Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Letter to my Son's Future Father-in-Law

  As my few readers (hi, honey!) know all too well I don't post here too often. between raising 5 sons, teaching theology, writing a book, giving lectures, and supporting a family, well - I tend to write here too little and typically in response to specific things.
  It is what it is.
  Today my wife sent me a link to a blog post called A Letter to My Eventual Son-in-Law. It was bothering her and she asked for my feedback. I read it and, well, feel compelled to respond. Since my response is a bit long it is going here.
  Before we begin let me be clear. I don't know Barry or his family. I have read nothing else of his in depth. My goal is not to mock or belittle him or his family but to point out as what I see as problematic in his blog post.

  The author, Barry, begins well. He writes of praying not just for his own children but for his daughter Annie's future family. Since the wife and I routinely pray for our future daughters-in-law I, naturally, agree with this idea.

  Then we get to the actual 'letter' and I, unfortunately, find a few problems. And in my opinion as a husband, father, and theologian some of them are serious.
  The first problem I see is this statement,
  "I have done my best to model for her what a man should be, knowing that is ultimately the measuring rod she uses to measure the character of every man she meets."
  Why do I see this as a problem? After all, a father is very important to the development of a young girl's character and to her ability to judge the character of others Barry is not and should not be 'the measuring rod she uses to measure the character of every man she meets'. The actual measure of mens character is and should be Christ. Does Barry measure his own character against himself? I hope not. So why should Annie accept a lesser measure than Barry sets for himself? Is this a small quibble?
  Not in my view. I see this as the beginning of a pattern throughout the letter that I find disturbs me.

  Continuing, Barry briefly discusses how a husband is a leader in his home and that God has equipped him for this. This is fairly solid, if brief. Then he writes something that was so wrong-headed I had to read it three times to make sure I wasn't missing something. What was it I find so gobsmakingly wrong? This,
"Decide now that your life is less important than that of Annie’s. "
  This is shockingly wrong-headed. I know the point Barry was trying to make, but the point he does make is incorrect and possibly immoral.
  Yes, really!
  Whose life is more important than Annie's life? Well, we would say 'no one', right? After all she is a child of God, I am a child of God, we are all of equal value and importance in the eyes of God, right?
  So whose life is less important than Annie's?
  The correct answer is 'no one's life is less important than Annie's'.
  Indeed, Barry is making a more serious error here than you might realize. Think about this - is the life of a brave soldier 'less important' than the life of a draft dodger? Is the heroic firefighter's life 'less important' than the life of the man who refuses to help?
  Of course not! Indeed, many would say that the soldier and the firefighter are more critical to a good society than the coward and the shirker. This is because we instinctively know that virtuous men and women are better than the vicious.
  The four Cardinal Virtues are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The sort of man who has them is of better character than a man who lacks them. The more developed a man is in the virtues the better a leader he tends to be. And naturally the more virtuous a man is the more likely he is to do the right thing in an emergency. So not only is the life of Annie's future husband certainly not 'less valuable' than Annie's life the sort of husband who would do the right thing in an emergency is of better character than a man who would not.
  Barry's error here is to believe (or try to convince us) that a virtuous man's life is 'less valuable' because he is virtuous. This is a critical error.
  'But Aquinas,' you say, 'Barry was just trying to point out that a husband must be willing to die to save his wife.'
  'I know,' I reply, 'but that isn't what he said and I fear it betrays critical errors in his thinking about and conceptualization of the nature and character of men.' And as evidence of this let's read the very next sentence,
"Remember, Christ gave His life up for the church..."
  Christ's sacrifice did not mean His life was less valuable than the Church or the members of the Church. Indeed, His sacrifice redeems us because His life was of value unmatched. What is it Christ tells us about 'no greater love'? Self-sacrifice is not based upon one life being less important than the other, it is based upon virtue and the natural law.

Barry them speaks of how a husband should support a family. This is obviously true. My sons will be prepared to support a family on their own and frankly I think that with very, very few exceptions women should not work outside the home so I am actually a bit more "strict" than Barry on these topics. But I am afraid that two things here concern me.
  When speaking of how he expects his son-in-law to be leader of his home Barry writes 4 sentences. When he speaks of his son-in-law to protect his daughter he writes 6 sentences. When discussing how he expects his future son-in-law to provide for his daughter, etc., he writes 14 sentences.
  Personally, I think being a leader and protecting your family are much more important concepts than providing for your family; Providence can often feed you but character are internal, after all.
  Additionally, Barry has a special note here (which I include in the line count). The special not is no more than a list of expectations he has of his daughter and future son-in-law.

  Barry goes on to speak about divorce. Like the discussion of work I am more strict than Barry.

  Barry then explains that happiness is not a given. Obviously true.

  Barry then explains that granting permission for his daughter to marry is 'giving a gift'. This is nice imagery but, sorry! Barry says something else troublesome. To wit,
"...I can think of no man worthy of such a gift."
  [Aquinas in conversation mode]
  Really? What sort of people do you hang out with, Barry? Do you honestly expect me to believe that you know no man as virtuous as yourself, let alone more virtuous? Do you honestly expect me to believe that Annie is so smart, so beautiful, so poised, so demure, modest, faithful, graceful, just, kind, loving, prudent, temperate, courageous, and hopeful that you don't know a single man you would allow to marry her?
  Do any parents of boys who attend church with you read your blog, Barry? Do you realize that you just told them that none of their sons are good enough for your daughter? Or that if Annie reads this you are telling her the same thing?
  [End conversation mode]
  Temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude demand that we be honest with ourselves and about others. My sons are wonderful young men and excellent marriage prospects, which I can defend to other parents. I also know that any virtuous young woman would make an excellent spouse for any virtuous young man and vice-versa.

  Barry then closes by admitting that he isn't perfect but then demands that his future son-in-law try.

  There is a post script. In it Barry speaks of his own skill with firearms, his willingness to go to prison, and a threat to any future son-in-law.
  I found the post script cringeworthy. I have taught my sons to never boast in such a manner and if I were to catch them indulging in speech or writing such as this I would punish them for it. Barry seems to already be hostile to a potential son-in-law and more than willing to base one of the most critical relationships in his life and the most critical in his daughter's (other than with God) on threats and intimidation. If I knew Barry personally I would forbid my wife and sons to have anything to do with him or his family based on these two sentences alone with no hesitation.
  Before anyone leaps to any conclusions this is not because of fear of firearms or violence. I am a decorated combat veteran who owns guns.
  This is about the attitude that would prompt such a statement.

  The letter seems to reveal another conflict; although Barry exhorts his future son-in-law to lead he also makes a series of demands as to exactly what he expects this man to do and he backs up these 'expectations' with threats of harm or murder.
  In other words, Barry doesn't really want his future son-in-law to lead, Barry wants his future son-in-law to do what Barry wants him to do. Or else.
  That isn't how leadership of a family works.
  Once we married I became responsible for the wife. Me, alone. Solely me. I listen to my father-in-law's advice for a number of reasons, but now I answer to God for how my family is led, not my father-in-law. I turn to my own father for advice from time to time but the ultimate decision, and responsibility, are mine alone.
  Let's say Annie married a nice young man named Dave. In a few years Dave decides that to advance his career he is going to have to get a Master's degree and decides that loans are the proper way to do so.
  Barry disagrees. he thinks this is a bad idea. He tells Dave not to. Dave does it anyway.
  Is Barry going to shoot Dave now? That would be a bit imprudent. Is he going to tell Annie to talk him out of it? That is unjust (Dave is head of the house and Annie is to submit to Dave's authority. For Barry to do such a thing is to encourage Annie to sin). Is he going to continue to tell Dave it is a bad idea? Perhaps, but that is intemperate and unjust.
  Why? Because such things are Dave's decision to make, not Barry's.

  I realize Barry's larger goals and the purpose here, I really do. I just fear he has not thought through the implications of what he has written.