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  • Daniel G Opperwall

letting go and sharing the faith with our children

(Jan Steen, Prayer before the Meal, 1660)

People of religious faith, and those without it often frame their differences in terms of belief, as though what divides those who are religious and those who are not centres on what is really true. Yet, when we look at ourselves and others a little more deeply, the question of what is worth believing is seldom what truly motivates us with respect to religion. Instead, it is our experience with religious groups and institutions that is far and away most predictive when it comes to whether we will be religious ourselves. For many of us, faith in the form of structured religion has been a beacon in our lives—a haven from chaos, a source of comfort, a touch-point of stability, the grounds for deep community and friendship, the spiritual food with which we nourish ourselves. For many more, faith in the form of structured religion is a reminder of horrible abuses—a cesspool of corruption and deceit, a cover story for sexual and psychological abusers, a justification for violence and the seizure of power, an opportunity to manipulate and prey upon the weak, a mechanism of control used to benefit those who hold its reins.

Religion is both of these things in our world, of course. And there is really no arguing with people’s experiences most of the time. A militant atheist cannot for a moment expect a person for whom religion has provided ongoing succour in the face of madness to simply abandon it on the basis of some rational-seeming argument. But neither can we of religious faith expect it to be easy or even possible for those who have been sometimes horrifically abused at the hands of religion to simply set it all aside and join us just because we have persuaded them of the truth of our beliefs. Our often outraged battles over doctrines, facts, and ideas are very often a cover for much deeper motivations.

I am, of course, a person of faith, and of religious faith specifically. By this I mean I ascribe to an identifiable “organized” religion—namely, Orthodox Christianity. I am a member of a local parish church, follow the customs and teachings of my Tradition, and expect to obey my bishop nearly always, even when I think he is wrong about something. I am a person of faith, but not just of faith as I like to frame it—mine is the face of old fashioned religion.

Religion, for me, has been a place of peace amid a secular world that seems cold and insane, whose worldview strikes me as nihilistic, and whose core teaching to pursue what I want and accumulate more and more material possessions has left me empty if not outright mentally ill. For me, my religious faith provides me with structure and meaning and makes it possible to survive in that world of madness. The people whose lives have seemed most joy-filled and worth living to me have almost universally been people of deep faith—usually Christian faith, and very often Orthodox specifically. When I think of my Church I do not think first of the corruption, abuse, phariseeism and ethnic hatred that form so much a part of Orthodoxy in the real world. I think first of the holiness, the joy and the presence of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ that stand as its ideals.

My experience is not universal. And as I grow older I find myself more and more patient with those for whom even my beloved Orthodox Church represents mostly abuse and hatred. They are not wrong—not entirely at least. But I would like my children to experience the Church as I have. I do not fear for their souls, necessarily, should they walk away. But religious faith has been a beacon in my life, and I would wish the same for them.

For this reason I have been reflecting lately on how we share such religious faith with our children—what does and does not seem to help when sharing the light of faith with others, especially the young. One thing stands out to me that is especially destructive for people’s long-term religious faith. In my experience, what seems to unite nearly all people who walk away from religion is that they have experienced it as a locus of controlling behaviours, both big and small. Sometimes this manifests in extreme experiences like growing up in a bona fide cult or being severely abused by a faith leader. More often it manifests in smaller ways like the classic experience of “Catholic guilt” or of worrying about whether one’s loved-ones will make it into heaven since they don’t appear to believe the right things. Whether the control is over one’s mind, one’s body, or both, bad religion centres again and again on people communicating to children (and adults) that if they do not do, say, and think just the right things the consequences will be dire, and that only one group or even one person really holds the key that can help them avoid eternal catastrophe. Therefore, the logic goes, that group or person must be obeyed no matter the harm to oneself—in short, we must allow ourselves to be controlled to be saved.

Many people push through these experiences of control to maintain their faith in God, especially if they are relatively mild experiences, but many are hurt too badly to do so and drift or even run away from religion completely. If it is my hope that my children maintain their faith, then I must protect them as much as I can from the damage of controlling behaviours. That is well enough, and perhaps easy for us as parents to see. But there is a catch—a big one—in noticing this. The fact is that no person is more likely to try and control my children’s spiritual lives than I myself am. Let us face the facts squarely: if my children are God’s lambs, then the most dangerous potential wolf in the nearby woods is their own father—me.

I am not an abusive man, and do not have an especially controlling personality. I am, in fact, a very typical and average parent in most every way. Why, then, am I the biggest risk to my children’s spiritual safety? Precisely because of my love for our faith and our Church. We, as Christian parents, desperately want to ensure that our children share the same depth of faith that we do. We have seen something profoundly good—profoundly important—and we are terrified, if we are honest with ourselves, that our children will not see that something and will suffer as a consequence. After all, we have watched so many other children and adults walk away. What if our children do the same? We are afraid, and for good reason, and so we easily fall into the temptation that faces every parent: the temptation of gripping too tight and trying to ensure the right outcome for our children. We grasp at control because uncertainty is too much for us. But in so doing, we begin to feed our children a deadly spiritual poison. Maybe only a little at first, but likely more over time. And every drop is a drop too many.

Yet the goal of sharing the faith with our children is a good one. Perhaps the most important of them all. We would be neglectful to the point of cruelty should we simply wave away the responsibility to share our Tradition with our children on the grounds that we do not want to control them. What, then, can we do for them?

I certainly do not have a complete answer. My children are still young, and all of them may well walk away from Orthodox faith before all is said and done. The words of a man like me must be taken with a large grain of salt. But I do think that true Christian parenting must begin with the courage to accept that we cannot control how things will turn out with our kids when it comes to religion (or anything). And therefore, above all, true Christian parenting must be centred on the modelling of faith life and the genuine sharing of light and joy.

This is obviously not to say that we do not make decisions for our children. My children are young, meaning they have limited choices in life about faith and everything else. When we go to church as a family, they come too. When we fast during lent, they eat the lenten food that my wife and I prepare for them. When it is time to pray, they must pray with us. We have been bringing them to communion since long before they could even speak, and we continue to shepherd them forward each Sunday. As they age, they will make more decisions for themselves, but it will still be a number of years before they are truly free to simply do whatever they like when it comes to our religion.

Making choices for our children, however, can be conducted in a spirit of patience and the sharing of joy, or in a spirit of control. And while there may be little or nothing on the outward surface that shows us which is which, the place from which we are coming is never unclear to them—the distinction shows itself in ways that are often too subtle to even articulate. The look on our faces of joy rather than anger, the sense of patience and invitation, our mood and demeanour when it is time to go to church or pray—these things communicate volumes to children as they begin to construct their experience of religious faith, on which they will rest their own long-term decisions about whether to keep religion a part of their lives, or leave it behind. These things speak to them that we love them regardless of their decisions, that they are free creatures in God’s eyes, and that while we are responsible for them for this time in their lives we are not here to control what they do, but to teach them the movements and patterns that have brought us to something beautiful, so that they can have recourse to these same patterns as they grow into adults.

Your children might walk away from the Church. They might even do so angrily. They might call you a bigot and a liar for maintaining your beliefs. They might tell their friends and their therapists how awful it was to grow up with you and your accursed religion. They might do this no matter what you do. You cannot control the outcome. And that, in the end, is the essential point. When we share our faith with our children we are doing just that. Sharing with them something beautiful, something that has given us life and hope and joy. A gift. And even if they throw it right back into our faces, we must remain steadfast in knowing what we are doing. We are parenting in faith, and not control—steady and sure in what we believe, and absolutely committed to helping our children see those same truths themselves, but not by resorting to the poison of control that is, ironically, perhaps the greatest barrier we can place between them and our Saviour in the long run.

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