Father Figure (Lent 4)

Would I have this anxiety about faith if I hadn’t grown up in the family I did? Would I would even think about it? You can’t miss what you never had, I think they say, though the evidence of human history suggests that—in this case—we do.

I took a Freud class in graduate school from a professor who declared at the outset that he found religion absurd, an outdated myth that Freud, among others, had helped him dismantle. This was a mixed class of grad students and undergrads, most of the undergrads precocious kids from Virginia. One day the professor asked for a show of hands: ”how many of you believe in God?” Every hand shot up but two: mine and the hand of a young hyper-rationalist so calculating that I regretted not joining with the believers just to be in better company. The professor looked at the raised hands incredulously. “I hope this class will help you think differently about that,” he said.

The hands came down. “What do your kids think about God?” a student asked him—in Virginia, it was almost inconceivable that a child could grow up without participating at least in the rituals of church. “Their response to the idea of God,” he said from his perch on the edge of his desk, “is uproarious laughter.”

For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, I found his pride in his children’s disdain weirdly off-putting. His kids were young—expecting them to continue believing what they believed as children seemed like tempting fate. Surely they’d end up rebelling against their father’s convictions, maybe even all the way to being born again. I imagined them as earnest adults, making dewy-eyed efforts to bring their intractable father around.

That fantasy speaks to my own fears. I’ve often thought that the worst fate for my children this side of drug addiction would be religious fundamentalism. But the idea that one’s attitude toward God is anchored in one’s relationship with one’s father is right out of Freud 101, isn’t it? It implies that belief is not an encounter with truth but a dialectic function, born of rejection rather than revelation.

Sometimes when I tell people that I was raised by ministers but turned out a nonbeliever they say something like, “oh, it figures,” as though it’s simply an inevitable reaction. But of the friends I had who grew up with minsters for parents, I’m the only one I know of who ended up outside the fold. Many of them, in fact, went on to become ministers themselves.

Maybe I’m the one trapped in unhelpful dialectics. At the very least I’m stuck tonight. I haven’t made this explicit yet, but my plan is to post something about faith, belief, religion, every day this Lent–even if some days, like this one, I can’t figure out what exactly I’m trying to say. More tomorrow.

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