A couple of weeks ago, the fourth of our ten children got married. We’re down to three at home, our version of empty-nesting. And it’s not over. Soon enough, the other children will leave, and my wife and I will be back where we started, just the two of us. Then we’ll both die, and the Peter Leithart family will vanish. This is as it should be. Families exist to die.
Every group faces the tricky problem of generational continuity. How does a church thrive after a beloved founding pastor leaves? How does a college maintain its vision when the original faculty members yield their podiums to eager young scholars? Can Apple stay on top without Steve Jobs? The difficulty is knottier for families. Parents want their children to hold onto the family’s values and traditions, but how do you pass on a moral legacy when the members of your group leave after a couple of decades and when the organization you lead breaks up every generation?
The number of biblical heroes who had turbulent relations with sons is depressingly long. Jacob’s sons envied Joseph and lied to their father about him for decades. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, while Levi and Simeon ruined Jacob’s reputation when they slaughtered the circumcised citizens of Shechem. Samuel’s sons were so corrupt that Israel used them as a pretext to demand a king. David’s sons fought with him and one another.
It’s not all bad news. Right at the end of our Old Testament, Malachi promises that the Lord will turn the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers, a promise initially realized in the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 1:17). Jesus comes with a sword that divides families (Matthew 10:35; Luke 12:53), but since his sword is a sword of sacrifice, he dismembers families to reassemble them.
This doesn’t mean that continuity over generations becomes magically automatic. As every nineteenth-century Russian novelist knew, the surface cracks and the old chasms reappear. Fathers become traditionalists who think that their way is the only way and their battles the only battles worth fighting. Fathers are tempted to keep their hands on the levers after they have become too feeble to be of much use. Other fathers slip away into a premature obsolescence, a retirement that is nothing more than irresponsibility in golf shoes. Sons think they are the first generation to occupy Earth, ready to correct all their fathers’ mistakes and start everything over again. Fathers are tempted by the decadence of traditionalism; sons become revolutionaries. Fathers pull back; sons pull forward. Together they threaten to rip the family fabric.
Few thinkers have devoted as much attention to these problems as the German-American thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. He focused on the role of speech in maintaining and repairing human relations. When fathers speak, they have to throw a line into the future in the hope that they will continue to influence the world after death. When sons speak, they have to throw a line to the past in an effort to retain and recover what their fathers have done and taught. Fathers have to speak ahead as well as backward; sons must learn to look back, not just forward. Families forge a legacy when both parents and children act against type. Speech forms an intersection of past and future, a shared “present time.” More prosaically, generational gaps can be bridged when parents talk and listen to children, and children listen and talk to their parents. Speech is medicine for healing the wounds of time.
As fathers turn to their sons and sons to their fathers, the resulting harmony is a human replication of the “cross-generational” faithfulness within the Triune life. The two “generations” of Father and Son are in perfect harmony. The Father glorifies his Son, and the Son mimics his Father and honors him in turn. Within the Trinity, the Spirit is the bond of generations, uniting Father and Son in eternal love, and this Spirit is poured out on the Church. As the Spirit joins the Father and Son, so he joins fathers and sons, past and future. He is the living bond of peace, sent by the exalted Prince of Peace. The Spirit redeems time, so that emptying houses give birth to new homes, so that dying families become seeds producing abundant fruit.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .