My son asks if god is real. We are brushing our teeth. I tell him some people think so and others don’t.
“But is he?”
I tell him to spit. Then I tell him he’ll have to decide for himself.
He spits. “I believe in god because if you don’t, god will get mad and hurt you.”
Where does he get this stuff? I thought his world was ruled by Minecraft and basketball. Now it’s divine retribution?
“I didn’t know god was that cruel. He hurts people just for not doing what he wants?”
“Yeah. You get in trouble if you don’t believe in him.” Bug takes a big gulp of water then looks up at me watching him in the mirror. His face is grave. “If you don’t believe in god, you should start.”
I rinse the brush and point to the towel. It would be so easy to press the point. I want to ask him if belief is enough. Do we have to let this god know? Should we write him a letter? Put out cookies and milk? Maybe he’s more interested in public displays of devotion and wants to see us serve, profess, prove our zeal. Do we cut open our wrists and make an offering? Give up Pokemon and pizza? I wonder how Bug would take the suggestion that we should shovel out or neighbors’ cars or paint adorations on the roof and the door. Or even go to church.
I’m itching to ask my boy more. Is any action a proxy for belief? If god will hurt us for not having faith, how does he know? It’s possible he has a device he can plunge into our hearts to gauge some absolute quantity that resides there. My concern is that a vindictive deity endowed with omniscience might spend his days peering into the part of us that calculates risks and rewards. It’s highly unlikely that my process of choosing fealty for the simple payoff of his favor would meet his standard of belief.
I keep my mouth shut, though. I don’t want my son thinking too hard about any of this just yet, at least not at my instigation. I try to wrap it up. I tell him we can each believe what we want and there is room in the world for all kinds of stories.
Of course, Bug sees a wrapped package and his first instinct is to tear in.
“Is heaven real?”
I try the same line. Lots of people, lots of ideas. He’s not having it.
“But what do you think?”
And here, I stumble. Sure, harps and angels are ludicrous, but my convictions are comprised of more than the rejection of a single mythology. I must think something of the concept of heaven. It’s hard to grasp. When was the last time I had to shape these ideas into words (or rather, speak my way into the shape of an idea)?
How do I know what I really think unless I can explain it with a degree of coherence to a seven-year-old?
I nudge him towards the bedroom and start teasing a brush through his long snarl of hair. Bug fiddles with the legos on his desk while I unravel the knots.
With no idea what I’m about to say, I open my voice and let something make its way up and out.
You know how when plants and animals die, they decay? Like when we see an old tree that’s fallen down, how it sort of breaks down? Other things grow from it or make a home in it. Its nutrients are food for grass or chipmunks or birds.
When plants and animals die, some of the water that was in them soaks into the ground or evaporates into the sky. It falls again as rain or fills up rivers. Then other plants grow from it and other animals drink it.
The thing that happens to a tree when it falls down is what eventually happens to us. After we grow through our long, whole life, we die. Then we go back into the soil and the water. Other things like dragonflies and apples and lily pads grow from us.
Life just goes on and on.
To me, heaven is this cycle of all things growing from each other. Death makes life. After we are gone, you and I will be alive inside the rain. Inside a cornfield. Inside all the people that come after us.
This is how we live forever.
Bug has been quiet during this. He’s laid the first few ties of his lego railroad track. I move the brush around to the side of his head and try to smooth the hair over his ear. “So, yes, I believe heaven is real. We have a place we live after we die. I also believe we’re already in heaven right now.”
Bug endures one more tug before pushing the hairbrush away and hopping up onto his bed. He gives me a withering glance. “God is going to be so mad at you.”
“Yes,” I shrug. “That is a metaphysical certainty.” I pick up Marley and Me and shove my boy over with my hip. “Maybe you can put in a good word for me.”
“No way,” Bug says. “You’re on your own.”