The “faith of our fathers” offers a nice American ideal, but it also has become one of the key reasons adults fail to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. Those are likely startling words to people of faith who love and admire their parents and families, so let me explain.
This is not a column urging anyone to hate their parents or families. This is not a column inciting familial rebellion. But this is an appeal for proper differentiation within families as a means of spiritual growth and discernment. Genuine faith must be personally owned and not merely handed down like an antique curio cabinet.
And yet more often than you might expect, pastors and teachers encounter a variety of ways in which congregants get stuck because they can’t see beyond their raising — for good or for ill. That’s not to imply that clergy are exempt from this diagnosis either; this seems to be part of the human condition.
Here are three ways the faith of our fathers and mothers may define our spiritual beliefs more than the faith we acquire as our own:
1. Acting out against parents or family. This is by far the most recognized form of the problem. In a stereotypical scenario, a child is raised in an ultra-conservative home by ultra-conservative parents and then as an adult reacts in an equal and opposite direction to escape their upbringing. Sadly, for some this leads to a complete loss of faith. For others, it means leaving behind Protestant evangelicalism for more progressive forms of Christianity. For others still, it may result in a departure from Christianity itself and an embrace of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or some other faith.
The polar opposite of this situation is a child reared in a family with no distinctive religious tradition yet the child grows up to crave some more formal structure to life and beliefs. Often such an adult will find comfort in faith expressions with either strict liturgy or strict doctrines.
If the environment in which you were raised was, in fact, too restrictive or too permissive, the solution might not be to run to the opposite extreme, which often turns out to be too restrictive in its own way. Trading one constraint for another may not help you move any more freely. Nor may it help you think independently.
2. Not being able to escape the biases of parents or family. “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” That old saw is a vast oversimplification that targets rural upbringing as though it always is Hicksville, which isn’t fair at all. But substitute any kind of upbringing for the word “country,” and the idea still works.
Think of those raised in homes or communities with strong racial biases and how hard it is to leave those biases behind even as a child becomes an adult in a multicultural environment. I’ve known people who have traveled the world and lived among all kinds of people but somehow retained the provincial views of their childhood. This is not merely a matter of needing to obtain more education or enlightenment. It is a matter of being changed — or not — by your life experiences.
If you find that you inherently share the views of your family of origin, ask yourself why you share those views. If, after examination, they are truly your own views, carry on. But if you find no basis for belief other than habit, it’s time to think for yourself.
3. Living in fear of being rejected by parents or family. While some adults easily abandon the beliefs of their parents or family and others cannot escape the beliefs of parents and family, others today find themselves paralyzed between two options: what they want to believe and what they know will be tolerable to parents or family.
Imagine a young adult who studies and comes to her own conclusion on any range of issues but knows she cannot express that new belief without creating tension in her family of origin. More often than not, the parental pressure will win out — at least for a time.
What’s wrong with this picture is the control the parents or family continue to exercise over adult children or siblings. Family relationships that demand forced uniformity of belief are not healthy.
Some families muddle through by knowing what topics are off limits for group discussion — politics, sexual orientation, religion, football — but others operate under the spoken or unspoken understanding that departure from the approved family view will have consequences. This is a shackle put in place by both the parent and the adult child, but it only takes one of them choosing to remove it.
Every time our pastor dedicates a child at church, he carries that baby around the sanctuary and asks us, the congregation, if we will do our part to raise this child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to teach him, to care for her, to support the family. And then as he prepares to hand the baby back to the parents, he always says to them: “This child does not belong to you. She belongs to God, who has entrusted her to you for a period of time.”
That same admonition applies as babies grow up to be adults.