Monday, April 18, 2016

Thoughts on "Raising Children Without Fear"

Roughly 6 months ago I read an essay by Cindy Brandt (who blogs at entitled “Raising Children Without Fear”.  Cindy is a gifted and honest writer, and both the particulars and overall substance of the post continued to swirl around in my mind in subsequent months.  I'm “responding” to her thoughts not because I disagree but because, in large, I heartily agree.  In some ways my story is like hers.  I also believe that, sadly, these sorts of experiences are the natural result of the prevailing theological systems.  Cindy has verbalized the experience of many.

Cindy, of course, didn’t intend nor could have possibly been expected to cover all the ground that I ended up covering in my response below.  In some ways, I’m trying to tease out what I heard her saying.  But in other ways I’m taking things beyond what I perceived as her original intent.  Still, the issue of “Raising Children Without Fear” is obviously much bigger than could be done in her brief post, and it’s one that deserves ongoing thought out of love for our children.  Many parents - parents that have had similar experiences to me and Cindy - HAVE to be thinking about this sort of thing.  It’s in that spirit - both appreciation for Cindy’s words and a posture of ongoing conversation - that I offer the following thoughts.


Unlike the author, I wasn’t a morbidly fearful child. Well, not in terms of my biological “childhood” anyway.

The Fear didn’t come until later.

I was raised in a church-going family. We attended regularly and although we bounced around a bit from church to church, the variety that we attended were always conservative and evangelical.  Certainly not every evangelical church is “fundamentalist”, but I can now look back and recognize them as basically being just that (in terms of theology), just a lot jazzier and more “relevant”. I didn't know this at the time though because honestly, I didn't pay much attention in church growing up. I had no conception of theological variety or distinction. Church just was what it was. I was born into the right religion (and even the right “tradition” within that religion) and had the right Holy Book, I supposed, and that was enough.

The things of faith became largely irrelevant to me in my late teens, but a series of events, realizations, humilities, and a “natural” process of maturation brought me back to church after college.  Back once again to the (basically fundamentalist) evangelical Christianity of my youth, though I still lacked the theological nuance to identify it as such.  And I soaked it up.  Like a child.  I got involved.  I read, and read, and read some more.  I read ferociously (and I still do).

Now because I didn't pay all that much attention, I grew up largely immune to the culture and tactics of fear that subtly (and at times not so subtly) pervaded things.

But the more I read, the more that I truly paid attention, and the more I put the theological pieces together, I began to see a sinister but subtle driving force within the cultural ethos.  It was hiding beneath the veneer of love, altar calls, the variety of consumer-oriented ministries with fancy action-verb names, and upbeat modern rock music.  It seemed to drive the form and function of what I saw (I mean, why altar calls?).

It was Fear.

When I say that this Fear was “hiding” it’s not to say that everything was just a big deceptive lie.  Not at all.  I have great friends from those early years of church (though I sometimes wonder what they’d think if they REALLY knew me).  It’s just to say that the particular evangelical church of my early years of faith had particular ways of formulating it’s Christian faith that, I believe, had a lot to do with fear.  It’s to say that much of what was done in our group was firmly established on a foundation of fear and that many things only made sense in the context of that foundation, but that this fact seemed to be invisible to most people.  It was either so taboo as to go unspoken or was so assumed as to go largely unrecognized.

I could exemplify this in a thousand ways; in the well-intentioned lament by a “young adult leader”  - “I wonder how many of these people aren’t going to heaven?” – for example, a perfectly natural manifestation of the theological pillars that subtly supported the existence and self understanding of the tribe.  Occasionally these pillars would emerge long enough to soberly remind us of the tragic and frightful nature of the world in which we lived.  I recall a few awkward silences - moments where we were unable to ignore the incredible weight on our adult shoulders.

Tom Talbott describes the phenomenon well in The Inescapable Live of God: “First evoke a terrible fear; then offer a means of escape.”

That was the pattern.

Now to be clear, I don’t mean a sort of general existential fear that plagues all humanity in all times and places.  I mean Christian eschatological fear in particular - “life in the ages to come”.  No, I mean Hell as in that permanent place or state of being after death.  Lake of fire.  Outer darkness.  Dante’s Inferno.  “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”  Not heaven as “the kingdom of God come now” or hell as a “hell on earth”.  Those formulations ARE an important part of the conversation, but they don’t eliminate the question of eschatological destiny all together.  It’s not either/or.

Now I said a few paragraphs above that “it didn’t take long for me to see beneath the veneer”.  But it wasn’t exactly easy or obvious either.

Never did I attend a church that directly used Jonathan Edwards angry fundamentalist “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” type language.  Never did I attend a church in which a sermon like Mark Driscoll’s “God hates you” was preached.

No.  Hell wasn’t spoken of with glee or satisfaction.  It was spoken of regretfully.  Tragically.  An inconvenient truth so to speak.  For the most part, the same language that Cindy uses was employed:

“God loves you without condition. God will never leave your side. God delights in you. God is like the mother hen gathering chicks. God is like the forgiving father welcoming his prodigal son. God is like a warm fire on a cold night, bringing you comfort. God cares beyond what you can imagine. God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.”

Only after saying all that do you drop the hammer of hell.

Wait a second.  But there are no “conditions”?  God will “never” leave my side?  Really?

Such a curious thing.


Personally, I’d rather go with Edwards and the rest and simply admit that God is only partially loving - that perhaps His love comes with a time deadline or is in competition with His other attributes, subservient to “holiness” and “justice” perhaps - before doing such violence to the language of divine love.  In fact, I think most people do just that.  Whether conservative or progressive, whether protestant, orthodox, or catholic, whether hell is retribution, separation, or “the doors locked on the inside”, whether young or old….. the fruit of our eschatological imagination, if we stop and ponder it with any seriousness, often leaves us wondering what skeletons may be hiding in God’s closet.  Not just because God is a mystery.  Indeed I don’t think that we can ever fully know that which is Infinite.  No, the fear of those skeletons is directly related to eschatology, and it affects how we live now.

In other cases we try to minimize eschatology, dismissing it as an unknown.  I get that because I think that people who come up with End Times timelines or strict and literal afterlife play by plays are nuts.  But in saying nothing we create a “he who must not be named”.  My current church sometimes refers to hell in passing as “the bad place”.  So now I get the feeling that the best that we can do is to not talk about it.  But even then it follows you around like your own shadow.

An agnosticism about all things eschatological seems to betray that, for all of the language of unconditional love, there might just be something more fundamental that might trump that love in the end.  What isn’t said speaks volumes.

Sure there is more to Christianity.  Lots more.  But the end of a story has a way of defining the beginning, doesn’t it?  Eschatology matters, as much for how we conceive of our past and present as how we conceive of our future.

As David Bentley Hart says:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness.”

Are there ways in which eschatology might actually have something positive to contribute to the present?


So even though my path isn’t the same as Cindy’s, I understand her sentiments. I too know this fear. I know her pain.  I know the struggle to unlearn the toxic and punitive image of God.

But the bottom line is this.  In our “traditional” models of hell, the same Jesus that saves children from hell saves “grown-ups” from hell.

I put “grown-ups” in parentheses because my 21 year old college graduate self was hardly one that had unequivocally moved beyond whatever boundaries constitute “childhood”, particularly in the realm of faith. To be honest, I’m not sure that my 35 year old self has.  Regardless of my own age or maturity level, the early years of my faith were ones in which a religious identity and understanding was shaped within a culture of fear.  It actually needed that Fear to make sense of itself.  It was the same Fear that Cindy speaks of, just implanted later.  I became (and remain, in my more difficult days) a morbidly fearful adult.  Christianity did this to me.

For all of my rage and doubt and failure, I have continued to seek Jesus (and perhaps God has found me in the midst of all of this).  Like Cindy, I want to “raise my child(ren) without fear”.  It was the birth of my daughter, in fact, that finally and consciously forced me onto the painful and purgative road of a long overdue faith crisis and deconstruction, a road that I had been on unwillingly for quite some time and which seemed to nearly destroy me.  It was lonely.  As the father to a beautiful and almost 3 year old little girl, I don’t want her to know the paralyzing fear with which I’m all too acquainted.

It’s not that I simply want to wait until the time at which I can reveal an age appropriate “hard truth”, though it seems obvious that timing is important as a function of loving a child.  But I’m also not a fan of “ignorance is bliss”.  There seems to be something troubling beneath such an idea, something that could potentially destroy faith.  It’s the idea that truth is to be feared, that the deepest truth of existence is that it’s scary.  A child may grow to think that “those adults” were lying to her.  A child may realize that their childhood faith was…well…childish.  Not just childish, but flat out wrong.

The point is that I don’t want her to interpret reality, to interpret her very existence, through that lens of fear at all.

But what would that require?  Is that even desirable?  Or is the only REAL possibility to soften the language of hell and to hope that the initial steps towards Jesus as being framed in love rather than to escape hell are sufficient to outweigh that ultimate existential fear that may come from introducing hell later?


So for all my rambling, how would I sum up what I’m really trying to say in response to Cindy’s post?

I’m saying that the issue of hell is indifferent to age.  You’re never too old to be afraid.  You’re never to old to feel the burden of fear for someone’s eternal destiny.

I’m saying that the issue of hell, in the end, won’t be resolved by merely changing the initial motivations for faith.  It’s not an issue of first impressions - a hope that by working in hell into the story a little bit later that it won’t create as much baggage.  But it will.  And honestly, it should.  If it doesn’t, then we simply haven’t considered what is really being said.  It leads to things like the Age of Accountability, which I've written about here and here.

I’m saying that we must question what we take as axiomatic when talking about God.  I’m not saying that words “judgment” and “justice” need to be disappear.  I AM saying that if we’re serious about taking the language of “unconditional love” and that “God will never leave you” as axiomatic, that we can’t leave eschatology outside of that.

I’m not saying that a degree of reverent agnosticism towards the afterlife isn’t right.  It’s without question true that “the afterlife remains an unknown mystery”.  But if we can say nothing of eschatological destiny, should we then say nothing of “unconditional love”?  If the best that we can do is an agnosticism about human destiny within God’s universe (which at times seems more like an unwillingness to own up to the ends that necessarily emerge from held beliefs rather than a genuine agnosticism), I contend that we’re also remaining agnostic about the extent to which God is REALLY loving.

I’m saying that what we say about eschatology is just as important as what we don’t say.  Both will have a huge impact on the way that our children conceive of the Christian message and the trinitarian God revealed in Jesus, the nature of the universe that this God created - whether hostile or benevolent -  and their place in it.

Kyrie eleison.

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