Sunday, 27 September 2009

You're not the boss of me now —or are you?

Teaching on the Wisdom literature yesterday, I was struck by how in Proverbs the foundation of the good life is the godly family. The book opens with several chapters addressing the young man (person) in need of wisdom who is urged to listen to his father’s instruction and not forsake his mother’s teaching.
We may note that this itself builds on another ‘foundational’ principle, enshrined in the Ten Commandments: “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” As St Paul observed (Eph 6:2-3), this commandment has a special quality in that there is a promise attached to it. It has consequences, not just for the individual but for society, and these are spelled out: “you will live long, and it will go well with you in the land.”
Similarly, the Proverbs have social consequences. They are, according to 1:3, “for ... doing what is right and just and fair.” And this is also the basis for God’s blessing of the world through Abraham’s descendants: “I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen 18:19).
All this depends, in the first instance, on the parent-to-child communication of God’s ways. Abraham is to direct “his children and his household”. The subject of Proverbs is to “listen to a father’s instruction” (4:1).
The Christian reader of Proverbs, moreover, is in the privileged position of knowing that the human relationship between parent and child is a mirror of the divine relationship between two of the three members of the godhead. The Son is constituted as ‘son’ because, as Jesus is recorded as saying in John 5:19, he does “only what he sees his Father doing.” Obedience is inherent in the son-to-father relationship. What is often overlooked, however, is that the converse to this is trust: “the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father” (5:22-23). Here is not just a lesson about the Trinity but about parenthood: parents may expect children to obey them, but ultimately they must honour this by their absolute trust of their children.
Yet it is part of the lesson of the Wisdom literature (and its fulfilment in Christ as the Wisdom of God, cf 1 Cor 1:24), that this is not universally understood or accepted. That parents may expect obedience from their children, and have the right to direct them as to how they should live, is itself a theological proposition, based on the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 1:7).
Where there is no such ‘fear of the Lord’, however, we may expect Wisdom to be in increasingly short supply. We must thus be ready to question much of the agenda of our society with regard to children and their upbringing.
At the same time, however, we may challenge the assumptions of our society, both collectively and individually, about not merely education but procreation. A question worth asking, it seems to me, is what people think gives them the right to have children in the first place.
Having a child involves bringing another person into existence — yet we do not (indeed, of course, we cannot) ask that person whether or not they want to exist. Most of the people thus caused to exist will experience life as, to a greater or lesser extent, a struggle. They may, of course, have happy times as well as bad, but they will have to come to terms with their own existence, and, perhaps most difficult of all, they will eventually have to face the inevitability of the termination of their life which, in the view of many, means their consequent non-existence. (The book of Ecclesiastes is replete with material which reflects that particular struggle!)
Yet parents —even atheist parents —assume they have the right to do this to someone else: to cause them to exist and therefore to face the angst of existence itself. They do this without question and, moreover, they unquestioningly impose their authority on them, beginning with naming the child. Yet what gives anyone the right to say to another person something as dramatic as, “Everyone will call you ‘Joel’ or ‘Ziggy’,” or whatever takes their parents’ fancy?
I have no doubt that somewhere in the dark recesses of some department of sociology or social policy unit exactly these questions are being asked. And I suspect that the answer is precisely what we would expect in a society where there is no ‘fear of the Lord’: that there is no right to do this —or rather that any rights there may be are to be defined in law and regulated by the State. Once it was thought to be a privilege that schools, colleges and so on could act in loco parentis. Today, one suspects, we are moving to the position where the parents will be allowed only those privileges that the State grants to them.
But that, of course, begs another question: what gives them the right ...?
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, it is also true that the lack of such fear is the beginning of the unravelling of reason.
Revd John P Richardson
27 September 2009
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