Raising children in an age of nothing

by Anthony Esolen

It’s not a happy thing to read that so many of our countrymen are “nones,” belonging to no church and adhering to no way of paying homage to God. How do we raise children in a no-land, where their deepest beliefs will be met with what’s sometimes more discouraging than enmity, with the shrug of indifference and incomprehension?

I think we must bear in mind the character of this nothing. It is not deep — it cannot conceivably be deep — but it is broad, like a vast slick of muddy water and wreckage after a flood, shallow as a few inches in most places, but lapping at every post and foundation in sight.

Let me name the things whereof the nones have none.

1. They are not apt to have feasts. Big meals, maybe, and debauchery, too often, but the feast that brings people together in joy because they stand in the light of the transcendent God — none. We must have feasts: the more, and the more solemn, the merrier; a paradox that the nones do not understand.

2. They are not apt to prize the family above their pleasures; in their marriages, when they marry, they are often partners in hedonism. They have displaced the child Jesus from His throne, so that children become not blessings from God, but accessories to a lifestyle or creatures in the way, to be deposited at the nearest holding tank as soon as possible. We must orient our decisions toward the family, even before we have a family at all, or a spouse. The family is the foundation of social life. To sacrifice it for prestige at work or the high life of Belial is to sow salt in a field and then expect it to bear fruit. Raise your sons to be husbands and fathers, and your daughters to be wives and mothers.

3. The nones do not pray; the Christian family prays together. But there are quite a few other things that linger in the precincts of the temple that the nones are not likely to enjoy. Consider how much of the great art, music and literature of the West has been directly inspired by the Christian faith. You cannot take two steps in the world of Dickens without encountering something of the Sermon on the Mount, or that fine moment, remembered so powerfully in A Christmas Carol, when Jesus took a small child and placed him in the midst of His disciples, saying, “Unless you become as one of these little ones, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” What of the poignant beauty of Handel’s air, “And He shall feed His flock,” from Messiah? Or that moment of bittersweet forgiveness in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when King Alonso falls to his knees before the girl whom he had set on a leaky ship twelve years before to drown with her innocent father? We must place these riches before our children as we would place before them a precious inheritance from ages past. We must not forget.

And yet there is more.

The nones do not inhabit a world of mystery, of sin and redemption, of moments of truth when souls hang in the balance; it is a flat and dreary world, wherein nothing really significant can happen. Why should Othello care if Desdemona has been unfaithful? Why should Emma be abashed when Mr. Knightley places before her eyes her hardness of heart? What difference does it make if Sir Thomas simply accedes to the Oath of Supremacy? Why should Dr. Livingston risk his life in penetrating to the heart of Africa?

We must therefore inhabit the real world, the world in which things matter, a world of adventure and drama, of the possibility of eternal loss and the offer of infinite gain. The nones have political hacks to adulate. We must have heroes, both of the things of man and of the things of God: Washington, Augustine, Lord Nelson, Francis of Assisi. The nones have the flippant; we must have the bright and joyful. We have a merry good humor about the body, which we do take seriously, because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit; they have porn and disillusionment and pills and old age that portends only debility and exhaustion.

Do not settle. Live in the fullness of reality. Play and work, eat and drink, marry and stay married, read good books and talk about them, turn your eye upon the small things of beauty round about you, and bend the knee in prayer. Live as if the nones were missing out on everything, as they are; then maybe even the clear laughter of your children will beckon to them to come out of that world of no dreams, that world that does not exist.

Dr. Anthony Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts. A widely read Catholic social commentator, he is the author of several books, including Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture and Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity. 

This article originally appeared in the August print edition of The Lutheran Witness. Want to read more like it? Visit cph.org/trylutheranwitness and subscribe today.

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