When I was in High School and College, there was Barney the Dinosaur. Big purple plush costume and a silly voice. Little children loved Barney. But I was not a little child. I was like many others who found the silly songs and overacting annoying. “I Love You… You Love Me… We’re a Happy Family. With a Great Big Hug and a Kiss From Me to You. Won’t You Say You Love… Me… Too!” Nauseating. In college, it was cool to speak ill of Barney. Perhaps it was a way of showing one was “grown-up.” Perhaps it was a bit of unbridled cynicism.
I recall reading a story of some teenagers who “beat up Barney.” Barney the Dinosaur and crew went to a mall show or something, and some kids starting punching and kicking Barney (or the actor in the costume of Barney). I did not approve of that behavior. It is not right. Yet, there was still a side of me that saw the humor in it.
But a few years later something changed. I was a father with three little kids. I did not want them to watch the normal trash on TV, so I put on Barney at times because I figured it was harmless. But over time, my attitude changed about Barney. You see, Barney loved my children (he says so in the song). My children loved Barney. Barney also taught them good things, helping them to be better kids.
My attitude changed as I grew up. There are three basic stages: childhood, adolescent, and adult. I am a bit embarrassed about my adolescence where I was angry at something that does not even exist (in the truest sense). However, that period probably did help me come to a healthier understanding.
One can relate this to our attitude with God as well.
Stage 1. Childhood. Unquestioning acceptance of God’s reality and affection.
Stage 2. Adolescent. Doubt, anger, and cynicism about the whole God thing. The existence of God is now doubted, and the idea that one has possibly been duped leads to unfocused frustration and hostility aimed at God (who may not exist) and believers (who definitely exist… many seemingly without such doubts).
Stage 3. Adulthood. There is still doubt, but recognize that God as a symbol may be useful (at least for the kids). Additionally, God could actually exist and that possibility provides some level of hope and comfort.
Which stage is best? I suppose the best is based on whether God truly exists or not. If He does not exist, then I suppose Stage 3 is best. One should go through the stages 1, then 2, and finally 3. This one recognizes that God as a norming standard of “goodness” is beneficial.
On the other hand, if God truly exists, then Stage 1 is best. Belief and trust.
One can understand why Jesus said that one must come to God as a child. Children enter faith in God directly in Stage 1. For adults, typically we transition from Stage 3 (nominal faith and unfocused hope) to Stage 2 (disorientation and struggle) before arriving at faith in God (Stage 1). Often the greater the struggle (Stage 2) the greater the ultimate faith. Many of the greatest heroes of faith (St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis for example) had great struggles in Stage 2.
God is NOT a big purple dinosaur. Barney does not exist in the truest sense of the word. He is more of a symbol… a symbol of goodness and love. That’s fine and has its place. However, I believe that God is real and one job of ours is to help people to process from Stage 3 to Stage 1.
I believe that stage 2 is not a healthy place to dwell, but is a healthy place to work through. We should not be too quick to get people to jump immediately to Stage 1 faith. There is value in the struggle.