Show me two families with completely different religious beliefs, and I’ll show you two families with common family problems.
When I talk to people from different faith traditions, while we may not agree on the nature of God, we can agree on the rebellious nature of teenagers, the competitive nature of siblings, and the challenge of gathering the family for the holidays; whatever holiday it may be. Underneath the wave of differences between many faiths is an ocean of mutual family dynamics.
I recently met a young woman who is Hindi. When she discovered I was a pastor, she struck up a conversation about religion. She considers herself spiritual but not practicing. The religion of her parents is not helping her address the complexities of the world. After college, she married a Christian. Early in their marriage she occasionally attended services at her husband’s church. However, she made it clear to me that she is not interested in becoming Christian. She quoted Gandhi: “I love your Christ but I hate your Christians because your Christians are unlike your Christ.”
With my interest in family systems, I asked how her decision not to practice the religion of her parents was playing out with them. She reported to me that her parents accepted her position over time. She continued sharing that like many children growing up in religious homes, she had little to no choice in attending temple. For most families, there’s one child who religiously rebels. The tug-of-war between parents and children over participating in religious traditions is more about the family emotional process then about someone’s religious beliefs.
During a Confirmation Service (in mainline Protestant churches, it’s the ceremony to mark when children become official members of the church), I stated that the students no longer needed their parents to remind them to get out of bed for services or pressure them to attend. They were now responsible members of the congregation. For one specific confirmand, this was all he needed to hear to stop. He stopped attending church. Several months later, with sarcasm in her voice, his mother said to me, “Thanks a lot. I can’t get him to come to church anymore. He keeps reminding me what you said about how he is old enough to make his own decisions.”
Conversations like these make me wonder if the decline in the Christian church has more to do with an emotional process between parent and child and less to do with religious practices. For parents, they can spend most of the child’s life pulling them along to services. The more they pull, and the older the child gets, the more firmly the child’s feet get planted.
It’s probably best to leave my thoughts on this for another blog topic. Suffice it to say, one of the problems in educating children today about faith is the tendencies to teach only content. Children are better prepared for adulthood if we teach them how to ask their questions, how to sit with their questions, and how to think. When working with adults who are going through a spiritual crisis, these are often the developmental skills they lack.
Congregational struggles are identical across faiths.
I recently read a list of training opportunities provided for local Imams. The breakout modules were:
Increasing the Effectiveness of Masjid Boards
Creating the Inclusive, Welcoming, Dynamic Masjid
Turning Your Masjid into a Green Masjid
Strategic Planning: The Why’s and How’s
How interesting that these issues are similar to one’s I deal with! In fact, one could easily replace masjid with church or synagogue a still be relevant. We are all dealing with similar congregational issues. How do you get boards unstuck and more effective? (Well, actually you can read a recent blog post to answer this question). How do you focus on the mission of the congregation and not be bogged down with less important issues? This emotional process is at work, running underneath all faiths, families, and all congregations.
The Myth of Shiksa
I first came across this idea, that behavior is more about emotional process than it is about cultural practices, when I read Rabbi Ed Friedman’s book The Myth of Shiksa and Other Essays. Friedman makes the case that the Jewish concept of Shiksa, where a gentile woman woos the Jewish son away from his family and religion, is not unique to Judaism. Every culture has some version of this family dynamic.
This past year I watched the documentary Met the Patels which follows one man’s struggle between the woman that he loves and his parent’s desire for a wife from their culture. What families often claim as uniquely cultural or religious is common to all families. What is the commonality? It is reactivity. It’s as if parents who are less flexible and adaptable to change become more likely to demand compliance from their children and predicate the compliance on cultural and religious claims. However, more flexible parents like the Patels are more than likely to adjust and effectively address the different thoughts, feelings, and actions of children. We often view a stubborn parenting position as a struggle for defending cultural. We tend to view more flexible parenting as less concerned about preserving culture. It is possible for a parent to strongly identify with a culture and faith tradition while at the same time watch their children follow their own religious (or non-religious) life pursuits.
The Common Struggle
It may sound ridiculous for me to say it, but the problem with world religions is that parents often elevated compliance over thinking. The problem is not in the realm of heresy; it is within the framework of reactivity which is stimulated when children and parents hold opposing religious views. The level of reactivity and how parents respond to their children’s opposing views depends on what Dr. Murray Bowen called the level of differentiation.
When levels of differentiation in the family are low, reactivity that demands blanketed agreement of a specific set of belief will come at a cost. On the macro level, it is a motivating factor for genocide. On the micro level, it is a contributing factor in the onset of psychological, physiological, and behavioral problems in childhood and adolescence.
Finding The Way
Our world is better served by congregational leaders who don’t just teach the content of their sacred texts but also teach a hermeneutic of discovery that encourages individuals to do their best thinking about their faith. This approach does not rely or depend on the thinking of others. The approach does include creating class time were individuals present their best thinking about a faith topic. It requires congregational leaders to be intentional about disrupting the emotional process from getting in the way. It invites individuals to speak to the congregation about their efforts to integrate beliefs into action, parenting classes addressing how to handle different religious perspectives in the family, coaching that assists individuals in understanding the relationship between beliefs and the family emotional process, and encouraging people to be courageous in their efforts to be clear about their beliefs, core operating principles, and life goals. Faith communities that survive and thrive over the next 100 years will promote some version of this effort. Congregations (relationship systems comprised of families) that insist on members feeling, thinking and acting the same way will be left to the historians. Those who work on differentiation of self will lead faith communities into the future.