A retired friend of mine who now considers himself an agnostic has been struggling for some time to navigate his relationship with his children and grandchildren, all of whom are still religious themselves. In particular he’s been working through his differences with his daughter, now a thoroughgoing Calvinist, which precipitated a heated interchange over the phone a couple of weeks ago.
In that conversation, my friend expressed frustration over the negative messages he knows his grandchildren are hearing about their own moral natures, at one point finally blurting out that he doesn’t want them being told they are “worthless pieces of trash.” The silence on the other end of the phone was deafening.
A few days later, she wrote him an email expressing her displeasure with his words, laying out for him what boundaries of conversation they will need to maintain in order to preserve a healthy relationship between them. Her letter included a subtle but unmistakable warning that if her wishes were not respected, it could jeopardize his relationship with his own grandchildren.
This is tricky stuff.
In her very carefully worded letter, she drew a few conclusions about the condition of her father’s heart:
I appreciate that you recognize it was not a good thing to say. And it is helpful to know that, as you said, you don’t know where it came from. I think that would be a good thing for you to consider.
It struck me as bitterness spilling over. But that’s just my impression.
She went on to acknowledge that she knows he loves his grandchildren, and that his words were at least to some degree motivated by his concern for their well-being. But she also made it clear in the letter that it was ultimately up to the children’s parents what messages they were hearing about themselves and about the faith into which their parents are enculturating them.
Incidentally, she pushed back on the part about the children being taught that they are “worthless trash,” assuring him they would never agree to exposing their children to something so extreme as that.
I would not want our children to be taught the message that you asked if they were being exposed to.
I think your wording was a pretty extreme way to express what I assume you see as a problem with acknowledging that we sin and need God’s grace.
I hope our children will have a confident trust that God made them, he loves them, and that the Gospel is good news.
My friend is here encountering the sticky business of parsing words with someone who resides within a theologically precise subculture. Evangelicals don’t believe humans are “worthless,” technically speaking. In their minds, human beings are “made in God’s image,” which gives them value, albeit in a derivative sense. Calvinists merely believe we are all morally corrupt to the point that we deserve to be punished day and night forever, without mercy or rest.
You see the difference, right?
Wait, you don’t? Well, frankly, I don’t blame you. I have a graduate degree in biblical studies from a Calvinist seminary and I can assure that some doublespeak is going on here, whether my friend’s daughter realizes it or not.
At any rate, my friend asked me to read her letter and give him my thoughts about it. So I did, and I asked if it was okay to share them here with the rest of you in case it prompted some helpful discussion among those who have walked through a similar minefield with their own grown children. What follows is my response to my friend.
My Response to Her Letter
My primary reactions are these.
First of all, maintaining a good relationship with your family is important enough to find ways to stay connected, and to put aside differences for the sake of harmony. However…
It wouldn’t be fair to you or healthy for the relationship in the long run if the solution is for her to be entitled to champion her beliefs while you aren’t allowed to advocate for your own. If she is entitled to communicate to your grandchildren that they deserve eternal punishment, then I personally feel you should be entitled to find ways to express a difference of opinion as well.
I sincerely believe boundaries need to be respected. She is the parent, not you, so her voice gets to carry more weight. That’s just how family life is structured for us in our culture, so that’s the way it is. But a grandparent shouldn’t be dismissed. And if she really believes God is sovereign, then hearing a difference of opinion from you shouldn’t hinder The Almighty from having his way.
What is she really afraid of, anyway? That God isn’t really powerful enough to be more persuasive toward her children than you?
Finally, I must point out that she just inserted herself a bit into the role of God by telling you what’s in your heart, namely bitterness. Leaving the presumptuousness of that aside, it strikes me as a sign of privilege that she can validly critique your beliefs (does that mean she’s bitter, too?) but you cannot critique hers.
What you expressed was displeasure that your grandchildren are being taught that their character and behavior merit endless torture. That notion is significant, and it is an incredibly negative message. Yes, I know she will rush to reframe this as “Good News” because of Jesus, but it’s dishonest to act like it doesn’t also include some very Bad News as well.
Is it really fair to criticize you (“you’re bitter”) for disapproving of a message that renders your grandchildren fit for everlasting punishment? For finding that distasteful?
In psychology they call this “gaslighting.” It undermines your emotional reactions as if they are invalid, suggesting your feelings about this aren’t legitimate. It’s a manipulation tactic. She didn’t invent it, of course, she merely learned it along the way. Among evangelicals, this is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to treat other people.
What this also does is it moves the discussion from something rationally debatable (“Do children deserve eternal punishment for, well, for anything at all?”) to something entirely subjective and impossible to disprove (“You are motivated by X”). It’s a classic religious response to a theological challenge, moving the discussion from something debatable to something dogmatic—undebatable—then threatening to shut down the discussion if the other person finds this unacceptable.
I don’t really know what you should say to her (you know your history with her and I don’t) but I feel that at some level you should assert your grandfatherly right (responsibility, really) to care about the messages your grandchildren are hearing.Boundaries will have to be worked through, but I feel you have a right to defend the legitimacy of your own feelings as their grandfather. And, hey, Calvinists are supposed to believe God providentially gives children parents and grandparents to look out for them, right? So there’s that.
I also feel you could push back on her presuming to tell you what’s in your heart. She said somewhere in her letter that “your question makes me wonder what’s going on,” but then she went ahead and drew her own conclusions about that despite her initial reluctance to do so. She believes she knows what makes you tick, and she took the liberty of telling you what it is.
Beyond that, I can’t say what you should tell her. But it’s not cool making you feel bad for being concerned about how low a view your grandchildren are being given of themselves. She would say her message makes up for it in the end, but that’s really beside the point because your concern is less about the kind of God they are being presented with, or the kind of gospel (“good news”) they get in the end. It’s about the message it sends them about their own natures and character, which her message unapologetically denigrates in order to prepare them for what’s next, to make them more accepting of whatever this belief system demands from them.
Is Blood Thicker Than Religion?
I’ll be interested to hear how my friend works through this challenge over the coming months. I feel confident his care and commitment to maintain a good relationship with his children and their children will guide his steps from this point forward. It sounds to me like his daughter equally cares about their connection, although I do worry about the inflexibility of thought and privilege blindness which her current theological tradition insert into their situation.
Calvinists aren’t known for being open to different perspectives. They are right, you see, and everyone else is wrong. End of discussion. Now your job is to keep your opinion to yourself.
But sometimes human decency is stronger than theology, and I will hope for that to guide his daughter’s actions from this point forward as well. Human beings often turn out to be more loving than the deities they worship. Maybe her instincts will override her current indoctrination. Or maybe it won’t. I don’t know.
Religion isn’t primarily interested in preserving the family unit, no matter what it says on paper. Ultimately the religion must ensure its own survival, and it will encourage people to do whatever it takes to maintain the in group/out group distinctions on which all tribal allegiances rely for their own preservation. If that means cutting off friends or family to keep their nonbelief from undermining your own faith, then so be it. It won’t be the first time that’s happened, nor the last.
“If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” —Jesus
[Related: “Cutting Off Your Family in the Name of Jesus“]
Physician, Heal Thyself
One last word about the statement I made earlier that my friend should assert his grandfatherly responsibility to care about the messages his grandchildren are hearing.
I expressed sentiments such as these to another friend whom I met for lunch yesterday, and he noted the change this represents in my own thinking on this question. That friend is likewise the only atheist in a family of believing Christians, and for his part it has led him to keep his views almost entirely to himself, much as I chose to do when I first realized where I had finally landed on the belief spectrum once I reached mid-life.
But my feelings about this are beginning to change. Over time I am beginning to think a little harder about the inequity of the situations in which one parent (or grandparent) has his or her own views invalidated at the outset, excluding them from the larger conversation because they are outnumbered.
Why must it always be the deconvert who has to keep his opinion to himself or herself? Is that really fair? Is that really healthy?
The religious people in this inequality are perfectly content with the imbalance of it all, but this isn’t really kind or loving to the one who no longer sees things the same way as everyone else. When do they get to be who they are? When do they get to assert their own opinions and perspectives? If the universal expectation is that they should keep their opinions to themselves, how is this going to promote a healthy and loving relationship over the long term?
I believe it is ultimately unhealthy, and that those who find themselves on the disadvantaged end of this inequality should learn to speak up about it, myself included.
I will be honest with you and tell you that I have not done this with my own children. I have laid down like a doormat and let everyone else run over me with their own religious privilege, indoctrinating my own children into evangelical theology with hardly a peep from me about the messages they are receiving in church.
As I type this post this morning, my children are sitting through a patriotic service at the megachurch they call their church home (‘Murka!) just as they do every Sunday morning of their lives. They are being raised to be good Southern Baptists, and I’ve never tried to do anything to nudge them away from that trajectory out of fear that I would lose them, and their trust, in the process. Nothing brings me more intense pain than emotional distance between me and my four daughters.
But at some point I deserve the right to tell them what I think about the messages they are being taught. Contrary to the messages they are hearing, I do not think they deserve to be eternally punished for who they are or what they do, even on their worst days. Nor do I believe they are morally helpless and unable to choose the right courses of action without divine help. I believe they are quite capable of being, as we say, “good without God.”
Like my friends above, my job is to figure out how to relay that message without rendering myself an antagonist in their lives, causing the walls to go up, thereby losing my connection to them. I’ve lost absolutely everything else in my life, and losing what’s left of that scares the hell out of me.
But dammit, I’m their parent, too, you know? I deserve to have a say in the messages they hear. And I’m going to begin working a bit harder to carve out my own place in their lives where their self-understanding is concerned. They’ve had quite a few years to hear the first opinion. I think it’s past time for a second, don’t you?
Anyway, just thinking out loud, here. And I’m trying to be honest about my own failure to follow the advice I find myself giving to others who seek out my reactions to the challenges they themselves are facing. I think it’s time I stepped up my game a little bit in that department. Life is too short to just lie down and die before it’s even finished.
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