Monday, March 25, 2013

When "The Faith" Won't Have Our Children

Normally, we expect our children both to do as they’re told and to think as we think—we parents, that is. But it doesn’t always work that way.

For example, Republican Senator Rob Portman, from Ohio, recently changed his mind about gay rights on account of his son. Portman has a strong record of voting against gay rights. But two years ago his son Will came out as gay. So this month Portman announced that he has changed his mind. He now favors same-sex marriage.

Similarly, in Toronto—well, until he was recently fired—another father in the same boat was Brian Burke, former GM of the Maple Leafs. Burke always played the gruff, dour, tough-talking macho role in his hockey career. But when his son Brendan came out as gay Burke immediately adopted a very public role in the fight against homophobia.

However, the spiritual and moral influence of children isn’t limited to the issue of gay rights. In my case, my children helped me change my mind about basic faith issues.

My two boys are crazy about social justice. They both work on behalf of the marginalized—refugees, those who have been attacked on account of xenophobia, victims of racism, and the poor. They have the idealism and energy of youth as they pursue political and social goals for the good of humanity.

But both have stopped going to church, too. At least, they don’t go very often! It isn’t that they’re against church or Christians. They have deep respect for many Christians. Both have been deeply influenced by their years in church and Christian ideals. But they see both sides of the faith coin—the idealism and the hypocrisy, the achievements and the failures. And so, overall, it doesn’t appear to them that you can count on the church, or on Christians, or on the Christian God to get the heavy social-justice lifting this world needs now, done.

Plus—this is my view, and my boys might differ with me on this—the whole Christian story lacks plausibility for them. Talk about God becoming human, immaculate conceptions, dying and rising, as well as insisting that you have to believe the right things about these stories—well, it doesn’t compute for them. Too much fairytale and not enough plausibility or coherence.

In my previous faith-community, my boys’ perspectives would have been seen as a reason for thinking that they might be out of favor with God and headed for some sort of eternal calamity. And their leaving the church would have been perceived as a shadow over my own work.

But I can’t agree with any of that—and much more—any more. Now, looking back, I see that my boys have helped me change my mind, too. They have given me a deeper and I think truer appreciation for the fairytale-like qualities of scripture, and for how Christians can’t agree about the meaning of much in scripture.

Most importantly, I love my boys and their dreams. This makes me wonder about God’s love. Surely, if God is a Father—or a divine Mother—God could not love my boys less than me! God is love, after all. And if God was going to make his love dependent on our getting ancient history, or interpretations of scripture, or doctrines right then God would surely have written a clearer explanation of that sort of stuff than what we find in the Bible.

Well, just for starters (and keeping in mind the eternal calamity that some Evangelicals are so concerned with) there is the matter of who is saved and why. Most Christians think people are saved by grace. But according to Matthew 25 the sheep and goats of the world are separated not on the basis of grace, or doctrine, or faith, but on the basis of works. Those who receive eternal rewards are those who feed the poor, give water to the thirsty, and entertain strangers. It is a passage that ought to make most Christians who have defined themselves as “saved,” and who sit in their comfortable pews week after week, squirm.

The long and short of it, though, is that whatever the theological particulars, my children’s perspectives on faith taught me much, even though I had the PhD. Their experience and questions, their searching and convictions, and their hypocrisy barometer all led me to revisit my own spiritual roots. And so I changed my mind. I left my old faith community and found a new one that better fit my new, evolving convictions.

And so I have learned that my love for my boys should not be directed just outwardly, at them. No, my love for my children also needs to be open to their insight and wisdom. Otherwise I might not ever change my mind or heart.


  1. It's quite a jump from not being able to count on Christians to not being able to count on the Christian God. The veteran and highly respected journalist Brian Stuart has traveled to many places of disaster in the world. But, he said on CBC, wherever and whenever I came to these places, thinking I was the first one to be there, the Christians were always ahead of me. Just thought I would mention that.

  2. John, this is really relevant to me right now. Just a couple of days ago I sat down to write a letter to my daughter that I haven't yet finished but I hope to soon. When she was a senior in high school, she sat my wife and I down to tell us that she couldn't pretend being a Christian any more. We of course went though some of the typical reactions. We are "public Christians" being missionaries with hundreds of people that know us in that way, so we got reactions from many other people. But what I wrote to my daughter was how much I admired and appreciated her for what she did and what she taught me. One of the biggest things was that I realized it wasn't such a bad thing. It fact, I realized that it was the best thing she could have done since before, she was living a lie. Another thing is that she is not a "project" for us to work on. Most others in her family treat her that way. But I love her, accept her, and appreciate her just like she is a really fabulous, talented, mature, interesting, and special young woman and I will never try, not even wish, that she would change. To approach her otherwise would be totally wrong. Now one other little issue here is how she helped me think about my own faith but that's for another session....

  3. Thanks, Steve, for your very apt and real reflections. I have certainly been there and done that with my kids, too. Both hard to accept (at one level) and freeing for both parents and kids. Good letter, too.


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