Raise up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. ~ Proverbs 22:6
I can’t remember the last time I had a bible in the house. If fact I’m pretty sure I threw out the one I had — which someone gave to me as a gift before going off to college — years ago; toss out in the process of lightening the load before moving to a new apartment, I’m sure. I can’t remember whether I put it in the garbage or put it a box that I marked “free books” and carried out to the sidewalk for passers by to peruse. I remember thinking that I was done with it, and what it represented. But — as recent posts on the blog indicate — I’ve been thinking a lot about religion lately. And this morning I found myself thinking about it from the perspective of a not-particularly-religious parent, thinking about how to pass on some sense of values and morality to my son, while haunted by the echo of the proverb above.
Lately I’ve been reading Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here which has been sitting on my desk for some months now, waiting to be read, as part of my “stash.” (It’s also available online.) Though written in 1935, it’s as if Lewis had a crystal-ball view of 2005 America. On the train this morning I happened to read a passage that struck a chord with me, in which the protagonist wanders from one church to another, seeking comfort in disheartening political times and finding none.
I couldn’t help identifying with his journey to some degree. I ended up finding the practice of faith in which I was born and raised more of a burden and an obstacle than a comfort, and eventually gave up trying to contort myself to fit into it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drifting closer to the (somewhat blurry?) line between agnosticism and atheism, with an increasing desire to be done with matters of faith altogether. Even my approach to buddhism of late, musings on reincarnation notwithstanding, has been mostly to see it as a kind of ethics I’d like to at least try to live by, however imperfectly. I think it’s best summed up in this introduction.
Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body or speech is likely to be harmful to one’s self or to others and thereby avoiding any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind. A mind that is skillful avoids actions that are likely to cause suffering or remorse.
That’s enough for me and, along with the eightfold path, it’s more than enough to keep me practicing for a while. And my own unstructured approach to it suits me fine. But as a parent, as I’ve watched Parker get older, I’ve learned how much children need structure and how much it helps them to learn. So, I found myself wondering how to pass some sense of the above on to Parker as he grows up, without much of a structure to support it.
As a family, we’re not terribly religious. One parent is a lapsed catholic from a non-religious family, and the other is a buddhist in mostly singular practice and with agnostic to atheistic leanings — and a strong suspicion of organized religion. Our Sundays are spent doing a variety of things together as a family — grocery shopping, going to the park, socializing, etc. — pretty much everything except going to church or to some other regular religious gathering. When Parker was a baby, we went to a Universalist Church in D.C. a few times; because a friend was the minister there, so I felt comfortable enough there.
But that was more than a couple of years ago, and we haven’t seen the inside of a church since then. Part of that is probably a reaction on my part to the way I was brought up with regards to religion, in a home where christianity (the particular brand my folks subscribed to, not uncommon in many black communities) and church attendance were pretty much compulsory.
When I got older, and became good friends with a classmate who was the daughter of an episcopal minister, I got leave to attend there once in a while, so long as I was in somebody’s church on Sunday. I had to go long after I’d stopped believing (if I ever did), which in itself was something I knew enough to keep to myself as long as I lived in my parents’ house. Raised up in the way I should have gone, I have since departed from it. I think that experience, along with the conflict between my family’s religion and my being gay, left me with a conviction that my kids — if I had any — would not be subject to the same. Now I find myself wondering how to pass on morality and values without some kind of structure.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from buying into the notion that one has to believe in a deity or subscribe to a formal religion to possess values and an sense of morality. Right now, teaching Parker anything about how to behave in the world in relation to others basically amounts to simple lessons like “don’t hit,” “ask nicely,” and “it’s nice to share.” And for the not-so-distant future I’ve tracked down some buddhist children’s books that I can read to him and see if he likes them. (Fortunately, he likes it when we read to him. and regularly asks for stories.) Not that I plan on raising him buddhist, so much as I want him to know something about it, and to at least pass on a sense of its basic values from which I’ve benefited and hope he will too. (Upon reflection, I guess that’s what any parent wants to do with any system of faith or values.)
I want to gently point him in that direction, and then let him take it from there. But is that enough? Does it “take a village”? And how does a family like ours find or build that village when it comes to a shared sense of morality and values? A christian church is definitely out, but D.C. has a Buddhist Vihara, and even a Buddhist Congregationalist Church (which doesn’t seem to have a website), but I haven’t checked them out yet. I’m even considering a visit to the Washington Ethical Society, “a humanistic, spiritual community.”
Maybe I’m thinking way too much about this. Perhaps its nothing more than clearly and consistently communicating and demonstrating the values that are important to our family (a tall order all by itself) and not a question of faith or religion at all. I know that we want to raise Parker not so much in the way we think he “should go,” but guide him in a way that we hope will help him to live a rich, happy, productive life — one that doesn’t cause suffering to others or to himself — and teach him the importance of compassion along the way. If we can succeed at that, whatever else he learns or chooses later on, I hope he won’t depart from at least that much.