(Feature article published in Christian Courier, Oct. 8, 2011)
In my church we often pray for those “who have strayed from the fold.” There’s an old-fashioned restraint to those words, a politeness that veils the pain of having family members leave the faith. Our children and grandchildren have slipped away to live a different life than the churchly one we love. Sometimes it’s tempting to rationalize that they still “love Christ, but don’t love his church” as author Ann Rice proclaimed about her own public stepping away. But I can’t engage in even that kind of comforting equivocation. One of my children is a committed Christian, while the two others, influenced by Dawkins and Hitchens, call themselves atheists.
Seeing my children blatantly reject my faith produces a devious kind of suffering, mostly kept under wraps. Once, in my online discussion group, a new member introduced himself by sharing that his children and their spouses and all his grandchildren follow the Lord. I was stung. No, lacerated. When others share that kind of blessing, it’s a boast blaring in my ears. It wasn’t meant that way. How could he know that I’m an open oozing sore on this topic? After faithful church attendance and support for Christian school at all three levels, devotions at meals and at bedtime, and as long a list as anyone can produce of spiritual habits and resources consistently implemented to encourage faith in my offspring, I counted on the Lord to bless my due diligence. I certainly didn’t expect atheism.
It’s a debilitating kind of pain that doesn’t resolve, the guilty kind that comes with questions of responsibility and perennial what-ifs hovering in the background each day and bloating as the years spin on. It is, after all, the most seductive thing in the world to imagine that we can mould our children, that we can input some spiritual data and print out a carbon-copy Christian mini-me. A careless reading of Scripture even seems to guarantee it: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and in the end he will not depart from it.” But that’s a proverb, not a money-back warranty. We persistently misconstrue our blessings as personal achievements because it happens just often enough that if we add a and b, we get c. Children raised in the fold, mostly stay in the fold. But life isn’t math, we’re not in control, and the Lord is in the heavens doing as he pleases (Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135: 6). How can we reconcile the fact that our Heavenly Father, who holds our lives in his hands, permits our precious covenant children, brought to the font and raised before his face, to walk away from that inheritance?
And why do our children choose to turn their backs on the church? Why have mine chosen to become atheists, of all things? You can’t begin to guess the nights I’ve spent awake tearing apart my life, analyzing where I went wrong, trying to understand why they reject the faith that is my very life-blood, so I can fix it, so I can change it. It’s wearying, and, of course, I can’t.
But, over time, I’ve arrived at some tentative conclusions.
1. The choice for atheism is not exclusively a rejection of the Christian faith, though it’s frequently portrayed as such, but a recoiling from all faith. It rejects the fanaticism of Islam and the rigidity of Orthodox Judaism as well. Given our increasingly polarized globe, it’s not surprising that atheism is experiencing resurgence. New York Times editor, David Brooks, in “If It Feels Right…” (Sept. 12, 2011), describes the most recent research conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about moral virtue and American youth. Smith’s book, Lost in Transitions, concludes: “The default position, which most [respondents] came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’” Brooks writes, “Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.” I wonder if atheism legitimizes this individualism and gives it structure, a coat hook upon which to throw one’s hat.
You might protest, as I have done, “But surely our covenant children, raised in a community with a particularly clear moral paradigm, know better than their average North American peers! Perhaps we woefully underestimate the influence of culture on our children. Psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from late Teens through the Twenties, argues that our century will see a new category of life-stage emerge, similar to what happened with the arrival of the “teenager” in the previous one. Robin Marantz Henig, in her New York Times article, Documenting the Life of 20-Somethings (August 18, 2010), reveals the statistical facts upon which Arnett’s theory is based: “The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.” Every one of these descriptors applies to both my children who have declared themselves atheists.
2. I think the science/religion controversy is a pivotal point of angst. In New Atheist literature, science is revered and Christianity is mocked for its insistence on a literal six-day creation in the face of the overwhelming acceptance of evolution by the majority of respected scientists of our day. For my own children, the evolution versus Genesis debate has been a significant issue. The critical discussions we are now having about how to interpret Genesis in a way that serves both theological and scientific truth have come too late for many of our twenty-somethings. They are no longer listening.
3. We haven’t created a safe place for doubt. The triangle of church, home and school can be claustrophobic. I was complicit in creating confining boundaries for my own kids, too. I was so afraid that they would follow my own youthful rebellious flight from church that I sought doubly hard to impress upon them the “rightness” of my faith perspective. J. D. Kirk, a New Testament professor at Fuller Seminary, writes in his blog about Drew Dyck’s The Leavers, a book which explores why young people are leaving the church in droves. Kirk writes, “But the point that interested me most was when he probed the reasons given for folks leaving: ‘Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking insolent questions. Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.” When Kirk tweeted, in response to Dyck’s book, “Apologetics is bad for my soul. I’d rather have no answer to my doubts than a bad one,” it hit a nerve and went viral.
4. Lastly, I think that the church doesn’t always do a good job of being church. Shawn Graves posted a piece in Christianity Today (3/28/2011) called “Why There Are Still Atheists: The heavens aren’t the only proclaimers (and are sometimes silent).” In a plea for humility as we interact with our atheist neighbours, he concludes: “We ought to confess that our religious proclamations haven’t been as clear and compelling as the heavens and the skies in proclaiming ‘the glory of God and the work of his hands,’ that our lives haven’t ‘made it plain’ that God exists.” I want to convey to my non-believing children a nuanced understanding – that the Body of Christ is full of sinners because perfect people don’t need a Saviour, and a place where sanctification grows, but sometimes falteringly. I want to explain that it takes an investment of time and loyalty to see and love the church as a broken – but still priceless – vessel. But maybe such a vision can only be nurtured from within, and they are no longer in the building.
Lingering questions and beyond
In the case of my children’s atheist stance, no doubt their own personalities and familial factors play a role, too. I have their permission to write about this, but it’s possible they would offer a completely different spin. Our evolution into a family with opposing world and life views has had its raw and wounding moments. We’ve stepped back from dialogue, preferring, for now, not to tackle the “provocative” subjects. I pray for them; they temper their opinions around me. Perhaps someday there will be space for genuine dialogue. For now, I try to let my life speak for itself in the practice of my faith and in my unwavering love for them. And I have one child who is a professing Christian, so, in the end, I have no answers that satisfy. I’m left with lingering questions. Why only one believing child? Why not all?
Only when I surrender to God the design of my life am I able to achieve equilibrium. When I recognize that it’s neither my conscientious parenting that wins my child for Christ, nor my failures that cause my child to walk away from Christ, I stumble gratefully into Gilead. Not my obedience or lack of it, but God’s sovereignty. I must relinquish control to the One who answers out of the storm (Job 38:1). I have to lay my life on the altar and confess: Lord, this is not what I expected or what I worked for. Forgive my prideful thinking that I could make it happen. Forgive my self-centeredness in always worrying about my own family, my constant whining to have things my own way. Help me to look around and notice that others have pain too. All kinds of it. Help me to minister to their pain.
And more: Lord, I really, really want the blessing of having all my children be faithful Christians. Yet you have decided that this isn’t my blessing to have right now. Maybe never. Help me submit to your will in all things, even in this. You have given me other blessings. Help me to use those blessings to be Christ to all I meet.
When I can pray this way, it’s possible to refrain from picking at my own scabs. It’s possible to love my children without nagging or manipulation. It’s possible to rejoice in the blessings of others. It’s possible to have and to be the peace of Christ.