My father's burden

My father's burden June 18, 2012

I remember when I was little, I would sometimes wake up late at night and notice a light in the study downstairs at my house. My dad would be in there typing on our old Apple 2 computer. I asked my mom about it, and she told me it was “grant time.” Every year, in the final week before my dad had a grant application deadline, he would put in a full night of writing after a full day of work. My memory of “grant time” was probably the main reason I didn’t pursue medicine like my dad and all his nine brothers and sisters. The irony today is that many nights I find myself staying up late typing on my computer just like my dad did. And it’s because of a burden I have inherited from him. Not only is my dad a dedicated and accomplished medical researcher, but he has also taught Sunday school for over thirty years, and he has several unpublished manuscripts for philosophy books that he has poured himself into. My father’s burden is that he wants God to make sense to people; this legacy has shaped much of who I am today.

My father has spent his life surrounded by people whose world-views are defined by scientific empiricism and logic. Much of what he’s written attempts to establish a philosophical foundation that would make it possible to talk about God with fellow scientists. Most of his reading has been from the 19th and early 20th century so it’s been really fascinating to hear him come to similar conclusions as postmodern writings from 30-40 years ago to which he hasn’t had direct exposure. Of course it also makes me very anxious that he doesn’t have enough time to read everything he would need to read to catch up and really be able to say something new.

I have often wondered to what degree my father’s lifelong quest to make a case for God with the scientists has actually been a conversation with his late father who was an atheist because of his immersion in science. I have never known anyone whose life was a stronger testimony to the human potential for courage and willpower than my grandfather, whose response to a polio-inflicted lifelong paralysis in his twenties was to invent the electric wheelchair and write a physiology textbook that became the international medical school standard for the last half of the 20th century. He was also a very magnanimous person who exuded many of the spiritual fruits Paul describes in Galatians 5:22. If the freethinker society has saints, my grandfather would be a good candidate. Whether or not it’s reasonable, I really hope that someday my dad will get to see my grandpa face to face and hear back from him about all that he’s written since my grandpa left the world of the flesh in 2003.

In any case, I share my father’s burden now, though my audience and sensibilities are different than his. My training is in literary theory and cultural criticism. I have spent much of my life around people who are passionate about fighting injustice and end up forming communities that unwittingly emulate the early church even though they have nothing to do with organized religion. Based on what people in my generation have seen over the past thirty years, I can’t blame them for suspecting that the purpose of Christianity is to give middle-class people a way of justifying their selfishness. I want to help people in my generation understand that the gospel is a lot more beautiful than the canned, Walmart-ified version that gets the most public visibility.

This doesn’t mean that I just tell them whatever they want to hear. But it does mean that I feel the burden of caring whether it makes sense or not. I can’t hide my head in the sand and forget that the Christianity we believe in didn’t stop Europeans from massacring and enslaving millions of people over the last 500 years and moreover that the gospel we inherited has been at least partly tainted by the purpose of justifying imperialism. I can’t argue for the historicity of Adam just because it messes up my doctrinal system for him to be an allegorical figure. I can’t pretend like there aren’t Christlike people in the world who haven’t accepted Jesus as their savior. I have to wrestle with these awkward realities so that I can be a more effective witness to the truth that I stubbornly cling to.

It seems like a lot of my fellow Christians really aren’t too worried about whether the gospel makes sense or not. In fact, it seems like a lot of Christians relish a gospel that’s insulting to other peoples’ intelligence, or “elitism” as they would term it. I think there’s a lot of credence to the recent Christianity Today article which said that the American evangelical church has been “juvenilized” over the past fifty years. The gospel illustrations that have been mainstreamed in evangelical Christianity are appropriate for the cognitive level of a middle school youth retreat, so now everyone gets to stay a middle schooler.

I guess I just really believe that all wisdom belongs to God, and the insights of contemporary thinkers like Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Slavoj Zizek are not categorically wrong, but echo imperfectly the teachings of Christ. Christians are operating at a middle school cognitive level when they think postmodernity is nothing more than “moral relativism”; their witness is going to get laughed out of the room. Postmodernity actually provides a much easier terrain for compelling Christian witness to negotiate since the standard for truth is pragmatic and aesthetic rather than objective and empirical. That is my context; those are my people. I will try to honor my legacy as the son of John Guyton the best I can. I thank God for the earthly father he used to make me the kind of preacher that I am. I just hope I can do something similar for the boys that I have no idea how to raise into godly men.

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  • Wow. Don’t we all echo imperfectly the teachings of Christ? Thank you for sharing this insight into your father’s burden. Eloquent.

  • A truly wonderful essay, Morgan. Thanks so much for these thoughtful words. And what a wonderful heritage – you will know how to pass it on and you won’t do it perfectly, but you’ll do it well.

  • …what a truly beautiful essay !!! painfully sincere and heart warming…I wouldn’t mind being a missionary for this type of Christianity…

  • My personal thoughts are that when we stop “thinking” as Christians, when we stop “asking questions”, we actually start losing TRUTH…

    …the truth is not “scared” of critical thinking !!!

    2nd Corinthings 13 vs 8 – “For we can do nothing against the truth…”

    • Morgan Guyton

      Yes! I agree.

  • Morgan, I don’t find these words surprising because you’ve spoken them to me (again today), but I’m deeply touched nonetheless. Maybe I shouldn’t say it – I’m incredibly proud, and I learn a lot from you. I do think there remain many people who accept positivism uncritically, especially in science, although positivism (science has the only answers) hit its peak in the mid-1950s. Most atheists, many scientists, and not a few philosophers today are positivists, sometimes writing under the name of natural realism. If anyone is interested, I have a few posts on my website, including “Why I am not a positivist” in four parts. Hope to add more later this summer.