Sunday, May 5, 1994

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Genesis 1:20-31
Matthew 1:24-34

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female

created he them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply,

and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and

over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Genesis 1:27f.

We have a tendency to identify civilization with science, and science with control over

our environment. A philosopher named Huston Smith has made this point very effectively,

adding that since science limits its attention to things it can control, it has nothing

whatever to say about anything beyond its control. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to go

far beyond the actual limits of its discipline, and to claim that there actually is

nothing beyond its control. There is no spiritual world, no God, no human soul. Matter is

all there is because matter is all we can study "scientifically."

What does this have to do with Mother's Day? More than it might seem, I believe. The

assumptions that this mindset engenders are the very same assumptions which claim that

personal achievement is to be measured only in terms of the acquisition of power, that

personal fulfillment comes only with public employment and promotion. In this view,

housework and parenting are demeaning.

There is a woman in England, Penelope Leach, who has become an energetic and articulate

opponent of this attitude, and it is gratifying to discover that she is being heard. From

the little I have read about her, she rests her case partly on the importance of

mothering, for the sake of the well-being of children, and partly on the rewards, the

depth of happiness that comes in a close and caring family.

Certainly she is right in this. If we try to find substitutes for the family system at

work or in a social or service club or even in a church, we set ourselves up for

disillusion. For one thing, these are organizations we choose to join. The family is a

given, a unit that exists unless we decide that it should not. Even if we choose to leave

it, even if it ceases to function as a unit, it remains a kind of fact. These are our

parents, these are our siblings, these are our children.

Further, organizations have specific and limited purposes. This church, for example, has a

constitution that defines its reason for being and its rules of operation. When personal

concerns conflict with that reason or those rules, it is the personal concerns that must

give way, at least within the confines of the church. Time after time, people who look to

the church to be their family wind up hurt. Otherwise, the church winds up losing its

focus on its mission.

One of the pivotal factors in all this is, I suspect, the issue of power or control. Some

years ago, there was some very helpful literature on parenting under the general title of

"Parent Effectiveness Training." The basic philosophy was straightforward. Clearly, the

task of parents is to raise children from infancy to adulthood. This means that the

children will become more and more capable of taking charge of their own lives. This in

turn means that the parents will gradually but steadily lose power. The task of parents is

to let go of control, and the difficulty of parenting is to know when and how much to let


Perhaps it is now obvious how directly this conflicts the notion that we find personal

fulfillment only in the acquisition of power. "Successful mothers" don't get promoted.

From being virtually omnipotent in relation to the newborn, they become relatively

powerless in relation to the adult offspring. If this is experienced as a loss, we are in

trouble. Then the child matures at the expense of the mother. No, somehow this transfer of

power needs to be seen as a gain for both.

The only way to manage this is to lay to rest any assumption that power is an intrinsic

good, and to assume a criterion of "appropriateness." We know perfectly well that what is

good for us in one situation may not be good for us in another. If we cannot get to sleep

at night, we suffer. If we cannot stay awake on the highway, we suffer. The author of

Ecclesiastes may have overstated it a little, but not much: "To every thing there is a

season, and a time to every purpose under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Swedenborg even

speaks of "evil uses"--when there is an evil eating away at us under the surface, it is

good to have it break out into the open where it can be dealt with. There are some things

we seem to learn only from adversity. If this is true, then timing is everything, so to

speak. The mother who does not see to all the needs of the newborn is behaving as

inappropriately as the mother who does see to all the needs of the teenager.

If we then put together the stories of the mother and the child, we have an intriguing

curve. The mother was an infant once. She was once totally dependent. She grew in her

ability to see to her own needs to take charge of her own life. She married, she had

children. Then it became a matter not simply of seeing to her own needs, but of seeing to

the needs of the children. In a way, the peak of this curve comes at the very beginning of

motherhood. From then on, in terms of "control" or "taking charge," there needs to be a

downward trend.

There is an obvious "up" side to this downward trend. As the children leave home, the

mother moves into a kind of freedom. As a father, I still have a vivid memory of starting

out of the door of the house one day some years ago, stopping to think whom I should tell

and what arrangements I should make, and realizing that for the first time in about thirty

years, I could just plain walk out the door. It felt very strange.

Our theology offers us an invaluable glimpse of where this process is headed. After death,

we are told, we wake up freed from bodily infirmities, feeling as though we are "in the

flower of youth" (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 187). Or again, "No weight is given to [former]

earthly status as parent, child, relative, or in-law. No weight is given to any [former]

role--to eminence or wealth or the like. It is entirely a matter of differences in mutual

love and in faith, and the ability to receive them acquired from the Lord during our

earthly life" (ibid. ¶ 685). That is, after death there will be no generations. There will

be no relationships that are not voluntary. I will be the same "age" as my ancestors and

as my great-great-great grandchildren.

Specifically, there will be no room for any belief that personal fulfillment lies in the

acquisition of power. Again I quote,

One individual who had had considerable power during his physical life still wanted to

exert that power in the other life. He was told that he was in another kingdom now, an

eternal one, and that his earthly rule was dead. Now the only grounds of evaluation were

the goodness and truth one had, and the measure of the Lord's mercy received. Further,

this kingdom was much like an earthly one, in that people were valued for their wealth and

their standing with the ruler. Here wealth was goodness and truth, and standing with the

ruler was the Lord's mercy. If he wanted dominion in any other way, he was a

revolutionary, since he was giving allegiance to another kingdom (ibid. 451).

In fact, of course, we are spiritually living in that kingdom now. Our eternal life has

started. All that matters eternally, right now, is our wealth and our standing with the

ruler of all. That is, all that matters eternally is our mutual love and understanding and

the extent to which we know ourselves to be loved and understood by the Lord.

Now I should like to turn back to our text, though, because it seems to be saying

something rather different. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God

created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said to

them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion

over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that

moves on the earth." This does describe us as destined to have power over the world around

us. It has been cited by ecologically minded people as the source of our environmental


We need to recognize, though, that it is only recently that these words have been used to

justify the attitude that nature is our servant. For millennia after this creation story

came into being, nature was God's agent, and we were to heed the messages that came

through the weather, through plagues of locusts or of lions. It seems to have been Francis

Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century who saw our task as to establish (or in

his view, to re-establish) the imperium hominis, the dominion of the human race. The true

aim of all science, he wrote, is "to endow the condition and life of man with new powers

or works," "to extend more widely the limits of the power and greatness of man"

(Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 1, p. 995b).

Actually, if we read the text carefully, we find that we are not simply to "subdue" the

earth. Before we are told to do that, we are told to "replenish" it. As with all power,

there is responsibility involved here. If objections are raised, as they sometimes are, to

the view that the human race is the crown of creation, then some alternative schema needs

to be devised to demand that we face up to our unique responsibility. We are different.

The biologist and M.D. Lewis Thomas offers a provocative view of that difference.

All the other parts of the earth's life seem to get along, to fit in with each other, to

accommodate, even to concede when the stakes are high. They live off each other, devour

each other, scramble for ecological niches, but always within set limits, with something

like restraint. It is a rough world, by some of our standards, but not the winner-take-all

game that it seemed to us awhile back. If we look over our shoulders as far as we can see,

all the way past trillions of other species to those fossil stromatolites built by

enormous communities of collaborating microorganisms, we can see no evidence of meanness

or vandalism in nature. It is, on balance, an equable, generally amiable place,

good-natured as we say (The Fragile Species, p. 25).

Thomas challenges the Darwinian view that progress is fueled by competition, and points to

the overwhelming instances in which life depends absolutely on cooperation. "The modern

cell," he says, "is not the single entity we thought it was a few years ago. It is an

organism in its own right, a condominium, run by trustees" (ibid., p. 22).

Parenting, then, and especially mothering, could well be seen as the most significant

"employment" possible. It involves taking responsibility for another life; and beyond

that, it involves exercising that responsibility in such a way as to strengthen the

individuality of the other. We might define it as "giving life" on successive

levels--first physical life, then the life of individuality as the infant learns his or

her identity, and eventually the life of independence from the parents.

This is learning to exercise power in a truly creative fashion, not with a view to gaining

more, but with a view to enriching life--replenishing the earth. This is learning to

exercise power in a viable, sustainable way, in such a way that the mother's "success" is

not at the expense of the "success" of anyone else. It is, in short, learning to exercise

power in the only way that can succeed in the long term. There may be much of "the earth,"

much of our lower natures, that will have to be subdued in order to achieve this success,

but subjection is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is "a heaven from the human

race," a community of mutual love and understanding.


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