There we were this past Mother’s Day, my eight-year-old daughter and I preparing dinner on our own. My wife had requested linguine with clam sauce, so I’d assigned my daughter the job of washing the clams. An essential step, but still pretty dull. Her mind wandered.
“Daddy, here’s something I’m wondering about. You know those first people on earth? What were their names again? Adam and Ivey?”
Freeze frame and cue the voiceover.
My daughter gets good grades in school. She’s in the top reading group. She can talk a blue streak and at times she’s a pretty interesting third-grader to be around. So how has she failed to register the correct names of that iconic couple from the Garden of Eden, whence whose loins, if you believe the Bible, all humans descend?
It’s her parents’ fault, of course. We don’t put a lot of emphasis on religion in our family. We go to church exclusively on Christmas Eve, when the story never changes and there’s no talk of Genesis.
My daughter has friends who are far more observant than we are — regular churchgoers. She’s even accompanied one of them to Sunday school a couple of times after sleepovers, but that was a catch-as-catch-can situation. For all we know they talked those mornings only of God’s love or some such thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s mostly a New Testament subject.
Earlier this year at the dinner table my daughter asked why we don’t go to church more. “Why should we?” my wife asked, tamping down her discomfort. Like many well-bred Episcopalians she cultivates a certain skepticism about religion, attributing to it more social than spiritual function.
My daughter’s reply suggested that she’d been fielding questions from a few of her peers who go to church, er — wait for it — religiously. What she said was, “Everyone goes to church more than we do.”
This isn’t strictly true. She has Jewish and Hindu friends who never go to “church” and some Christian friends who attend rarely if ever. But some kids must have expressed to her the sentiment that going to church was something everyone should do, and now our laxity had redounded upon us.
I said something to the effect that one doesn’t do things simply to follow the crowd.
My wife, trying to recover, said, “You can go to church more frequently if you want.”
How was she going to accomplish that, I wondered. Was she going to drive herself there? I asked my daughter whether she enjoyed church when she went with her friend after sleepovers.
“Not really.” She screwed up her face. “It’s pretty boring, actually. Maybe we can go just a little more often. Like Christmas and — um, Easter.”
But we didn’t go this Easter. We went instead to an Easter-egg hunt that my brother-in-law always puts on. My daughter wouldn’t miss that for the world, though its relationship to the resurrection of Christ is tenuous at best.
You don’t learn about Jesus Christ from the Easter Bunny or from Santa Claus. And those two cats won’t teach you about Moses or Adam and Eve either, for that matter.
So to Part II of my daughter’s question about the first humans. Said she: “If Adam and Eve [now having been corrected] came before the Neanderthals, how come they have less hair on their bodies?”
Well, with all due respect to my observant friends, when a religious belief meets critical thinking, it takes an agile mind to respond with anything but piffle. Or, looked at another way, I wasn’t exactly qualified to defend the view from the pulpit on this. (I later mentioned my daughter’s question to a nominally Christian friend, who suggested that she send it to the Texas school board.)
I’m an agnostic lapsed Jew married to an agnostic lapsed Episcopalian and, for reasons that had almost nothing to do with religion, our daughter was baptized in the Episcopal church. So, fortunately, I have prepared a fall-back position in response to schoolyard assertions about religious matters. This position always begins with the words, “Some people believe that.”
I said, “Some people believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans and some people believe it’s just a story. You can draw your own conclusions. And — are you done washing the clams?”
She said she was.
We sat down to dinner an hour later. I know that’s a long time to prepare a simple clam sauce, but my wife does most of the cooking, so I’m out of practice.