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Idolatry and the Family

by Leo Sandon, Jr.

Dr. Sandon is associate professor of religion and director of American studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 28, 1979, p. 335. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


One of life’s most cherished values is the experience of familial community. The love between husband and wife, parent and child, and between members of the extended family ranks high among our blessings. For most of us, home ties provide enduring joys. Unless we are world figures or persons of great office, our most important responsibilities are probably those related to being husbands, wives, parents, sons or daughters. As the traditional marriage rite observes: “No other human ties are more tender, no other vows more sacred than these you now assume.

I

The biblical perspective on marriage realistically recognizes both the inherent importance and the limitation of family bonds. On the one hand, there is the norm expressed in Genesis: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Here the implication is that such an interpenetration of flesh and spirit takes place that the marriage relationship constitutes what Karl Barth called “a full communion of life.” So basic is this assumption that the biblical and ecclesiastical traditions use the marriage metaphor to describe Yahweh’s relation to Israel and Christ’s relation to the church. On the other hand, particularly in the New Testament, the limitations of family ties are recognized. Jesus’ admonition concerning the forsaking of family loyalties led Ernest Renan to conclude that Jesus “preached war against nature, and total severance from ties of blood.”

Understandably, the claims of family tempt us toward idolatry. But alas, we are doomed to disillusionment if we allow marital or blood relationships to become the center of our lives and thereby close the circle. There are those spouses whose lives are so self-contained and whose windows and doors are so tightly latched against the claims of the wider community that their insularity is obvious. Such a closed society becomes inbred and dull and appears to others as downright stuffy.

Marriage does not bring ultimate fulfillment because we are so constituted that no human relationship can satisfy us totally. Those of us who have lived many years with a spouse are aware at certain moments -- perhaps across the table or as our mate is sleeping -- that, in a deep sense, we are living with a stranger whom we never will fully know!

Obviously the finitude of the marital relationship often manifests itself more negatively than through the reality of its partial nature. Every person brings to marriage weaknesses as well as strengths. Moreover, marriage partners do betray their vows. Inherent in the concept of fidelity is the logical possibility of infidelity.

Parenthood becomes idolatrous when we seek meaning through the lives of our children. There can be no vicarious immortality imputed by parenthood. Then, too, there is an inevitable mixture of agony and ecstasy in the parent-child relationship. Parents both bless and curse their children, because there are no perfect parents. Sons and daughters often disappoint.

If these realities were not enough to establish the fragility of the family, death does what no person is permitted to do: it puts asunder. Marriage partners vow fidelity “until death us do part.” Even those who speak of perfect marriages and of children “who never caused us any worry” finally must engage the fact that death terminates all human relationships. When death occurs, we confront the painful truth that even family ties are not absolute.

Augustine, who grieved over the death of his beloved mother, Monica, spoke about such grief in his Confessions. According to Augustine, we find the death of a loved one so painful for two reasons: First, we love those who are close to us as if they will never die. They should be loved as human beings -- as mortals. In light of the great commandment, love of one’s spouse and children comes under the rubric of neighbor love. Second, we look upon a loved one’s death as a loss, and we grieve our “losses.” This attitude indicates that we hold the other as a possession -- literally, “You belong to me.” Augustine reminds us that loved ones are mortal and that they are not ours. One of the essential characteristics of all idolatry is the notion of possession: we possess our idols as objects.

II

Renan errs in judging that Jesus had no love for home and kinship. His parables and metaphors reflect his gratitude for such natural human bonds. But Jesus did insist that earthborn loyalties must be held in tension with a higher loyalty if we are to serve each other in responsible love. Perhaps one way of saying this is that “home” must be redefined: our homes must be viewed from the standpoint of Home.

S. Paul Schilling, the theologian who introduced many of us in the English-speaking world to the work of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, reminds us in a sensitive meditation that Bloch speaks of “humanity as on its way toward its homeland.” In Bloch’s thought, “home” does not connote a static haven as much as a “direction” which he finds described in philosophy and literature as pointing to that which alone endures. Schilling observes that Bloch’s idea of the homeland sounds much like what the New Testament calls the Kingdom of God. Home is where people ought to be -- where they belong because they are accepted and loved for their own sakes. Home is where God is leading us, and we, like one of Christopher Fry’s characters, are commissioned to “make wherever we are as much like home as possible.” Schilling helps us all to sing with deeper meaning John Newton’s lines:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.


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