big questions

berenstainBears are big in children’s literature, and they ask big questions like “What’s God?”

We grew up, the girls and I, with the Berenstains.

The Big Question does not explicitly endorse  religious indoctrination. Not quite. But neither does it encourage young readers and listeners to embrace their curiosity and follow it onto whatever terrain (religious, scientific, philosophic) it might lead them.

What else is new, in our unexamined faith-based culture? Like Mama in this story, we Americans reflexively instruct our children in the “wisdom” of taking their existential perplexities to church. And when someone (like Papa) begins to acknowledge the cosmic complexity of such Big Questions he is liable to be derided for his “BIG, BORING LECTURE.”

And then some Mama is apt to “explain” that “all you need to remember is that God made everything… it’s all part of God’s Great Plan.”

Sometimes the roles are reversed, of course: it’s not always Mama-the-religious apologist and Papa-the-inquirer. In this story, in fact, Papa eventually comes around, noting that church “is where we bears go when we want to think about Big Questions.”  And having been to church, Mama summarizes: “I’m glad we came this morning. It helps me think things through.” I’m afraid I detected no discernible thinking in the bears’ “service,” as represented here.

The result, as I encounter it: many of those children become the wary young adults who arrive in my philosophy classroom determined to fend off any perspective their restricted intellectual diets have not already offered them. Many are like Nurse Belle, good-hearted but simply dumb-founded that anyone could possibly not “believe in the Lord.”

But at least this little book does acknowledge the big problem with conventional attributions to a transcendent deity of omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect divine love and solicitude for human welfare. Sister wants to know if, besides the birds and flowers and sunshine and butterflies and clouds and trees, God also made bellyaches and cold germs and earthquakes and floods, fire, and tornadoes? And what kind of universe would have such a god in it? And now, what kind of universe is it really? Many of my students have never been encouraged to consider those Big Question, at age 8 or 18, and many are offended that philosophers do consider them.

The book ends on a right and honest note of Socratic humility. Did God make questions?

But the right answer is: wherever our Big Questions come from, God or the Devil or the deep blue sea (as ultimately they must: see Your Inner Fish), questions are vital to our identity and to our prospects. The more challenging and discomfiting, the better and more useful they are.

Why don’t we trust our kids to ask them, and to keep on asking?

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2 Responses to “big questions”

  1. Michael Says:

    I have noticed too, people are scared, somehow imagining if they think anything different than what they have been programmed to think they will be struck down by lightning or worse.

    It seems to me to be a form of fear mongering at its best or worse, depending on perspective.

    How much more contentment and freedom these people would enjoy if they challenged what they think until proof arrives or not, rather than believe the belief in an idea that was not even theirs to start with.

  2. osopher Says:

    Hi, Michael. Thanks for the comment. I totally agree, fear is such a big factor in so much religion: fear of what 90+% will think of your failure to conform, fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of seeming disloyal to the clan that raised you, fear of eternal damnation… so much better to be motivated instead by love of life and of human possibility. Unitarians and other “tolerant” faiths may be easy to parody, but at their best they do achieve that.

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