And just as important, know what others believe
Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children Well” became a classic song for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young off their 1970 album “Déjà Vu”. Although he wrote it out of a troubled relationship with his own father, Nash said that once a song hits the vinyl (or today, CDs) it ceases to be just an intensely personal song for the author, and becomes whatever it may mean to those who hear it.
In light of a recently released Pew Forum report about widespread religious illiteracy in our country, we may well apply these lyrics to our spiritual challenge: “Teach your children well/ … Teach your children what you believe in/ Make a world that we can live in.”
We live in a world with increasing tension, conflict and violence fueled by overzealous religious ignorance. It’s good and necessary first to know the basic story of your own faith tradition. You wouldn’t think you were a good family member if you couldn’t name your uncles and cousins, and if you had no knowledge of where you ancestors came from or what made them who they were.
Similarly, your faith family is filled with characters that make up the story that is your life. Before you go out on your own, you have to know where you have come from and what your faith is all about.
Elders have a duty to form their faith in the young. The whole idea that we don’t want to prejudice our kids to believe this or that is a smokescreen for our own lack of commitment. We want our kids to learn math, because we think it will be useful in making them successful. Knowing the multiplication tables is not optional education. Why should it be optional to learn the most important facts about faith that can make one a successful human being?
We start at home. Parents must practice their faith and talk about it at home, or kids will pick up on the idea that it’s not important.
Next, church attendance (read here synagogue or mosque as appropriate). Decide once and for all that the family attends services weekly. There is no decision to be made week by week about whether to attend. That decision is already made. Stick to it. Kids will learn something, even by osmosis, if they are simply there.
Make sure you are going to a church that does more than entertain, or promote good feelings, or make beneficial social contacts. See to it that real education is going on. Your kids need the basic knowledge of the faith that will then guide their life. You can’t do calculus without first doing basic math functions, and you can’t imagine your way to faithful living that resists temptation and works for justice in the world if you don’t know the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.
And about that Golden Rule: We seem to have forgotten that it’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Lately it seems we operate more on the principle of “Do unto others as they do unto you”. Whether we justify our harsh treatment of the current President of the United States on the grounds that others were unfair toward the last one, or we say we’ll be for building a mosque in this country as soon as they build a church in Saudi Arabia, we are losing our spiritual footing.
Today we also need basic knowledge of other religions, in order that we not demonize them out of ignorance and allow fear to rule our relationships with our neighbors. We need to teach our children what we believe in, and we need to teach them what others believe in, too.
We do all of this to be more faithful to our own spiritual convictions, but we also do this in order, as Nash put it, to “make a world that we can live in”.
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church.