Friday, December 18, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: God and the Child of Divorce

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Larry Taunton has a link up to this Washington Post story about divorce and its effects on the next generation. The Public Religion Research Institute says children of divorced parents are significantly (12%) more likely to become non-religious adults.

Tom: You’ve taught thousands of teens in your thirty-ish years in the education system, IC. What do you think: does that sound plausible?

Immanuel Can: Absolutely. I believe I’ve seen it in the changes in behavior of the average student, but more tellingly, in their personal reporting of their feelings and attitudes.

Tom: In your experience, how would that show itself?

Factoring Divorce into the Ideal Life

IC: Let me give you a quick story. Some years ago, I was asking one of my grade 10 classes to outline a perfect plan for what they hoped to see happen in their lives. I wanted to see what their ideal might look like. Anyway, one girl was reading hers off, and she said, “I imagine myself married at around 23, then I’ll get divorced three years later …”

Tom: Say what?

IC: I was shocked … not just by the idea, but by the calmness and matter-of-factness with which she said it. So I stopped her and asked, “Why did you put a divorce in your ideal plan for your life?”

She said, “That’s just what happens. People love each other for a few years, but nobody stays together forever. So you’ve got to be ready.”

Tom: Oy. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy ...

IC: I was astounded. Here was a little girl — perhaps 15 or 16 years old — who had already learned to take as a matter of course that she would be a divorcee, and not even to dream of a committed and lasting love relationship. Now, whether or not we think it’s good for her to believe in “true love”, is it not shocking to consider a child that has no time, or insufficient trust, even to imagine such a thing, or in her wildest dreams to hope it for herself?

Tom: Well, it leaves you wondering if she even understands what an “ideal” is.

Moving the Mountains

But now how would you tie that into the question of faith?

IC: Ah. Just this way: when a child loses a parent — say by death — it’s a very, very big deal. Parents are like the mountains: they’re supposed to be solid, trustworthy and forever there. Every kid feels that. When the mountains move, it’s very, very unsettling in all areas of life. But worse than one of these “mountains” dying is the prospect of one of them voluntarily leaving. That’s rejection. That’s far worse. And then imagine if your “mountain” should set up elsewhere, and acquire a new wife and batch of children … that’s supplanting: in a kid’s view, you’ve been cast out, rejected, denied, thrown away — and by the very person you most trusted … usually (but not always), the father. That’s soul-killing.

Tom: Okay, I’ll buy that. So then a child’s faith in parents is shaken, a child’s faith in the institution of marriage is shaken, a child’s faith in their father may well be shaken ... how do we tie that into adult faith in God? I’m thinking you’ve got a more likely point of connection than the Post article, which seems to me a bit weak on how the two things link together.

Faith of the Fatherless

IC: There’s an observable link between how one thinks about one’s parents — and particularly, one’s father — and how one thinks about God. It’s interesting that the major atheists, from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud to their modern day admirers like Hitchens and Dawkins, all had bad relationships with their fathers … so bad, that they might even have wished them dead.

And that’s the irony of Freud’s old argument that the longing for God is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy. As Alister McGrath, the Christian historian and author of The Twilight of Atheism, has so aptly pointed out, it can easily be turned around: one can say atheism is just a longing to get rid of one’s father figure. Or, to put it in the words of psychologist Paul Vitz, it’s the “Faith of the Fatherless”.

Tom: That sounds more plausible to me than the Post hypothesis, which is basically that in a divorce, everything gets divided (Dad leaves Mom’s church, or Mom leaves Dad’s); and that the church, being more or less silent about divorce, is not helping these kids. As a result, they find church irrelevant to their lives.

So you’d say, rather, that the loss of faith in fathers is the primary cause?

IC: Yes.

A Working Theory of Life

I was listening to psychiatrist Glynn Harrison describing the experience of divorce, and its effect on a child’s general confidence about life. He was asking us to imagine being a kid, and every time you come home, your room is in a different place, is arranged differently, and has different things in it: how difficult would it be for you to form a theory about how life works, or about what you can count on? Nothing would be predictable anymore — and that in the one place upon which you count for security. He asks how that might affect one’s whole ability to trust or believe in life generally.

How much harder to believe in a faithful God, when nothing in which you’ve ever trusted has proved faithful?

Tom: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Alert the Sunday School!

Let’s be very practical here: what can sympathetic Christians do to help? In the Post article, Andrew Root, a Lutheran professor, says the failure of churches to speak directly to the concerns of children in these situations leads to a loss of faith that the church may have answers for them as adults:
“They’re now thinking, ‘I’m dealing with depression.’ Or, ‘I’m dealing with my own marital troubles.’ The church must not have anything to say to me, because when I was 8 and dealing with divorce, my Sunday-school teacher didn’t even say, ‘Man, Amanda, that must be really complicated for you’ ”.
Is that the answer? Alert Sunday School teachers?

IC: No, obviously. But one thing Christians can do is to be better ourselves, and if we can, model a better way in our families. And the other is to be alert to the plight of young men and women who are growing up without a home — and particularly, without a father figure — upon whom they can rely. Some of them will be in our churches, some we will meet in daily life, and some our kids will bring home. And maybe, just maybe, the Lord has put them in our way so that we could be the stability they haven’t been able to find.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Tom: I want to come back to your grade 10 girl for a second; the one who was planning her three-year marriage and subsequent divorce. Can Christian young people afford to think like this? There’s a vast difference between, on the one hand, acknowledging that the possibility of experiencing a divorce is a strong statistical possibility and, on the other hand, planning for it ahead of time.

When you tell yourself divorce is an option, doesn’t that make it all the more likely?

IC: How can it not? If you know something is an option, you can take it; if you don’t know the option exists, you cannot. But we should be cautious here, especially about applying statistics from non-divorce cultures to cultures that allow it. I’m not at all convinced that all divorces are unwarranted, or that there is virtue in holding marriages together by force of culture or law. I’m even less inclined to try to tell someone whether or not THEIR particular divorce is right or wrong — I simply do not, and cannot know. And there are most certainly circumstances in which a divorce saves children from grievous bodily or mental harm. But we need to be honest about how hard divorce is on children, and how it complicates their spiritual lives. So let’s just say this: it’s just a very hard thing on all sides.

Teenage God Delusion

Tom: Good answer. There’s one more thing I’d like to consider. Say you’re seeking to be a testimony to someone whose life has followed this trajectory — no father or a train wreck of a father: absent, abusive, alcoholic ... whatever. Does knowing this person is 12% likelier to embrace atheism or agnosticism help you in any way with your approach, or in how you respond if they categorically reject the truth?

IC: Oh yes, I think so. It’s very important for us to figure out whether a person’s atheistic inclination is intellectual or visceral, from their head or their heart.

Take Richard Dawkins, for example: the man claims that he became an atheist by way of reasoning there is no God, that God is a delusion. Then he tells you he first became a skeptic at the ripe intellectual age of 13, and a dedicated atheist at 17. Something here should tell you that the man’s commitments are not entirely those of an adult, much less a PhD biologist. And if you want to talk to somebody like that, you’ve got to do something other than offer intellectual facts. You’ve got to speak to that person’s heart cause, and address the pains and experiences that make him or her attracted to the particular arguments. Absent that, they will just find different ones to cling to.

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