Returning to Family Matters
In July’s edition of the WLC Messenger, I am returning to family matters after a couple of months on other topics. If you know me well, then you know that divorce, remarriage, and the effect such decisions have upon children is a topic that is close to my heart. I myself am a child from a home that has been touched by divorce. I have close family members, friends, and parishioners whose lives have been touched by divorce. I have studied the teachings of Scripture on the topic of divorce and remarriage.
Children of Divorce
Lately, I have been reading Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family As the Loss of Being by Andrew Root. It is a heavy book (not in weight, but in content), and having been published by Baker Academic, it is indeed an academic book. It is 171 pages in length, and its author, Andrew Root, holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Professor Root is renown for his interaction with German theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he converses and writes on the area of youth ministry. In an era where so many are attempting to merely entertain youth with the latest trends, Root has breathed theological depth into relational youth ministry. In addition to his training and expertise, he also brings his own experience of his parents’ divorce to bear on this 2010 publication—Children of Divorce.
In the Introduction, Root shares about his own experience as a child of divorce. He also briefly describes the increasing cultural acceptance of divorce that grew out of the 1970’s and “no fault” divorce. The book provides a much needed perspective in all of the divorcing going on—the perspective of the child. He states his thesis, “My overall thesis is that divorce is an ontological issue, one that impacts our very being-in-the-world” (xviii). Ontology is the study of being or existence. Therefore, Root is suggesting that when a divorce happens, the union which gave a child his/her very existence is removed and results in an ontological crisis.
A History of Family, a History of the Self
Chapter one develops the history of the western family along with shifting objectives behind why people have married. He sums up this development when he writes,
The history of the family has followed a broad progression the last six hundred years: its objective has shifted from property and power mergers, to labor, and then to love. These changes follow the evolution of cultural currents impacted by the Enlightenment, currents that changed us from premodern to modern to late-modern people. Divorce, then, is the tragic underbelly of the liberation of marriage and family from being centered on land or labor to being centered on love. But now, standing in late modernity, we find ourselves with a problem, a problem much like the effects of modernity on scientific discovery or technological advance. It is the problem of risk. Scientifically and technologically, this means we can split the atom, but in doing so can destroy the world. We can construct effective power plants, but they pollute the planet. Similarly, marriage and family are free from the bondage of a harsh earlier world, but free for what? Making family about love heightened the significance of the person (the self), but it left us with a dangerous risk. When marriage is about love between persons, and nothing more, what remains when love is doubted or destroyed? . . . then who are [the children] once the love that created them and their primary community is gone? (4–5).
As love became more individualized, subjective, and about self-fulfillment, “the step out of marriage into divorce was then increasingly inevitable” (22). While objectives for marriage such as mergers or labor cemented the child’s existence in the family’s tradition or function, these things were much more difficult to discard or destroy. Families formed out of mergers or labor needed the father-mother-child community to survive and succeed, and it took monumental shifts or changes to take away the security the family provided for the child.
But for the children of the late-twentieth-century love union, all it took to destroy a marriage was a change in Mom and Dad’s individual, subjective feelings. Here, then, is the conflict that we have yet to solve: what do you do when the self-fulfillment of mother and father requires the dissolving of a marriage, but the security and self-fulfillment of the child depends upon its continuation? (23)
Marriage, Divorce, and Ontology
This opening chapter sets the stage for chapters two and three where Root interacts with Giddens’s Social Theory and Heidegger’s Dasein (German—being there). Root concludes, “My being, as we have seen with the examples above, is contingent on the being of others.” In other words, “In confronting the question of my identity, I am also confronting the question of the identity of others . . . To be is to be with” (64). That is to say, a child is only with the parents. Gidden and Heidegger lead Root to assert,
that divorce in this detraditionalized late modernity may have a deep ontological impact that is often overlooked . . . divorce confronts the core of the young person’s humanity, for it affects his or her being and acting in the social world (64).
Barth’s Anthropology and Imago Dei
Subsequently, Root moves to the theological in chapters four and five. Here, he engages the anthropology and imago Dei (image of God) doctrines of the German theologian, Karl Barth. These chapters touched my soul and gave expression and words to feelings and thoughts that I have harbored for twenty years. Root discusses Barth’s analogia relationis, “an analogy of relationship between the being of humanity and the being of God.” That is to say, “To be is to be in relationship.” Barth demonstrates this first in the Trinity’s relating as Father, Son, and Spirit and then moves to anthropology and deeper still into the imago Dei—being in relationship is fundamental to being human, even to being real. Root writes,
This means that relationship constitutes reality; it is relationship that leads to being (not the other way around). We find our being in being-with-others (71–75).
Considering the child of divorce, I hope that you can begin to see and feel Root’s argument as he employs Barth’s theology. The relationship—the union—of father and mother gives the child his/her being, his or her reality. To be in this relationship is to be real. When divorce divides the union which gave the child existence, he slips into the unreal. While a child of course forms other communities in which he lives and moves as he gets older, divorce means that he “has lost the one that has been from the beginning the one that made him real . . . When this is taken away, the young person is lost.” At this point, Root shares an interview with a young lady named Nicole who describes her parents separation and divorce,
That afternoon, after he left, she [her mother] sat us down on the couch and said he wasn’t coming back. I can’t even remember my reaction. I know I couldn’t understand what was happening. But I know exactly how I felt. Lost. Now everything I see I have to know the cause, so I can explain the effect. Since I can’t really understand why the divorce came about, I constantly struggle to make sense of my family (75).
Having engaged with “the being” of Barth’s anthropology, Root also engages “the acting” of Barth’s anthropology as it relates to the child of divorce. Beyond the ontological crisis for the child, there is a crisis of acting. The child of divorce now lives in two worlds but is in his very being a reminder of the old world, the old reality. His resemblance, the shape of his eyes, his mannerisms, expressions “are no longer undeniable witnesses to their being as being-with these people [i.e., the parents]. They become instead signs or reminders of division” (65). In these two worlds, the child struggles to find coherence regarding his acting or his agency. “He must act one way in one world and another in the other world” (65). Root acknowledges that living in multiple “worlds” (e.g., work, school, social gatherings, etc) is part of our modern society and that children must learn to act and compartmentalize appropriately in these varied settings; however, he writes,
But to have to act differently, even contradictorily, in relation to those who correlate and are responsible for your being is quite different. When there are two family worlds, the child is asked to do the impossible. To find his being in two opposed worlds, he is asked to be two people (65).
I summarized this in the margin of the book by saying that ontological duplicity leads to relational duplicity.
Also within chapters three and four, Root offers exceptional research that distinguishes the difference between the impact of the death of a parent upon a child and the impact of divorce upon a child. One difference is that the death of a parent points a child forward to a future event regarding his being while a divorce causes a child to look back to a past event regarding his being.
Death looks to a future reality, an event that will happen as time unfolds for the young person. Divorce does not so much point forward as throw the foundational event of the child’s very origins into regret and question. Death promises the eventual end of his being; divorce questions if he ever should have been at all (77).
Root calls this a “haunting reality” for the child of divorce. Second, the death of a parent and the divorce of parents differ in the area of agency. Root writes,
Death (unless it is suicide, which opens up a whole other truckload of issues) rarely if ever occurs through the agency of the dying person. Disease, accident, and tragedy happen to the parent over and against their choice (action). But divorce is an action, not a fate; it may feel unavoidable, but from the child’s perspective it will always come finally by the choice of one or both parent to end the union (77).
Barth’s view of the image of God introduces a substantial shift in theology and gives further explanation as to why divorce causes a crisis for the child at the ontological level. Many have articulated the image of God as pertaining to humanity being endowed with an essence similar to God’s, possessing a diluted form of God’s substance. Categories such as intellect, volition, and emotion are described. Having these capacities, we are able to serve God, have dominion, pursue freedom, liberty, and happiness. Barth looked beyond these capacities to something else that makes us truly human—our relationships.
Barth proposes a major paradigm shift in theological anthropology: one from seeing the human being as an individual defined by innate faculties to seeing the person as a dynamic-interpersonal agent whose faculties arise only as they exist in relations to others (91).
The point is this: what good is intellect, volition, and emotion without relationships in which to employ them? Root writes,
To reflect the image of God is to be in community, it is to be with and for others, just as the Father is with and for the Son through the Spirit . . . Reality itself is constituted not in substances and essences, but in relationships. We are real and freed from the unreal, not because we can think, reason, or feel, but because we are held in the community of others composed by the relational community of God (92–93).
He connects Barth’s relational imago Dei shift to the topic of divorce in this way,
When the image of God is seen as a relational reality, freedom is not understood as the freedom to do whatever is needed to make oneself happy and free. Rather, freedom is understood as the freedom to be for others. In the logic of a relational imago Dei we find our freedom, not away from others, but in giving ourselves to others (93).
Going further, he connects the relational imago Dei to the children of divorce by correcting assumptions,
We assume that divorce impacts [children] at the level of intellect, will, and emotions. Therefore, our actions for them seek to help them think correctly about the divorce (“It is not your fault”), reason realistically (“Mom and Dad are not getting back together”), and feel properly (“It is OK to be mad and sad, but soon you’ll feel better and be better because Mom and Dad will be happier”). Most of the initiatives to help kids deal with divorce seem stuck in this substantialistic perspective”(93–94).
This approach often results in the theory of “The Good Divorce,” which is founded upon two myths: (1) “Happy Parents Make Happy Children,” and (2) “Divorce Is a Temporary Crisis.” Both of these are untrue, and neglect the ontological crisis of the child. Thinking better or providing more information won’t help. Parental happiness will not enduringly influence the happiness of the child who has experienced a deep cut against his imago Dei. Even will power—of the parent or the child—will not be able to limit or restrain the far-reaching ontological effects of divorce.
Barth’s relational imago Dei reminds us that a child needs the parental union in which she can experience objective relational encounters in three areas: (1) male and female, (2) environment, and (3) mirroring. First, male and female are realities of the imago Dei. The mother and father provide a communion in which the child can securely figure out his connection to and difference from them. Second, the child encounters “Mom and Dad in the distinction and unity of the environment” (108). It is in the environment of male and female that the child belongs and is the image of God. Further, this environment also produces rituals that became larger than any one individual and anchor the individuals in common, shared experiences. Third, whether “for good or for ill, the family environment serves as a mirror, which through its action reflects our being back to us” (110). The problem divorce causes for mirroring is that not only has the mirror been shattered, but also multiple mirrors replace the one mirror, and the result is oftentimes contradictory images that leave the child ontologically insecure. Root draws this section to a close by quoting another writer, “To be human is to be concretely ‘this person’ belonging to ‘these people’” (112).
Ontological Security in Christ and His Church
As Root transitions to the final chapter, he explains that for most children the announcement of divorce does not come as good news. It is also not an end for them, rather it is a beginning—“the beginning of her search for a place to be as she acts between their two worlds. She must find a way to be ‘this person’ now that ‘these people’ regret their union that created her” (116, italics mine). The child will search for communities of belonging, and it is Root’s hope that the church can be the kind of place where a child of divorce can find belonging and ontological security in the perfect and powerful love of Christ. In this chapter, Root develops four practical actions that church’s can take to help children of divorce, and he addresses them to three different kinds of people: (1) the youth worker/children’s minister, (2) the parent, and (3) a friend or mentor (e.g., a grandparent). The four practical actions are (1) Mirroring in the Church as Seeing and Being Seen, (2) Autonomy and Belonging in the Church as Speaking and Listening, (3) Routine in the Church as Mutual Assistance, and (4) Bracketing out Anxiety in the Church by Acting in Gladness.
Finally, I should say that Root is sensitive to those tragic situations in which divorce may indeed be the severe mercy needed for the family. So, he doesn’t view divorce as impossible. The strength of the book is Root’s ability to discern and integrate multiple disciplines (i.e., sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology) in a powerfully harmonic voice regarding the ontological challenges and solutions for the child of divorce. While I realize it was not necessarily the aim of his academic publication, I would have benefitted from a longer book; perhaps, he could have included another chapter that addresses the biblical imperatives to honor and care for parents in light ontological realities and challenges following a divorce. Although I must share that when I attempted to correspond with Dr. Root regarding these additional topics, he was quick, personal, and very kind in his response to me via email—a true scholar and a gentleman! All in all, I am so thankful for this book that gives voice to the children who live through the tragedy of divorce.