“What does ‘pray’ mean?”
My daughter is four, and with preschool comes playground theology. Explanations of heaven and God get passed around between swings and slides as kids make sense of lost family members and pets.
It’s an age that gives me a nervous twinge: I don’t believe anymore, but I don’t want to dictate atheism or belief.
I look to my daughter. She deserves an answer.
When my son asked about prayer at the same age, I struggled with offering him the mechanics of a faith I’ve lost. What I did not worry about was God’s gender. I felt as though I was setting him up with a mental space for communing with some infinite and imagined version of himself.
But when it comes to my daughter, with whom would I be putting her into conversation? A sprawling and all-encompassing male force? I pictured her, a small girl, asking for protection or for her heart’s daily desires, offering thanks for aspects of her life that, to my mind, are to some extent already under her own control. I’d hate to see her trade that over to an all-powerful male force.
“Praying is talking to God,” I start. I don’t want to fill in her blanks. “Do you know who God is? What that means?”
She tells me what she thinks: God made the Earth and everything in it. He lives in heaven, with the dead people. He loves us.
“Some people believe that,” I say. “Some people think if God exists, God is love, just another word for love.”
She likes that. She tells me more about God: how He made the birds, how He takes care of us.
I grew up a mainline Protestant and went through an uncomfortable evangelical phase. I remember evenings spent praying in my room, scared I wasn’t saved, that I could never be good enough. I studied the Bible, wanting absolutes to inform my behavior. So desperately, I wanted to touch the sacred.
I thought I could devote my life to that work, and I told my friends I might become a preacher. More than one male friend gently reminded me of First Corinthians: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”
Those words weren’t what finally damaged my faith, but they weakened it. They created a chasm between the God I wanted to know and me, who by virtue of being born female was deemed less valuable in the work of that God’s church. Coming of age as a woman in the twenty-first century, such limits on an infinite being struck me as idiotic.
Variations on that rift happen to so many of us. Between 2007 and 2014, Christianity in America lost 5 million adherents. According to Pew Research Center studies, 23 percent of Americans now consider themselves agnostic, atheist or nothing in particular. While there are still more male religious “nones” than female, the portion of women is growing. Nearly 1 in 5 women in America no longer affiliate with religion. I’m just one of them.
The American church isn’t just losing a lump sum of bodies to secularism; the loss of women in particular is meaningful. For generations and in most faiths on earth, women were more religious than men.
Christianity is losing the women who could help the church advance. Millennial women grew up with futures our feminist mothers fought for, told we could do anything. Whether we left the church over its misogyny or its intolerance of LGBT people or its entanglement in conservative politics, mainline churches as they exist today are too often more a reflection of old patriarchy than the equal world that women in my generation crave and are busy fighting for.
My daughter has finished telling me what she’s heard about God. She’s waiting for guidance.
I bite my lip, not wanting to concoct theology whole cloth when I no longer believe myself. But if she is going to believe, I want what she believes to make sense within the context of the rest of her life. Otherwise, it will simply fall apart with age.
“Do you think if God can be everywhere and know everything that God could only be a boy?”
She gives me a look of surprise.
“I mean it’s not like God has private body parts.” This isn’t going as artfully as I hoped. I don’t want to make gender just about bodies either.
I consider an old essay I read, by Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters, in which Peters describes answering the question “Who is God?” for her two-year-old daughter as the little girl asks, “Did he make the trees?” “Yes, she made the trees.” “Did he make the bunny rabbits?” “Yes, she made the bunny rabbits.” “Did she make my milk?” “Well, the cow made your milk, but God made the cow.” “Did she make the table?” As Peters shifted pronouns, so did her daughter.
Peters wrote, “As long as we continue to allow a male monopoly of language for the divine without balancing it with female language and images, we capitulate to the powerful privilege of male-dominated culture and replicate those structures in our very speech.”
I want to protect my daughter from a theology that is built to exclude her. Whatever form of faith winds into her life from outside, it’s bound to be overtly masculine.
So even while the vestiges of my old faith stir a certain nervousness within me — I myself was trained for decades to call God male — I say to my daughter, “Look, if God exists, God is just as likely to be He as She or They or It.”
My daughter takes that in, nodding, then returns to her original question. “How do you pray?”
I walk her through the basics of saying something like “Dear God,” then expressing gratitude for the good things in one’s life and asking for help with what’s difficult. I show her how to fold her hands.
“Dear God,” she begins, then corrects herself. “Dear She,” my daughter edits, playing with grammar as preschoolers do. She prays. “Dear She, thank you for my family. Dear She, thank you for my cats. Dear She, thank you for my school.”
I realized we could be stuck here talking to “Dear She” all night. “When you’re done,” I say, “you can just say ‘Amen.’”
“Ah-men?” she asks, studying me carefully. I don’t catch on to what she’s thinking.
“Dear She, thank you for my mom, and my dad, and my brother, and my house and my cats,” she says. She opens her eyes, looks to me and grins. “Ah-carrot!”
God can be anything, it seems. Even in my own disbelief, it makes me hopeful, watching my daughter expand possibilities that should be infinite. Prayer as I knew it evidently needed her updating.
I recall my secret joy in a college Bible course, when I first learned about the Sophia tradition, the feminine name for God’s wisdom. I remember Peters, writing that she wanted her daughter to have feminine stories and images to offer strength and wisdom in her own life.
Whatever we believe in, we all want that for our daughters.