Where do people come from?

30 December 2009
Being a Christian parent presupposes a non-parental attitude toward children

Raising a Christian is inconvenient. Moreover, plain common sense renders the idea absurd. Today we are discussing the value of life, Christian and other ways to bring up a child with Prof. David Gzgzyan, Head of the Theological Disciplines and Liturgical Studies Department at St Philaret’s Institute. Prof. Gzgzyan is also a lecturer in Axiology, the philosophical study of human values.

Question: What type of value is attributed to childbearing?

D.G.: A person’s arrival in this world cannot be viewed in isolation from the value of life as such. It is a different matter, however, that while we do not fail to view our own lives in this context, it is not an immediate reflex for us to assume the same attitude towards a child who has yet to be born.

Question: How so?! Children often give meaning to life and become its main focus.

D.G.: There is the widely held and rather peculiar attitude to children whereby they are viewed as creatures who give meaning to their parents’ lives. Psychologically, this is understandable: children – in particular adorable little babies – by their very existence support the idea that if such a miracle is possible then life hasn’t been lived in vain. This nurtures stereotypes about continuing the family line, leaving one's mark in the world, and so on… Amidst all this, the children’s own inherent value is too often somehow overlooked. This radically contradicts the original intuition about the sanctity of human life. How can we talk about a person’s life in terms of absolute value if a child is conceived of as nothing more than a derivative of its parents? It is difficult to eliminate this contradiction. It requires quite a deep and reflective view into the phenomenon of human life as such, to be able to see one’s own child from the perspective of a selfless, godlike observer. However could a person acheive such a deep and reflective view?

Question: Probably through culture?

D.G.: There is no such culture out there. Corresponding spiritual traditions do exist, but primarily in the form of ideals and theories, rather than as applied and living practices. It would be wonderful to be able to say that Christianity is charting new territory here, but in fact, Christians – just like everyone else – have been tempted into viewing childbearing simply as an important procreative process (continuing the family line).  Moreover, it is not actually clear why this process is important. More precisely, it is clear only within a naturalistic context: our instincts urge us to support the continuation of life. But instincts and values are divergent phenomena that have nothing in common. As things stand today, Christianity presents nothing more than a real-life opportunity to form such thoughts and present them out loud.

Question: Which approach to childrearing is more appropriate in this context: patriarchal or liberal?

D.G.: A functional attitude toward children is actually something that the patriarchal and liberal approaches have in common. For the patriarchal approach, the functional attitude to the child is there from the start; while still in its mother's womb, the child already belongs to the family. It might seem that according to the liberal approach the child belongs to her/himself, but this is an illusion. It's simply that the liberal approach rules out direct coercion. It is assumed that MY child should be the best and have the best of everything. This always goes hand-in-hand with the idea that I should give my child as many opportunities as possible, so that he can later make his own choices. In reality, there is always an underlying assumption that since this is MY child, the things that are good for me are also good for him, which means that I will mould him into a carbon copy of my own self. This is in contrast to the Biblical view of the person as someone with inherent value of his own – someone whose vocation is understood in relation to God and before Him alone and no one else. So the two approaches are not radically different from each other, although superficially they give the impression of being polar opposites.

Question: Christianity considers a functional attitude to the human person unacceptable, but more often than not it is really impossible to avoid having this very attitude to children.

D.G.: Christians, like all people, find it difficult  to view their dear little children as the bearers of a mystical mission – especially at the point when they are fulfilling no mission at all other than to bring joy with their toothless grins. It is often difficult to perceive the deep mystery in what has come about behind these all too earthborn elements of life. The fact is, that at the very heart of the idea of human formation lies an unresolvable conflict – at least logically unresolvable, that is. Every parent instinctively wishes simple wellbeing and comfort for his child – for him to grow up happy, healthy, and good-looking. But the process of formation or becoming – if it is has anything at all to do with actual personhood – is a highly conflicted process. More often than not it makes a child very uncomfortable, rather than keeping him comfortable.

Question: Is this conflict not resolved in Christianity?

D.G.: The conflict is only compounded by Christianity. Imagine that instead of wishing your child simple wellbeing, you should wish them precisely the opposite. Naturally, this cannot fit a parent’s logic. A parent, in this case, is called to do no more and no less than overcome himself and look at the child as if through the eyes of a completely different person. If one seriously wants to have any chance of facilitating the formation of…well if not a Christian than at least a person who is alive and able to choose between Christianity and some other path, then it will take a genuinely non-parental approach to parenting. It requires a serious desire for your sweet baby to grow into a person who is truly interested in the meaning of life and its difficult questions. It means allowing him to experience some real suffering. This is quite a different matter.

Question: Does Christian pedagogy deal with this conflict in any way?

D.G.: In fact, Christianity is a very peculiar – I would even say extraordinary – form of adulthood, which is why no examples of Christian pedagogy have arisen in our history. As parents, we find it much easier simply to teach our child to perform certain actions such as going to church, reciting daily prayers and so on. It is much harder to see the child from the perspective of our Lord God, who wishes to give each person an eternal life – robust and full of value.

Question: The task seems too heavy to bear…

D.G.: Bringing a child into this world is actually a very risky undertaking. We must always remember that it is we who are responsible for the kind of people our children become in the context of eternity and in the eyes of God. There is nothing trivial about this; it is something that calls for both deep reflection and great spiritual bravery.

Interview by Elena Kudryavtseva
the end!