The Personalist Project

Yesterday I picked up a book recommended by a friend: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Dutch priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen. It's a commentary on his encounter with Rembrandt's famous painting.

It begins with the familiar passage from the Gospel. Something about its first lines startled me this time:

The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

I noticed what the father didn't do.

He didn't say no. He didn't ask his son what he planned to do with the money. He didn't lay down terms and conditions. He didn't offer advice, or express doubts or disapproval. He just handed his wealth over and let his son go.

Two avenues of reflection opened for me. The first is a familiar one to me: How radical is the freedom God bestows on human beings in handing us over to ourselves.

Jules often quotes a passage from Kierkegaard's Papers and Journals, which we first heard in a class with Dr. Crosby in Liechtenstein. It's about how God's Omnipotence is displayed precisely in his making creatures free.

The greatest good, after all, which can be done for a being, greater than anything else that one can do for it, is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence is required... Only omnipotence can withdraw itself at the same time it gives itself away, and this relationship is the very independence of the receiver... All finite power makes [a being] dependent; only omnipotence can make [a being] independent... It is incomprehensible that omnipotence is not only able to create the most impressive of all things—the whole visible world—but is able to create the most fragile of all things—a being independent of that very omnipotence. Omnipotence, which can handle the world so toughly and with such a heavy hand, can also make itself so light that what it has brought into existence receives independence. Only a wretched and mundane conception of the dialectic of power holds that it is greater and greater in proportion to its ability to compel and to make dependent. No, Socrates had a sounder understanding; he knew that the art of power lies precisely in making another free. 

The other avenue—the one that dominated my thoughts yesterday—was how very unlike this father so many human parents are! (I am thinking mainly of myself.)

A beloved friend of mine—a mother of many children with a deep, intuitive spiritual life—tells me that a priest friend of hers reminds her frequently that she has to leave her children free, even free to sin. "God gives us that freedom." She is grateful for the reminder, because she knows how difficult it is to live by. We see how aggressive "the world, the flesh, and the devil" are, and how much damage sin does in human life. We love our children and we feel the terrible risks involved in leaving them free. Our natural impulse is to ring them round with protection; rein them in with rules. Stay in charge; keep control; tell them what to do and what not to do; punish them if they stray outside our will for them.

It's not how God treats us, though, is it? He is Omnipotent and all loving. And He leaves us free.

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Comments (13)

Rhett Segall

#1, Apr 10, 2015 12:35pm

Katie,

 To leave the other “free” in this context means to allow the choice to come from within the other and let the chips fall where they may; I trust you enough to deal with the consequences of your decision and be stronger for doing so. Two paradigmatic examples of this from Jesus are His interactions with the rich young man and His reactions to some of His disciples rejection of His discourse on the Eucharist.  They both turn away from Jesus’ teaching. Jesus for His part lets them go. This pattern of Jesus is strikingly evident in His relationship with Judas.  We have no indication of Jesus taking Judas aside and saying something like “Judas, do you realize what you’re doing to your self and others? Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

Rhett Segall

#2, Apr 10, 2015 12:36pm

 And yet, I know there must be more to respecting freedom than simply letting the chips fall where they may. Staying on the plain of interacting with adults, “warning the sinner” is an act of love. We might thus tell an adulterous friend that they must stop, an embezzler they must return the funds, an addict to seek help, etc. We recognize such actions are enslaving and feel duty bound to awaken others to this.

A fortiori, this "warning the sinner" is applicable to parents and their non adult children.

Shalom and Happy Easter!

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Apr 11, 2015 10:22am

 

Rhett Segall wrote:

To leave the other “free” in this context means to allow the choice to come from within the other and let the chips fall where they may; I trust you enough to deal with the consequences of your decision and be stronger for doing so. 

 I wonder about this.

Or rather, I'd want to qualify it somewhat. I agree that moral choices having to come from within is key. 

But I don't think it's so much a matter of trusting the other, as recognizing his right, his sovereignty over himself. Leaving him free means showing him due respect. It's not a judgment about his character, but a recognition of the truth about persons as such, the nature of the moral life, and the limits of my own authority. 

As the passages you refer to show, even Jesus, who is God and has all authority, leaves others free to sin and fail, even ultimately, even though it costs him death.

I also don't care for the "letting the chips fall" imagery, because it suggests, at least to me, both a randomness and an indifference about the outcome, while in moral issues, there is nothing random or indifferent.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Apr 11, 2015 10:35am

 

Rhett Segall wrote:

Staying on the plain of interacting with adults, “warning the sinner” is an act of love. 

 This, too, I doubt. 

I mean, I don't doubt that it can be act of love. Rather, I think it usually isn't. It's usually an act of control and manipulation, which are two of love's opposites. We don't realize we're being controlling, because we tell ourselves that "admonishing the sinner" is a work of mercy.

I think most of us are blind to how far we are from taking the freedom of others' seriously enough.

We recognize such actions are enslaving and feel duty bound to awaken others to this.

I suspect the cases are much more rare than we think that it is our duty to awaken another person to the wrong he's doing.  

A fortiori, this "warning the sinner" is applicable to parents and their non adult children.

Even here, I balk. Parents have a duty to instruct, true. But we have an even more fundamental duty to help our children attain moral self-standing. And we have a constant temptation to exert moral pressure, to interfere with their freedom.

We (religious) parents are very unlike God in this respect, I fear.

 

Devra Torres

#5, Apr 11, 2015 11:29pm

I'm trying to figure this out. I probably try to figure it out every day, in dealing with my children, from the 6-year-old to the 24-year-old. It's one thing with someone who's teetering on the age of reason and another with someone who's an adult. Maybe that's the key: that even with the little ones, where we have a clearer and more specific duty to guide and correct, what we're really doing is seeking to "help our children to attain moral self-standing." That's more fundamental than helping them to avoid sinning.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Apr 12, 2015 11:20am

 

Devra Torres wrote:

even with the little ones, where we have a clearer and more specific duty to guide and correct, what we're really doing is seeking to "help our children to attain moral self-standing." That's more fundamental than helping them to avoid sinning.

Yes, this is what I mean. Maybe I'm speaking too much from my own experience—the way I was raised and the way I started out raising my children. But I think quite a few of us religious people don't understand this at all. We make it our job to prevent our children from sinning, or "making bad choices", and then we identify "good choices" with our choices for them.

We short-circuit their moral development.

Sam Roeble

#7, May 5, 2015 11:06am

My wife and I spoke about this parable the other day, hypothetically guessing our response to our son asking for inheritance before our death. Neither of us thought it sinful. I think where this post departs from the parable is where it assumes that the son sinned by asking/choosing against his father. In reality, he doesn't sin until he "squanders" the inheritance--which I believe is when the father of the parable refers to his son as "lost". Should he, as a father, interfere in his son's "lostness"? No, but he is prepared to receive him back and point out where he strayed.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, May 5, 2015 11:26am

Where do you see me assuming that the son's asking is sinful? I don't assume that at all.

A later chapter in Nouwen's book delves into how this request would have been seen in the ancient world, though, viz. as profoundly offensive to the father. He quotes Kenneth Bailey:

For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son's request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same...the conversation runs as follows:

Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?

Never!

Could anyone ever make such a request?

Impossible!

If anyone ever did, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!

Why?

The request means—he wants his father to die.

...The son's "leaving" is, therefore, a much more offensive act than appears at first reading.

Regardless, my point is not the least grounded on the idea that the asking itself is sinful.

The father's liberality has to do with the fact that he lets the son take his inheritance, knowing that it might be misspent.

Sam Roeble

#9, May 5, 2015 11:51am

I am familiar with how offensive the request was in the time-period, but it was still a request/decision with his father's permission and not theft. The son asked for his inheritance, leaving the father the freedom to say "no".

Katie van Schaijik

#10, May 5, 2015 6:01pm

I guess I'm not following you. Do you mean to say that the fact that the son asked for his inheritance means it was a perfectly licit moral act, even if it was profoundly offensive to the father? 

If that's what you mean, I wouldn't agree. But I also wouldn't understand how it's to the point,  or how it shows that my post departs from the parable.

My post is about the father's amazing generosity in handing over his wealth to his son, even though he no doubt suspects that his son will misuse it. (A son who can be so impious toward his father is not likely to spend his father's wealth well.) The tendency of human parents is to be controlling in our "generosity" toward our children. We put conditions and restrictions on our gifts. In this respect, we are unlike God, who, in his great love, leaves his children free.

If we want to embody this gospel passage in our parenting, then, I am suggesting, we ought not only to focus on being merciful toward the repentant prodigal, but also being generous in the freedom we extend to each other.

Sam Roeble

#11, May 6, 2015 11:11am

While I agree with most of your points, I think you're adding a few that aren't there: "he no doubt suspects that his son will misuse it"--this line of reasoning does not exist in the parable, nor is there an outright 'sin' to be suspected by the father until much later. So my point is twofold: There is nothing for the father to "interfere with" or "control" in his son's moral formation yet. The son communicates directly that he wants his inheritance, and the father directly responds generously. There are no alterior motives, duplicity, unless we who hear the parable "suspect" them. Instead, I think the son is dealt with so generously by his fahter because he is so straightforward: "give me my inheritance", he squanders it and sins, then says "I will go back to my father although I'm not worthy". Compare this response to Esau's duplicity and arrogance as stated in St. John Newman's sermon: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume6/sermon2.html

Katie van Schaijik

#12, May 8, 2015 7:51pm

If (as scholars say) the request itself is objectively offensive—an egregious insult to the father—then it follows that the son is (to use modern parlance) "in a bad place." A son who is so irreverent toward his father is a son who is likely to misspend money. 

So, while the line of reasoning isn't in the text (a parable isn't an argument), the inference seems to me a natural one.

But even if we set that point aside, the father's generosity in handing his fortune over remains arresting, don't you think? His wealth belongs to him. He has no obligation whatsoever to give it to his son. He has a natural right to refuse to give it, or if he chooses, to put terms and conditions on its use. But he doesn't.

Similarly, God the Father gives us complete freedom, even when He need not and when He knows we will misuse it. Very few human fathers are so generous.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, May 8, 2015 8:09pm

I wonder whether my use of the term prodigal is maybe causing some confusion. Here is the dictionary:

prodigal |ˈprädigəl| adjective

1. spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant: prodigal habits die hard.

2. having or giving something on a lavish scale: the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.

So, while the title usually given to the parable, "the Prodigal Son," uses the term in the first sense, my title for this post, "prodigal liberality of the father", uses it in that second sense, viz. as a synonym for lavish. Likewise "liberality" there means "generosity", not liberalism.

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