[My apologies, this one is long, philosophical, and sermonic.]
I am not here writing about my family, although I am extremely thankful for my family. Instead I am offering thanksgiving for God’s familial design for human life and fulfillment. I offer this thanksgiving in the face of an all out assault on the family. I am not just referring to the so-called “traditional” nuclear family of a husband, wife, and two or more children. I am referring to the long standing social order that recognizes marriage between a man and a woman as the foundational social unit and that this unit forms the center of other core relationships that are intergenerational and larger than blood-ties. I am not here trying to defend the modern Evangelical image of family; it is too Roman in origin and influenced too little by the Scriptures.
Neither am I just referring to the most recent attempts to redefine marriage to include homosexual partnerships. Challenges to the Western concept of family began long before this current skirmish. Perhaps the first modern battle was when agrarian society was replaced by urban/industrial society resulting in the nuclear family replacing the extended family as the primary social unit. It might be argued that in that battle young adult males were thrust into roles of authority for which they were ill-equipped. Certainly, the nuclear family was dislodged from a strong communal network. By the time the industrial age was full-blown fathers were leaving home to work and provide for their nuclear families; mothers were forced into the conflicted role of sub-monarch, ruler in father’s absence, servant in his presence. In the twentieth century three nineteenth century inventions liberated women: the phone gave them social interaction, the automobile gave them social mobility, and the typewriter gave them employment. World War II gave them opportunity to explore their full humanity outside the home. In short, the problem began when fathers left the home not later when mothers began to work outside of the home. [OK, I am aware the West has been patriarchal from ancient times.]
Another assault on the family has been the rise of a powerful youth culture fueled by the warehousing of children and adolescents in public schools where they developed mono-generational social systems contrary to the multi-generational (bi-generational) home. Modernization and urbanization has caused children and youth to have few resources to contribute to the family’s welfare while extending the timeframe in which they must remain at home. Families are not equipped to function well when adolescence is elongated and youth (especially males) are forced into a liminal state of already, but not yet, adulthood.
By the end of the twentieth century we had become a culture of narcissists, each one living for their own gratification. Sex has come to be seen as recreation rather than an expression of intimacy. Marriage is viewed as an obstacle to freedom and in the USA the majority of children are born to parents who are not married. We live in an age dominated by two extreme passions, personal happiness and national identity as if nothing in between the two extremes really matters. In this environment the survival of the family unit is in doubt and if it fails so will the human race. Yet, I am not without hope.
The family defines our existence and fuels our capacities. I am fully aware of the harm that can be done within families. As a pastor I see the residual effects of neglect and abuse. Even when the cycle of despair appears broken it has often only gone underground. Addictive and abusive personalities pass from generation to generation. Often persons delivered from drugs or alcohol will become workaholics who neglect their children or their children will substitute another addiction for the one they saw in their parents thinking they have broken the cycle. Those abused in childhood may grow up to be abusers but it is more likely in an effort to not be abusive they will over compensate and not provide the needed boundaries in their children’s lives. Never the less, it is the family that provides the genetic and psychological structure for our capacities, the building blocks for our potential. It is in the family that we first define our “place” and begin the process of discovering how big that place can be.
The family is the primary educational institution of the world. It is from the family we learn the most, and the most important, lessons in life. Everything we learn from outside of the family is merely a refinement, clarification or expansion of the spacial/relational realities first learned at home. Our early experiences with family are the seedbed for those universal values of justice, mercy, and love upon which all civilizations depend for order.
The family is the cornerstone of all human societies and the primary safety net for the needy and the hurting. I know families fight; more than once I have been called to mediate those fights (usually late at night). What we do not celebrate enough is the norm, families coming together to meet each other’s needs. Personal crises are seldom made public because the family has already acted to meet the need. The disabled, the infirmed, and the mentally ill are cared for most often by their families, and so it should be. I thank God I live in a country where there are programs to care for those whose families lack the resources or the integrity to care for their own. However, I often wonder if some of our social programs of care do not undermine the core fabric of civilization, the family.
Most significantly, I am thankful for the family because it is the foundational presentation of the image of God. It was not man in the person of Adam that was created in the image of God, it was man in totality, Adam and Eve. (“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” Genesis 1:27). Our triune God is a social being who eternally exists as three persons knowing each other. Our very ability to conceive of God is born in the relationships of the family, even in the most dis-functional of families. Specifically, our relationships with our fathers (or primary male figure) and mothers (or primary female figure) are instrumental in our ability to conceive of God and believe we can know Him. Certainly those relationships are marred by sin and create barriers to a true knowledge of God, but more importantly they create the inner desire to know a faithful, loving, powerful Creator who is our Heavenly Father. And they provoke us toward perfect knowledge of a perfect God. I thank God for families, without them the human race would degenerate into hopelessness and savagery. With them the quest for a better society and an eternal home will be renewed.
January 9, 2010