A Father, a Son, and some doubt: Day 2

We had a great empathizing and praying for a father; so many good responses. And “Dad’s” response yesterday showed what a blog community can do for folks. Here is the response I wrote to him, now just a little fleshed out than the note I sent to him last week. By the way, Ken White’s pastorally insightful comment was special for all of us to see as the father wrote in and said, “Yep, he’s just like me.”
Dear Father,

This is a tough one because your son is now forming his basic identity. He’s not a newbie; he’s got some ideas already formed. I suspect he’s gotten this stuff from peers, school and the like. Doesn’t matter that much. I feel for you brother; I’ve seen lots of this.
The single most important thing I would say (from a college professor’s vantage point) is to latch onto a person (1) he can identify with and (2) who models the faith and (3) who is not an authority figure, like you or your wife.
The second thing is this: do whatever you can to understand him; empathize; chase his ideas down even further than he’s willing to chase. In other words, get into his skin with him and share his relativism.
Keep communicating; asking; not mettling but not afraid to ask; make his answers safe; keep it at the conversational level; let him know you trust him and that you want to think with him about these things.
Remember this is not just intellectual; this is whole person stuff. No matter how intellectual his arguments might be, it is always more than that. But, there are some today who might suggest relativism is not important to counter; I disagree. We might be relative to something, but total relativism defeats life and truth at the basic level. Humans can’t and therefore don’t live at that level.
Good books? Shane Claiborne. Rob Bell. Brian McLaren. Whether you like these guys or not, they are speaking that language quite well. Donald Miller is another one.
Also, you can’t manufacture this but I suggest a good youth group; vibrant; faithful and serving; biblical, that sort of thing. A vibrant leader of the youth group who loves kids can do kids a world of good. I can’t tell you the number of students who, as first year students, talk about their youth pastor; many of them don’t mention the youth pastor by the time they are college seniors.
I didn’t say anything about relativism in morals. CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity constructs everything from here and I suggest you read it again; I don’t know many high schoolers who find much value in him, but Lewis’ approach is potent for many of us.
Have you asked him if he thinks anything is wrong? Then the next one is “why?” and then “How many things are like that?” and then “How do we know such things?” Of course, this isn’t a 15 minute conversation but month long conversations. Sort of like a blog series!
Anyway, these are my first thoughts.
Our prayers are with you, father, and you also know that many readers of this blog spent some time in prayer for you, your wife, your son and his bothers yesterday. This is the blog world at its best friend.

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  • Scot,
    Thank you for your letter. Your suggestions and wisdom will go far beyond this particular situation. They are helpful to all of us in churches who regularly deal with sons and daughters as well as fathers and mothers who find themselves in a similar place.

  • Scot, I agree with Jim (#1). Along with your scholar and author abilities, you express a sensitive pastoral heart. Thanks for inviting us all into the conversation.

  • Mike K

    Scot, what a great community this discussion has created. There are such tremendous, generous hearts out there.
    In one of my more skeptical periods a good friend of mine once looked me straight in the eye and said “you know Mike, there is probably a lot more grace and wisdom out there that what you might imagine”. This discussion has confirmed that for me. Thanks for letting us be a part of this. I have benefitted for it.

  • Thanks, Scot.
    This is the thing that scares me. Will my kids follow Christ? I’ll try to raise them as best I can, but “you can lead a horse to water…”
    My 4-year-old is already so rebellious — if I tell her to go left she is determined to go right. Hopefully I can impliment this advice when she’s the right age.

  • fjs

    My son went through this in college. It was really hard to be a parent and watch. I was afraid. I feel for anyone in the middle of it.
    I stood back and just let him talk about his thoughts–cause I didn’t know what to do. (I often agreed with some of his feelings about his church experience, his doubts and questions, because i had them too).
    Funny story. He took a class on deviance and needed to write a paper on a historical person that was devient. he called me and asked if I could recommend a person so I suggested Jesus. I never thought he would do it. But later I got a call and he had decided to do it and could I reccomend some books. (The Challenge of Jesus NT Wright is one I reccomended) He wanted to write about counter-cultural devience. In the paper he showed how the pharisees and religious leaders used labeling theory and other theories to show Jesus as someone no one should trust–a devient. He did some of the cultural background on biblical social values etc. too.
    I think God worked as he studied for the paper. Later he emailed and said that he really liked and identified with Jesus. About too years later, he quietly decided to follow Jesus and got Baptised. (even then it could not be a safe church baptism–it had to be in the river like Jesus). He now attends a counter-cultural church in Denver oastired by several young pastors from Denver Sem and attends a catholic university taking catholic theology and bible classes. he still calls to talk about what he thinks and what he is processing–what he likes, dislikes.
    I think in reflection, he needed/needs to find faith on his own terms, in his own language through his own questions and values. It was/is part of becoming his own man developmentally. His beliefs are a bit more eclectic and undefined, but he wants to follow Jesus… that counts. And he is in a place that is safe for questioning and faith exploration. I think he will find his way and I deeply respect him for honestly searching out what he believes.
    i think God is working in some realy fascinating, unusual ways.

  • fjs

    opps, sorry for all of the spelling errors, should have proofed it.

  • Hi,
    Speaking as an ex-christian, if the Father can simply maintain love for his son no matter what he believes, that might be the best way to approach things, and hope that he’ll also maintain love for you and other people of religious faith no matter what they believe.
    On a personal level I feel akin to every other human being, since we share so many questions, hopes, fears, sufferings and joys, both physical and psychological.
    Of course whenever questions get theological or theoretical, and people claim they have proof of what lay behind the metaphysical curtain, and wish to try and convince everyone else that their proofs alone are secure, then such discussions can lead to divisions, at least rational divisions, which can lead to less calm more emotional divisions. It’s probably best to avoid discussing some matters with loved ones, staying off “hot button” issues or topics. Your son I’m sure wants to continue loving you as you do him, so why pressure him or have him pressure you back? Unless you both have perfected the art of arguing with the utmost calmness and both can sense without fail whenever the other wants to discuss such hot button issues. But one can’t assume that the other wants to discuss such issues just because you do. There’s a time and place for everything. And no need to bring things up at inconvenient times or places, especially when simple love between a father and son is all that’s needed for most days most of our lives.
    By the way, I’ve met and spoken with many people, young and old, over the years who have left the fold. Some have devout parents, some are spouses one of whom has grown less devout than the other, or spouses who both started out less devout and one of them was growing more devout (both such situations can add friction to a marital relationship). I also edited a collection of testimonies of people who journeyed from a conservative Christinity toward more moderate even liberal pastures, some of whom left conservative Christianity for other religions, some of whom left conservative Christianity for agnosticism or atheism. (A third of the testimonies in the book are from people who remained Christians though of a more moderate to liberal persuasion.) If you fear something like that is happening to your son, you may want to read some of the testimonies in that book (as well of course as other testimonies found in books like Dr. McKnight’s, or even a book by a Christian author titled, “When Christian Kids Leave the Faith.”
    Lastly, one might also consider that in such cases the person moving away from a conservative Christian past is often reluctant to speak about it with Christian parents or friends, so much of what is going through their minds is often left unsaid, partly out of fear of how others may react, and partly because they love other people and don’t want such a clash of beliefs to develop into something that might ruin the love they feel for them, or cause estrangement.
    I have some devout Christian relatives myself, Catholic. As well as Evangelical Christian friends and co-workers. We all have to learn to get along, and rejoice in all we share, which is vast.
    In internet discussions, forums and blogs devoted to philosophical and religious debate we tend to view other people as mere cutsy named avatars representing particular ideas and beliefs that we may either agree with or disagree with, and the levels of cordiality and conversation often decline as a result. But in dealing with people in the flesh that we know and love, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers what else to do but love them?

  • After reading yesterday’s letter and responses, and now Scot’s response and these comments, I have the image in my mind in which the son walks down the hallway and asks Dad, “What are you doing? Why do you have that backpack?” Dad looks up from lacing his hiking boots and says, “I’m heading out with you, Pilgrim. You’re on a journey, and I’m going on it with you.” Son says, “Why the corny walking stick and … are those oxygen tanks in there?” “We’ve got mountains to climb: you want to traverse the Himalayas, and I hope we head towards Sinai and Olives, but we’ll need these for the ascent.” Son chuckles in disbelief, “Why are you wearing that nylon fanny pack?” Dad replies, “I pulled it out of storage, and had to loosen the belt. But we’re going to hit a number of cities and towns. We’ll hear lectures by famous philosophers and gurus. We’ll explore historic sites and eat exotic foods. In the end, I hope we get to the New Jerusalem together. But you’re my son, and I’ll trek with you the world over. I’ve raised you in the church, but now we’re going to go out and see the world that God loves. Let’s go, Pilgrim.”
    “Don’t embarrass me. Thanks, Dad.”

  • David Reeves

    man, my heart goes out to you, after three years of dealing with my own troubled teen, I wont go into detail here, but it was rough, spiritually , physically and emotionally. The best advice I come out with is be a dad who loves his son no matter what, and ask good questions, and be willing to admit when no answers are available. But above all, love him, and you will be surprised what happens.

  • Laurie White

    My heart went out to this father and I couldn’t get the questions he raised out of my mind. I’ve never posted here before and had decided not to try when I ran across, in another of Scott’s posts, a quote that expressed a central part of what I wanted to say. So let me try to put this together. The quote is at the end and kind of ties it all together (I hope).
    I believe we evangelicals don’t encourage intellectual freedom among our young enough. When a child enters his teen years, besides trying to individuate from us (a necessary stage, as many pointed out), they also are beginning to think abstractly and try on new ideas. This is when the faith of their childhood must be tested and tried in order for that faith to become their own in any real sense. I’m a high school world history teacher in a Christian school and when one of my students asks “How does a good God allow such evil?” I say “Awesome! You’re really thinking!” I go on to explain what a central question this student has happened upon, how razor sharp they are for perceiving the problem (isn’t this what we want? Real thinkers who don’t just accept what we say, but test it?). Then I always emphasize that proverbs tells us that a wise man “looks well into a matter,” and how much that should apply to matters of one’s entire worldview! Off and on all year I harp on these several things:
    1.Going with the questions that arise in their thinking. Not being afraid of them.
    2.That if Christianity is the truth (and I certainly believe it is), it can withstand any amount of honest scrutiny, and any sincere investigation.
    3.They must make their faith their own. Every little Buddhist believes what they’ve been brought up to believe, too. (The kids who do ponder such things are going to realize this at some point. So how much better it is to hear it from a Christian adult who is encouraging you to explore your faith).
    4.To be an “honest” seeker means you actually desire answers. It is so much cooler in our culture to be the agnostic, it’s easy to get sucked into the peer pressure of saying you’re searching but secretly hoping you don’t find any answers.
    5.To be an “honest” seeker you really have to search – not sit on your bottom thinking the answers should just somehow fall into your lap.
    6.The answers are out there.
    This is the attitude I took with my own 3 kids, as well, as they were growing up. It led to the best discussions! I was amazed at the questions they came up with and it caused me to take another look at issues I had settled to my own satisfaction in the past but found myself rehashing with them and learning new things. My kids are all enthusiastic followers of Jesus now, each with his/her own brand of spirituality – brands that have enlarged my own perspective at every turn. They have challenge me, sharpened me, and shaved off the dead skin of some doctrinal debris to which I was clinging — in short,in may ways,they have freed me! We all enjoy open communication and they know they will never be patronized or get pat answers. In fact, more and more, they encourage me, send me links, fire me up for new aspects of our unbelievably creative and loving Father.
    I know there are no formulas. I really, really know this. The fact that my own kids are all Christians is a blessing of grace for sure, and, perhaps, in spite of what I did. But I do feel that there are some basic ideas here that (when accompanied by much prayer) will aid a young person in arriving at the truth.
    But now for the quote I mentioned, the thing that threw me over on the side of posting all this. It’s a quote from Farewell to God by Charles Templeton. Templeton, a one-time avid evangelical (leader, pastor, associate of Billy Graham), gradually shifted in his thinking and beliefs and ended life as an agnostic. His book is his autobiographical account of his trek toward unbelief and I thought this statement that Scott quoted from this book was so profound:
    “The oft-postponed decision irrevocably made, there came a soaring sense of freedom, not least, intellectual freedom…. My mind could freely quest where it would. I could examine any question without a predisposition to harmonize it with the body of Christian belief. I felt loosed. Set free!” (222).
    “In the end, one must follow the truth as one perceives it. Not to do so is to live a lie” (224).
    Templeton’s freedom led him to disavow the faith. But what if he had been brought up to associate belief in God with great intellectual freedom? What if those two concepts had been paired together for him at a young age? It’s risky, perhaps, I agree. But isn’t that the very risk God takes in giving us freedom? Isn’t freedom always something to celebrate and something to aim at? And if we don’t offer them this freedom and couple it in their minds with the largeness of God’s revelation, the hugeness of his complex universe, someone else certainly will, but it may be to seduce them into a pseudo freedom of intellectual lies and contorted realities. I believe we should not fear this intellectual freedom in our young people. We should embrace it. And this very embracing of it demonstrates to them how sure we are of what we claim to be the truth. In fact, when a Christian parent appears fearful of a son or daughter’s budding questions and doubts, it makes us look like we have something to hide. (“Hey, maybe there isn’t a lot of evidence for mom or dad’s position because they sure are defensive. What are they afraid I’ll find out?”)
    And, if you find you actually aren’t that sure, if your kids start bringing up stuff you hadn’t thought of before, then dive in with them. Perhaps it’s time you found those answers yourself. After all, Christianity is the truth, the tomb was really empty, and the answers are out there (oftentimes on blogs such as this– Thank you Scott for an exceptional resource!)We as Christians have nothing to lose and nothing to fear from honest inquiry. Bring on the intense scrutiny. Encourage brave investigation. We have nothing to hide.