In my early 20s, I dated a man who, when asked whether he believed in God, said: “I believe in ME.”
He was a good, kind, smart man ― the type who grew herbs on his windowsill and played trombone in a jazz band and coached a kids’ soccer team. Total marriage material. But I knew in that instant it would never work between us.
I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology. I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world. So raising a tiny person of faith shouldn’t be so hard.
But, dammit, it is.
I don’t know what to do about church for my kid. Studies show I’m not alone. Youth are fleeing organized religion in droves. Millennials are increasingly raising their children as “nones.” Self-identified atheism has doubled among Generation Z. And mainline Protestant denominations are famously flailing.
Spiritual trauma and toxic theology run rampant. Between the United Methodist Church’s recent upholding of its ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, the Catholic Church’s ongoing revelations of pedophilia horror, and the Southern Baptists’ February unveiling of vast child abuse, why would any reasonably progressive parent choose to send their child (alone!) into a church basement?
There’s no question that I want to raise my son with a deep spiritual practice and a reverence for mystery. But where to find a religious upbringing he doesn’t have to unlearn?
I was doing yoga on the kitchen floor one afternoon in 2015, listening to an interview with Buddhist meditation teacher Lodro Rinzler while my toddler son napped. Rinzler talked about growing up Buddhist — being taught he was fundamentally good — and how rare and refreshing it was to not have to “unlearn” the deep psychological wounds of the doctrine of original sin (as had so many of his Christian friends).
His words struck me. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since.
Faith formation is no joke. Our early understandings of divinity have the power to shape our psyches, our relationships, our lives. Most children have developed some concept of God by the time they are 5 years old.
My father was a campus pastor in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, for short). Growing up a PK (that’s a preacher’s kid, for those of you not in the club) meant being steeped in the folk religious scene of early-1980s South Dakota. It was an unintentionally culturally valuable way to grow up, introducing me to classical music and contemporary liturgies, biblical literary references, social justice work, contemplative practices, and a greater search for meaning.
Those Sunday mornings set in motion my teenage love for literary mystics Emerson and Thoreau, and my eventual graduate work in ecofeminist and queer theologies under groundbreaking Catholic feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether.
One of my dad’s old students reached out to me last year. She was wrestling with what kind of spiritual upbringing to offer her child, and she asked, “What do your Sunday mornings look like?”
I told her, “Well ... I’m still trying to figure that out, too.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it. I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there. I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks. I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy. I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion. And I definitely don’t believe in the kind of white evangelicalism that elected Donald Trump.
And then, there’s Sunday school. Gah. Often led by a nice, well-meaning older lady from the congregation who has exactly zero theological training, teaching vulnerable 3-year-olds that the dude hanging on the cross over there died because they are fundamentally naughty, broken and destined to blow it.
BUT — and it’s a big but — I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral. I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals. I want him to learn that Jesus — like Buddha and Muhammad — was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.
I want him to practice sitting quietly for an hour, thinking about how he might live more kindly. I want him to develop a sex-positive view of the body, to see the world from a place of wholeness and original blessing. I want him to know the power of intimate spiritual community in moments of birth, death, suffering and celebration. And I want him to uncover the divine as much in the sky and the prairie and his body as in the institutionalized church itself.
Growing up in a yoga studio isn’t enough. After a decade in the yoga industry (and yes, it’s an industry), I still love teaching, but I’m disenchanted by the ubiquitous amateur New Age preaching. I don’t want to hear any more whitewashed platitudes about the law of attraction or the healing power of essential oils. I’m increasingly suspicious of dumbed-down, perky, pop-yoga spirituality. It’s too self-focused, too navel-gazing, too market-driven. The heart of service and social justice that I witnessed growing up in the Lutheran church just isn’t there.
But then, there’s that whole “sin” thing. Which basically disqualifies any Christian denomination.
So here we are, still at square one, this time with a 5-year-old whose capacity for understanding the divine and asking soulful questions expands every day.
Last year, my husband’s job took us to Switzerland, where we live now. Europe is much more refreshingly secular than the U.S. We tried the two English-speaking churches here in Basel (church-shopping is so much like dating) and they were way too much hell, sin and homophobia for our comfort.
There’s a tiny group of Unitarian Universalists (UU) here who gather twice a month, a “church in a box” of sorts that meets in a 13th-century historical museum. It’s a community of 30-or-so mostly expats from Turkey, Iran, England, France, Germany, the U.S., and more. They sing a few interfaith hymns, light candles for joys and sorrows, share a brief sermon, and then gather for a potluck meal and discussion following the service.
The liberal UU theological tradition respects Jesus as a radical prophet (without the whole eternal-salvation baggage) while also lifting up a diversity of literary and interfaith voices, with an emphasis on social justice, compassion, inclusivity and love.
It’s so far from the trumpet-and-organ-filled high liturgical glory we’ve loved at our past churches. But it’s a community of seekers gathering in non-dogmatic fellowship, and for now, it will do.
The other day, on our way to swimming lessons, I parked the car and my son leaned up over the passenger seat. My copy of public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless: A Sexual Reformation was on the front seat. The book critiques Christian purity culture and offers a progressive 21st-century sexual ethic.
Its cover painting — “Eve” by British Romantic artist John Martin — depicts a naked Adam, a naked Eve (tantalizing apple in hand) and Satan (the snake) looming menacingly above them.
My son asked, “Mama, what’s happening in that book you’re reading? Is the snake going to eat them? Or are they going to eat the snake?”
For a long beat I paused, thinking about all the 5-year-olds out there who’ve already learned that the evil of the world is ALL EVE’S FAULT, just for satisfying her desire, and that those first two naughty nudies doomed us all to be ashamed of our unclad bodies forevermore.
I thought about my son’s total lack of shame, the sweetly unself-conscious way he showers with the other kids after swimming lessons, completely at home in his body.
Relief rushed over me. So glad I’d never sent him to a Sunday school that taught him a simplistic patriarchal version of The Fall. So glad that he and I will be able to deconstruct the Genesis creation myth together someday soon. So glad he knows he’s born whole, fundamentally good and a beloved child of God, just like his Jain buddy Jiyaan from India and his Buddhist friend Yohei from Japan.
I took a deep breath, smiled at him, shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know yet. We’ll have to find out.”
Rachel Meyer is an American writer and yoga teacher based in Switzerland. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.