Monday, August 24, 2015

Adulthood, childishness and the Church

The trouble with babies is that they grow up - at least that's what parents often seem to say but probably don't actually mean. One minute, they are all cute and snuggly in Mummy's arms, the next they are throwing a strop about not being allowed out at ten o'clock at night dressed like THAT! It has to be expected that babies must grow into adults, and that it is the duty of parents that they help their children become fully functioning and well-adjusted adults. It would not do to allow children free-rein when living in society that is necessarily bound by social contracts and codes of conduct. Now would it do to stifle the individual humanity of the child by insisting on complete control of her life. A balance must be struck, and the needs of the child must be met along paths which allow that child to grow into adulthood. Ideally, we should want to nullify Philip Larkin's rather depressive view of parenthood.

Many psychologists regard the state of adulthood as being able to make autonomous objective appraisals of their situation and act according to that appraisal. What does this really mean? Essentially, adults have decisions to make in life. A child will look to his parents to make that decision for them; a mother will seek to make a decision on behalf of those for whom she feels responsible. For an adult, the decision is to be made autonomously, not deferring the responsibility for that decision onto another, nor claiming responsibility for other adults' decisions.

Any decision must be made on an objective basis. According to this type of psychology, adulthood is about ensuring that any decision is made along reasonable, rational and factual grounds. An adult researches into the decisions that need to be made and obtains facts before making a decision, A child relies on the research of the parent before it is guided into making any decision, but ultimately, the parent must make the decision based on what that parent believes to be the right moral decision. This is why it is no more wrong to bring up a child as Christian than it is to bring them up atheist or agnostic.

Isn't parenthood frightening? Yes, but it must be frightening when we consider that the decisions that we make affect our children. It's frightening because we love our children so much, Yet, a parent must allow the child the opportunity to become an adult in themselves. That's the goal of parenthood. Like teachers, parents must seek to make themselves redundant so that the children grow up autonomous and objective and able to make decisions well.

And this is where the Church comes in.

One reason that people give for rejecting God and Christianity, indeed perhaps all religion is their belief that it seeks to prevent its members from growing up. Obviously, Karl Marx is one of the philosophers who voiced that opinion carefully. For him, Religion prevented the workers from realising their true worth by pointing them to false hopes. Of course, he failed to show that the hopes were indeed false. However, one of the major obstacles to belief in God is the idea of submission of our wills to Him. These folk don't want to be treated like children with God, and particularly the Church, making the decisions on their behalf. 

Is belief in God really the loss of one's autonomy? Or does belief in God remove true objectivity when it comes to making the decisions that all adults make? An adult must be responsible for one's decisions, yet a God who says "do this or go to Hell" subverts the adulthood of the theist. While this is a stereotype of God, it is a stereotype that pervades and the Church must look to see that this stereotype is not sanctioned, but truly seeks the adulthood of its members.

No matter what atheists say, they have not shown that God does not exist, nor have they proved that belief in God is not rational. Indeed they cannot do so unless they engage in a committed reductio ad absurdam rather than the setting up of straw man arguments or appealing to the problem of evil which, while challenging our relationship with God does not demonstrate that He should not be worshipped. 

The agnostic doubts that knowledge about God's existence can ever be obtained, but the rational Christian must accept that knowledge of God's existence is not absolute in the minds of human beings and until we see Him face to face, we must wrestle a doubt which is not necessarily the enemy of the faith, but the salt which promotes self-examination. There are rational principles on which the existence of God can be based, but they can still be doubted. There are so many Christians who have arrived at their faith because they have been able to make an autonomous objective appraisal of the situation and conclude that God exists.

However, does this mean that, having arrived at belief in God, we now have to surrender our adulthood? It's true to say that, if we are Christian, then we do have to see God as our Creator and we must therefore surrender any idea that we are responsible for our existence. We have to see God as Our Father and recognise that He does indeed provide everything for us. Does this mean that we can no longer be adults, but be good little boys and girls and do what daddy tells us?

Here, the parable of the Prodigal Son helps.
A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 
And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 
And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat , and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost , and is found. And they began to be merry . 
Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant . And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out , and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again ; and was lost , and is found . (St Luke xv.11-end)
Look at the situation with regard to what we understand to be adulthood. Clearly, the father in this parable stands for God, and the sons the whole of humanity. At which point are they disallowed from acting autonomously? At which point are they disallowed from acting objectively? The prodigal son makes his decision on His own and is provided with all that he needs from his father's estate. The father allows this to happen even at the cost of half his belongings precisely so that the son can exercise his free decisions based on his own understanding and wants. It's the wrong decision, but the prodigal son learns his own lesson. The father's love for his son is not conditional on the son's exercise of his adulthood. Far from being a controlling parent, the father permits freedom and is ready to receive his son back to him, not to infantilise, but to be a son.

That's how God acts as Our Father. We just have to choose to come back when we realise that our lives are objectively better with God than they are without Him.

However, atheists always make very good points which is why the honest and noble atheist (such as Bertrand Russell and Stephen Law) should be heard seriously. Does the Church infantilise her flock. I really wish that I could say, "no she doesn't" but I would either be lying or very misguided and brainwashed. The Church infantilises when she seeks to control the faithful imposing sanctions for failing to adhere to Church teaching. As a priest, I can indeed expect censure and sanction for failing to teach what the Church teaches, and rightly so. I have promised in my vows of ordination to obey church teaching and observe my duty to be faithful to the Doctrine and Dogma of Holy Church. However, as the parable of the Prodigal Son shows, if God allows people to wander away, then so must I. My duty then becomes to call the errant back, to keep the lights on so that the errant can find their way home. I have no business proscribing any form of censure or sanction against my fellow sinners.

Of course, my office as priest means that I can hear people's confession and that means that, God has appointed me to listen to a penitent's "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son" and to pronounce the fact that God willingly receives back the truly penitent. Any "penance" that I "impose" is not a punishment but an exercise for the penitent to re-engage with the God with whom they have just been reconciled.

And yet, I am called, "Father". This would certainly suggest that my presence is to belittle my flock and put them in the place of children. Looking at some members of my congregation, I see two gentlemen who are old enough to be my father who have led colourful lives, and a working mother of no little commitment and no mean intelligence. Infantilising them would be a vile abuse of the sacrament that I have received from God to carry out His will. They may call me "Father" but it is not me they recognise, but the God whom they love.

Every time I am called "Father," it pulls me up short and even hurts me a little bit because I have such a great fatherhood to live up to, a fatherhood that I share with my brother priests. It would be truly infantilising if Bishops and Priests sought to seek the title of "Father" in order to receive obeisance. I am personally of the opinion that Clergy should keep right out of the political arena and shun all forms of power over other human beings. Thankfully, gone are the days of feudal obeisance to clergy.As far as this world is concerned, I am just a simple teacher. As far as the Church goes, I hold out the embrace of  God the Father in the Holy Sacraments that I am permitted to distribute to all who would receive them, As far as the next world goes, I stand out from the crowd only to receive harsher judgement for failing to shine the light of Christ to the world and for all whom I have misled through wrong teaching.

If the Church wishes to dispel the image of the infantilising god rejected rightly by so many, then she herself must seek to ensure that Her members exercise their God-given right to make their decisions autonomously and objectively, and then stand back and wait for the prodigal sons to return, She can learn much about life and the World from the prodigals and perhaps better advise Her children because of these lessons. This way, God's children can indeed grow healthily into God's adults while still remaining sons and daughters of God by His adoption and love.

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