“How Do We Know That God is Real and Zombies Aren’t?”
What if we just made God up?
The question came not from a despairing parishioner or a reader of my blog or an inquisitive university student at a trendy coffee shop. No, the question came from my twelve-year-old son at a sushi joint last weekend while drumming on the table with his chopsticks in between green tea and California rolls.
The conversation had started, as so many seem to these days, with zombies (he has been quite eager to demonstrate to me that these creatures are real for some time now). “You know how I know that zombies are real, dad?” “How?” “Well, you know when Jesus dies and the graves open and people start walking around? There you go. Even the Bible talks about zombies!” This was followed by a bit of “um, well”-ing and “it’s not exactly the same”-ing and “there’s a difference between”-ing, but I think he knew very well that his dad had no idea how to explain this bizarre passage in the bible (Matthew 27:51-53, for those interested). Whatever lame response I was able to conjure must have been punctuated by some exasperated rebuttal to the tune of, “well of course zombies are made up! Do you see any walking around?!”
“Yeah, well we don’t see God either! And there’s so much weird, unbelievable stuff in the Bible! How do we know God is real and zombies aren’t?”
I was beginning to wish that I had just yielded to my son’s exegesis of Matthew 27. Instead, I was staring morosely at my sushi desperately wondering how to rescue the situation and, more importantly, address what was a very real question in the mind of my son.
Where does one begin? More specifically, where does one begin with a twelve-year-old? I could think of all kinds of approaches to take for grown ups. We could talk about this or that version of the cosmological argument (why is there something rather than nothing? Where did something come from?) or the argument from morality (where do our normative assumptions and imperatives originate? How do we account for their pervasiveness across time and space?). We could talk about arguments regarding the historicity of the resurrection. We could talk about biblical interpretation and the (ironic) fulfillment of prophecy. We could talk about the spectacularly unlikely rise of the church. We could talk about any of these things and more. But aside from the fact that my son’s eyes would likely glaze over about 90 seconds into such endeavours, we would still circle back to something like, “I can’t see zombies and I can’t see God. Why is God real but not zombies?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about our weekend conversation over the last two days. I don’t recall much about the answer I tried to offer over sushi aside from the fact that it was profoundly forgettable and predictably unsatisfactory. And that my son was happily munching on his chicken teriyaki and talking about other matters within seconds of me stumbling and bumbling toward a response. All that mental energy rehearsing my apologetic options and I barely had a chance to get a word out before we were on to soccer and swimming. It is remarkable how frequently God sees fit to give me opportunities to practice humility through my children.
I was talking with a friend of mine about this experience yesterday—about how unsettling it is to get up every Sunday as the “religious professional” to “explain” the Bible and yet still routinely get utterly flummoxed by the most innocent question from one of my kids. “So why don’t you just pretend you’re preaching to your kids?” my friend said. Write a sermon for a twelve-year-old. A thousand excuses instantly presented themselves to me. But what about the grown ups? What about my responsibility to speak to all different age and education levels? What about people who don’t care about zombies? But I had to admit it wasn’t a bad idea.
So what would I say in my sermon for twelve-year olds about why God is real but zombies aren’t? The more I thought about it, the more I thought that it might just be among the harder sermons I have ever written! But here’s what it might include:
I know that it’s really hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not in this crazy screwed-up world we live in. I know that everywhere we turn we are inundated with superheroes and zombies and magic and wizards and boys with burning scars and giants and unicorns and dwarves and hobbits and all kinds of other things that we never, ever see walking down the street.
I also know that it’s even harder to figure out what’s real and what isn’t when we talk about this weird book called the Bible that has angels and demons and people who live ridiculously long lives and people rising from the dead and virgin births and arks full of animals and suns that refuse to set and talking donkeys and all kinds of other things that seem way harder to believe in than zombies.
Let me assure you that grown ups struggle with these things too, even if we’re better at ignoring them or pretending we have things all sorted out. We don’t. Believe me.
Here’s the thing. There are very strange things in our world and in our imaginations. And I hope you have plenty of time to begin to sort out which is which. But more importantly, I hope that you will come to see that imagination and reality are not really all that separate after all—that the one might even be a clue or a hint meant to point toward and give a fuller understanding of the other.
Most importantly of all, I hope you will do far more than listen to words upon words from people like me about imagination and reality. I hope you will actually encounter the One who gave us wild imaginations and hoped that we would use them. I hope that you will come to see that the One who made you has a far more creative imagination than you or I, and that this One loves you. I hope that you will see that our wild imaginings were meant to lead us back to the wildest Imaginer there could be.