Honesty and Dishonesty in the Health Care Debate

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 22 October 2009 0 Comments
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MiddleAgedMama, via the Internet, writes:

I was raised as a Roman Catholic, but I left the church long ago and have never found another that suited me. My partner remains a Catholic, and when we adopted our children I agreed to raise them in that religion. Now the older child is six years old and is signed up for religious instruction in preparation for her First Communion, and I find myself wondering how to respond to the learning and questions she will undoubtedly bring home from her classes. When they teach her about the literal virgin birth of Christ, or the resurrection, or prayer, or God, or just about anything I remember from my own instruction, what do I say (if anything)? I don't want to undermine her instructors, but I also want to plant the seeds of the concept that faith cannot be opposed to knowledge. She recently asked who "the first person" was, and I could not honestly answer "Adam," as her teacher would no doubt say. What do you say to your own grandchildren about religion?


Dear MiddleAgedMama,

Yours is a difficult position. You in effect withdrew from this decision when you agreed to raise your child in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a certain expectation in Roman Catholicism that "the truth" is to be communicated to each generation in a predictable, traditional way. If this church were to cease to do this, it would call all of its authority claims into question. That is not likely to happen any time soon. This is why the only alternatives that people who are raised in the Catholic Church have are to acquiesce or depart. Vast numbers of people today have chosen to depart. The Roman Catholic Church is held up in America today statistically only by the immigrant population. You need to be true to your partner, true to your commitment and true to your own integrity. That is not easy.

With my own children and grandchildren, I was committed to never telling them that something was true if I did not myself believe it. I did not want to be dishonest. I did not have the burden of having them taught things in the church that were not considered debatable, so I said: "I do not believe that" whenever they asked a direct question. In your case, I hope you will listen to your children and engage them in conversation about what they are learning. Ask them lots of questions that show different ways of viewing an issue. If you disagree with something they are being taught, say so without judgment by simply stating, "Well, I have a different understanding of that," or "No, I do not think that's the right answer."

I think you can say that every ancient people had a myth about the first man and the first woman. The Adam and Eve story in the Bible was actually written in the 10th century BCE. Scientists today have identified human-like beings, but not yet really human beings as we understand them, from as early as 4.4 million years ago. The story of Adam can hardly be literally true given that time frame. Even if we make the emergence of self-consciousness part of the definition of human life, then human life is about 250,000 years old, still far too much time to suggest that a 3,000-year-old tribal story about the first human being is actual history. That, however, might be too much for a six-year-old child to embrace, so I would simply discuss the issues and use questions to destabilize certainty, but not to attack taught conclusions.

Your daughter will learn enough to raise questions herself someday. As she does, answer each one honestly, but try to avoid using authoritarian words. Say something like, "This is what my study has led me to believe and your study must lead you to your own conclusions."

In time if she studies religion in an academic setting, she will learn that the virgin birth tradition was a 9th decade addition to the Christian faith and not original to it at all, and that understanding the resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body was not the original understanding of the Easter experience, and in Christian academic circles it is widely rejected as the meaning of Easter today. When your child learns these things, she will also learn that you have always been caring and honest with her and she can share her questions and even her doubts with you in the same way that you shared your questions and doubts with her. The most important thing is that you be loving and supportive. Nonjudgmental honesty is a big part of that.

My best and good luck,

John Shelby Spong




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