may want to be a little more aware of what you think, say, and do.
The second thing I would suggest to parents is that you think about what you believe about life, God, and the “big” questions. This does not mean that you will come up with all of the answers about life. No one ever has. But you should try to be aware of what you do believe. If your personal beliefs are in agreement with the beliefs that are propagated by a particular organized religion, such as Judaism, Islam, or one of the many Trinitarian churches, you will find plenty of temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches ready to provide “religious education” to your children. Of course, Trinitarian churches teach that everyone who does not believe that Jesus died to “save” them is going to be punished by fire in “hell” forever. According to this theology, over five billion people in the world, today, are heading for “hell,” including over one billion Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims believe that all of the Trinitarian Christians are going to burn in “hell,” according to the Qu’ran, the “holy book” of Islam. So, parents, be aware of what your child will be taught in a Trinitarian church or an Islamic mosque.
The next thing I would say to parents is that your child needs some kind of “religious identity.” Many of the other kids at school are going to call themselves, “Methodists,” “Catholics,” “Muslims,” etc. These kids usually have no idea what these names mean, but these labels say that the child has a “religion” which has some social value in a peer group. So, if your child is not a member of a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, what is your child going to call himself or herself in terms of a “religion?” Give your family religion a “name.” If you agree with the beliefs held by “Christian Deists,” you and your children are welcome to use this name. You do not have to join any religious organization to be a Christian Deist.
Some parents provide the academic education for their children at home instead of in a public or private school. These parents provide “homeschooling” for their children through special times for study and learning. If your children are not going to receive their “religious education” in a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque, you should consider providing special times for study and learning through “homechurching” your child.
The Family Virtues Guide contains suggestions for studying and discussing “virtues” at “family times.” This could be part of your “religious education” program. When your child asks “religious questions” about life, tell them honestly what you believe or do not believe without being “dogmatic” about them believing the same thing.
I would also suggest that parents remember that children need some kinds of routines as they grow up. In regard to religion, this usually takes the form of some kind of rituals. I remember, as a child, saying certain prayers at bed time and before meals. Unfortunately, the bed time prayer taught to me was:
“Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take. Amen.”
After I married and we had children, I questioned the advisability of a child going to sleep at night with the thought that he or she may die before morning. So I revised the bedtime prayer. I must confess that I did not do much better because I was a Trinitarian Christian at the time and I got Jesus and God all mixed up in the prayer! I would do a lot better today.
The “blessing” prayer that I was taught to say, as a child, before meals was:
“God bless our food. Amen.”
At least this prayer had brevity but I always wondered why I was praying for God to bless the mashed potatoes. I revised this prayer for our family as follows:
“God bless US at this table,
And accept our thanks
For the food upon it. Amen.”
I will confess that while our three children were growing up, I was still searching for what I could reasonably believe. I knew that I did not believe what I had been taught growing up in a Baptist church and in a Baptist university, so I looked for the least “evangelical” church I could find, and personally kept quiet when the words of hymns and creeds did not express what I believed. My children essentially received little or no formal “religious education” but they were spared the damage of growing up as fundamentalist Trinitarians. By the time I left the trinitarian church, our children had graduated from high school. So their childhood days were over.
Hopefully, our children learned something good from my wife and me, “by example,” but I wish I had clarified my own “religious identity” better while they were young. This is why I encourage parents to think about what they believe. Your children want to know what you believe.
When I was a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church, I was invited to speak to a junior high Sunday School class. The class was studying what different religious denominations believe. The purpose was to help the teenagers be more understanding and tolerant of the religious beliefs of others. As a former Baptist minister, I was ask to explain “What Baptists Believe.”
The class had gone through many weeks of hearing “what OTHERS believe.” When I finished speaking, a teenage girl asked, “But what do WE believe?” I had no answer for her because a survey of our church members had revealed that one-third believed in God, one-third were agnostics, and one-third were atheists. While I personally viewed myself as a Unitarian Christian, I could only think, “We” do not believe anything in particular. We were so proud of our religious “tolerance” and “freedom” that we left the children without a religious identity. This may be why very few children who grow up in Unitarian Universalist churches continue to be members as adults.
Children need some kind of religious identity, in terms of beliefs and practices, as well as a “name” for their religion. Parents who “homechurch” their children can provide this by having special times to talk about the kinds of behavior (virtues) that show respect for oneself, for other persons, and for God. (No preaching!) Readings and meditation time can be included. Prayers of thanksgiving before meals and at bed time, or other rituals, may remind a child (and ourselves) of our dependence on God. If your religion does not already have a “name,” give it one, for the sake of your child’s “identity.”
What I have written in this essay are just some suggestions. You must do your “religious education” in your own way. Be yourself. And be creative.