I have been very busy at work of late, but this has been rambling around my head for a bit, and I finally have some time to commit it to paper.
Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative has recently been writing about religion and family structure, and how essential good family life is to an understanding of God. He quotes here from Mary Eberstadt’s How The West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, about the role of out-of-wedlock births and even small families has played in the increasing inability of westerners to comprehend the triune God:
The point is that out-of-wedlock births institutionalized on today’s scale work against the churches in a different way. Once again, at stake here are some fundamental issues of religious anthropology, or how people come to understand, believe, and practice religion in the first place — or not. And one thing that the experience of illegitimacy does is to pit a great many people’s actual experience of the world — say, of growing up with an absent or delinquent father — against the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition: to repeat, the notion that God can be understood as a benevolent, protecting male parent. How can that relationship between creature and creator be understood when the very word “father” may be associated more with negative than with positive characteristics?
Similarly, how can the story of the Holy Family be understood in a world where a family is increasingly said to be whatever anyone in possession of voluntary associations wants it to be? It was one thing, say, for children to understand the figure of the adoptive father Joseph at a time when most came from traditional homes, and Joseph was easily grasped as someone “like” one’s own father. But to ask children who do not have such protectors to understand what it is like to have one, and to encourage them to build their lives and souls around a concept that some will find elusive or even incredible is a very different conceptual challenge — and one that, to repeat, has not been faced by Christian leaders of the past, because it did not exist in the past on anything like today’s scale. Once again, the realities of today’s intentionally created and often fractured family life potentially impede grasping Christianity or finding it appealing, often in subtle and unexpected ways.
This piece, and a couple of posts on parenting and cell phones (I commented twice on this post) and the decline of parental solidarity describe to me one of the features of conservatism that I find my most troubling — the protection of our own, especially if one’s own are untainted (or be kept untainted and untouched) by impurity or undamaged by the sinfulness or wickedness of the world.
Eberstadt says here that it takes a natural family — a proper family — to fully understand both the Holy Family (Joseph assuming his responsibility despite Mary’s “unnatural” pregnancy, though it took divine intervention to prompt him, according to Matthew 1:18–25) and, I’m guessing, God as Father. This is the kind of natural theology I have come to expect from conservatives deeply interested in the right ordering of the world largely for its own sake. Our material order reflects a divine order, and our sinful attempts to re-order the world merely de-orders the world, sets us against our natures, and by doing so, furthers the distance between us and God.
(This assumes I understand the conservative position correctly.)
To be blunt, the longer I work with wounded, traumatized, and abandoned kids, the more I have become convinced that this conservative understanding is right — or at least is more right than it is wrong. I do think having a father, or some kind of very real father figure, helps grasp the love and role of God in our lives and in the world. As Christians who believe and confess an incarnation God, we cannot believe otherwise — to know self-giving, self-sacrificing human love is to know something of the love of God.
And, sadly, to not know that love is to not know something of the love of God as well.
Last year, a friend gave Jennifer and me a reprinted copy of a charming little Catholic children’s book from the 1950s, Manners in God’s House: First Prayers and First Missal. The language is simple (“Heaven is God’s home. God wants us to be with Him in heaven some day. Nobody cries there because everybody is happy. Jesus has a place for us in heaven. If we love Him, we will go there and be happy too.”), the pictures are wholesome (even of dead Jesus), and Mary is sweet and pure and blonde. It describes a gentle but firm hierarchy which encourages and rewards obedience, in which there is a place for everyone, everyone is in their place, and all are honored being good children of God. Jennifer was especially fond of this little book, and even cried, because this was the world she wanted to grow up in. This is the world as she wished it worked. I’m a little more dubious, if only because the book’s relentless focus on our happiness as something that is God’s top priority (behaving properly in church will let you take “His happiness with you. He will help you be happier than ever.”) has more than the whiff of Moral Therapeutic Deism to it. (I also object to the rules for behavior in church, which ignore almost entirely why we gather, or who we gather to meet — Jesus — and make keeping the church beautiful as a primary focus, and helping the poor a kind-of accident we do with whatever is leftover.)
I have come to believe in a functional hierarchy, in a well-ordered world in which all are valued and in which there is a place — a useful, important, protected, and respected place — for everyone.
But there’s the rub for me. One of the great gifts of the 20th century has been the tearing down of patriarchy and hierarchy for its utter failure to even get close to its ideals. Patriarchy and hierarchy exist not just as natural consequences of human beings living together, they are not just “good order,” but they exist for a purpose — to protect and nurture the weak, to foster the well-being of children, and to wisely rule our collective and communal affairs. And what the 20th century showed is that far too much patriarchy and hierarchy is self-serving, abusive, self-righteous, and utterly uninterested in the well-being of those who are not deemed properly virtuous, or don’t belong, or whose lives are not worth being nurtured, fostered, or protected.
What if your father is brutal and indifferent? What if your father rapes you repeatedly? What if your father has no kind words for you? What if your father ups and leaves and you one day and you never see him again? These are real experiences too, and what is the child who lives with and through these to make of God as Father?
Take Dreher’s post on cell phones. Nowhere in that discussion, that I could see, was there any understanding that there might be young people whose lives were something other than good, who belonged to families where something other than the ideal would reign (save for my two comments). It was all about protecting our kids — good kids — from evil. There was no possibility or prospect of evangelization, of adoption, of protecting others, of where technology might make any of that possible. And it is because of this kind of thing that I am still deeply suspicious of social and cultural conservatism — it seems to demand a base virtue that becomes an identity, and no one who has fallen can be redeemed or is redeemable in their fallen state. No kids with broken lives, in violent families, in shattered communities, need apply to be protected — because their lives simply aren’t worth protecting. They’ve already fallen by the wayside. There’s no point in trying to pick them up.
Conservatives seem intent upon defending, protecting, and restoring a hierarchy which abuses, which discards, which serves itself rather than weak and vulnerable, and which determines worth, value, and status and allows those deemed without any of those things to be abused with impunity.
Sadly, I think this is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy too. It can protect, and defend, and nurture, and give of itself. I am trying to do that as a father figure to what has now become a volleyball team of teenagers who rely on me for strength, security, kindness, and empathy. As I have become a patriarch, I have come to believe in its good possibilities.
But I do so for kids who live in a very nearly wrecked world, in which hierarchy encourages, justifies, hides, and ignores abuse. In which those with power take, but do not give of themselves. Who command, and do not listen. Who break, and do not heal. This too is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy.
The progressive critique of hierarchy and patriarchy is to replace it with a full-fledged egalitarianism that demands no distinction between people. As a critique, it says something important about arbitrary power and position. But like most progressive and leftist critiques, it is an impossible foundation, it cannot built upon, because it ignores how people actually organize ourselves (or it demands so much coercive and even violent re-education to achieve anything that it is just as brutal as what it replaced). It will be difficult, as we go forward, to square the conservative ideal of patriarchy and hierarchy with what we know to be its all-to-frequent reality. But we will have to live in that tension. And we will have to make it work.
Something I think will help will be to remember obligations. We live in a rights-obsessed world. Everyone is aggrieved, and everyone has rights. Even the wealthy and powerful, who sometimes come off sounding like the most aggrieved and put-upon people in the world. We forget that with power and position come responsibility and obligation. The patriarch has a responsibility to protect and defend. The conservative seems to love when Paul writes in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that wives should obey husbands, children should obey parents, and slaves should obey masters, but almost always forgets that husbands should love and sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ sacrificed himself for the church, that fathers should not provoke their children to anger or cause them to be discouraged, and that masters should stop threatening their slaves and treat them justly and kindly.
These obligations matter, and they can be the ideal too. They will never be fully lived into, but they are worthy of aspiring to.
And we also have an obligation to the lost, to those whose lives have been thrown away. Jesus left the 99 to fine the one, lost and alone in a cruel and threatening wilderness. The early church created an ethic of life in part because early Christians saved and raised and cared for as their own newborns exposed on the garbage dumps of the Greco-Roman world. (So did slave traders, though for an entirely different purpose.) I’ve said this before and I will say this again — conservative American Christians have become so concerned with preserving the natural family they have completely forgotten that the church itself is a fictive family, made of broken bits and pieces scavenged from the world, and that we are all mothers and father and brothers and sisters in Christ. Kids who don’t come from stable, proper families may not know a father as a protector, but they still hunger for it. (There’s your human nature right there.) They can still meet that God if they can meet people who will care for them. I understand the desire to build a wall around all that is good and pure and wonderful, and to protect it from a world that seems intent on stripping us of our ability to connect with each other, to love and care for each other or even ourselves, in any meaningful way. But we will betray our calling, our history, ourselves, and our crucified and risen Lord, if the only people we care about are “our own.”