It’s a Hallmark holiday, but Father’s Day was a chance to reflect a bit on our children and their future. As a father of one son (and soon to be two), I am a member of a shrinking subset in modern America. Increasingly, many people like me aren't getting married, some aren't having children at all, and many of those who do eventually marry and have children are doing so much later in life. There are many reasons for these trends, but one ideological reason stands out: we millennials seem to be embracing a complete redefinition of both our families and ourselves around the concept of Identity. I fear this will present great challenges for my generation's children.
It seems that one of the most significant cultural themes my children will encounter is Identity. I’m not talking about concrete, observable identity (their height, place of birth, hair color). No, I mean felt or discovered identity. My children will be told that they need to look into themselves for meaning. To figure out who they are, and to make that self-discovered "identity" the source of meaning for their lives. Morality, truth, faith, duty, family, community - these all take a backseat to identity in our culture today. And, once this identity is “discovered” and claimed, nothing must stand in the way of the full actualization and embrace of that identity.
This is the inevitable result of the kind of postmodernism that has been at work on my generation since childbirth. Through the pangs of attempting to create a livable moral construct, postmodernism has given birth to Identity as our new touchstone. "Who you are" has become the only real absolute truth. All actions, feelings, and choices that flow out from this “identity” are de facto true, good, and unassailable. Sadly, this is not a new development - it’s simply another manifestation of the root of evil, pride. Augustine explained this perfectly:
"Pride is the beginning of sin. And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation - when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself."
So what can I do to guide my children in the face of this pressure to be self-defined? I believe our only hope for the next generation is to steer our children away from this obsession with identity and toward faith, duty, and love.
Faith is the key, for through faith we give up our identity and hold to the absolute Truth and Grace that come through Christ. Per Augustine, we will either exalt ourselves or God - there is no other option. Identity exalts the self, but faith exalts God and works for the good of our neighbor. Identity says we must work for our own glory and self-realization. Faith says we must turn away from ourselves and our sin and embrace the Truth.
Connected to faith, moral duty is an immensely important concept for us to teach our children. It is quickly slipping away in our culture. Our sense of duty has diminished under the weight of our concept of “rights.” One of the greatest philosophical missteps of our country’s Founding era was the enshrinement of the language of "rights" absent "duties". To speak of rights first is to talk backwards. In America today we say that we have a right to life, and therefore no one should be permitted to murder. In reality, we have a duty to protect life, and it is only from that shared duty that we can come up with an idea of a right to life. The trouble with rights-speak is that it is so abstract that we have begun to create rights from thin air whenever we feel the need. Rights today are vague felt concepts, similar to our vague fumbling around to define and express our own identities. And they emphasize the individual as an independent right-holder standing apart from society, as opposed to a member of society who has duties to those around him as an unavoidable consequence of that membership.
Speaking in terms of moral duties bypasses the murky quagmire of rights. We must teach our children their duties to protect the lives and properties of others, to work for the good of their neighbors, to care for their families, to sacrifice themselves. Focusing on duties gives them (and us) something to do. Most importantly, it directs us outward. Duty tells us what we ought to do for other people, not what we ought to claim for ourselves. The impact duty has on the mind of a child is clear. Children are born largely selfish. They must be taught duty and self-sacrifice. In contrast, our culture today would keep us all selfish children. Perhaps it is not surprising that my generation is less eager to procreate – having children may be too grown-up for us.
While duty can be taught, it will only be realized through love. Real love. The kind of love that is a verb, that involves self-sacrifice, that is obtainable only as it participates in the love of Christ in His ultimate sacrifice of himself for humanity. It is a great sadness to see how love has come to be defined today. Like every other modern "virtue", it is defined by the individual. Modern "love" is a feeling or personal decision. It is defined by self. But true love is defined by its selflessness.
If our children can learn and accept faith, duty, and love, perhaps they can grow into mature adults despite a culture that wants them to remain children. This is our great task as fathers, and it is made more difficult by the trends of our culture. But the culture is not to be feared. It does no good to hide children from a warped culture in the long term. They will need to deal with the ideas at work in our culture sooner or later. Rather than shielding them, we must show them the richness, beauty, and meaning in a life characterized by faith, duty, and love, and a hope for eternity that goes beyond the demands of the now.