Friday, February 19, 2010

Schleiermacher on Parenting

Today I read about Friedrich Schleiermacher's sermons on parenting, and it hits a bunch of the hot buttons for me. I am crushed by the weight of what he says here, and buoyed only by the grace held out within. With a frightening honesty about the perils involved, Schleiermacher probes beyond platitudes and paints a picture the parenting as it can only be by the grace and giving love of Christ. What follows is Barth's summary of Schleiermacher's three 19th century sermons on the theme, from The Theology of Schleiermacher (126-7):

Bringing Up Children. This is not merely the most important business of Christian parents. All members of the Christian church should lay it upon their hearts. The younger generation as a whole is brought up by the elder generation as a whole.

There are those who think they can achieve everything by educating children and there are others who expect nothing from it. Both must be told that in relation to children we must pay heed to the will of God and do it....

It is bad enough already that the fatal inclinations of the parents that slumber in the children are aroused by living with the parents and by their example, that older sin gives rise to younger, and that often new and individual sins will arise in children through opposition and antithesis to those of parents. All this is regrettable and humiliating....

Combating the faults of children demands that they come to us for healing, and that in their respectful trust we should find an ally in place of the enemy. What contact can we make with them if they are only bitter and hostile? This enemy, mistrust, must be starved out by the withholding of nourishment, by inexhaustible patience, by full self-control, by the purest self-denial....

We certainly do not get through to our children by force and we usually emerge resigned and defeated, leaving the children to their own devices and to God's instruction. Yet if only we see to it that they do not become withdrawn, the situation may easily be remedied. If that disaster befalls, all is ruined and lost....

Where can we find the needed forgetfulness of the world, where can we meet the original placid form of life, if not in the carefree and eager youngsters who, when we return home, see in us only our joy at being there and feel only that they have missed us. Happy are we if this is our daily experience!

But woe to us if through our egotistic indifference or capriciousness, through the coldness or unevenness that we bring with us from outside, our children come to share our worldly cares and concerns, meeting us anxiously, hiding all kinds of things from us out of regard for our moods, so that we are responsible for continuing the unworthy features of the wider spheres of life in our own homes!

How can we believe in something perfect beyond the imperfections of society unless we can already see something of it, and where and how can we see it except in our children? We can see in them not only our own failings but also something of a hopeful future: "that the sons will be better, and because better, better off, than their fathers."...

We ... should be open to what is in our children. We should be able to see into the depths of their minds and perceive all the folds of their hearts. If through bitterness they become withdrawn in relation to us, then they will be closed to us and we shall be deprived of this joy.

For the children's sake, therefore, and for our own too, sacrificial love above all.

If sometimes our conduct might cause temporary bitterness in our children, there is divine forgiveness. God has equipped the human soul with the gift of forgetfulness on the one side and discernment on the other. Young people easily rise above details and learn to distinguish between transitory movements and the fixed direction or dominant orientation of our lives.

If only the totality of our lives and the innermost core of our hearts might be pure before God and our children!”

If only, indeed. God help us. Kyrie eleison.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Sacrificial love. That's what keeps me uninterested in parenting.

Barth said,
"God has equipped the human soul with the gift of forgetfulness on the one side and discernment on the other."

Let me be nitpicky and say, Not all human souls are so well-equipped.

I like it a lot in 'The Life Aquatic' when Steve Zissou explains to his son why he never tried to contact him. "Because I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one."


A friend of mine recently half-seriously proposed a future where children are raised in large groups and our current idea of the conventional family (parent, parent, child) recedes. A future where children are free from the burdens of Family and grow up instead in big communes or something.

It's an outrageously problematic proposition. The opportunities for abuse are enormous. Much like current, conventional families. And of course there's a lot to be said for the idea, if it were executed well.

Fact is, you can't win. You can't lose. On some level, no one has any control. Despite parents' best or worst intentions, their kids grow up and do well or do horribly.

Let the platitudes reign. I have no idea. But those are my two cents.

Barth sounds like he might've been a pretty good father, but he makes parenting sound like a really lousy time. So much work and concentration.

Jon Coutts said...

I don't know if souls are as forgetful or discerning as all that either. But I think what Schleiermacher was saying was that there is some measure of respite for parents whose "dominant orientation" and "fixed direction" toward their kids is a good one, because kids tend to be able to know that, and forget the mistakes, if its the case. I'm not so sure parents can or should rely on that, but it is of some comfort.

I mean, when you have a brutal day with the kids, and everyone is at each other all day, and you go to bed hating yourself---and then the next morning they've forgotten about it and you are back to square one---well, that's a relief, and a great thing about kids, actually. If you don't give them too much cause for bitterness, they tend not to be.

But even then, you gotta expect to be saying sorry to your kids, if not today, then one day, or else you are either not taking it seriously enough, are too proud, or are oblivious to your own shortfalls. I suppose I shouldn't assume I know what all parents should or should not expect, but that's what I think. I can't speak for everyone, but I'm confident that parenting is the hardest thing I will ever do.

Do I need to follow that up by saying what a joy it is too? As if I'm expressing some kind of lack of absolute adoration for my kids by admitting it is hard to parent them? Certainly my readers can understand what I'm saying without need for that caveat. Nonetheless, the reason I don't talk about parenting more here is because I don't want my kids to be able to come on the internet one day and see all sorts of stuff about them. Nor do I think that just because they are kids we should all think we can write about them all the time behind their backs. It should go without saying that my kids are not the problem. But I'll write it anyway. Its the parent not being worthy of the child, that's the problem.

I must say I do have a reservation about parenting blogs and books and such, though. How do you avoid dragging your kids through it, when you write about raising them? Yet you can't keep quiet. It is something you need to talk about. By and large I don't think the internet is the place to do it, unless I suppose you can have anonymity. Ideally, this is where "it takes a village to raise a child" ought to come in. You have to talk with people close to you, who actually know and love your kids with you, and who will even take responsibility to defend your own kid's dignity even while helping you talk through stuff as a parent. I know of lots of "family churches", but if they are selling a certain image of family that you have to portray when you walk in the doors, then they are probably more of a "we'll babysit your kids" church. No, a family community would be a place where parents could help each other authentically love their kids better. But not just that. Parents need to have non-parents in their life too. Grandparents, yes, but I mean single people, married people without kids. I am so thankful that my wife and I have had many non-parents take direct and loving interest in us and our kids. I don't know what it is, but there is something VERY VERY wonderful and healthy about that.

But I digress. Here I borrowed from Schleiermacher (from Barth) so I wouldn't HAVE to say any of this myself. So much for that.