Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Religion Divides Families

Religion should bring families together around shared beliefs and values. Unfortunately, for some families the opposite happens. Religion becomes a source of division. This is especially true when families find themselves split between those who consider themselves "Fundamentalist Christian" and those who consider themselves "Spiritual, but not religious." Here, I will offer families that find themselves in this situation some practical suggestions on how they can bridge this difference.

Let's start by looking more closely at both sides. To make this personal, I will describe this from the perspective of the fictional characters Frank, the Fundamentalist and Sally, the Spiritualist.

Here are some phrases that Frank, the Fundamentalist, uses to describe his beliefs:
  • God the Father created the universe.
  • Jesus Christ is the only begotten son of God.
  • The Bible is the literal Word of God.
  • I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
  • If you do not accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you are going to hell.
Here are some phrases that Sally, the Spiritualist, uses to describe her beliefs:
  • The basic substance of the universe is love.
  • The 'image' of God of which we are made is our soul.
  • Jesus was a wise and wonderful teacher, as was The Buddha and numerous others.
  • There are many paths leading to The Great Mystery (God).
  • What you believe is less important than being a loving person.
These two belief systems appear irreconcilable. Frank's beliefs seem absolutist and judgmental; his beliefs represent The Truth and if you reject his beliefs, you are condemned. Sally, naturally, responds by saying, "I do not accept these beliefs and I am not bad." Frank feels challenged. He must either defend or abandon his belief system. So he defends it, even if doing so means attacking the beliefs of his own family. And the cycle perpetuates itself.

How do we move this interaction from conflict to reconciliation? The answer involves moving the conversation from the literal to the metaphorical.  First, let's clarify the difference between literal and metaphorical.

"Literal" means limited to the explicit meaning of a phrase. When I say, "The cat is black," I am describing the cat literally. Literal descriptions are appropriate when there is no question about what words mean.

"Metaphorical" means the phrase is suggestive by association. When I say, "The cat is my child," I am describing my relationship with the cat metaphorically. Metaphorical descriptions are appropriate when one or more words are beyond our direct understanding and are best approached indirectly.

It is easy to argue about literal statements. I say the cat is black. You say it isn't really black, it is a very dark gray. Somebody else says it has some white in its tail, so it is only partially black. None of us can agree. 

It is much harder to argue about metaphorical statements. I say the cat is my child.  You may say I shouldn't be attached to my cat, but you aren't going to say that the cat is not my child. Unless, that is, you mistake my metaphorical statement for a literal statement. Which is hard to do, since the literal meaning of the cat being my child makes no sense.

Notice the metaphorical description of the cat carries much richer meaning than does the literal description. The literal statement gives us a fleeting image of the cat's color. The metaphorical statement gives us an idea of the depth of the relationship between me and the cat.

Back to Frank and Sally. The conflict between Frank and Sally occurs when Sally responds to Frank's beliefs with literal replies. This is understandable, since Frank himself thinks his beliefs are literally true. But he will also respond positively to a metaphorical interpretation.

For example, if Frank says, "Christ rose from the dead," he believes Christ literally rose from the dead. If Sally responds, "I don't believe Christ really rose from the dead" (a literal response), Frank will argue and the division between the two will increase. But if Sally responds, "Christ lives in our love for each other" (a metaphorical response) Frank will feel heard and understood. Notice that Sally is neither affirming not denying Frank's literal meaning, she is instead refocusing the discussion on Frank's metaphorical meaning.

Herein lies the key to resolving the conflict between Frank and Sally. Literal interpretations divide us. Metaphorical interpretations unite us. If Sally wants to connect with Frank, she will seldom do so on the literal level. But on the metaphorical level, there are rich opportunities for deep connections between the two.

Notice I put the burden on Sally. The reason for this is that as a Spiritualist, Sally is already sensitive to the richness of metaphor. She uses metaphor frequently in describing her own beliefs and is fully aware she is doing so. When she says that love is the basic substance of the universe, she is not speaking as a scientist. She is speaking as a poet.

As a Fundamentalist, Frank is not consciously aware of the metaphorical meaning of his own beliefs. He thinks his beliefs are literally true. But  despite this, he too has a bit of the poet in him and that poet responds to metaphor.This is the side of Frank to which Sally must reach out.

Sally needs to prepare for her discussions with Frank by considering the beliefs that Frank will espouse. She might start with this affirmation: I will honor Frank by finding the rich metaphorical meaning in all of his beliefs.

As an example of how Sally might approach this challenge, let's consider the first of Frank's beliefs: God the Father created the universe. There are four words that need to be understood: God, Father, created, and universe.

Let's start with universe. We can understand "universe" as the state of being in which we all find ourselves. Clearly this is a marvelous state!

Now let's move to God. "God" is just a label we use for whatever it is that "created" the universe. The label itself has no meaning. We could just as easily use the label Love or Mystery. God (or the Mystery) doesn't care what name we use. The advantage of using the label "God" is that that is the label that Frank uses and the one to which he will relate.

The word "created" is another way of saying, "source of". So there is no real conflict here, whatever is the source of the universe "created" the universe.

Finally the most problematic word: "Father." "Father" causes problems for many of us because of its sexist connotation. For some, God, the Father denies God, the Mother. And the use of Father or Mother creates an image of God that is limited by its very definition.  God is indescribable.

But looked at another way, "Father" is the key to the reconciliation. The reason is that there is no possible literal interpretation of Father that makes any sense. "Father" must be interpreted metaphorically. And once we have accepted that a key word of the phrase must be interpreted metaphorically, we open the entire phrase to a metaphorical interpretation.

What is the metaphorical meaning of "Father?" Perhaps it is the loving relationship that unites a parent and a child. So Sally might choose to interpret the word "Father" as "a source of great love."

Let's put all of this together. Sally can understand Frank's statement, "God the Father created the universe" as metaphorically meaning, "Everything that exists has it's grounding in Love." Notice that this sounds pretty close to Sally's belief that "Love is the basic substance of the universe."

Now that Sally understands a metaphorical meaning of "God the Father created the universe,"  Sally can respond to Frank's statement with, "And that same love sustains every moment of our lives and makes you special to me."  That response will probably go over much better with Frank than, "I don't believe in God, and if I did, I wouldn't believe God was male, and further, I wouldn't believe that God created the universe."

Sally doesn't need to give up her integrity to have this conversation. She merely needs to give up her literal side and embrace the artist in her.

Sally has some serious work ahead of her. First, she must clearly identify each of Frank's belief statements. Second, she needs to find the metaphorical truth in each of those statements. She may even need some help with this, since her ingrained pattern is to take these statements literally. Third, she needs to decide on an appropriate metaphorical response. Once she has completed all of these steps, she is ready to dialogue with Frank.

Why should Sally bother with this exercise? There are three reasons. First, it is the key to rebuilding closeness with Frank. Second, it will help her recommit to her own idea of The Ultimate whether she calls that idea Love, Mystery, or God. And, finally it will give Sally a deeper understanding and appreciation for what it can mean to call oneself a Christian.

Pax Christi,
Roger Sessions


  1. Roger, I am all for metaphor, but I doubt if simple metaphor will bridge the divide and capture Frank's heart. Sometimes simply leaving room for another's truth and celebrating the richness of diversity is the answer. In setting a place for everyone at the table, we discover the truth of Pax Christi.

  2. Richard, I agree with celebrating the richness of diversity and leaving room for another's truth. The problem occurs when the other's truth includes the belief that you are a bad person. In my experience, Fundamentalism (any Fundamentalism, not just Christian Fundamentalism) is a tough nut to crack because it usually rejects (often quite forcefully) other belief systems. As you say, metaphor may not be able to bridge the divide and capture Frank's heart, but it may be the first step.

  3. This is so appropriate for my family.
    Thank you, Roger!

  4. I too found this in my own personal search for "what now?". I side with Sally and my Father would side with Frank. I tried this method (before I even knew it was a method) as my own personal sheild against the "preaching" he would/and still does to me.

    It's all rosy and sweet until you are to "repeat after them" so they "know" you're not just being agreeable to be agreeable. They see that as Satan in the flesh, twisting words and metaphors around to suite the conversation. Because, they can't understand it.

    It's a dangerous road I've found to try and be agreeable. His words DO mean something different than mine and it would be easier to use this method with a Fundamental acquaintance, but, family is trickier.

    I did learn something from this. THANK YOU!