Home Patterns in Religious Teachings
Angus H. MacLean

The heart of the church school is the home. The heart of our religious education program is in the home. The church school end of it is a parents' co-op. This is the simplest way in which I can put it. The responsibility should always be primarily that of the parents. I never have liked the pattern of people identified with church leadership, begging the parents to come in and help. If anything, these people ought to be used, put to work, by the parents who accept the work as their basic responsibility.

FOR so many years, we have regarded the home as the greatest educational institution in our society. It is curious, therefore, that many of us tend to act as though the Church School could care for the spiritual nurture of children.

Church School leaders, knowing they cannot get very far without the parents, have for years been sending out a string of appeals for their co-operation with the Church School program. The most recent and possibly the best of such appeals is a pamphlet being used among us at the present time by Lucile H. Lindberg and Dorothy T. Spoerl, entitled, Am I a Good Church Parent? "Are you good parents" in the natural setting of the parent in the home? This is a question that needs to be asked and answered.

I began my work in Religious Education with the conviction and the hope that the home is the central and most important agent in the spiritual nurture of the young. I have no reason to alter or change my mind in the light of the findings of psychiatric and character researchers since that day. I have long since contended - and still do - that even if the home education is excellent, the child still needs the Church School experience. If the home education is good, the Church effort can be effective. If the values nurtured in the home are in conflict with what we attempt to communicate in the Church School, the home values will win out. Nine times out of ten, there are certain conditions under which the individual breaks away from the conditioning and basic patterns of the home. They are not always very happy ones. It is really not accurate, therefore, to say that the home, as such, is the best educational institution in the world; it is both the best and the worst. In other words, I think the truth is that the home is the most powerful influence in a child's life. If its values, its attitudes, its patterns of behavior and interests, and its loyalties are healthy and good, they will take hold. If they are not, they will also take hold.

These convictions come to me not just from books, but from watching the life patterns of people for a good many years, particularly young people as they arrive at the colleges. The finest things about them, and also the worst, the things which stand out immediately, are obviously traceable to and rooted in early home relations. The sickness, the conflict, the ambivalence that disturbs them so they are unable to be productive, are invariably and obviously rooted there also. The home is powerful because of the intimacy with which people live together in it. We have been in the habit of saying that there is no teacher like the good example, and that children imitate their parents. There is some truth in putting it this way, but I think it is a rather amateurish, inadequate way of explaining it. Children do not imitate everything they see, thank heaven. They would go crazy if they did. The significant fact is that they select from the home environment what they shall imitate. The great question for us is to find out why they make this particular kind of selection. If we do not make this discovery, I do not think we do anything more than to just work in the dark.

My present hunch is that the effect is due to this: an ethical value is lived between people. This is the only place that an ethical value has any existence, in a kind of relationship set up between people. We may talk about values at other times and write about them, but they have no existence except where people live together. When one lives in a family, no matter what it is like, or in any other closely-knit group, ethical values are immediately set in operation. A child is loved to a degree, or not loved, and upon that fact hangs the possibility of his learning to love or even to understand love. The kind and the degree of honesty lived in the home is the kind with which he will begin life. When a child is ill, he is attended in certain ways. In other words, he is an object of value. The concerns of the family are immediately impressed upon him. These are educative times. When he is involved in a quarrel with his peers, the attitudes with which the parents respond to crises of this sort always disclose their own particular patterns of values, and these are what the youngster catches. Suppose he brings home money or something he says he picked up on the street. What happens? What happens, tells the story of what the family really likes, in other words, their values. When he faces bereavement, tremendous loss of some sort, what happens? When he asks questions, perhaps involving religious ideas, practices, how does the family respond? Is there a family interest in his struggles to understand his off-hand, seemingly off-hand, curiosity about life? These things make all the difference in the strength and effectiveness of what we do.

What happens with the family's leisure time? We are inclined to think that this is time off. Our leisure-time activities with our families are most revealing and impressive as to family values.

There is no time when a family experiences the sense of togetherness, of mutuality, of loyalty, of cooperation, and of love for each other than when on a day off, when the members can be together, without the distractions of earning a living, going to school and doing the housework.

What are the family attitudes toward civic responsibility? The youngster is not yet interested in politics or in what happens in Washington, or Albany, or Boston, or any other place. He doesn't seem to be interested, but he gets the reactions of the family. They are unmistakable. He is likely to have deeply imprinted upon him these attitudes toward the larger interests of life and toward society.

What are the attitudes of the family toward causes and charities? Does the family fall into the category of the crowd we call the "status seekers"? When a house is selected, when friends are invited, one may be almost unaware of the factors that determine the selections, the youngster does not miss them. It does not matter what you preach at him. The living values are the ones that go over. So I think we must honestly ask ourselves, if the lure of the "big deal" and the "fast buck" - so-called - have captured our home and to what degree?

What is it that is disclosed when Dad, close to the deadline, works on his income tax report? What happens - maybe in an off-hand way - to disclose an attitude when notice comes around that the pledge to the church has still to be paid? Does this immediately release any indication of very real appreciation of what the Church is? Does it reveal real joy in participating in its support? - or something else? What attention is given to religion and to the Church in this constructive, forthright, positive way? The answers to. these questions are important to us. We cannot keep from a child what is of most worth to us, what is indifferent to us, nor what we negate or avoid, even though we never talk about them. The power of the home is everywhere acknowledged in the area of emotional health and it is no less powerful in the area of moral growth and spiritual sensitivity.

I am not in entire agreement with most people on what we ought to do with adolescents. I think that I am a little bit off the general track here. I have thought a great deal about the nature of freedom. I try to understand what it is, because liberals should know what it is they teach. I suspect that half the time people talk about freedom as though it were something that exists apart from education. I maintain that it does not, and it cannot possibly, exist when a person is not involved in human relations. Freedom in this social, cultural sense is learned. It is of great concern that we should teach this. I do not believe that any little youngster can choose the philosophy with which he is going to live consciously and deliberately, or the values by which he lives. These are absorbed in the subtleties of family life. I still think that when he reaches adolescence, he needs our ideas and our attitudes - even our political affiliations - to give him identity and a sense of security as he faces the world. He may still differ with you. He may argue with you. This you have to keep alive. What you firmly believe and live by is still his strength and will be for some time. The important thing in making free people is that this conditioning includes the values that have always tended to make men free. You cannot make people free in any other way.

The home cannot pass the buck - to put it simply - to the Church School or to the Scouts or the public school or anything else. The task it faces is particularly difficult in a day in which the morals of society are under rapid change.

In a recent article in Look Magazine, there is a good deal said about our culture under the question, "Have our moral standards been destroyed by the pursuit of the dollar?" I know the temptation to read an article and lay it aside as the magazine that has had a nice feature article. This one deserves attention. It is based on a nationwide survey made by a dozen rather keen reporters. They show that the market-place value, the good old horse-trading game, is not new, but is getting more into our visceras, more into our homes, more into the intimacies of our lives. The idea is that I put the highest possible value on my horse, disguise all his faults and all his weaknesses, cover up his spavins, and try to hide the fact that he is old and decrepit. I rub him with linseed oil, or something else. I came from the horse and buggy days; I know how to do this. The other fellow assumes that he is the worst possible horse from the beginning, the trade goes back and forth; then a happy medium is struck and we think it a grand joke and a nice way to do business. In many ways it is. It may be the best way, for all I know. But there are attitudes and values here that we had better scrutinize a little more closely; particularly when this game is played on a world-wide scale with nations and the lives of thousands at stake. This is not a matter of trading horses in the backyard!

The advertising lies that come through TV programs are just a little item, but they symbolize what is happening all the time. I am not referring to such innocent lies as representing Hemlock Lake as something like a roaring torrent that might better be associated with Niagara Falls. I am referring to the obvious distorting of the truth in order to try to persuade us to make a purchase. Let's not deceive ourselves by thinking that this does not reach our young people. It is very interesting to me that in this article on Payola, and so on, the young people were much more ready to accept the idea than were their elders.

What I am driving at is that in our homes, in the church or by whatever means, we have as human beings, to keep our hearts and our minds above the level of our market-place value. This has always been so. A human being to be really human has a transcendent element in him, he has a future, and he works for the world in which he has a future. When he ceases to have this element in his make-up, he really has lost the most significant part of his humanity.

I know that our culture has made tremendous progress and I could specify to you a great deal of progress. We cannot hang onto the old. I sometimes get nostalgic about the old community in which I was born. It was the back-wash of civilization and yet I think it was a thousand years ahead of our civilization. There were no policemen. I was in high school when I first saw one. There were no jails. There were no poorhouses, there were no orphanages. There was nobody on the street. It was a simple way of living, but we could not go back to that. We have to achieve a human sense of mutual responsibility on a new level in terms of new ways of life which we cannot avoid.

The picture of our task places a terrific responsibility upon parents. There is no question about that. But, and I think there is a very important "but," the forces that serve to promote sickness of soul, immorality, and the impoverishment of spirit, do not need to control them. There are other values, with which our culture and our people are richly endowed, that can take a ruling place around the hearth and in the church.

It is not too difficult a task for some parents to keep children from succumbing to the market-place values. I have seen it happen too often, not to believe this. Very simple people can do this because they live the proper values. People of moral and spiritual worth live above their culture and judge it in terms of the greatest values and hopes that humanity has ever thought or put into print. The word "ought" is still a living thing in their attitudes, and it finds expression in everything they do. It is not whether we have a TV or not but the way we read the daily news, the way we respond to TV programs, or to social problems, and serve institutions for social advancement, which makes the difference between a child who will dedicate himself to high standards in public service and one who goes in for the "big deal and the fast buck." We are really not so helpless as we feel. I once heard a sociologist from Bucknell say that the home could inoculate children against the less desirable values of the community. I still think there is enough truth in that to give us more than a fighting chance as parents.

I am supposed to be suggesting patterns of religious education in the home. I did not intend to tell you what these patterns are, but to express the hope that we develop them. I am going to make just a few suggestions. First, I would like to start a movement of self-study. I am dropping my present job, and I intend to work in a church next year. One of my responsibilities will be to work with parents and teachers. I have been thinking a great deal about this parent problem. One of the first things I would like to attempt is to start a program of home-self study, with a selected group of parents, conducted by the parents, to find out what the formative powerful patterns of values are in the particular homes under study. I think a little observation, courageous honesty, and a pencil and paper could disclose a great deal.

This is a point at which helps for parents in. the way of forms and suggestions as to where to look and what to look for would be tremendously helpful. Even nothing more than a hunch as to how the values emerge would tell us a great deal. The churches could certainly be of assistance in helping the parents do this kind of study. In facing such questions, for example as "Is the family knit by an unquestionable love, and loyalty to one another?"

I am not suggesting anything sissy here. I was brought up in a family of nine and we fought at the drop of a hat, any old time, for any old reason, and so did my father and mother. But there was never, never anything that threatened our loyal love for one another. Let anybody else try to interfere, and you'd find out! Most of us are still living, and to this day, we see each other whenever we can. I am in correspondence with every one of them regularly; and I think this is rare. It is natural for families to have quarrels and conflicts, but do we have the kind of love, loyalty, and easy communication which prevents the development of distrust, hostility, sulky suspicion, chronic tensions and fears? What is the emotional pattern in the home? It can be superficially nice when it's far from good, and it can be rough and tumble when it's very good. That doesn't mean that you can't reverse these. What, following day's routine, are the things that seem to matter the most in the home atmosphere? Love and good fellowship? Is it the feeling that having one another, enjoying one another, is the most precious thing? Is there a great deal of value placed upon personal integrity? Is this something that really strikes home in the family atmosphere? I owe my family a great deal. Nobody could play games in that family and get away with it. You know the kind of games I have in mind. Saying one thing, feeling another. Honesty was so pronounced that it was natural.

My second suggestion is this: that some homes, at least experimentally, should undertake some formal address to religion which suits the particular family. This is necessary, not only because home is the effective educator, but because there are things that the church, especially the free church, cannot attempt to do anyway. Furthermore, we are not grown up when we have merely absorbed good attitudes and fine feelings in our family. We're really not grown up and mature until these blossom into consciousness and they become concepts, principles by which we discipline ourselves. Remember Gordon Allport's little book on The Individual and His Religion, where he describes the development of religious sentiment. It's a very interesting thing that while it is rooted in the very basic desires, physical and psychological needs of the youngster, the religious sentiment acquires its own autonomy and stands in judgment and control of the very drives that produce it.

If this is true, the articulation of the faith, the thinking end of it, is significant to any person reaching maturity. This kind of attention to religion I think is a necessary part of the family life. Some of our people in our free churches would like our children to have more Bible in the curriculum, and to have it earlier. Others would have none of it if they could have their way. This is to be expected.' We are going to have this condition as long as we have people. Some would like children to have experiences with prayer. They have been taught to pray. They may be praying people themselves. They think that children should learn to pray. There are others, full of Freudian suspicions who regard as a real danger the great "boogieman" of the universe, the Father image, that always pops up when somebody prays. My question is, "How can church people serve these conflicting interests without starting schisms, and quarrels of all sorts?" They cannot unless you bulldoze and push them on with such pressure that from the whole metropolitan area you select people who agree with you, and banish others. It can be done in this way, but it is really not a good liberal way to do it.

The church school can really do effective work in the areas in which there is considerable consensus of agreement among its parents. Way back in 1920, when I started this business, I remember speaking at a Unitarian church in Elizabeth, N. J. The first thing I said was, "The heart of the church school is the home." The heart of our religious education program is in the home. The church school end of it is a parents' co-op. This is the simplest way in which I can put it. The responsibility should always be primarily that of the parents. I have never liked the pattern of people identified with church leadership, begging the parents to come in and help. If anything, these people ought to be used, put to work, by the parents, who accept the work as their basic responsibility. Personally I don't think the issue is whether or not you use Bible or prayers. In any case, people learn and grow from what they now regard as good and valuable, whether it be one or the other. So if I as a parent think my children should have more Bible, or to grow up with considerable knowledge of the Bible, I should not only be encouraged to go ahead and do this, but I should be asked to do it myself and to be helped at doing it well. This is a point at which the church could be of tremendous assistance to me as a parent. It could be its responsibility to show me how Bible material relates to the various levels of maturity in children. It could indicate to me where I can find what reliable scholars think about documents found in the Bible, and the possible ill-effects of Biblical material on immature children. It could help me see the great and living values that somehow or other some people always seem to find who devote themselves to this book. What are the values by which we select portions of it and drop out others?

If I undertake to teach my children prayers, I must know children well enough so that I can anticipate and face the possible frustrations or agony that children may have with prayers, and frequently have had. We cannot dodge this, it's a fact. I am sure it is something about which we need to be very careful. I know of one person who started examining what was happening in his children's prayers. He used to teach the old pattern of "Now I Lay Me"; and he began to question whether or not this approach scared the children half to death because of its suggestion that they did not know whether they would last until morning. Then, he began to talk about goodness, good things, life and its meaning. The main point, as he saw it, was to make the children happy at the end of the day, all quarrels forgiven, everybody loving each other, and relaxed to go to sleep, reassured in spite of the unfortunate accidents and incidents of the day. This is spirituality of a high order. Perhaps you have discovered how to do this. Perhaps some of the people who bear the stamp of Sigmund Freud on this business will discover some psychiatrists are beginning to indicate that even a Father figure, when it's associated with the cosmos, may release a child from the dominance of Papa in the home. I wouldn't enter an argument with anyone on that.

Some families might do a very good job with little formal address to religion. I know that my wife and I never used much of formal address to religion. We used to sing Grace at the evening meal; it became a habit - everybody enjoyed it - we did it spontaneously. We did so last Christmas when the youngsters came home to the old house for the last time. It was spontaneous, natural, but it was a recognition of religion. Of course, there was the simple fact that we were always at church - took church for granted, and had endless discussions about what went on in Sunday School and church. We made prodigious use of encyc1opededias and other books when the parents didn't know the answers. I had a neighbor at that time, who is now a Unitarian minister in Philadelphia, a great big, hearty scholar and a wonderful person. He had a real liking for the Bible. I remember being in his house and hearing him, upstairs with his boys, roaring with laughter and having a tremendous time reading Bible stories. This fellow could point out with great ease and artistry the stupidity of some of the old stories, the historic differentiated from the unhistoric, the great spiritual principles differentiated from the crudities and primitive elements. It was as if he were examining life, in an interesting, objective way. His youngsters know their Bible as very few do. They had a wonderful companionship with their father and a mighty good course in ethics. In liberal churches, we cannot do everything that everybody wants, but we can encourage people to follow their own natural patterns, and encourage their home patterns. The church ought to help them in doing this.

I think there ought to be a formal pattern of religion somewhere in the home life. Its extent and emphasis should be a family choice. Even if religion is regarded as a process of ethical or aesthetic culture, it will call for no less planning. In fact, I think it might call for greater and more careful planning.

My third suggestion is that the family program of religious nurture can be greatly enhanced by the relations of the home to the church and the church school. I think that we have been a bit obtuse about the significance of the church in the life of a family. I would like to refer to a story about a boy in a book called Psychiatry and Religious Experience, by Dr.'s Lynn and Schwartz. A teacher asked her public school class members to identify themselves religiously. The children proudly got up and said they were Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and so on. One boy got up and hesitated. Finally he stammered that he guessed his parents were Jewish, but he wasn't sure. In a rather embarrassed way he finally said, "Well, I guess I'm just an American." The children laughed at him, and he was under considerable censure. The unkind kidding of his schoolmates drew wonderings on his own part. As a result, the teacher and the parents and the rabbi met. The family went back to the Synagogue, for a good reason - because the child needed identity in terms of religion. I think we liberals would get over much of this problem of what jenny and Johnny will do when the Catholic asks them so and so or insists on this and that. I doubt if it is theological "know-how" they need quite as much of as church orientation and identity. In any case, I'm sure that it counts. Certainly, it seems to me church and home owe something more to a youngster than the feeling that he is an American. I still believe that the function of religion is to give us a transcendent vision - something bigger than America or any other country.

The church is perhaps the only agent that publicly recognizes that neither the world nor any of its people are good enough, and which directs us to devotion to the unrealized and the hoped for. It is an expression in community terms of the transcendent element in humanity. For this reason, I think the home needs to identify itself with it. The values of the home need nurturing in a community center because the home is in a community and the children live in the community as well as in the home. The loyalties, responsibilities and mutualities of the home have a better chance of becoming world-wide in their reference in the child's mind and spirit, if he has this kind of experience. I once heard a very young child tell her friends as they filed into the church school, "I like this church, because it is our home together." She was talking about her playmates. In the church, they had experienced a widening of their family relationship, one which included friends and adults. It was a home in the town. I need hardly mention the value to parents of discussing their children's needs with teachers who work with them when they are with their peers in the church school. Parents and teachers can also co-operate in the matter of curriculum so that there are no duplications of study. Sometimes, for example, a youngster takes a book home, reads it the first night and digests it as bright children do, and then goes to Sunday School for two months and has the same thing stretched out that length of time. You just do not feed a youngster's mind fast enough when that happens. The only way you can correct it, in this very rich field, is to do some little planning between the home and the church school.

I hope you see the pertinence of Miss Lindberg's question, "Are you a good church parent?" I hope that someday she will follow it with one directed to church school teachers, entitled "Are you a good home teacher?"

I would like to mention at least one more thing. There comes a time when the best of us as parents have to wish our children well, trust them, and let them go. As Max Kapp always says about the boys in theological school "Loose them and let them go." That time arrives and it is a tough time. If we are wise, we start doing this when they are little toddlers. They acquire their maturity gradually and when they leave us, we are not afraid, because they have everything we think is worth while and maybe something in addition. There comes the time when they will seek advice, want advice, and need advice from people other than you, and me. This happens in the best of homes. To whom have we made it possible for them to go when this time comes?

We are living in a decade when man is deeply troubled in his soul. It was not so when I went to graduate school. We took the soul for granted in those days. We never even talked about it. We were interested in setting society in order, and in patching it up. We had a set of standards, obviously, as to how a man should live. They were vague, and we didn't know what problems were being raised, but we were trying to set society right. Today, everybody is digging into much more fundamental questions. It is not only the theologs, the professors and the preachers, but every thoughtful person on earth - businessmen, artists, poets, dramatists, fiction writers - who are speaking out of the troubled heart of humanity. They are wondering why they are alive, wondering what worth they can associate with life. Humanity is driven to this point on a very high intellectual level in our day and it finds less erudite and formal expression among unsophisticated people. Largely this is so, because the disorders of the world, our commercial values in part, the hot and cold wars, the horrors that have occurred in the last generation have robbed us of a future. We cannot dream about humanity the way we did years ago. We have been, to a great degree, robbed of our future. And man must have a future! We need keep alive this feeling for overreaching ourselves, transcending ourselves, the vision of a better world, the image of a better me, as well as a better society. These things are at the very heart of religion. They must be kept alive and it takes a home and a church to do it.

Let me conclude with a story I picked up in a letter to the Saturday Evening Post a few years ago. The father tells about his little boy who helped him pack and get ready for a family picnic. They were going on an outing; a real bang-up holiday. They worked hard and when it came bedtime the bags were all packed - duffle bags, blanket rolls, everything - and the boy was told to go off to bed. He went. Then he came back to his father and said, "Thanks, Dad, for tomorrow."

I think it is very important for us to earn that kind of a "Thank You."


From the Universalist Leader - May, 1960 - for the Division of Education, Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) Inc., Boston, Mass.

Released through the Division of Education, Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) Inc., 25 Beacon Street, Boston 8, Massachusetts.

5 cents

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