Soapbox to the Tualatin Times circa 1996

The Tualatin Times afforded readers the opportunity to chime in with a Soapbox article — up to 800 words if you were so inclined.  It was basically a format for those who wanted to address a hot topic that warranted more than a “Letter to the Editor”, of which I had written many.  I’ve written a dozen or so Soapbox articles for The Times, but this is one of my better efforts and I would date it back to about 1996 or so.   At the time it was in response to a Letter to the Editor by a frequent conservative member of the community who often wrote bitter, close-minded opinions and I let her have it with both barrels.  I believe there was a reply the next week but I don’t recall it being very convincing.


A wise man once said “Be careful about what you wish for, it could come true.” A recent letter to the editor “God needed in school more than a survey” suggests that our kids would be better off if only we could revert to the days when God was ever present in our classrooms.


Of course the first question is, which God? God as in the Jewish God of Abraham? God as in the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? God as described by the prophet Joseph Smith? The “Jehovah” I’ve read about in The WatchTower? Allah as experienced by the prophet Mohammed?


In her best selling book A History of God, respected historian and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong talks about how man’s idea of God has evolved from a pluralistic form to the modern day monotheistic God at the time of Abraham and Jacob. Jacob, ever a pragmatist, cut a deal with the God “El”. In exchange for much needed protection, Jacob agreed to worship El as the one and only God that mattered. Is this the God we’re talking about?


We have a cross section of all of these belief systems right here in Tualatin. Surely someone who would suggest God be re-instated back into the classroom would want to be inclusive of their neighbor’s belief system.   How do we do this? About the closest I’ve seen to a common denominator is the term Higher Power, but I suspect few would be satisfied with this watered down description of God.


Since the very definition of God it is a hard question, I’m in favor of using a little class time to explore what each of us means when we say the word God. In fact, while we’re at it let’s expose our kids to the concepts behind a variety of belief systems so they can make an informed choice.


There would be many benefits to a comparative religion study in public classrooms. Jews, Muslims and Christians might gain an appreciation for each other’s point of view and stop killing each other.


Kids would get the opportunity to do some critical thinking as they form their own belief system. As a parent of 3 kids, above all else I value giving my kids honest answers to their questions. They’ve come up with some whoppers over the years that are tough for me to deal with because I have more questions than answers myself. If God set up the universe as an experiment, and then gave us free will so he could then reward the faithful, couldn’t he have chosen an experiment that didn’t include so much human suffering?   If God is all powerful and all knowing, then he has both the knowledge that there will be suffering and the power to prevent it but chooses not to. Why is this? Eve takes a bite of the forbidden fruit and the price imposed by God is a human sacrifice? Sounds like sort of a vindictive God to me. Are you sure this whole thing isn’t just a cruel joke to get me to behave the way you want?


Talking serpents, plural marriage, child sacrifices, Jonah inside the belly of a whale for 3 days and living to tell about it? Virgin births, rising from the dead, purgatory, life beyond the grave, cannibalistic themes like “eat his body, drink his blood”? The salacious story of Sodom and Gamorrah. I’m having a hard time telling the difference between the Old Testament, a Stephen King novel, and Greek mythology.


Should the knowledge of the 1st century be considered the infallible truth of the 21st? Didn’t Nicolas Copernicus teach us anything about questioning the puerile beliefs of our time?


I see it as a dangerous practice to ascribe literal truth to a compendium of writings drafted over many centuries by scores of different authors with vastly different agendas and perspectives. I find it ironic that those who hold that God belongs in the classroom are usually the same people trying to keep Harry Potter out of the school library.


It’s clear a lot of good has occurred in this world due by people who have a strong faith in God. Unfortunately, history also has recorded the atrocities of The Crusades, the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the IRA in Northern Ireland, and Al Qaeda to name a few, all in the name of God.


When kids ask hard questions about God, instead of giving the usual hand wave answers (my favorite eye roller is “God didn’t want us to be robots so he gave us free will”), sometimes I find the best answer I can come up with is “That’s a great question but a tough question, so I won’t pretend to have the answer for you at this time.”   Being a parent does not somehow make me an authority figure on God. But I do get to decide if my approach will be rationalism, which seeks to reach the heart through the head, or theology, which seeks to reach the head through the heart.


Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us inherited our belief system from our families. We did no study of belief systems followed by the process of making an objective choice. Someone we trusted made that choice, and in many cases, at infancy. Growing up we were allowed to ask a few questions, but as the questions got harder to answer, instead of admitting they don’t really know, the people responsible for our faith development fell back on that age old tactic that gets ‘em every time: Fear of eternal damnation.


When you’re an impressionable grade schooler, the idea of eternity in a place like hell is a tough thing to get past. Perhaps this is why many children just adopt the belief system that’s been brow beaten into their psyche and move on.


I admire many people who have a strong faith in God, especially those who walk the talk. But it’s been my observation that those in favor of re-instating God back in public schools are the same ones who would be marching down to the principal’s office if teachers were to engage kids in a conversation about God and find out the teacher’s definition of God doesn’t match theirs precisely. Perhaps this is why public schools avoid the issue altogether. They can’t win no matter what they do.


In any case, spending classroom time on the subject of God is fine by me.


Bill Toner

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