Thursday, September 16, 2004

Words with a post-Christian mother

A young mother, a good friend, recently wrote to me expressing some concerns about her daughter and her education. The mother comes from a good evangelical Protestant family, in fact a missionary family in the Far East. But she has drifted away from the Christian moorings of her childhood and no more claims the identity of Christian, at least, as she says, "in a traditional sense." Here is part of our exchange, based on one earlier correspondence:

The Mother:
Thanks for your "soap box" spiel. It's always interesting. I particularly loved the MacLeish quote. I've heard so much about the Chronicles of Narnia (pictured left), from so many different people, I'm sure that's one we'll read with our daughter, J., when she's a little older. What you talk about encountering among your college students is very sobering. I'm sure, as you say, the disintegration of identity has a variety of sources. It sounds like you're also saying the images, metaphores and values that have been passed down to us culturally are no longer working. I'll buy that. Do you feel it would be best to try to reclaim them or that there is some sort of transformation process that we need to go through as a culture to create new ones?
When we say that the old metaphors are "no longer working," that
leads many people to one of two conclusions, both on the assumption that there was a problem with the old metaphors and/or how they were understood: (1) infuse the old ones with new meanings, or (2) replace them with new ones.

#1 is the answer of liberal Christianity, which wants to reinterpret the old metaphors, like crucifixion and resurrection, to mean something else than a blood sacrifice or literal bodily resurrection-- such as the importance of putting others first and of being hopeful and cheerful so as to be a bright light in the face of gloom and despair.

#2 is the answer of all those who endeavor to find an alternative to the nihilism that followed in the wake of the collapse of the meaning-confeering Christian meta-narrative. (a) Existentialists, for example, try to find meaning in bravely asserting the meaningfulness of personal choices in the face of a pointless existence that renders all of one's decisions absurd. (b) Postmodernism attempts something similar, replacing "truth" and "reality" with "constructs" that are elaborated in stories we tell ourselves, which hopefully can yield some sort of meaning. (c) The amorphous New Age movement postulates some sort of "higher consciousness" that it hopes will yield insight into thetrue meaning and nature of things.

My own view of the claim that the old metaphors are "no longer working," however is that of G.K. Chesterton (a Catholic convert who was a major influence on C.S. Lewis): "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."
The Mother:
One of the things that was sort of nerve-racking for my husband and me around the idea of putting J. in public schools was that neither of us had been through the system. I had 5th and 6th grade in Idaho and I know the quality of that education wasn't too great. Other than that, I was in private schools and he in the European system. We were concerned about the quality of the educational learning, but also about the socialization, the values, etc. You know we're not particularly religious in the traditional sense, but we do have ideas about values it's important to pass on to J., many of them (though perhaps not all) compatible with what might be called traditional values: a sense of right and wrong in how we treat people, a strong sense of community, an ecological awareness, a sense of personal responsibility, a sense of the spiritual dimension of life, the need to strive continually for growth, etc.
All the values you list here, of course, are residual values from the legacy of western Judeo-Christianity. This should not be in the least surprising, since, like most of us in the west, you have emerged from that tradition. In terms of historical developments, the trajectory that this movement has followed has passed through several phases: (1) traditional western Judeo-Christian theism; (2) Deism, which keeps the notion of a God out there, but jettisons the notion of any divine, miraculous intervention on the part of God in the affairs of human beings; hence, no revelation, no incarnation, no resurrection, no sin, and therefore no salvation; (3) naturalism, which does away with God and the supernatural altogether, so that there is no God, no miracles, nothing but impersonal evolution, a brief life full of unfulfillable aspirations, and then the eternal sleep of death; and (4) nihilism, which draws the brutally honest conclusion that if life has no divinely-imposed meaning to be humanly discovered, it is absurd and meaningless, and the only question really worth asking is why we bother to go on living (Albert Camus (pictured right): why do we not commit suicide). But of course that's hardly the message you want for J.

The question you have to seriously ask yourself, then, is: what can I give to J. that will sustain her and give her hope and meaning and purpose and fulfillment in the face of the brutal logic that leads from naturalism directly to nihilism? Does existentialism, or postmodernism or the New Age movement, or some sort of Eastern mysticism provide an answer?

It's a funny thing: I ask my students: If a little girl stumbles and hurts herself, isn't the natural inclination to run to her, help her up, dry her tears, and tell her that everything's going to be alright? Yet what is it that we really believe? If our beliefs are really those of naturalism or nihilism, wouldn't a more honest response be to tell the little girl: Listen, young lady. You think you have something to cry about? Let me give you something to really cry about: your life is absolutely pointless. Whether you are run over by an eighteen wheeler in the next hour or two, or whether you live to a ripe old age to see your grandchildren, you life will soon be forgotten after you rot in your grave. Um ... That doesn't quite seem like what I'd like to tell a little girl who's just hurt herself. But doesn't this suggest the absurdity of the secularized, naturalistic, nihilistic answer? What is the answer that will provide sustenance, then? Perhaps the one that Chesterton called "demanding." But for that to make sense, one will have to overcome a great deal of the brainwashing of contemporary culture.
The Mother:
... We are, of course, prepared to take primary responsibility in imparting those values to her, but didn't want to have the sense that we were working at cross purposes with what she's being exposed to at school. We don't really know people with older kids, but we'd watch jr. high and high school kids in the neighborhood and scratch our heads and think... they look so lost, so immature, so ungrounded, etc., and get kind of freaked out. I don't want to be over protective and I think a lot of constructive learning can happen by being exposed to a variety of things and then talking about how we differ and why, but of course we'd like to have the sense that what she's getting at school more or less reinforces what we're trying to teach her.
Perhaps that gives you an idea why we homeschooled our sons. Of course that's not for everybody. But we saw serious problems in everything from the public school pedagogy to the public school socialization. A lot of the pedagogy consisted of little more than monitoring problem students, so that the brighter ones fell through the cracks of neglect. A lot of the socialization consisted of peer-influences which tended to be almost entirely anti-intellectual, leading to cultural and historical illiteracy. Not every public school is the same, of course, but there are trends which are disturbing.
The Mother:
... And we hope that she's getting a solid education in the process. It will be a long road with many twists and turns, I'm sure, but at least at this early stage we seem to be off to a good start. And for that we are exceedingly grateful! Two nights ago there was a meeting for the parents in the Montessori program and we had a chance to hear quite a bit from her teacher about what she was doing with the kids in the classroom and how they learn independence and responsibility, how they get to exercise choice within a fairly focused structure, etc., and it was very encouraging. Last night was the first PTA meeting and I was struck by what a strong family-oriented community it was, all working to improve the quality of their children's education and how well they seemed to communicate with - and work with - the teachers and administrators. Both our good friends, M. and C. were there, and we realized we were tapping into a really strong, loving community. It's such a relief. Another little observation: most of the parents of these elementary age kids were "old" like us. Interesting. I'm sure there are some younger parents in the school, but I was surprised by how many were, shall we say, "mature". It made me feel like we're not so weird after all and also contibutes to a sense of solidity. I think it is a somewhat unique school ( we visited 7 and it was the only one we really liked), and I'm so pleased to have found it. We'll see how things evolve... I'm sure the challenges will get tougher as she gets older.
Well this sounds quite good, in certain respects. Again, in light of what I know about the Montessori program, this isn't surprising. Many of the things you mention here are indispensable for a child like J. to have in her young years, if she's to form a sound character and sustain an inquisitive intellect. Sooner or later, though, she (and you) will find yourself facing some larger questions that call for anwers. Responsibility is a good thing to learn. But is there anyone to whom I am ultimately responsible besides my parents, my teachers, or my husband or community? What if I reject the values -- or some of the values -- of my community? What if I find its values groundless?

Jean-Paul Sartre (pictured right) writes:
"Towards 1880, when the French professors eneavored to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this:-- God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one's wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which weill enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words -- and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism -- othing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall re-discover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-fo-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that 'the good' exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted'; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point."(Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism)
Indeed, what will sustain us in the caustic, arid winds of that future? May God help us!

No comments: