Theologians grapple with talking to kids about God, evil

NEWTON, Mass. — Talking to your children about God and evil may be more difficult than talking to your children about sex.

It is one of the philosophical dilemmas with which humans have struggled for centuries: How can an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-benevolent God in whom we have been taught to believe tolerate evil?

We are assailed by accounts of tragedies that leave innocent victims — bombings that claim hundreds of lives, jumbo jets blowing up minutes after take-off, the murder of a young girl by two other youngsters. It is impossible to shield children from this pain.

As parents brace themselves for the inevitable questions, they must first come to terms with a harsh truth: There are no easy answers. But there are ways to respond to youngsters that will both ease their fears and stimulate their thinking, according to three theologians who have spent years talking to and teaching children.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, renowned for addressing the topic of God and evil in his best-seller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," stresses in a telephone interview that when tragedy strikes, religion's first task is to reassure. Evil makes children "feel vulnerable," he says. "We have to assure them" that tragedies are rare because "God has given us a safe and orderly world."

"No," says Rabbi David Wolpe, author of "Teaching Your Children About God," which contains practical exercises and discussion questions designed to stimulate family discussions about God. Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, says, "It's important to acknowledge the reality children see — that the world can be an unfair place." Rather, he counsels, ask your kids, "What if you get rewarded only for being good?"

"It doesn't take them long," he says, "to perceive that the only way to be truly good is to be good when there is no promise of reward. The point is to do good because you believe in goodness, not because you believe in getting something for it."

God, who Wolpe believes does have the power to stop evil, doesn't stop it so as to enable us to learn how to be good. "To give each one of us the opportunity to grow in soul," Wolpe says, is both God's mission and an indication of God's benevolence. God, he explains to children, "couldn't give free will to everyone except Nazis. Would Jews worship a God who allows some people to die, but intervenes in other cases?"

Kushner warned against getting too deeply into theological issues with young children, although in a book he wrote for parents, "When Children Ask About God," he postulates that evil reflects a "residue of chaos" that is beyond God's control and accounts for certain events that occur "for no discernible reason."

But children are prepared to accept theological explanations, says another theologian, Rabbi Marc Gellman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y. The theory of evil that he introduces to children is one based on mystical philosophy. "God created the world with holes in it, imperfections, so that people could help fill them — repair the world. We're hole-fillers. It makes sense to them," says Gellman, who has also taught philosophy and theology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

While random chaos and free will limit God's power to prevent evil, Kushner writes, children need to know that God's ability to comfort those who suffer is without bounds. God is a healer, he insists, not one who punishes anyone — least of all children — for bad behavior.

Talking to children about reward and punishment raises another challenging dimension. In a children's book that Gellman co-wrote with Monsignor Thomas Hartman, "Where Does God Live?" he tells children that God sees everything they do and that while there may be an accounting after death, this should be of less concern to them than learning to be good people while they are alive. "God is more like a teacher or a parent who loves us and wants us to the right thing for the right reason," they write in a chapter titled "Does God Punish People?"

And helping children maintain their faith in God must be a central theme in any conversation parents have with children about evil, says Gellman. "Evil is a potential refutation of God, so that any discussion about evil has to redeem God, because without a belief in God there is no hope."

Moreover, he adds, evil is also "a potential refutation of mankind, and so the conversation has to redeem people, for without a belief in people, there is no future."

Following are Wolpe's guiding principles for answering your children's questions about God and evil:

*"Opt for being humble. Confess that all the answers to the question are different and problematic and no one knows for sure what the answer is, because if they did, there would be only one answer." In this way, parents avoid getting locked into a position that children may grow up and reject, leaving them with nothing. That, he notes, would be theologically dangerous.

* "Be honest; say what you believe, but try not to tell children anything you will later have to disavow.''

*Be sure to reassure children that when bad things happen, such as when they get sick or someone they love dies, it is not a punishment from God but just evidence that we live in an imperfect world and that our job is to help perfect it.