“If I’m naughty, do I go to Hell?” asked Lily at bedtime. It was one of those completely out of the blue questions. No warning. No time to think. No time to consider my answer. The children all go to a school with a ‘Catholic ethos’, although it welcomes children from families of all faiths and none. Their dad and I were happy for them to be educated in an environment that placed a great deal of importance on moral values, such as compassion, kindness and charity and an emphasis on ‘character building’ qualities such as independence and free-thinking.
It was only a matter of time before Lily started asking the questions.
“I’m not sure, darling”, I answered tentatively. “Some people think so, some people say there not, and other people aren’t sure. What do you think?”
A few months ago, I made a conscious decision to encourage my children to find their own voice, to think for themselves, to recognise and challenge (where necessary) dogma and resist the efforts of other people to impose their will, or beliefs, on them. But this question was a tough one! I will always support the school, as best I can, and yet here I was, in a situation where I was torn between the commitment to encourage my children’s inner voice and the commitment and loyalty I have to the school.
“I don’t know, Mummy. I think God loves me. So I don’t understand why he’d send me to Hell if I just made the wrong choice”. Oh what a good girl! It felt great to me that she identified the divinity as being loving instead of punishing and I loved how she identified a ‘sin’ as a wrong choice rather than an act of evil.
“Well, I think that’s a great way of looking at it. And this is one of those instances where you can close your eyes, take a deep breath and ask your heart what it thinks! Knowing what you know of god, or the goddess, what feels right to you?” I said.
She replied, “It doesn’t feel right that God would make Hell, even if Father Peter says there were angels who went against God and never said sorry so they have to live in Hell forever”.
I hadn’t heard this idea before, but understand that this is a story that the children were told about Lucifer’s fall. She went on to identify – independently – that she thought that if any of those devils chose to apologise, then they would straight away be let into Heaven. We talked about the possibility of heaven and hell being states of mind on earth, or the possibility that a person can create his or her own state of heaven or hell, depending on what state his mind is in after he dies. It was the first metaphysical discussion I’d had with her! I loved every moment of it although I could tell she was grappling with some pretty big new ideas.
“Can I tell you a secret sweetheart?” I said, conspiratorially. “Actually, I’m not sure you’re old enough, perhaps I won’t.” (Always guaranteed to grab attention.) She nodded enthusiastically. “You don’t have to believe everything that Father Peter tells you. Or Miss Cooke. Or Mr Rafy. For that matter, you don’t even have to believe everything that I tell you. Look for the answer inside you first. That’s the only way you’ll know if it’s the right one for you. And remember too, that somebody else may find a different truth in their heart. That’s fine. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Respect other peoples’ truth, like you would want them to respect yours.”
The Loving Mother says:- We have an overwhelming tendency in our society to fill up children from the ‘outside’. We give them facts to learn. We tell them answers. We teach them to think in the way that we think. We tell them right from wrong and good from bad, with little room for them to make up their own mind. We create a community that is shaped by experts and authority figures. All too often, children are taught or even obliged to seek answers from those authority figures instead of being encouraged to think about the question and find the answer that works for them. And yet, by doing so, we rob them of their inherent wisdom and all the benefits to self-esteem that come from knowing that they have the ability to find the answers within themselves.
Reflect on the words of the great ancient Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth”. Be guided by these words if you ever doubt the wisdom of encouraging a child to find their own truth, within.
The Loving Father says: This question caused philosophical furore in the TLF household. It was me arguing with myself in the shaving mirror. Fortunately, no throats were cut in the making of this reply, but opinion remains divided.
I think you did a fabulous job of handling the question. It is a tricky question in a tricky situation. You’ve chosen to send her to a school with a Catholic ethos; you were aware of the benefits of some of their philosophy and felt that was the right decision. Having made such a decision, it would be placing your daughter in a difficult situation if you completely undermined in her eyes the credibility of the staff. By asking her opinions first you encouraged her to reflect and talk it out – great! At the end you let her in on a little secret about authority. That’s exactly how it should be. One of the ways we humans feel safe in the world is by mapping it: understanding how things are, how people operate, what the rules are, and locating our place and position in the whole scheme of things. Small children have a limited knowledge of the world and so their maps are much simpler. As they grow up we need to help them expand their knowledge and understanding; not so much that they feel unsure and unsafe, but in keeping with their age and maturity. You did this very sensitively for Lily.
The shaving-mirror me has a different take on things. He threw out a question: “If Lily had asked ‘Is it true that women are inferior to men?’” would you have started by asking her what she thinks? Or would you have said “Absolutely not!”
That’s what I would have said – and I hope that most readers would have too. But why? I feel that while we may acknowledge that many people do believe that proposition, we consider it a toxic belief that should be discouraged. The whole question of gender differences, gender roles and stereotyping, the history and sociology of patriarchy and so forth is a highly complex one that small children would struggle to grasp. Best give them a clear moral lead until they’re old enough to begin to grasp complexities.
For me, hell is a toxic belief. And while many toxic beliefs can be argued (however poorly and one-sidedly) from fact and reason, the plain truth is that there is not one shred of evidence that hell exists, and plenty of reason to think it was developed as a tool of social control.
What do you think?