When my son (who is now 10) was about three and a half, we were having one of those conversations that consisted mostly of his questions and my answers. 'Where was I when…?' he would ask. Eventually, he got around to asking about something (I can't remember what) that happened well before he was born. 'You weren't born yet,' I said. 'Was I in your tummy?' he asked. 'No,' I replied–though I suppose technically he was half there, potentially, or something like that. But he wasn't really interested in the physiological details. 'Well,' he said, maybe a bit impatiently, 'where was I, then?'
Good question. I thought for a moment, and did a mental heresy check. What do you say about the pre-existence of souls? He's only three, but still… 'If you were anywhere,' I said, hoping he wouldn't press too hard about that particular question, 'you were with God.' I was thinking that the tough question was about the pre-existence of souls, and worried that I didn't have as good an answer as I would have liked to the possible follow-up question. I didn't. But it wasn't about the pre-existence of his soul or anyone else's.
'Who's God?' he asked.
Not the question I was expecting. And I was completely unprepared for it. In a split second, I thought, I teach theology. I ought to have a ready answer to this one, and it should be pretty good, too. I had no ready answer, no good answer; in fact, I had no answer that I could give to my three and a half year old. Fortunately, though, the Spirit not only intercedes but also inspires. Without any hesitation that might betray my total lack of preparedness for the question, I said, 'You know in Mass, when we say, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”?' as I made the sign of the cross. 'Yeah,' he said, in a way that communicated a certain suspicion about what that might have to do with where he was sometime prior to January 2003. 'Well,' I said, 'that's God.'
And he just nodded. I have never been more relieved not to be pressed in a q & a in my life. No 'so, are you saying that…?' or 'but what about…?' Somehow the answer I gave, which seemed to me to answer the question in a pretty abstract and not very kid-friendly way, worked for him. It worked for me, too. I was really glad I had given an answer that was Trinitarian and personal rather than functional. I didn't say that God was the one who did this or that; I didn't even say anything about Jesus. My son asked me 'Who is…?' and I gave him three names, and he was ok with that. He didn't ask how the three were God, or whether I was saying that there were really three gods, or anything like that.
Now, I imagine that this isn't what Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or any sort of catechetical materials suggests for this particular age group. Jesus probably plays better to this audience, and probably so does the God who created everything that is. Probably. But maybe that's just me. Obviously my son couldn't have explained how 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' named 'God', but then I find it challenging as a grown-up explaining it to other grown-ups. And my job title (for which I have the requisite qualification) is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics.
Maybe toddlers are more ready for the Trinity than I thought.