Word Magazine October 1994 Page 4 – 7
RAISING AN ORTHODOX FAMILY IN MODERN NORTH AMERICA
By John T. Chirban, PH.D., TH.D.
WE HAVE GOOD REASON TO ASK, WHAT VALUES?’ AND “WHOSE VALUES?” are we applying in raising an Orthodox family in North America because the message of our faith and the notion of family are challenged today as never before.
A new report by feminist researcher Shere Hite scorns the traditional family as “outdated, and the cradle of many of society’s injustices” —and so, she concludes, “It’s not worth saving”.1 She states that children have more need of “warm and mature people around them than the archetypal two-parent family, and are better off growing up in a single parent family than an atmosphere poisoned by gender inequality. So, Ms. Hite concludes that a family can be made up of any combination of people whether heterosexual or homosexual who share their faces in an intimate way.
I will not defend the traditional family that Ms. Hite condemns; rather, I will discuss the unique characteristics and significance of raising an Orthodox family that are, in fact, different from the excesses that may occur in “the traditional family” and certainly distinctive from leading us to the extremes that Ms. Hite suggests.
I believe that the family’s primary purpose is to nurture moral and healthy human beings so that they may attain their true potential: physically. emotionally, and spiritually. But, how do we accomplish such nurturance? I think that the individuals character, morality, and range of being are developed more through practice than precept, that is, learned more from one’s experience of family than through thoughts about what a family should he. Therefore, to address the theme “Raising an Orthodox Family in Modern North America,” I will identify some of the forces surrounding family life (the practices) that either enhance or distort our vision of the family and that ultimately affect the modern precepts for living based upon such experiences.
Here, I will identify and offer suggestions for meeting the challenges of three factors of North American life that affect the experience of family life and intensify the conflict between family, church and society. These factors are:
A recent article in U.S. News and World Report states “that America is at least as religious as it has always been”2 describing the plethora of traditional and non-traditional expressions of spiritual quests that Americans follow.
It is the nature of human beings to seek God — or gods. But which God (gods) do we follow?
MTV, the music video network; only saturated with sexually violent images and driven by the methods of American business, admits to being out to shape this generation. One of their corporate ads pictures the back of a teenager’s head with “MTV” shaved in his hair. The copy reads, “MTV is not a channel. It’s a cultural force.”3 MTV has affected the way in which an entire generation thinks, talks, dresses and buys. Columnist Ellen Goodman observed in The Chicago Tribune:
Once the chorus of cultural values was full of ministers, teachers, neighbors, and leaders. They demanded more conformity but offered more support. Now the messengers are Ninja Turtles, Madonna, rap groups and celebrities pushing sneakers.4
Recently, while boarding a plane from LaGuardia to Logan, the fellow behind me in line saw that I was reading a book entitled The Earliest Relationship by T. Berry Brazelton and Bertrand Cramer. 5 This man began talking to me about his seven-year-old son, stating that his son’s “idol” was Donald Trump. The father asked what I thought. After reading from Brazelton how a child is so easily affected by early attachments, relationships and interactions, I was struck by the contrast between what I was reading and what I was hearing. It seemed sad that this child had idealized some one who abused wealth and how Donald Trump’s perceived power through our culture had such a hold on this child. It was also startling that the father was not aware of the impact of this idol.
Where is Orthodoxy in the face of these idols? Is there not a conflict between our faith and the
modern day idols that influence our families? For clearly, if our Orthodoxy does not guide the
values of our lives in North America, the values of our lives in North America will guide our
Our idolatry is the basis of our spiritual chaos, Idolatry is not new. We need to recognize idolatry as a response of our dependent nature which has not adequately bonded with God and which gets redirected to other “objects,” in the psychological sense. Naturally a person is dependent upon God for sustenance; however, when one does not know God he or she often seeks material or psychic replacements (from furs to cars to gurus in order to be nurtured).
St. Paul, the book of Acts tells us, was provoked in Athens when he saw that the city was full of idols and the people “who lived there and spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” We can literally apply St. Paul’s words “to the men of Athens” as if he were addressing the North Americans who you recall we said are “at least as religious as they have always been.”
St, Paul says:
I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For I passed along and observed the objects of your worship … (Acts 17:22-23).
And he goes on to discuss the unknown god:
… this I proclaim to you. The God who moves the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, .,. (and he goes on) … that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him, Yet he is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:23-28).
St. Paul confronts the Athenians and by extension all of us aware to be of our unknown idols by declaring the Knowledge of Truth of the God who is revealed.
Later in Corinthians, Paul says:
We know that “‘an idol has no real existence” and that there is no God but one. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth, yet for us there is our God, the Father, whom are all things and from whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, from whom are all things and through who we exist (I Corinthians 8:46).
Like St. Paul, our response to the idolatry around us must he “Christ.” We need to examine our practices in life and see if we have replaced Christ with idols of our times.
Recently I listened to a religious program on the radio, where a priest, a minister, and a rabbi were discussing “Who was Jesus?” I was disappointed with how lukewarm the Christian leaders were. In their effort to communicate harmony, to be politically correct, they addressed only the historical nature of the Person of Christ. What resulted was a “sanitized” New Testament with no revelation of God. Christians did not want to discuss Jesus’ Divine Nature less they be offensive. It was sad to hear that church leaders elevated pluralism over the message of Faith.
Jesus did not say try it all. He clearly said, “I am the Way!” (,Jn. 14:6). This is the cornerstone that is essential for raising an Orthodox Christian family in modern North America — belief and committed life in Christ.
And just as St. Paul and Jesus did not respond to the idols of their day through repetitious ritualism and traditionalism, we must translate our liturgy into life — the precept into practice — to show how God is alive in us —how our family is not alive merely as a generational lineage but as a transforming fellowship of brothers and sisters who celebrate life through love in Christ though applying Christian virtues in our behavior with one another.
We are inundated by crime. A University of Michigan study reported that nine percent of eighth graders carry a gun, knife or club to school at least once a month. An estimated 270,000 guns go to school each day.
A survey by Tulane University found that 20% of suburban high school students thought it appropriate to shoot someone “who has stolen something from you.” Eight percent said that it is “all right to shoot a person who “did something to offend or insult you. Yet at the root of the violence of youth often is the violence that they experience at home. At a more basic level, is the problem violence or has it to do with our morality and values?
Karl Menninger, the renowned psychiatrist and pioneer at the Menninger Institute, addressed the moral vacuum in North American society through his inspiring book, Whatever Became of Sin? Menninger writes, “(Sin) was a word once in everyone’s mind, but now rarely if ever heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in our troubles — sin with an “I” in the middle? He continues, “Has no one committed any sins?”
I am not promoting the notion here for a return to a form of Jonathan Edwards’ family development, where we preach “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” live like the Amish, or espouse right-wing fundamentalism. We need to live Orthodox truth-seeking lives, where we commit ourselves to a Christ-centered life of goodness, wholesomeness and holiness. We need to adopt an Orthodox understanding of sin, which offers a positive perspective; where if I have committed a sin, amartia, I have “missed the mark,” and need to get back on the true path. For this, families need to accept responsibility — fathers, mothers, and children. My sense is that our society has taken a liberal backlash to the conservative judgmental mentality. Neither approach is balanced.
The North American justice does not reflect sensitivity to the Orthodox concept of responsibility, much less sin. We seem to have shifted from concern with moral responsibility to legal sensibilities. We are concerned when we commit “crimes” — that is, not God-based moral error but human legal error. And, in the name of human rights and justice, crafty legal language comes to the aid of the so-called criminal action so that no one’s responsible. And today, “psycho-babble now excuses crime as illness” as Charles Sykes describes in his powerful book A Nation of Victims. Sykes persuasively explains how the lawyers’ modern game of defense strategies and plea bargaining encourages moral decay.
In the end, no one in the media speaks of the moral chaos in such instances as the case of the Menendez brothers, who obliterated their parents with guns following an alleged history of child abuse, or the now notorious case of Lorena Bobbitt, who severed her husband’s penis after he raped her. In fact, such persons are not even convicted, as criminals. We lose sight of the distorted values that bred such atrocity and, even abandoning social justice, debate whether or not the perpetrators are emotionally ill and responsible for their actions.
Our point is not to be judgmental but to recognize that robbery and rape are the more extreme expressions of sin that society has not adopted, that have quite often evolved from sins that society has adopted, such as: envy, lying, gluttony, lust, pride, selfishness, laziness, and greed. For the most part, the violence of our day has spiritual origins.
We must respond to this crisis. Television does not propose to instill the values that foster spiritual being. We and our churches have been remiss in leading the needed spiritual awakening. We must incarnate kindness, care, support, virtue, and holiness that is sadly missing in modern life.
If our families do not know how to instill love, communication, joy, and spiritual vision, we must help them to do this with the fervor equal to our attentiveness in organizing meals or planning a budget. For the family itself is at risk.
The image of children and families sitting passively before video games and television has stirred considerable speculation. Do such activities generate apathy? Depression? Loss of creativity? Yes. Indeed.
We live in the most materially prosperous time in human history. Yet with all of our advanced communications, from satellites and rockets that send messages to unknown extra-terrestrials in space to fax machines and portable phones, families aren’t talking! In modern society which has taken over many of the duties of family and church no one really has claimed responsibility for teaching spiritual values — including family and church. Family and church must reclaim its responsibility and genuine role! St. John advises. “You must all live in love”, (II John 1:6).
I can think of no more effective antidote to this bizarre paralysis of bodies without hearts than the love of Christ, whose model of touching, caring, and compassion strengthens the soul and transforms the spirit. The one condition, however, is that we must apply the ways of Christ’s Gospel.
Paradoxically, in spite of the isolationism in family relationships, this generation yearns for the spontaneous experience of the holy.
Barbara Marx Hubbard writes in The Hunger of Eve:
“What sexuality was to the Victorian Age, mystical experience is to ours.. Almost everyone experiences it, but almost no one dares to speak of it. We have been dominated by a scientific, materialistic culture which has made us feel embarrassed about our natural spiritual matters. Yet we read that sixty percent of North American people have had mystical experiences. We are a nation of repressed mystics.6”
We must show our families how to he spiritual. Denied expression and direction, our spirituality becomes twisted. We know well the twisted spirituality saga of our times: occultism, astrology, so-called mind-expanding drugs — all unnatural, lopsided attempts at experiencing the Divine.
Although children are naturally inclined to the spiritual, we find ourselves cut off from the sacred. For this reason the family and church must reawaken their clairvoyance and attend to nurturing the soul. Families must resist the manipulations counter to spiritual values by media and business and discover the precious challenge of the opportunity offered by personal interaction ( relationship, connection, and love) in the home.
An article in Life magazine recalls how Lee Attwater, when facing death, found a “new spiritual presence in his life:”
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The 80’s were about acquiring —acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know, I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the 90’s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.”
To support this task of raising a family in North America, I conclude with these recommendations:
1. Parents set the pace. Leadership is necessary. Parents need to motivate, direct, and develop family life in Christ. It is the parent’s responsibility to influence the course of the family. The quality of relationships between family members are essential and need to be cultivated by examples of care and love.
2. Talk and talk about God. Communications — discussing what goes on in people’s lives, enabling feelings to be communicated, and resolving concerns — is essential. Families need to provide direction and discussion. Talk with and about Christ. Be honest with one another. Speak honestly with God.
3. Much does not occur in the home to nurture the family. The Church must play an active role here. Parishes need to develop family nights weekly. Interactive-relational events such as adolescent groups, and family groups are needed as well as liturgical services. In order for people to get to know who they are, they need direction and opportunities to learn the processes of change and growth. It is incumbent upon the church to provide such opportunities. Just as we have dysfunctional families, we often have dysfunctional churches that need attention. Curing a problem is often begun by naming it as it is.
4. A balance of love, fun and discipline is essential for success. Enhancing harmony and respect, practicing virtue and talking about the details and faces of sin, temptation, and challenges for living a good life, by providing settings that are understanding and compassion – are essentials for raising an Orthodox family.
5. Finally, and always pray. For it is only God, not even ourselves, on whom we can depend. Relationships and God-consciousness sensitizes us to rightness and wrongness and sets us on the path toward experiencing love, truth, and freedom.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of Counseling and Spiritual Development at Hellenic Collage and Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. He is an Advanced Fellow in Behavioral Medicine at Harvard Medical School at The Cambridge Hospital.
1. “Traditional Family Outdated, Hite Finds,” International News, Saturday, February 19, 1994, p. 147.
2. “Spiritual America,” U. S. News and World Report, April 4, 1994, pp.48-59.
3. MTV 1993 media kit, quoted in Focus on the Family, February, 1994.
4. “Battling Our Culture is Parent’s Task,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1993.
5. T. Berry Brazelton and Bertrand G. Cramer. The Earliest Relationship. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
6. From Barbara Marx Hubbard, The Hunger of Eve (Eastbound, Washington: Island Pacific Northwest, 1989), pp.179-180 quoted in John E. Mack’s “Psychoanalysis and the Self: Toward a Spiritual Point of View,” Person and the Self (biblio.refs.)