It was a super-tense time–I was having a majorly tough patch in a relationship and I was in a whole other country (this was after Biff and Christianity). I’m sure my mother was really worried about me. We talked on the phone and I was talking about how I was making plans to leave–just grab my stuff and leave, get a bus. I had some friends, I told her. They were happy to put me up for a couple weeks while I found a job in that town.
I could tell my mother wasn’t thrilled from the sound of her voice.
“You should come home,” she said, more firmly than I’d ever have expected. “Your dad and I have already talked about it. We want you to come here, not go to some strangers’ place in a town you’ve never even visited before.” She’d thought the same thing when I’d fled America to escape Biff; my parents had always maintained that I’d have been a lot better off heading to their place, but she hadn’t spelled it out that way back then. Now she was spelling it out: she wanted me to return under her roof while this newest setback got processed.
I didn’t even hesitate. After thanking her profusely for making such a generous offer, I said, “Mom, I’m going to be thirty soon. I’m a little old to be running home to my mother whenever I break up with someone. I’ll work this out on my own.”
She wasn’t thrilled that I declined, but I bet she was pretty goddamned proud.
Children are dependent on their caretakers and parental figures for everything when they are born, and as they grow up, they need increasing amounts of space to learn and discover their own identities and ideas, and to gain confidence in their own abilities. Most parents are thrilled when their kids finally become totally independent–and dismayed when something brings them back into dependence. The entire childhood journey, for parents, is preparing children to function as independent adults in society. Thousands upon thousands of blogs and websites exist to help guide parents in helping children become independent in age-appropriate ways.
Childhood is a long process of finding and fixing boundaries, for a child, of pushing away, of differentiating the self from the not-self.
The first arbitrary “NO!” The first ridiculous clothing choices. The first drop-off at daycare. The first step onto the first school bus, and that last uncertain glance back over the shoulder. The first sleepover. The first date. The first time pulling out of the driveway in the family car. The first jaunty wave on the way out the door to the first job. The first apartment.
The wedding day. Oh, the wedding day.
Having a child is signing up for a string of steps from “total and utter dependence” to “total and utter independence.” The most fervent hope parents have, usually, is that when those kids are independent, they’ll still want to be around their parents and still value their input. But even through that hope, most parents would never wish for their children to stay dependent forever. Some do, and we rightfully think those parents are weird, abusive, and emotionally stunted, even mentally ill–and we try to help those adult children break free of that clingy control and recognize that this control is not loving at all. We feel sorry for adults who never seem to become independent–who have a “failure to launch,” as the movie title goes–and we feel sorry for parents who have to support their kids long, long past the time when those kids should have become totally independent, a trend that is unfortunately on the rise. A controlling parent and an eternally-dependent adult child is not in any way a good thing to most folks.
It floors me that Christians imagine their god as not only condoning their utter dependence on him for everything, but as demanding this dependence of them. Worse, I got the idea as a Christian that this dependence was both the mark and the natural result of a loving, intimate “relationship” with this imaginary deity. And worse still, I was programmed to think that my closest relationships–with my parents, my then-spouse, and my church–should be modeled on that dependence. And worst of all, growing numbers of Christians themselves seem to delight in and even celebrate their childish dependence on their imaginary deity.
I’ve talked before about the various ways in which Christianity has evolved since I was a Christian, but this was one of the weirder changes. One does not often see grown-ups trying to figure out how to become more dependent on an authority figure! Back in my day, we marveled at the idea that “Abba” meant “Daddy,” not “father” (which is apparently not actually the case, but it’s an idea that was starting to take hold), in the Gospels where Jesus supposedly used the word, but it didn’t occur to me to actually pray to “Daddy God.” That would have felt hugely disrespectful. There were preachers who traveled around giving rousing sermons about how they learned to lower themselves and be more accepting of childish behavior, with one memorable fellow comparing his squeamish distaste for children’s general physical filthiness to how the Christian god likely views Christians’ unfitness to be near him. But I can absolutely tell you that nobody was taking the idea too far. I never heard anybody pray to “Daddy God” even in the most extremist of all the Christian churches I attended.
That was then, as the saying goes, and this is now. In the last ten-ish years, we’ve seen The Daddy God Topical Bible (2013), Who’s Your Daddy? Discover the God that Jesus Reveals (2013), Chillin’ With Your Daddy God (2013), and Daddy God: The Fatherhood of God (2003), among what is likely many others. The language is clearly filtering down to the masses. Not long ago I ran into a video, “Sh*tuff Christian Girls Say”, in which a guy portraying a Christian woman says as part of her breakup speech to her boyfriend, “I just feel like Daddy God wants us to take a break”–and lest one think that this video is inaccurate, most of the comments regarding its realism are quite positive.
Why this push to infantilize Christian behavior and speech? Ron Meyers, who wrote Habits of Highly Effective Christians in 2003, suggests in his book that it’s a way of expressing childlike trust and devotion. In his ideology, Jesus is supposed to have told his followers in Matthew that unless they become like little children, they can’t go to Heaven. So obviously, believers who cultivate very childlike speech and behavior will become more childlike in their faith and trust. Someone who is too mature and fussy to handle that kind of behavior is in clear danger of not being trusting enough–except when Christians are supposed to “put away childish things!
I also think that this push to view the Christian god as a physical parent is happening as a reaction to some of the theology coming out of the religion’s biggest thinkers. The more theologians talk about a completely alien, completely inhuman god who is a “ground of being” or transcendent and immutable (my favorite!), the more many Christians will recoil and try to bring that god back down to terms they can understand.
The god who is represented by Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” and the one represented by Jerry Grillo’s “Daddy God” couldn’t be more different. Christians who glorify in the idea of a “Daddy God” have more in common with a pagan than they do with those ivory-tower philosophers divorced from all semblance of earthly reality. And that’s kind of the point. The drive to infantilize Christianity may well be a folk-religion push to try to inject a little humanity into what is increasingly becoming a very inhuman concept of deity.
We may poke fun at this “Daddy God” conceptualization, but the problem comes in when all these adult Christians trying to reduce themselves to toddlerhood so they can be “childlike” in faith and trust make the mistake of thinking that this relationship is something that can and should be a dynamic in their real-world relationships. The idea that individual Christians should model their relationships on the one between “God” and the church is nothing new, of course; for many years Christian leaders have taught that in marriage, husbands are “God” and wives are the body of Christian believers (it’s one reason they give for opposing equal marriage for same-sex couples).And most non-Christians are familiar with Christians’ apologetics contortion of trying to hand-wave away atrocities and neglect on the part of this god by comparing his actions to those of a parent whose actions children will not always understand. The idea is that sometimes parents just have to do terrible-seeming things and their kids are just too stupid or inexperienced to know that that deed is really a good thing for their ultimate benefit. Punishment, especially, is said to be like a parent swatting a preverbal toddler, who just knows that he or she got hurt but maybe doesn’t understand why all the time. Sometimes they even compare themselves to this divine parent in an effort to justify and rationalize their own mistreatment of non-Christians as being for the greater good; I’ve heard them actually compare, in their out-loud voice, non-Christians to those preverbal toddlers!
And I say that’s bullshit.
It’s hard to believe that the Christians spewing this bullshit have ever actually been parents–and if they have or are, then one trembles to imagine what their kids’ lives must be like.
Let’s take just that last example, of the swatted preverbal toddler. If a competent parent saw a kid reaching for an electrical socket or for a cigarette butt in an ashtray, then the first impulse would be to remove the danger from the child’s reach. If a swat occurs, then the child would be told, in no uncertain terms, not to go near that thing again; at the very least there’d be explicit instructions about how to avoid that punishment in the future. I grew up Southern, so my lived experience was more like “let her shock herself/eat that–she sure won’t do that again!” but there was always a lesson afterward: “Did that feel good? No, it did not. So don’t ever do that again.” And generally I didn’t, though I don’t recommend the technique (it probably did a lot to make me fearful of trying new things).
But that is not the technique we’re seeing glorified here by infantilized Christians.
What these Christians are actually glorifying is a far more sinister type of parenting: the random punishment or reward with no explanation or context whatsoever. It’d be like if I were a parent and hit my kid as she walked past me in the hallway, not telling her why, and not letting her know how to avoid the strike in the future–and then the next week setting fire to her bedroom and not telling her what she did to deserve that either–but then giving her a hair-ribbon or a $20 bill, also without telling her how she earned that reward. And then, of course, just as the Bible’s god deliberately sabotaged people all through the Old Testament, I’d have to punish her whenever she struggled to break free of my control and be her own person. These rewards and punishments might be completely out of proportion to whatever she did right or wrong–maybe the day I set fire to her room, it’d be because she said a cuss word at school–but I’d never tell her either way, so she’d have to figure it out herself.
For her whole life, she’d be expected to bow to me, praise me to the skies, blow constant sunshine up my skirt, beg me for every single crumb of food and day of safety from harm, attribute to me every single good thing that ever happened to her (while attributing any negative thing to her own incompetence or disobedience, of course), and consider and beg for my opinion before making a single move on her own. At any moment I could punish her without a single word about why, or reward her, and it’d be up to her to suss out the reasons because I’d never tell her anything distinctly or clearly. And even after her death, she would be locked in eternal childhood, totally dependent on me and eternally singing my praises.
What kind of adult would I produce with that kind of parenting?
What kind of parent would people think I was?
Why don’t more Christians think this one through a little more before presenting this depraved, shocking kind of tyrant to non-believers and ex-believers as some kind of ideal parent? Why aren’t more of them deeply suspicious of a parenting style that seems wholly engineered to produce not healthy, mature adults but rather eternally-dependent adult children? What exactly makes them so deeply nervous about independence? Why do independent people seem, in their minds, to be at so much greater risk of discovering that Christianity’s claims are false and to leave the religion, if it’s supposed to be so true and meaningful and relevant in people’s lives?
There’s no mistaking it: the very notion of independence scares a lot of Christians. I hear them talk about it a lot. Feminism is “the curse of independence”, and rolling back women’s rights is thought to be the key to getting women back under control and happy in their place in the hierarchy. Lack of adherence to that hierarchy could produce any number of terrible effects in society, like Pat Robertson’s famous insistence that equality would lead to the destruction of capitalism as well as higher levels of witchcraft, divorce, abortions, and lesbianism. This kind of toxic Christianity has no room for independence in it. Everything depends on Christians accepting their place and acquiescing to the authority of those above them.
Indeed, that kind of Christianity can’t tolerate even the least show of independence or resistance to authority from a child, even from a baby. Lacking any other way to physically force a child into such tight and irrational constraints, violence–“might makes right”–is the ultimate trump card for such parents. There’s a very solid reason for why it is right-wing Christians who most support corporal punishment and most complain about losing the right to beat the shit out of their kids. They homeschool not purely out of concerns about local schools’ efficacy but to ensure that their kids are completely, totally indoctrinated so they don’t get too independent–which would put them at risk of rebelling and leaving the faith.
And it’s all so damaging and harmful. Libby Anne has been blogging through one of these Christians’ parenting manuals, To Train Up a Child, and discussing how it produces not assertive, functional adults but adults who even when grown are childish and lack the ability to set their own goals, make their own decisions, manage their own emotions, handle their own business, or even resolve their own conflicts without violence. About all one can say there is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; these Christian parents get their ideas about parenting from what they see in their own theology and dogma. They’re taking a logically-inconsistent theology and trying to make it fit into reality in ways that it maybe wasn’t meant to fit.
When my mom asked me to return home after that nasty breakup, well, I also knew that my dad and I didn’t get along very well in large doses. Mom once told me she thought it was because we were both very independent people. I didn’t like thinking at the time that we were alike in any way, but yeah, I represented uncomfortable competition in a lot of ways to my dad, I know now. He was a bit controlling and didn’t like it when people disagreed with him. Maybe that’s why the Christian god, as described in Christian mythology, has such a problem with independence.
Between the “Daddy God” Christians and the “Boyfriend Jesus” Christians, I’d rather just be rid of the whole thing and have, if I must have a god at all (which is hardly a given), one who respects my space, wants me to be independent and handle my business myself, is proud of my increasing independence and accomplishment, and gives–at most–temporary help and advice, and only if I ask for it. Anything less isn’t really worthy of anybody’s worship–only pity and disdain, the same things we’d feel about parents who cling to their old authority over their children long past the time when they should have celebrated those kids’ becoming functional adults and been proud that they’re making it on their own. Some religious people worship a god or gods like that already, and they tend to be pretty even-keeled people.
Me? I’m an adult. Not a child. And I deeply distrust any ideology that insists otherwise, because such an ideology–once it instills in its victims the idea that they are children and in need of parenting–offers the all-too-convenient solution to that manufactured need: their own authority figure, in the form of a person claiming to speak for some ultimate authority figure, and along with that authority figure the stripping-away of all objective, rational ways to assess that authority figure’s skill at and aptitude for protecting and nurturing its children on their way to becoming independent adults.
I’m glad to be out of a religion that encourages the toxicity of eternal dependence.