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In his engagingly titled book, What’s Wrong With the World, G. K. Chesterton argued that his fellow citizens could not repair the defects of the family because they had no ideal at which to aim. Neither the Tory (Gudge) nor the Socialist (Hudge) had an ideal that viewed the family as sacred, an image of what the family at its best might be.

The Tory says he wants to preserve family life in Cindertown; the Socialist very reasonably points out to him that in Cindertown at present there isn’t any family life to preserve. But Hudge, the Socialist, in his turn, is highly vague and mysterious about whether he would preserve the family life if there were any; or whether he will try to restore it where it has disappeared. . . . The Tory sometimes talks as if he wanted to tighten the domestic bonds that do not exist; the Socialist as if he wanted to loosen the bonds that do not bind anybody. The question we all want to ask of both of them is the original ideal question, “Do you want to keep the family at all?”

The result of such confusion, Chesterton thought, was that in his own day “the cultured class is shrieking to be let out of the decent home, just as the working class is shouting to be let into it.”

In such circumstances one needed an ideal—a point from which to begin and on the basis of which to think about the world. Chesterton began “with a little girl’s hair.”

That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down . . . With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down; and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

I am not myself capable of such a peroration, but I confess to more than a little sympathy for Chesterton’s approach. I did not actually think about him, however, until I had made my way through several recent documents on the family issued by Protestant bodies in this country.

Well-meaning they surely are, as well as sincerely troubled by human need. But, feeling it necessary to “affirm” every person in whatever state he or she may be, these documents find it difficult to set before us any clear ideal at which we ought to aim. To articulate such an ideal might seem too much like condemning those who do not meet it. Because there are blended families, group families, and single-parent families—all of them constituted by people whose needs the churches aim to serve—one may become increasingly reluctant to hold up an ideal. That, at any rate, seems to me a reasonable—and charitable—explanation of our current circumstances.

To illustrate: A recent study, still in its “draft for testing” stage and titled Living in Covenant With God and One Another, was prepared for the World Council of Churches. It makes a virtue of our necessities. “Families take many forms. We tend to idealize the family form we know. Yet no single structure captures the heart of the family.” It should be no surprise, then, to discover that the document has almost nothing to say about the relation of parents and children. Rather, its intention is focused on certain moral quandaries or on those who find themselves in troubling situations. Thus, after a section on “healthy sexuality” (devoted chiefly to exploration of false dualisms), the document proceeds to treat divorce and remarriage, domestic violence, homosexuality, singleness, abortion, and AIDS. The closest we come to a discussion of what the family ought to be is in a discussion of singleness. This is what we are told: The Bible is a “family-oriented book”—which means that ancient Hebrew society was organized in a patriarchal clan structure and that lines of descent and rules of family obligation were emphasized. Jesus, however, though aware of the importance of family love, reinterpreted the meaning of the family. Thus, for example, in Mark 3:34-35, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are waiting to see him. But looking at the crowd standing around him, he replies: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” The document comments:

Jesus, it seems, was saying that what is most important is not the family form or structure, though these are necessary for society, but the quality of love, trust, caring, and so on that are products of our basic love of God. He was redefining family, not in terms of the need of society for stable families, but of persons to be members of a community that seeks to serve God.

One might wish to argue. For example, we might rethink any characterization of ancient Hebrew society and reevaluate the uniqueness of what Jesus says when we remember that the call of Yahweh to the patriarch Abraham was already a call away from family: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” To be sure, the hard sayings of Jesus about the family are important. But they are far more than just a reinterpretation of the family, and they are certainly not simply a claim that all that counts morally is the “quality” of a relationship. They may call upon us to transcend the family, hut, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, we must first know and value the thing we are transcending if our action is to have religious significance.

The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her—that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of the Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard.

We need to he persuaded that, in disavowing any ideal of what the family ought to be, we are rising above, not simply falling below, the natural realm.

Living in Covenant With God and One Another appears to be a rather representative document. Like most recent statements from Protestant church bodies, it attests to the seriousness with which such Christians still take the marital bond, which continues to be understood as the most appropriate context for sexual relations. In addition, one can find from Protestant churches statement after statement about certain problems or quandaries that may impinge upon the family, such as abortion, gender-roles conflict, and homosexuality.

But what is said about the family itself? On this topic, we find chiefly an affirmation of diversity. One will not find this emphasis articulated more simply and straightforwardly than in the statement on family life priority adopted by the United Church of Christ in 1981. It calls for the identification and development of resources “which will enable all families to be ministered to creatively and all persons, regardless of their family patterns, to be affirmed and supported in the life of the Church. . . .” Behind such statements lies an emphasis articulated already in 1978 by G. William Sheek, then Director of Family Ministries and Human Sexuality of the National Council of Churches. He suggested that the “quality” rather than the “structure” of relationships should define the family. And he did so based on the belief that this is the New Testament vision: a family “built around the quality of relationships shared by the members of God’s kingdom rather than blood ties.” Similarly, the 1980 Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church says:

Marriage and family patterns have always had historical and cultural features that vary under changing circumstances. Basic to any family form is commitment to one another’s care and welfare. Responsible family relationships may be expressed in a variety of ways. . . . The church is concerned about the well-being of all persons in all family forms.

This is, of course, not the only thing the churches have had to say. But their chief wisdom about the family seems to lie in this simple statement from the former Lutheran Church in America: “The family appears in many forms in different times and places.”

Yet this leitmotif may say both too much and too little about the family. It may seem radical. But it turns out to be rather bland. We say too little about the family because we find ourselves unable to articulate what it should be at its best. We say too much because we do not take with full seriousness the way in which the family—even at its best—is not just reinterpreted but transcended in the kingdom of God. When our focus is only on “quality of relationship” versus “structure,” the family tends to become for us chiefly a locus of self-fulfillment for singular individuals. Thus, for example, a “Family Life Statement” prepared in 1980 by the Division for Life and Mission in the Congregation (American Lutheran Church) suggested:

Families need to clarify the role and function of each individual on the basis of that person’s uniqueness . . . Role expectations, since they contribute to the structure of relationships, must be taken seriously. These roles, however, should never become more important than the persons involved.

A more helpful example of a recent church statement is the Evangelical Catechism. A translation and adaptation of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany’s Evangelischer Gemeindekatechismus, this volume was prepared under the auspices of the Division for Life and Mission in the Congregation and the Division for Theological Education and Ministry of the former American Lutheran Church. The chapter on “Parents and Children,” perhaps because it is aimed at catechetical use, does seek to provide some guidance. Even here, however, there is a certain reluctance to speak normatively. For example:

It is no longer possible to assume that a child lives with two parents, a father who works outside the home and a mother who works at home. This idealized picture of family life was never completely accurate, but today it is just one style of family life among many others. Today children are brought up in a variety of settings, with a variety of adult models and types of care.

As a descriptive statement, this is no doubt unexceptionable. But, again, a desire to help everyone. whatever their family circumstances, makes it more difficult to provide one particular sort of help: to depict what a family at its best ought to be.

And if we are not careful, such an approach can fail to capture what the family ought to be and often has been. Thus, for example, the Catechism notes that we have learned a good bit about the importance of nurture in a child’s early years, “and we understand how important parents—adult persons who care for children—are.” That formulation, applicable to personnel at day-care centers and babysitters, is certainly inadequate to describe what we ought to mean by a parent. That the adults working at daycare centers may sometimes provide more nurture for children than do their parents is a description of our problem, not a reason to redefine those adults as parents.

In short, in a culture quite uncertain about the meaning of parenthood, a church eager to serve and affirm the lives of countless different men and women is able to say relatively little about the structure of the parent-child bond. It is reduced to speaking about the quality of relationships. That, at least, is my own hunch about the reason for the relative paucity of material about the family coming from the churches and the character of what material there is, What to do in such circumstances? We might take heart from words Karl Barth wrote when publishing the first volume of his Church Dogmatics. Recognizing the disarray of the church for which and to which he wrote, he wondered how it was possible to speak on behalf of such a church. Nevertheless, he wrote, “because I think any one would wait in vain till the day of judgment for an Evangelical Church that took itself seriously, unless in all humility he was willing to risk being such a Church in his own place and as well as he knew how,” he took up the task. In that spirit we now turn to consider some of the pressure points at which the church might articulate its vision of the bond between parents and children.


The first thing that must be said, however—a point only faintly adumbrated in the WCC statement’s suggestion that Jesus had redefined the family—is that the fellowship of the kingdom of God, though it may be spoken of as a family, is neither generated nor sustained through biological transmission of life nor by the love given and received in the history of our families. The kingdom is not a continuation, or even a reinterpretation, of the family as we know it; rather, it is a new creation.

I have not forgotten the day when, as a graduate student at Princeton, I sat in Firestone Library talking with a fellow graduate student who happened to be a Benedictine monk. In the course of our conversation I uttered some rather ordinary platitude about the family being the fundamental unit of society. To this he responded—with the immediacy of what had become for him a natural response—“Oh, I don’t know. After all, Jesus said, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.’” And he had a point. We have already cited Jesus’ word (in Mark 3:35) that “whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” We find a similar lesson in the well-known story of the boy Jesus, left behind by his parents in the temple (Luke 2:4151). His parents, fearful that he is lost, eventually find him in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” His mother expresses her anxiety, a very natural parental concern, and Jesus’ answer must have seemed a harsh response to her maternal concern. “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This Jesus is proclaimed as the revelation of a God who is not dependent on the natural orders of this world to achieve his ends. To those who have confidence in such natural orders, John the Baptist says: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” And why not? For this is the God who had set his hand upon Jacob rather than Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac. It is such a God whose presence Jesus announces and embodies in Luke 9:59-62.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But be said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you. Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The prophet Micah (7:6) had characterized the evils of his time in part through family imagery as a time when

the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.

But this very picture becomes for Jesus the possible and, in some instances, necessary result of his preaching of the kingdom, as in Matthew 10:34-37.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

In the face of this recurrent theme of the Gospels, we do well to be careful in our praise of the family. As Karl Barth put it, we “must not blind ourselves to . . . [the fact] that the kingdom of God has come from heaven to earth, that it has taken solid shape amongst us, and that it has foreshadowed the end of all human history and therefore of the child-parent relationship.”

Barth adds, rightly, that we cannot deduce from this any general rule about how all Christians must live. But we also cannot deny that even here and now some may be called by God away from the family. For some it may mean that “there is an orphaned state required for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, in which a man who like all others is the child of his parents must symbolize with his being and action the present but hidden creation which is not a mere prolongation of the old, but the new creation in relation to which the old has already passed away. . . .”

This is, therefore, the first word that must be spoken: of discontinuity between the kingdom of God and any earthly order, even one as significant as the family. But two more things must also be said. First, as was quoted above: “The hard sayings of the Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard.” If the world is the good creation of God, if indeed, as Ephesians 3:15 says, all fatherhood takes its name from Him, then such discontinuity—when we are faced with it—must be experienced first as painful and troubling.

Second, through and beyond such painful experience of discontinuity between the earthly family and the call of God, there may also come some sense of continuity. Even Barth, upon whom I have relied here, cannot keep from saying that the discontinuity “is not a question of the destruction but of the radical renewal of the child-parent relationship.” He notes that the very last verse of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:6) looks forward to a time “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” when God “will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” And, in fact, we are hard pressed to find better imagery with which to describe the promised kingdom-imagery for which there is dominical warrant. The same Jesus whose call may draw out of the orbit of the family could describe the promise of the coming kingdom precisely in familial terms.

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

What such a transformed familial community will be like we can scarcely say—and, to be sure, the life of the church in this age gives only the barest of hints. But it is significant that in reaching for images to describe the hoped—for kingdom, we are driven to see—beyond the death of all earthly communities at the cross, and the experienced discontinuity the cross brings—a certain continuity between the promised new life and the very best that we have known and experienced here and now. But, of course, this presumes that we can and should be able to say something about the structure of this “very best”—in order that we may know how great is the worth of the bond we may have to give up in answer to Jesus’ call, and in order to find words to describe, however haltingly, the community of promise.


When we think about the bond of parents and children, we must think first of the family as a biological community. Through this bond we are embedded in the world of nature, are marked by lines of kinship and descent, and are—from birth—individuals within communities.

Like the other animals, humans “bring forth . . . according to their kind” and, in more peculiarly human fashion, pass on to children their image and likeness (Gen. 1:24; 5:3). Our personhood is marked by that inheritance as we incarnate the union of the man and the woman who are our parents. They are not simply reproducing themselves. In reaching out to each other, they forge a community between those who are different and separate. When from their oneness they create a new human being, that act testifies to the truth that love for one other than the self-even and especially biologically, within the sexual differentiation—is a love that does not seek simply to see its own face in the loved one. This is the love that is creative of community.

And the bond formed between parents and children does in fact bind; with it come obligations. Parents have, whether they want it or not, the honor and responsibility to stand before their children as God’s representatives. And children have that most puzzling of duties—gratitude for a bond in which they found themselves without in any way having chosen it. That is, in what seems to be merely a biological fact, we find moral significance embedded. The psalmist (127:3) writes that children are “a heritage from the Lord.” The child as a gift of God is a sign of hope, of God’s continued affirmation of his creation. Still more, the presence of the child indicates that the parents, as co-creators with God, have shared something of the mystery of divine love; their love-giving has proved to be life-giving. That such complete giving of the self should, in fact, give new life is the deepest mystery of God’s being and is hinted at, as if in analogy, in the birth of a child.

We are, of course, free in many ways to transcend our embeddedness in nature, but we ought also to respect the embodied character of human life. As parents of children and children of parents, we are marked by the biological communities in which we find ourselves. We are not just free spirits, free to make of ourselves what we will. There is, in part at least, a “givenness” to our existence that limits us. Part of the task of a faithful life is to learn to receive that givenness with thanksgiving and to be trustworthy in the duties it lays upon us.

If this is in part the meaning of the bond of parents and children, we should be clear about one important truth. This bond may very often make us deeply happy; indeed, it may have the capacity to bring some of the greatest joys into human life. But though it often fulfills us, it does not exist simply for the sake of our fulfillment. Parents are not reproducing themselves; they are giving birth to another human being—equal to them in dignity and bound to them in ties of kinship, but not created for their satisfaction. To desire a child of “one’s own” is understandable, but such language should be used only with great caution. Biological parenthood does not confer possession of children, nor should it lead us to hope for a “perfect” child. Rather, it calls us to the historical tasks of rearing, nurturing, and civilizing our children. All this—in order that the next generation may achieve its own relative independence. Self-giving, not self-fulfillment, lies at the heart of the parents’ vocation. If such self-giving should prove to be deeply satisfying, we have reason to be thankful. But there are no guarantees of such a symmetrically satisfying result, and to seek them is not the best preparation for parenthood. To give birth is a venture that should always be carried out in hope and in faith that the Creator will continue to speak his “yes” upon the creation.


It seems, therefore, that if we wish to think properly of the family as a biological community, we must think of it also as a historical community. In love a man and a woman turn from themselves toward each other. They might, however, be forever content to turn toward each other—and to turn out from themselves no more than that. But in the child, their union, as a union, quite naturally turns outward. They are not permitted to think of themselves as individuals who come together simply for their own fulfillment. In the child they are given a task. Their union plays its role in a larger history, and it becomes part of their vocation to contribute to the ongoing life of a people. Certainly both Jews and Christians have commonly understood the bond of parents and children in this way.

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders which he has wrought.
He established a testimony in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which be commanded our fathers
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise to tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God. . . .
(Ps. 78:2-7)

This is in many ways the most fundamental task of parents: transmission of a way of life. When the son of the ancient Israelite asked, “What does this mean?” his father told again the story of the mighty acts of God, the story of their common life as a people. When a woman of Israel appeals to the biological bond and cries out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked,” he responds: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28). He points, we might say, to a further bond that ought to be built upon the basis of biological community but which, in any case, is finally more crucial: initiation into a way of life. In Ephesians 6:4, the apostle writes that fathers should not provoke their children to anger, but should “bring them up in the paideia and instruction of the Lord.” That task of paideia, of nurture and inculcation of a way of life, is the calling of parents.

Of course, these biblical passages have in mind, in particular, the transmission of a religious tradition: the story of God’s care for his people. But we need not deny that this points, more generally, to something fundamental. Parenthood is not just biological begetting. It is also history—a vocation to nurture the next generation, to initiate it into the human inheritance of knowledge and obligation. If today many feel that the family is—as we say—“in crisis,” that may be in large part because we have little commitment to or sense of a story that we might pass on.

But passing on a story is what binds the generations together, and it is something quite different from the shared association of those concerned above all else for their respective career trajectories. It is also quite different from an understanding of parental nurture aimed principally at “enriching” the lives of individual children. In a family that understands itself as a historical community sharing a way of life not its alone, we will find it appropriate that some should make sacrifices for the sake of others and that we should make heavy claims upon each other.

Understood in this way, a family is something quite different from a political community, and the language of “rights”—which, in my own view, has served us well in the political sphere—is peculiarly unable to capture the texture of family life. Perhaps the most common use of the language of parental rights is to protect the possessive claims of those whose history of abuse or neglect as parents has largely undermined their claim to the title. But the language of “children’s rights” is not likely to serve us much better. There will surely be occasions on which the state must intervene in the life of families in order to protect children, but it is more likely to be effective in acting against manifest evils than in positively restructuring families. For the state is a community of a quite different kind, and it simply has “no mode of entry” into the give-and-take of genuine family life. As Chesterton observed, “Creatures so close to each other as husband and wife, or a mother and children, have powers of making each other happy or miserable with which no public coercion can deal.”

In the family understood as a historical community, we ought not shy away from thinking in terms of roles played by parents—even while we acknowledge and respect the truth that each set of parents will accomplish this in a way peculiarly theirs. Consider the fact that a mother is biologically equipped to nourish her newborn infant. In our historical freedom we are able to transcend that natural fact, and we certainly need not let it be determinative for our understanding of what motherhood means. But we should also not ignore it, as if our embodied condition carried no personal significance. No doubt there are many different ways to find and live out such significance, but we ought to seek them and not simply the freedom to be whatever we wish.

Perhaps we can get at this sense of motherhood as both nature and history by suggesting that a mother, though not “in her place,” should seek to “be place” for her children. For she is that—the womb from which they come, the place to which they remain connected even as they gradually work out their separateness. The role of mother is so firmly grounded in biology that it can come to seem only necessity and not at all free opportunity—all biological given, and no freely developing history. Hence, in thinking about it we are probably not wrong to emphasize our historical freedom.

The opposite is true of a father’s role. Lacking so obvious a biological attachment to the child, a father may too easily think himself free of that role, or may be uncertain of what it means that he should be a father. Perhaps, however, we can still learn something from the image of father as judge—one who ought to aim at fairness even when mediating between his children and the world outside the family.

If it should be true, as Carol Gilligan has argued, that men are drawn toward a morality of abstract justice and women toward a morality of connected webs of caring, and that neither of these taken by itself constitutes the whole of the moral realm, then mother and father together—but in different ways—may inculcate and transmit moral value and commitment. Just as history brings freedom from rigid role definitions, it may also give us the freedom to think seriously again about what it means to be not simply a unisex parent, but a mother or father in particular.

We noted earlier that the family as a biological community points us in the direction of self-giving love. The same is true when we envision the family as a historical community. Here even more clearly and starkly, the risk and venture of parenthood comes into view. Parents commit themselves to initiating their children into the human inheritance and, more particularly, into the stories that depict their way of life. In so doing they shape, mold, and civilize their children. But there are no guarantees that the final “product” of this process will be what the parents anticipated. Parents know this, of course, and are therefore understandably anxious about their children’s future. Even if such anxiety is often understandable, it still constitutes a great temptation—the temptation to try to be the guarantor of our children’s future, to protect them from all disappointment and suffering. And yet, to do that would be to deny their freedom to be an other like us, equal to us in dignity. This means that parents must seek more than their own satisfaction in rearing their children. They must give of themselves in faith and hope, recognizing that they are no more than co-creators and that they cannot shape the future.


A prediction: Involve yourself in conversation with a stranger, conversation in which you are identifying yourself. Do so by depicting yourself in terms of your role as mother or father. There will eventually follow, as surely as night follows day, the question: “And what do you do for yourself?” At that point, unless you do not wish to be taken seriously, espouse commitment to a career.

If the twofold characterization of the family—as biological and historical community—is accurate, we ought not be surprised to discover that we today are radically confused when trying to think about the family. For ours is a world which insistently raises the question, “What do you do for yourself?” And, in the words of Gabriel Marcel, a family “is not created or maintained as an entity without the exercise of a fundamental generosity.” To put it bluntly, in the family we find ourselves, in large measure, by giving ourselves to our functions. We lose our life—that grasping need to be someone—and then learn to see ourselves in a larger context of meaning. To give birth, to nourish and sustain that new life—all this is an act of self-spending that can be compared only to a gift. It implies a certain fundamental generosity, a willingness to expend one’s energies and one’s person in nourishing and sustaining the next generation. And it may not be easy to decide why or how that should be done if we are too busy pondering what we should do for ourselves.

If the family ought to be this sort of community, one that demands a great deal of us, why might we want or need it? Why undertake the effort it involves? There is a social and theological case to be made for commitment to the family, and we can begin with the lesser and move toward the greater. Renewal of the species and rearing of the next generation might, of course, take place apart from anything remotely resembling the family. That is a very old idea. Plato had Socrates propose it when constructing the ideal city in the Republic. He suggests that by making kinship universal we could eliminate the divisive passions that ordinary family preference involves. In our setting, we could establish a universal system of day—care centers to which children were given at birth and in which everyone had a hand in the care of all children—and in this way begin to approximate Socrates’ proposal. If, however, the family is the sort of community I have described, doing this would make war on the elements written very deeply into our nature. And no doubt Aristotle had something like that in mind when he suggested that Socrates’ proposal would do more than combat divisive passion; it might also dilute a sense of concern and responsibility for those who come after us.

We can expand a little upon that claim. A parent is not simply a public functionary charged with looking after a certain number of children. The special attachment that characterizes the parent-child bond serves, at its best, as a kind of guarantee of love—almost an analogue to divine grace. (That it does not always work this way indicates only that it is no more than an analogue, and that quite often we are not at our best.) The child is loved unconditionally, for no particular reason. I am to love my children not because they are especially talented or qualified in one way or another, but simply because they have been given to me and placed into my care. And only such love, founded on no particular quality or attribute, can offer something approaching unconditional acceptance.

If I love my son because he plays the piano well, or my daughter because she executes the pick-and-roll with precision, if that is the ground of my special attachment, then it is subject to change. There can be little certainty that my commitment will endure; for it is likely that others will play both piano and basketball better. But when, by contrast, parental love is grounded in the facts of biological and historical bonding, the child lives in a setting offering the kind of acceptance human beings need in order themselves to become capable of adult commitment—a setting in which individuals who are separate but connected can grow and flourish. Thus, Michael Walzer has perceptively commented that

one might . . . liberate women from childbirth as well as parents from child care, by cloning the next generation, . . . or by purchasing babies from underdeveloped countries. This is not the redistribution but the abolition of parental love, and I suspect that it would quickly produce a race of men and women incapable even of the commitment required for an affair.

At least this much can be said about the social purpose of the family among our earthly communities.

But from a Christian perspective our commitment to the family cannot and ought not be grounded simply in its importance for our common life. However treasured and significant, this remains only penultimate. The family is also something more than a basic social unit. It is a sphere in which God is at work on us, shaping and molding us, that we may become people who genuinely wish to share his life of love. The overarching interpretive rubric within which to understand the spheres of human life—and, for us here, in particular the family—is Augustine’s statement, in Book I of The City of God, that the servants of God “have no reason to regret even this life of time, for in it they are schooled for eternity.” In biblical terms we might cite I John 4:20: “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The family is a school of virtue in which God sets before us, day after day, one person or a few persons whom we are to love. This is the paideia of the heavenly Father at work upon both children and parents, building upon the love that comes naturally to us in our families, but transforming it also into the image of his own love. Here he begins to turn us into people who have learned to love and who will want to live with him in a community of love.

Such straightforwardly religious talk may, of course, seem alien to the common life of our society, and no doubt it is to some degree. Yet, it may be precisely the language for which we are searching. We tend to make of the family both too much and too little. Too much—as parents seek to reproduce themselves in their children, feverishly seek children “of their own,” and try as much as possible to protect those children from all experience of suffering and sacrifice. In doing this we ask of the family—which remains. after all, only a penultimate sphere of life—more than it can give, and we place upon it expectations that must inevitably be disappointed. Too little—in that we can so seldom discover in the family anything more than an arena for our personal fulfillment, in that we fail to see it as a community that ought to transmit a way of life. What we really need is language that can affirm the importance of the family as biological and historical community without depriving that bond of a still greater telos. Perhaps we would do well to learn from Augustine to think of the family as a school of virtue, or from I John of the family as a sphere in which we learn the meaning of commitment to a few and begin to learn the steps of the greater dance of love. And surely, if Christian churches have any distinctive insight to offer, any picture to paint of what the family might be, it is this.

The Trinitarian shape of Christian faith affirms that God is love. From eternity the Father begets the Son—that is, offers his life, all that he is and has, to the Son. Such self-giving begets a Son eternally willing to receive life with joy and humility, and to offer that life back to the One who gives it. The self-giving of the Father evokes a like response from the Son; it gives rise to a mutuality in love, the bond of love uniting Father and Son, which is the Spirit. As a school of virtue for both parents and children, the family exists to draw us into the love of this God.

Husbands and wives learn that in giving themselves fully to each other they forge a mutual bond of love that can be fruitful and creative. Mothers and fathers learn that in struggling with the demands of nurturing their children they develop a love that seeks the good of those children, not simply the good that parents alone can bestow. Parents learn that, in setting aside their own craving for fulfillment and giving themselves over to their parental functions, they can, in fact, become someone—a someone who has a history that individuates. Children learn to flourish in a context in which they are loved unconditionally and are encouraged to think of themselves as dependent, as grateful recipients of a gift to which they have no rightful claim.

To be sure, at their best our families may only approach this ideal, and no doubt they often fall very short of it. But perhaps they come closer than we think more often than we think. Perhaps what they need is a word the churches might supply: a word that interprets the bond of parents and children in this light and gives to us all a renewed sense of what it means to live within a family.

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College and author of The Limits of Love. This essay forms a chapter in the new book Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family, David Blankenhorn, et al., eds.

Image by Jean-Jacques Hauer via Creative Commons. Image cropped.