At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Parenting, Civilization, and God

posted by Jack Kerwick

From Michel Montaigne and Blaise Pascal to David Hume and Edmund Burke, some of Western civilization’s most insightful philosophers have long noted the ease with which people mistake the longevity and stubbornness of habit with nature itself.  While the expression “second nature” as a characterization of habit is common enough, the great difficulty of severing habit from nature gave rise to the less common contention, made by Pascal in the seventeenth century, that nature is second habit

All of this should be borne in mind as we call our attention to the American habit of annually commemorating mothers and fathers. Precisely because this tradition of reserving two days of the year to celebrate parents is by now so firmly established in our national life, it is to be expected that relatively few people pause to consider that, unlike the givens of nature, the custom of observing these days is not only a choice, but a revocable one at that.

Doubtless, there is no one who doesn’t already know this.  Still, it is imperative that we continually remind ourselves of what we know, for nothing less than the fate of civilization itself turns upon our decision to establish the holidays of Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.   And if the reader thinks that this claim exaggerates in the extreme the importance of this practice, he can’t but conclude that my next claim snaps credibility to the breaking point: it isn’t just human civilization that hinges on the honoring of mothers and fathers, but quite possibly, the human person’s eternal relationship with God Himself.

However, if the reader will just bear with me, he just may come to discern the rhyme of my reasoning. 

It is, of course, all fine and good for individuals to honor their parents on Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days.  Ultimately, though, the significance of these occasions hasn’t anything to do with my parents or with yours.  To put this point another way, as a culture or civilization, it isn’t really parents that we honor when we celebrate these two days.  Rather, it is the enterprise of parenting that we celebrate.  That this is so is readily born out by the consideration that even those whose parents are deceased or who justifiably hold their parents in low regard can nevertheless understand and appreciate the immeasurable importance of both good parenting as well as collectivized expressions—like national holidays—of this recognition. 

We usually speak of the police and the military as constituting the line between civilization and barbarism.  While these institutions are obviously indispensable to the preservation of a civil order, most fundamentally, it is the parent who prevents the latter from collapsing into a condition of savagery.  To put is simply, parents civilize the savage that is every human being upon leaving the womb. 

Parents domesticate the wild animal that is the child by educating it.  Through sacrifices small and large, the parent labors indefatigably for years on end to initiate the child into the inheritance that is his or her civilization.  Thanks to the parent, the child is able to abandon the state of nature in which he or she began life and avail him or herself of all of the benefits and blessings of culture.           

Since the practice of parenting, considered in isolation from individual parents, is an abstraction, we turn to concrete persons in order to celebrate it.  We turn specifically to our own parents, or to those who we know to be good parents.  But as a society, it is indeed first and foremost the activity or institution of parenting that we must commemorate.

Parenting and the honoring of parenting are priceless for another reason. 

I became a father just two years ago.  Until then, I literally couldn’t imagine that one human being could love another as much as I love my son.  And until then I could never understand—truly understand—why Christians and others, but mostly Christians, have insisted for well over two millennia on conceiving God’s love for humanity in terms of parental love.  Now, of course, I understand.

Love—any kind of love—supplies the lover with intimations of God.  But parents more so than anyone else achieve an awareness of God’s parental nature.  On the other hand, through the practice of honoring parenting, even those of a people’s members who have never parented can still achieve more of an awareness of this dimension of God’s Person than they otherwise would, for on at least two days of the year, they would be reminded of the central importance of parenting.  And in calling this to mind, they would make that much more distance toward grasping why their forbearers saw God as Father. 

On this Mothers’ Day, I thank God, not just for my own mother, but for my wife, for through her mothering of my son, I learn that much more about our Parent in Heaven.

Happy Mothers Day!

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.



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