Quick Hitter: The Problem of Ambivalence

I've recently made a great discovery in the form of the blog of Morgan Guyton, a United Methodist Minister in New Orleans.  He had a post from a few weeks ago on the limitations of N.T. Wright that was great, and said in a more compact way what I was trying to get at in talking about originalism.  Today I found another post of his that is equally thought-provoking, on the idea of "ambivalence" in contemporary Christianity (Mainline Protestantism in the article, but it could apply equally well to Catholicism as well).

Guyton's core point, as I see it, is that parents will have an extremely difficult time passing on their faith to their children if the parents are ambivalent about the faith that they are attempting to pass on.  Kids can sniff out the half-way in, half-way out situation of parents with regard to faith, and it gets translated into "this religion stuff is not that important."  And that, in turn, opens the door to those same kids walking out the door.

The facile response is to push or guilt parents into somehow not being ambivalent about their faith.  But the catch, as Guyton recognizes, is that the ambivalence of these parents is very often genuinely arrived at--the parents have legitimate concerns and points of disagreement with the Christian church as it has been presented to them.  Just as it is very hard to hide from your kids your own ambivalence, so it is extremely challenging to wish away your legitimate objections and concerns.

I think we have seen this borne out very clearly in Catholicism.  The #1 source of ambivalence in the Catholic Church, at least in the West, since 1968 has been birth control and Humanae Vitae.  Survey after survey demonstrate that the vast majority of Catholics, especially women, rejected the position of the Church and the conclusions of the encyclical.  This lead to a generation of people, again especially women, who were deeply ambivalent about the faith, especially in the family sphere.  But their daughters are less ambivalent, because many of them have just leave, as the largest group of people leaving the Catholic Church are young women.  A generation of ambivalence turns into an absent generation.

All of this raises a pointed question for progressive Catholics.  Let's suppose you are like the majority of practicing Catholics in the United States--people who have deep bonds of affection for the Catholic Church, but have profound disagreements on birth control and LGBT issues and gender issues and perhaps other topics.  But you have found a way in which you yourself can be comfortable being a Catholic notwithstanding those disagreements.  Presumably, you would like to pass on your faith and your world-view to your children.  Guyton suggests, and the anecdotal experience of the U.S. Church seems to back this up, that communicating the nuance of "well, Catholicism is basically great, except for the stuff that is terrible and completely wrong" is going to be far harder than you think.  You run the real risk of ending up with kids who do not practice any Christian faith.

Alternatively, there might be some other more progressive Christian denomination or community out there that better matches your values and world-view, a group that you can say to your kids "yes, we believe what this church teaches."  If you care about having your kids grow up to be practicing Christians, are you better off leaving Catholicism and joining the more progressive alternative?  Do you maybe have an obligation to do that, even at the expense of your own comfort level?  At the end of the day, your kids will ultimately find their own path and you cannot ensure a particular outcome.  But if you want to put your kids in the best position to develop an adult relationship with God and Jesus Christ and a grounding in a Christian community, should you prioritize finding a way to get rid of your ambivalence about your church, even if that means changing denominations?

Guyton seems to suggest that the answer is "yes," and I think he might be right.


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