Whatever might be said about the role of religion and citizenship, it is clear that almost two centuries later the family continues to be held in high regard.
In his perceptive survey of early-nineteenth-century American life entitled Democracy in America, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) identified three essential components of a stable, highly functioning civilization: family, religion, and democratic political participation. These entities serve as a counterweight to the individualistic and self-centered tendencies that would otherwise dominate society and inhibit the development of any sense of common purpose and collective responsibility.
Whatever might be said about the role of religion and citizenship, it is clear that almost two centuries later the family continues to be held in high regard. In recent years, entire political campaigns have been built around the theme of "family values," and although people often differ with respect to the specific nature of those values, few would disagree that the family occupies a central position in contemporary social systems.
Nevertheless, the American family--and increasingly families throughout the world--has been undergoing a transformation and is no longer restricted to a single type. A dwindling number of people, primarily religious conservatives, still cling to the notion that the only "proper" or "legitimate" family consists of a duly married heterosexual couple engaged in parenting. An emerging majority are learning to accept that a family can be just about anything one or more individuals want and choose it to be.
In my own faith community in Madison, Wisconsin, many types of families are represented, including same-sex couples with and without children, unmarried cohabitating couples, singles, "blended" families composed of remarried adults and their respective children, persons involved in polyamorous relationships (three or more consenting adults living intimately together), elders sharing living quarters with their adult children, and, of course, a preponderance of families that conform to the traditional definition. What I find rather remarkable and inspiring is the ease with which all of these people interact at the First Unitarian Society of Madison and how affirming they try to be of one another.
To be sure, this has not always been the case. It has taken time and repeated exposure for some of our more conventionally oriented members to become comfortable with an expanded vision of family. Gradually, ours has become a truly "welcoming" congregation. If residual disapproval of some domestic arrangements still exists, it isn't obvious. Whatever prejudice or impediments they might still encounter in society at large, all of our families do feel affirmed by their coreligionists.
This is one way in which progressive religious communities in the twenty-first century can render an invaluable service to a changing society. For much of history, religion has functioned as a profoundly conservative social force, seeking to protect ancient mores and established institutions from being dissolved by the acids of modernity. In this capacity, religion has often withheld moral and spiritual approval from relational and familial arrangements that deviated from the norm. It did not make much difference how decently any given family conducted its affairs; what mattered most was its composition. Indeed, religion quite often tolerated highly dysfunctional families of the preferred type over warm and nurturing families that were improperly constituted.
In many religious cultures--Roman Catholic, Christian Evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox Judaism--this remains the case: family is narrowly defined and deviations summarily disapproved. Even the normally open-minded and tolerant Dalai Lama unfortunately invokes traditional Buddhist teaching in identifying gay and lesbian relationships as "sexual misconduct," thus rendering them impermissible.
The role of a liberal or progressive faith community is meant to be different. The basic intent of the First Unitarian Society of Madison is to provide a safe and welcoming environment for families of all descriptions and then to provide moral and spiritual resources to help them thrive on their own terms. The fact is, whatever form they might take, families today need help, and research seems to indicate that faith communities can be a significant asset in an increasingly competitive, calculating, and unstable social environment. As former U.S. vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, remark in their book Joined at the Heart, "The odds of achieving stability, success and happiness seem to be very much in favor of families that invest their children with a strong moral and tolerant faith tradition."
Today's families are incredibly stretched and strained. Financially, it has become more difficult every year to make ends meet. Two incomes are a necessity rather than an option, and today's parents have less time and energy than their predecessors for their children and each other.
Then, too, generational differences and antagonisms seem to have become more pronounced. Fashions, styles, fads, and even speech conventions appear and are discarded so rapidly that old and young share fewer common interests and are less able to communicate. Children and parents alike often feel misunderstood and underappreciated by one another.
In a hyperindividualistic, consumer-oriented culture, community values have become much murkier and more difficult to maintain. Tocqueville believed that the family should be a "locus of morality higher than that of the world" and that its purpose was to inculcate the sort of "unselfish love" that undergirds and sustains public morality itself.
But you won't hear that last point being made very often by celebrities in today's market-driven mass media. Primary emphasis is placed on private gratification and individual self-indulgence, with just an occasional nod to the family values that Americans profess to be so fond of. The stabilizing and integrating virtues of commitment, mutual assistance, compromise, forgiveness, and magnanimity don't get much exposure in the steady stream of entertainment and advertising to which our families are exposed.
The problems that have beset Western families in recent decades are now beginning to appear in countries where rapid economic development has disrupted traditional social and familial mores. Writing in The New Yorker recently, Peter Hessler described the plight of an upwardly mobile Chinese family with whose circumstances he was very familiar. "In seven years," he observes, "the Wei family's income had increased six-fold," and their standard of living had risen accordingly.
However, the pressures of improving, or even maintaining, their position have exacted a heavy toll. The husband and father, Wei Ziqi, smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day and has begun to drink heavily in order to relieve stress. Cao Chunmei, his wife, is probably addicted to amphetamine-based diet pills and has turned to a superstitious form of religion to cope with depression. The couple's son, Wei Jia, is seriously overweight.
ompounding their individual afflictions, the Wei family as a whole has become increasingly dysfunctional. Previously poor but genially connected, the household has become the scene of heated arguments and bitter silences. If resources exist to help the Wei's surmount their difficulties, the family appears not to be aware of them.
While some people do realize that responsible and responsive faith communities can be a significant asset to today's families, many do not. Particularly in the more secular sector of modern society, the impression lingers that religion has more to do with "faith" than with "community" and that its objective is to impose arbitrary, oppressive rules rather than transmit rational, life-affirming values. Having had a negative encounter with, or having received a poor impression of, one religion or another, some find it hard to treat the matter objectively. As a result, they fail to recognize the positive contribution that organized religion can make to their own lives and to their relationships with loved ones.
In an autobiographical essay entitled "Why I Make Sam Go to Church" from her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that "the main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by." Lamott reports that among the many people she encounters, the ones who have left the deepest impression have been, as a general rule, spiritually engaged. These, she writes, are folks who "have what I want: purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy." Although Lamott is a Protestant Christian, she acknowledged that no one religious tradition enjoys a monopoly on such unselfish and "self-actualized" people. Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims who join together to work on themselves and create a better world are all "following a brighter path than the glimmer of their own candle," she writes.
More specifically, then, in what ways might spiritually grounded communities make a meaningful contribution to the well-being of twenty-first-century families?
In the first place, institutions that provide regular opportunities for cross-generational contact have become increasingly rare. This is, however, the bread and butter of many faith communities. As I mention in my forthcoming book Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living (Berrett-Koehler, 2009), a high-functioning church, synagogue, mosque, or sangha with a life span focus is one of the few venues in which casual interchanges between young and old routinely occur. In my experience, these contacts help reduce suspicion, soften stereotypes, and increase intergenerational appreciation. Moreover, a faith community can pull "empty-nesters" and other older adults out of isolation and temper the natural drift toward age-based segregation--a development exacerbated by the gravitation of elders toward retirement communities.
Second, in our highly mobile, uprooted world, families need sources of tangible support to replace or supplement that which was once provided by the extended family. Either by choice or by economic necessity, a high percentage of young adults end up living far from the community in which they were reared. Often as not, they choose life partners and produce children at a considerable distance from their own siblings and parents.
I can attest from my own three decades of ministry to faith communities that several forms of assistance are often available to those who make a sustained effort to stay involved. Parents of infants and young children find peers with whom to share child care. Couples planning their wedding can avail themselves of prenuptial counseling. For singles, congregational programs provide a safe environment in which to make new friends or find a partner with compatible values. When illness or injury strikes, anxious and overstretched families can receive meals, transportation, and other small but helpful services from organized, caring committees. Widows and widowers, for instance, often receive invaluable emotional support from those who have suffered a similar loss.
In other words, between the intimate world of blood ties and the fee-for-service professionals to whom people today often turn for assistance, we find often underutilized religious associations. Inasmuch as individuals or families are willing to shed their pose of self-sufficiency and adopt healthy habits of interconnection and interdependence, they are likely to receive warm attention from an assortment of concerned souls.
Third, a faith community is quite unique in that its primary purpose is to address and invite conversation about life's great imponderables. How many opportunities does any person have during the course of a normal month to meditate upon the meaning of this life or to consider his or her prospects for the next? What other modern institutions equip parents to respond appropriately to their children's innocent but probing questions about such matters?
In a world of multiple options with all sorts of errands to accomplish it is tempting to spend our waking hours dealing exclusively with the mundane--getting and spending, performing chores, and exploring new avenues of pleasure. That being the case, making room in our busy schedules for some serious contemplation is a challenge. It should be a higher priority because those who experience a dearth of meaning and for whom a clear sense of purpose is missing tend to be less happy and more frustrated than people who have attended to such matters.
In my experience, people who are involved in faith communities are able to come to terms with the inescapable issues of mortal existence more readily than individuals who rely on their own meager resources. And having confronted the sources of their own deep-seated fear and anxiety, they are able to move beyond self-absorption and self-pity and develop greater sensitivity to others. As a result, their relationships are healthier and their presence more welcome.
Finally, and related to the foregoing, faith communities can help people with their priorities. Free-market capitalism and a powerfully seductive, deeply penetrating advertising industry have led billions of people to suppose that the true sources of human happiness are easily procured on Amazon.com or in the shopping mall. We have seen in the last fifty years the worldwide ascendancy of materialistic values. Without denying that this has in certain respects been a positive development--a person's sense of well-being does in fact correlate with a modest level of affluence--it is a grave mistake to think that greater purchasing power will guarantee the good life.
In fact, material consumption is far less instrumental to the quest for happiness than positive relational involvement. It is not things, but other people, that make us glad. Service to others or to some "self-transcending" cause also delivers greater internal rewards and long-term satisfaction than material gains. Creative expression and regular encounters with new and exciting ideas also matter more than the acquisition of a new car or a thirty-six-inch flat-screen TV. For a culture that increasingly suffers from what Richard Louv describes as "nature-deficit disorder," communion with the sentient world is both therapeutic and life enhancing. Alienation from the web of life that sustains us contributes to a state of chronic anxiety whose origin many of us scarcely recognize.
It is the responsibility of religion and of faith communities to expose our cultural fallacies, present meaningful alternatives, and help us move toward them. When we pay attention to and persistently pursue activities that really matter and that reliably produce satisfaction--activities that have little to do with marketplace values--we will feel better about ourselves and more secure amid the truculence and turbulence of the modern world.
Religion helps us see that a purely instrumental relationship to the world is ultimately unsustainable for individuals and their families. It invites us to adopt a different disposition that complements and completes the gifts a faith community bestows. Indeed, what may be most needed in our world today is a renewed sense of reverence. I am convinced that if religion can instill this feeling in a family, it will be well immunized from many of the modern ills with which it is threatened.
Michael A. Schuler has served the First Unitarian Society of Madison in Wisconsin, one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America, since 1988. In addition to a master of divinity degree from Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, CA, he earned a PhD in the humanities from Florida State University at Tallahassee.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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