This is from an article by Alex Renton in The Times 21 April 2011 copyright Times Newspapers.
My daughter came home from primary school a few weeks ago and sat down to write a letter to God. It read “To God how did you get invented? From Lulu o x” When she asked us to send it (by setting light to it and putting it up the chimney, as we do with letters to Father Christmas) several courses of action offered themselves.
Easiest of all, for us, would have been to fold the piece of paper and file it in the memory box – Lulu is six and hasn’t written more than a dozen letters in her life. Then we would have sat down and told her that God couldn’t be sent her letter or answer the question because, in our view, he didn’t exist. We would have said that he was invented by human beings, because they were rather puzzled by life and death and some other problems in between.
But that wouldn’t do. We (I and my wife, though I’m now going to stop speaking for her) try first to be honest with our children, but to follow that good principle here seemed self-indulgent. Selfish, in fact. In any case, the commitment to myth-busting in our house is already shaky – as shown by the Santa Claus rituals, not to mention occasional worship of the Tooth Fairy and that hideous Easter Bunny. I know people who don’t do Christmas and have stripped their children of the trammels of stockings and carols. But I can’t see the point. For one thing, you’re more likely to grow a teenager who embraces myths and cults, in reaction to rigid parental rationalism. Imagine the stories they’d tell about you to their friends.
More important, the desire to shield your children from delusion and falsehood is easily matched by the one that longs to protect their innocence, to let them learn about the world at a gentle pace and, indeed, learn for themselves, rather than always hand over your notion of what is what. Quite simply, I didn’t want to tell Lulu there was no god, and I could not tell her there was….
… First I emailed her letter to both her grandmothers, and to some friends who are active Christians,. The responses were interesting, and Lulu listened to them patiently. The grandmothers did best, perhaps because they’d faced these questions before. Both said that God did not have to be invented because he was always there, even for people who didn’t feel they needed him. That he wasn’t actually a person, but “the power of love”. It took courage to have faith in him, said one.
My Christian friends were less useful, but then they were the wrong people to ask. Of course they had had no trouble giving their children answers when the What is God? question emerged (usually at about six or seven years old). What if they were me? I wondered. One said he had no idea how he would deal with the letter as me, but why not ask an expert? He suggested Rowan Williams, whose writings on faith he admires….
… Lambeth Palace waited a couple of weeks and then asked me to tell Lulu that someone special was going to write to her. Eventually there came an email from “Archbishop Rowan” (Lambeth Palace gave permission for the letter’s reproduction—below).
I was touched, more than I would have imagined. My scepticism about religion, and my cynicism about the Anglican church, didn’t dissolve – how could they? But these things were quite easily put to the side in the face of the Archbishop’s kindness and wisdom. “Well done, Rowan!” declared my mother when I forwarded the email to her. I agreed. Respect to the Archbishop, a charming, gentle man and a poet.
I found photos of him on the Internet and showed them to Lulu. She rather liked the beard. I explained a little of who he was and what he did and stood for (that would have been harder if we’d had a letter from the Pope). She listened quietly as I read the Archbishop’s letter and it went down well. The idea of God and his story of the world worked particularly. “Well?” I asked when we reached the end. “What do you think?” She thought a little. “Well, I have very different ideas. But he has a good one.”
Archbishop Rowan’s reply:
Your Dad has sent on your letter and asked if I had any answers.
It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – nobody invented me, but lots of people discovered me and they were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked around at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.
Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – especially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.
I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf.
Lots of love from me too,
+ Archbishop Rowan.