01/05/2011 10:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wonder, Imagination, and Faith: The Peter (Pan) Principle

The boy smushed, pulled and tugged at Robin Williams' face, searching with great earnest. Shoving folds of middle-aged flesh back at the man's temples, the boy caught a glimpse of what he was looking for in the unrecognizable visage.

"Oh, there you are, Peter!"

Watching Steven Spielberg's surprisingly enduring 1991 film "Hook" (with Williams as Peter Pan) the other night, the words of that little Lost Boy put a lump in my throat.

Surely we are to put away certain childish things when we get older. But if we lose all of who we were when we were children -- the wonder, unfettered imagination and ease of faith -- we lose sight of our essential selves.

If we dismiss the illogical and fantastic out of hand in deference to what we believe are more appropriate adult pursuits, we risk losing our ability to experience whimsy, which is sacred.

Even as I write these words, I hear Bill Maher's voice in my head. A few years back, when the acerbic comedian and I sat down for a conversation about faith, he compared religious ideas to the belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy.

"At a certain point, I just lost patience with the faithful and [with] pretending," Maher ranted, "pretending that this was something that was okay, to retain childish thought patterns into adulthood."

Next to Maher's card in my mental Rolodex is its opposite: Frederick Buechner's. The author and Christian apologist counters Maher's disavowal of faith with a passage from his (some would say appropriately titled) book Wishful Thinking: "If it seems a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child."

When I look in the mirror and am able to see past the image staring back at me, I see myself. The real me. And it's not the 40-year-old mother and writer with emerging crows feet. The person I see is a 17-year-old girl in a Joshua Tree tour t-shirt with no makeup on, wide eyes, rosy cheeks and her hair piled into a messy bun on top of her head. She practically trembles with anticipation of what is on the horizon -- a journey to a place she's never seen. A foreign land. The unexpected. Divine surprise.

One of my best friends says when she thinks of herself she's not a peri-menopausal mother of four surfing the waves of a hot flash. She's ten. A little people-pleaser, chocked full of optimism and curiosity. She's a blithe, silly-hearted spirit collecting wild flowers and savoring strawberry sandwiches in the summer sun.

In truth, I suppose, we are both. I am 17 and 40. She is 10 and 43. We are, each of us, all of the ages we've ever been. We don't shed our past selves and leave them by the side of the road as we speed away in our new personas, kicking up gravel while we spin rubber and careen toward the future.

I had faith when I was 10. I had faith when I was 17. I have faith at 40 and I hope still to have faith when I'm 80. Perhaps that makes folks like me spiritual Peter Pans -- "religulous" Lost Boys clinging to the magic of childhood, feasting at imaginary banquets and consorting with pixies.

But faith is supposed to be fantastic.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, my favorite contemporary mystic, puts it this way: "Faith is not something we can arrive at by a careful, step-by-step process. It is not something we can square with our intellect. Faith does not make sense, nor does it feel safe. It is what takes us further after the questions that can be answered logically have been exhausted. To have faith, we must let go. Faith is like swimming the backstroke, reaching above and behind is into an unknown we cannot see. Faith is like driving forward with only the rearview mirror as a guide."

Maybe God is as real or as imaginary as Tinkerbell.

Maybe sacred whimsy is best dismissed or ignored.

It's safer if it's not real.

But what if it's true?

How fantastic, impractical and wondrous if it is.

As in Peter Pan's world, maybe faith is a bit like flying. We all have the ability to fly. When we grow older, we forget that we can.

But if we believe, simply and, yes, childishly, flights -- of fancy and of faith -- are a very real possibility.