Why Parents Drag Their Kids to Church, Temple or Their Zen Sitting Group

Here’s what sucks about life: You wake up in your crib, confused and more than a little dazed, and then spend the next 20 or 30 years trying to figure out what to do with yourself.

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You mostly do what you’re told. You learn how to read, play sports, try to attract members of the opposite sex. In your 20s, you look for some kind of job – and maybe decide to settle down, get married and have kids. But life, as they say, doesn’t exactly come with an operating manual – whatever people may say about the Bible or other holy texts. Even if it did, no one would have time to read it.

We catch what wisdom we can on the fly, from our friends mostly, a little from our parents, more than we care to admit from ideals dreamed up for us on television and in movies.
It isn’t very much to go on.

And then problems start coming, fast and furious. Life is harder, more complex, than TV would have us believe. Kids get sick. Spouses get angry, bored or indifferent. Work is not exactly a dreamland of creativity and fun.

Before you know it, you hit 30 and the bills are getting scary, the problems even harder. You still have dreams but you’re concentrating on survival, keeping your head above water. The big things you want to do with your life will just have to wait for a while. Reality bites.

But then, before you know it, you’re 40! Holy smokes! Someone close to you dies, a parent perhaps. You get sued. You get arrested for drunk driving. Your spouse cheats on you. Your business goes bust. You get seriously hurt in an accident – or develop a life-threatening disease.

It is often then, perhaps for the first time, when you realize you might need help – that you’ve done as best you could but perhaps it’s time to reflect a little, to question the assumptions that have guided your life up until now, to reevaluate where you are and where you are going. For some, this process begins early; for others, later. But eventually we all realize that we need more wisdom than is available to us on HBO… or on our favorite blog.

That’s the purpose of religion – and why parents desperately try to keep their teenage children connected, in whatever way is possible, to a religious community. Religion is nothing more than the depository of humanity’s accumulated life wisdom, won over millennia of trial and error and its haphazard encounters with the Infinite.

Many people, scared off of religion by TV evangelists or other nightmare experiences, look for wisdom elsewhere. Maybe in politics, or pop psychology, or the Law of Attraction. Or they decide, like Descartes, the only wisdom worth having is what they can discover for themselves. Fair enough.

But parents instinctively sense that their children will someday need better advice than what is available on TV talk shows or the Internet – and so drag their reluctant offspring to synagogue, or to church on Sunday, or to Mormon institute classes, or to their Zen sitting group.

They want to at least put them into contact with a bigger community of shared spiritual values, with the great prophets and mystics of their religious tradition, with its saints and even sinners, with the ideals and ideas that shaped their own souls and which can help guide them through the treacherous rapids that are real life.

Children, of course, are bored silly by this. How can the Bible compete with YouTube?

Mark Twain once famously described the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print,” but, with all deference to Joseph Smith, it’s fair to say that’s an equally accurate description of most holy texts.

I say this as someone who actually loves the Bible and spent a decade of graduate study learning more about it. But it takes time, and more than a little study, to appreciate the wisdom and beauty in the Bible – an odd anthology of ancient Hebrew and Greek writings utterly removed from the reality of 21st century modern industrial society. Expecting a modern teenage boy to be moved by, and gain wisdom from, the Torah or St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is like expecting him to be similarly inspired by the Analects of Confusius or the U.S. Constitution. It’s asking a lot, usually too much.

Yet parents know they only have so much time to introduce their children to what matters in life, and most of what matters – in terms of marriage and family, birth and death, God and our purpose on earth – is found in the teachings of the world’s great religions. However, because the accumulated life wisdom that is found in religious tradition can really only be appreciated much later in life – when you actually need it — the best most parents can hope for is to introduce their children to the sources of this wisdom, the religious communities in which it is found and passed down, and do their best to give their children warm fuzzy feelings about the community so they will return to it later as adults.

In other words, smart parents recognize that children are often bored out of their heads by Sunday Mass, or Hebrew school, or whatever, but do their best to find activities and communities that have enough fun and sociability in them that their children are not put off forever.

Catholics are pretty bad at this, in my experience. It takes considerable skill and wisdom to trick teenagers into learning about a religious heritage – and most efforts, quite frankly, are pathetic. I learned this first-hand when teaching a Confirmation Class at my local Catholic parish, to fourteen very bored fourteen-year-olds. A teenager’s mind is on sex and maybe sports, not religious doctrine.

Evangelicals seem better, what with Christian rock, Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, Bikers for Christ, hip urban Christian magazines. Still, even they have trouble. I don’t know for sure, but Mormons seem able to keep their kids connected. Jews, too. Yet baby boomer ex-hippies struggle to hand on their Zen or Hare Krishna beliefs to their offspring (my first paid magazine article was on the children of the Hare Krishnas)… who rebel and join strange cults, like the Greek Orthodox Church. Just kidding.

My point is that all knowledge is cumulative, a series of insights that are passed on, over the centuries, and which lay the groundwork for further insights. We learn from and build upon the past.

The life wisdom that human beings need, spiritual knowledge, is the same. To ignore the spiritual wisdom of our religious traditions is to perpetually reinvent the wheel each generation, to start over from scratch.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question how the wheel was made in the past, or wonder if we could re-design it, or see if there might be alternatives to the wheel that would work better. That is the nature of human knowledge, to constantly test inherited insights against current problems. But we gotta start somewhere, and that somewhere, for most people, is the collective wisdom found in the world’s great spiritual and religious traditions.

My advice: Go to church… or shul… or your local Scientology seminar… or your mother’s Zen sitting group. Go to whatever spiritual tradition you were born into until you find something better.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).