(the full series is archived in the “RELIGION:Book reviews:Winell” category in the right column)
A dedicated religious life can be so busy (part of the problem but that’s another topic) that I used to draw up a priority list to help me keep my energies “correctly focussed” at all times. At the top of the list was always “God” or words similar to what that idea meant.
Life had a grand overall purpose. And there were hierarchies of subsidiary purposes below that but which were themselves facets helping me work to the higher purpose.
Under the various higher spiritual purposes which, after all, was what life itself was all about, came my wife, and then my kids. I don’t recall now, but I may have sometimes felt a bit queasy about having to make a decision over prioritizing between wife and kids — I probably rationalized any queasiness by reminding myself that I was doing my kids the best thing by showing them I loved their mother most of all — but there was never any thought of conflict over deciding between the “spiritual” and the “human” priorities.
(I sometimes see similar lists hanging up on colleagues’ work stations. My first impulse is to say, “Hey, relax, there’s no need. Do you really have to consciously allocate a specific order of priority for your own spouse and kids? Do you really have to keep them serially numbered on a list to remember to treat them the best you can? You look like you’ve reduced yourself to relating to them out of “duty” and “by appointment”. Is that really what you want?” But I don’t say it. I trust they’ll outgrow the yuppie-ness of it all if they don’t burnout first.)
The family can never be top priority in a life driven by a cosmically important purpose (Winell, p.122).
“The well-being of children can never compare to parental loyalty to spiritual matters. In fact, the more dedicated the parents are to evangelical causes, the greater the risk that the children will feel unimportant. Ordinary human relationships in the family rate a distant second to the importance of following God.” (p.122)
Families are temporary relationships in the fundamentalist belief system. Children are “temporarily lent” to the parents by God according to some church teachings. The real family is spiritual.
We know the verses underpinning this:
I have in other posts on this blog compared Jesus’ family relationships as they are portrayed in the gospels a little less favourably with Achilles, another god-man exemplar of another culturally foundational text for the Hellenistic world — here (1) and here (2)
Here is the hard part for many current believers to accept:
What happens when children become secondary to a greater good is similar to the neglect that happens to children in families where one parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol, work, or money. (p.122)
It can be worse in a religious family simply because both parents are addicted to God.
Even more troublesome is the insistence that devotion is a higher calling. Children cannot question this without feeling guilty, selfish, or absurd. (p.122)
At least the child of an alcoholic can call on sympathy and support networks from society. He/she can be given programs to help restore her esteem and emotional health. And the parents can be helped too. Or threatened with punishment if they don’t change.
But where abuse (even manslaughter in extreme cases) is perpetrated through the behest of socially respectable religious beliefs there is no recourse.
There is little enough acknowledgment of the exact nature of the problem in the first place. Subsequent family tragedies may be put down to “trials from Satan”, or “wrong decisions” or the cross one bears for godliness or anything that fails to comprehend what has really happened.
It’s surely obvious that this is not a problem exclusive to Christian fundamentalists. But Christian fundamentalism is one of the principle culprits in the society where most of us do have some influence.
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