Matthew 10:34-39

I've been thinking about this passage a lot lately, wondering why it is that of all the people in the world who know me, it is only, apparently, my family to whom my faith (or search there for) seems to present a difficulty. For everyone else--colleagues, students, friends, fellow fencers, whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or atheist--the fact that I am a Christian is no more remarkable than my white hair (at age 43, no less) or my fencing. It is simply a part of who I am. Sometimes, to be sure, they see it as an invitation to further discussion, for which I am, of course, glad. And, occasionally, there are those who see my hair and ask why I don't color it ("You have such a young face, you shouldn't be gray!"), or others who question my choice of sport ("Isn't that a bit aggressive?"). But for the most part, thank John Stuart Mill*, they recognize my faith as of a piece with my hair color and my hobbies: not as a challenge to their choices to color (or not) or to play basketball or swim rather than fence, but as an expression of my own search for understanding in the world. Why then is my Christian faith such a problem for my family?

What I want to ask them (and, by the by, am doing by writing this post) is whether they would feel as threatened (if they do, I could be misreading the whole situation wildly [P.S. I understand now that they don't; thank goodness for blogging!]) or need to excuse themselves in the way that they do (as they put it, "We're not Christian," in much the same way that meat-eaters sometimes seem to feel the need to excuse themselves to vegetarians--I get this latter response more than anything else**) if I were Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim? What I'm wondering is, is it Christianity as such that is creating the barrier for us, or is it holding to any religious perspective on the world at all? Is this about definitions (a.k.a. names for God) or it is about devotion (surrendering oneself to worship and praise)? Or is it, instead, not really about Christianity or faith or worship at all but rather about what it is like being a family and simply rubbing each other the wrong way no matter what we do?

However much our difficulties in communication may be grounded ideologically, I rather suspect that there is a good deal of the latter at work in our usual disagreements. On which, G.K. Chesterton*** had something rather insightful to say: "The common defense of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defense of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one." In Chesterton's argument, what makes the family valuable, even precious, is the very fact that it is comprised not of people brought together by a common interest or even a common sociability, but rather, like the village or the nation of which it is an analog, of those who were simply born into it. "We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor"--likewise our brother, uncle, cousin or aunt. The family, like the village, "is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergences and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy."

Now, this is not the way, I know, that Christ's warning about bringing not peace but a sword is usually read; in context, He is talking about the need to follow Him in spite of the love that one has for one's family. In Matthew's account, it is assumed that not to love one's family is a terrible sacrifice, and yet, it is this sacrifice, God insists, one must be willing to make if one is to gain life. But I am inclined for the moment to read the Gospel in a more Chestertonian sense. Of course I have relatively little difficulty with my colleagues, students, friends and fellow fencers. We have all chosen at one point or another to be together, whether in our profession or in a particular class or at the salle. We are, in other words, insulated by the very fact that we live in what we think of as a big society but, as Chesterton points out, "a big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the world, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge." And what is Christian knowledge? It is that we must learn to love our next-door neighbor whether we agree with him or not.

What holds for the village or suburban street or apartment building or (dare I say?) academic institution in which we find ourselves holds above all for the family, for it is there that we encounter not just those who are like us or whom we like, but the whole of humanity: "Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world." Some, Chesterton concurs, may wish to escape from all this but they should not, he insists, deceive themselves into thinking that by leaving the village or the suburb or the family that they are escaping narrowness for a larger world. On the contrary, they are succumbing to narrowness because in that larger world they will have the luxury of choice. For those who want to test their "readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind" the best way "would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he [or she] was born."

So, thank goodness our religious differences turn brother against sister and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law! This is the

sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up.... In this degree the supreme being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather take my chances with the wizards and Elves and Orcs and dragons than never set foot out the door--or down the chimney--into the world. And I'm the eldest sister so you know what my chances of being the Good One are.

*We can talk later about the adverse effects of the liberal position on the search for truth, despite what Mill himself thought about the possibility of arriving at answers.
**I'll tell you sometime, okay, now, about going out to eat with some of my fellow fencers at a steak restaurant where I looked at the menu and wondered, "Where are all the vegetables?" To which one of the meat-eaters replied, "Vegetables are what food eats." Touche.
***All quotations from "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family," in Heretics (1905), pp. 95-104.


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