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Although we refer to ourselves as human beings, social scientists spend relatively little time exploring matters of being—the deeper “existential” issues dealing with what it means to be, to become, or to act on deeply held beliefs and responsibilities.
In this article, explore the answers given by practicing Christian, Jewish, and Muslim parents of adolescents to the question, “What do you consider to be the most important things for you to be or do as a mother/father of faith?” We believe this question addresses the three dimensions of identity-centered religious calling, being, and action in ways that evoke deep thought about things that matter most to religious parents.
The three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) include the idea that people can receive and discern some kind of life mission or purpose from God. Catholic and Orthodox Christians typically use the term vocation while Protestant Christians often use the term calling. In Judaism, the Hebrew term avodah (work/worship) is used to refer to a person’s work or service for God. In Islam, the Arabic phrase al esteklaf indicates that every human being was created to be God’s successor on the earth and has the ability (and is recommended) to be merciful, just, generous, and to embody characteristics of God.
In our framework, religious calling is where identity-centered religious being meets identity-centered religious action. Calling is about what one believes one should do in this world to most fully live out one’s sense of being and identity. We use the term religious calling to refer to what parents consider to be the most important things for them to be and do as religious parents (i.e., “What am I called to be and do?”).
Identity-centered Religious Being
In his introduction to Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox asserted, “Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ is indeed the question. It is everyone’s question, and it is also the one that underlies all the questions asked by the various academic specialties.” Tillich (2014) himself argued that the “to be” question involves not only whether to exist or not, it also explores what kind of person one should be. Further, Tillich posited, the universal challenge is how to continue being the person one believes one ought to be in the face of life’s daunting anxieties such as guilt, failure, meaninglessness, and death. In other words, issues of belief, behavior, and being are intertwined.
Few experiences provoke an exploration of identity-centered being more than imminent death. When one’s earthly existence is coming to an end, deep introspection about what one has been and done often occurs. In her chronicle as a hospice nurse entitled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware (2011) summarized her findings, “Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all” (p. 39, emphasis in original). Part, if not much, of what it would mean to have “lived a life true to one’s self” would include having tried to live in way that was consistent with one’s deepest identity. For many, this would center on their family and faith identities.
In our framework, we link identity-centered being and calling in the following way: religious being refers to one’s core sense of identity in relation to God, to one’s self, and to one’s family; religious calling refers to one’s strongly-held, sense of identity-based sacred responsibilities to God and to other people or groups including family, friends, peer groups, or organizations (i.e., “As a religious parent, what am I called to be and do?”).
Identity-centered Religious Action
The contemporary cultural fascination with consumption, entertainment, and thrill-seeking is typified by the 2008 box office hit The Bucket List that followed two terminally ill protagonists through a rapid series of exciting and eclectic “must-do” activities. That everyone should fulfill a bucket list of things to do before death is now a pervasive, powerful, and—potentially—problematic idea (Mead, 2014). Social science also tends to overwhelmingly focus on behaviors and related cognition. Activities and behaviors are vital to consider, but isn’t there something . . . deeper?
Herein we explore the desire that human beings have to be and to become their better selves through identity-centered action rather than merely consumption-based activities. By consumption-based activities, we mean activities that are an end in and of themselves. By identity-centered religious action, we mean actions that are consciously intended to be a means to fulfill or develop part of one’s core religious identity. Thus, in our framework religious action refers to what religious parents believe they should do in relation to their children (i.e., “What am I called to do?”).
The participants in this study consisted of twenty-nine married couples (29 husbands and 29 wives) from the New England area of the United States (N = 58). The mothers and fathers ranged in age from 27 to 62 with a mean age of 46. The distribution of religious denominations of the couples was 3 Muslim, 5 Jewish (Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed), 3 Catholic, 6 Conservative Protestant (Baptist, Pentecostal, Non-denominational Christian), 6 Mainline Protestant (Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ), and 6 New Christian Religious Traditions (faiths founded since 1800, i.e., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, and Seventh-day Adventists). Average length of marriage was 22 years. Average number of children per couple was three with a range of one to seven children per couple. Age of youth ranged from 10 to 25 years old with a mean age of 15.5 years. Socio-economic status of the couples varied from lower-middle to upper-middle class. The average family attended religious activities more than once a week, spent about 18 hours per week in religious activity, and donated an average of 7% of their income to their faith.
There were three primary findings. Parents’ responses focused on (a) being an example, being authentic, and being consistent (89.7% of fathers and 82.8% of mothers made a related, coded response); (b) providing support, love, and help (mothers 79.3%; fathers 70%), and (c) teaching values, tradition, and identity (mothers 65.5%; fathers 55.2%). Percentages were based on the occurrence of a theme within a given participant’s interview. Each category and subcategory will be discussed below, with illustrative examples from the primary data. But first we present one narrative that includes the major ideas we address in more detail in the rest of the results.
A Chinese Christian father of two we interviewed said, “I [am] always thinking that I have to be a good parent for my child in terms of faith in God. This keeps pushing my efforts to keep growing in my faith for my children.” This father clearly feels a religiously-based parental calling and his words demonstrate both identity (“a good parent for my child”) and generativity (“keep growing in my faith for my children”).
As a Mother/Father of Faith I Am Called to Be
The most significant pattern within the responses of mothers and fathers was their emphasis on what they felt called to be. Of the identified narratives, nearly 85% of the parents brought this up in their responses. Parents described what they believed they needed to be in three respects: be an example and be authentic,
Be an example. Parents’ desire to be an example emerged in the analysis as mothers and fathers described their responsibility to model behavior as a teaching method for their children. Fifty-two percent of mothers’ responses and 59% of fathers’ responses fell into this subcategory, the largest subcategory in the study.
Malinda (all names are pseudonyms), a Pentecostal mother, shared her idea of how she can be an example: “Instill faith into them, and just be a testimony as well, because children pretty much do what they see. I try to be a good role model.” An Orthodox Jewish mother, Rachel, indicated what she thought was most important: “To be a good example to them. To try to practice what I’m preaching and to give them enough foundation and support that they’ll be very decent, good people when they grow up.”
An even greater percentage of fathers noted their responsibility as a parent to be an example. Ed, a Seventh-day Adventist father, emphasized his duty to show the way through his example: “Being an example of trusting God and obeying God, and receiving the blessings and being the vehicle that God can use to show what his way can produce.” A Modern Orthodox Jewish father, Ezra, described that his list of “oughts” included: “To be a role model. To set an example. I try to encourage my kids . . . on Shabbas, to go to shul on time. They [my kids] don’t always get there, but I always get there early.” Ezra suggests that combining being a role model with loving encouragement, despite the outcome, is preferred.
Carlos, a Catholic father, reflected on his own father’s example and how he wanted to likewise be “a good example” for his children:
I had a fantastic example in my father. My father was, and he is still, an incredible example for me. And I think that if I can pass some of that to my children through my own example, through talking or teachings or verbal example [that would be great]. And I think that our religion and our faith guide us to go through that. To be able to be a good example for me is incredibly important.
Note that in only five short sentences referencing both his own father and his own hopes as a parent, Carlos uses the word example five times.
Be authentic. A second significant theme we found was parents’ desire to be authentic. Fourteen percent of mothers’ responses and 10% of fathers’ responses fell into this category. Responses coded within this theme included parents’ desire to be real, genuine, and honest with their children. Both religious mothers and fathers felt an obligation to personally adhere to moral values and to their religious commitments.
Emily, a Baptist mother, said, “[I want] to be a person of integrity—and genuine and honest with myself and with my God and with my family members about issues of life.” Leah, a Conservative Orthodox Jewish mother, also spoke of authenticity:
I presented to them an ever-expanding view of Judaism and that I was always honest about my angers with the religion, angers with the Rabbis, my own distress about the religion. [I wanted them to know] that whatever I chose to give them from the more Orthodox approach was something that I really believed in.
Mercy, a Baptist mother, shared,
I think the biggest thing that I try to be is authentic . . . in my faith. Just that it be real. . . . We were talking about when people are first married, they only want people to see the good side. And it’s easy to want to do that too as a parent. . . . to pretend like you are doing everything right. . . . But [it’s important to] just to be real, so that they know that you have struggles too. And we go to God to work out our struggles.
Like these mothers, several fathers also valued and aspired to be authentic with their children. Shawn, a Baptist father, spoke of his desire “really to be a[n] authentic, genuine Christian myself, kind of a model mentor. Not an example of perfection . . . but I think to be genuine and authentic as someone who has a walk with Jesus—living faith.” Shawn did not aspire to have his children view him as perfect, but as someone striving to live a faithful life. Eli, a Modern Jewish Orthodox father, similarly said that he wanted “to provide an . . . authentic . . . minimally-conflicted example of faith and behavior.”
As a Mother/Father of Faith I Am Called to Provide
A second primary theme in parents’ perceptions of what they can do and be was associated with providing for their children in various ways. Seventy-five percent of parents offered responses that fell into this category. In this context, mothers and fathers described providing in four areas of life, namely, parents reporting that they felt called to provide support and love.
Provide support. This theme involved providing emotional and spiritual support for children, including providing resources, being available, solving problems, building self-esteem, and challenging them. Thirty-one percent of mothers’ “providing” responses and 24% of fathers’ responses were in this subcategory. Noor, a Muslim mother, said the most important thing for her was
[T]o nurture my children. To make sure that any problems that they have, I have to help resolve. . . . You have to work with your children, and keep the open communication all the time. And you have to always be there for them.
Tara, a Latter-day Saint mother, shared what she does to provide support for her children:
I think that my main role is to be an emotional and spiritual resource, because I’m with the kids most of the time when they’re at home. . . . I see myself as being a resource that’s there for them when they need me. I also see myself as being . . . their cheerleader and mentor in things that they would like to try and skills and talents they would like to develop—and in facilitating that.
Amy, a Baptist mother, described her desire to encourage and build up her children’s self-esteem by
trying to encourage them and to just let them know how much I respect and admire them—I’m going to get choked [up] here—and appreciate them as people and who they are and how proud I am of them.
Several fathers similarly wanted to be a source of support for their children. A Muslim father, Yuusif, wanted to “be available to them, to help them through various situations they face.” Jared, a Baptist father, highlighted that, for him, being supportive meant being a good listener. To his children, he said, “I also just want to make sure that I’m there for you. I’m a good communicator. I’m a good listener . . . [a] sounding board.”
Jake, a United Church of Christ father, emphasized the importance of simply being present in children’s lives, “I think a lot of it is just being there and spending time with my children, and listening to them and playing with them. Challenging them to do better. And having fun together.” Kurt, a Catholic father, in discussing being supportive, added, “Certainly you’ve got to be the motivating force that takes them through a lot of those things they don’t want to do.”
Provide love. In addition to providing support, parents in the study expressed that they felt called to provide love to their children. Thirty-one percent of mothers’ providing responses and 21% of fathers’ providing responses fell into this subcategory. Responses coded within this theme indicated the importance of giving and expressing love, including specific forms of love such as showing affection.
Kari, a Christian mother, spoke of the importance of consistently providing love to her children by saying, “Love them. Love them unconditionally through hard times that do come, and good times as well.” Martha, a Lutheran mother, answered, “To be a loving person, I think that’s the thing that I want to give my kids.” Abby, a United Church of Christ mother, described ways she provided love to her children:
Having a lot of laughter and fun is a part of loving. When I think of loving, that’s a lot of it. But there’s a lot of good times. And also the being there, ‘cause that’s been . . . one of the big influences that has made me choose . . . to be here.
Fathers recognized the importance of providing love to their children. Jason, a Latter-day Saint (LDS) father, expressed a desire to always love his children, despite imperfections:
I want my kids to know that I love them, even though I may be human and have frailties of losing my temper, raising my voice inappropriately, that I love them; because . . . I show them I love them . . . and care about them.
Brent, a Jehovah’s Witness father, said, “I think love is probably the most important thing. Love of God, love of your family.” Todd, a Baptist father, also described the importance of love, “Love by example . . . [by] loving God and loving people, both family and non-family. I think has a huge influence.”
As a Mother/Father of Faith I Am Called to Teach
The final primary theme that emerged was parents felt called to teach their children. Sixty-six percent of mothers and 55% of fathers offered responses that were coded in the teach category. Three recurring patterns were identified: teach religious values and teach the faith tradition.
Teach religious values. The most prominent pattern to emerge within this theme was teaching religious values. Thirty-five percent of mothers’ and fathers’ teach-related responses were coded in this subcategory. Narratives included parents who mentioned their desire to teach important religious principles, beliefs, and values.
Julie, a Latter-day Saint mother, said of her daughter, “I think it is my responsibility to raise her with the gospel principles, and share with her the significance of Heavenly Father and the joy of an eternal marriage.” Amy, a Baptist mother, said, “I’ve tried to be honest about teaching them right from wrong from a biblical perspective.” Kathy, a Catholic mother, explained her desire as a mother: “Teach them values I’d want them to have forever and ever.”
Fathers’ responses were quite similar. Ed, a Seventh-day Adventist father, explained, “I guess I have to go back to what it says in Deuteronomy Chapter 6 where it talks about teaching your children at all times what God has, what God’s will is for us.” Alex, a Pentecostal father, said,
[I] keep instructing my children to always be confident in the Lord, even though they will not see it now. . . . Always be confident in the Lord, regardless of what the situation is. . . . I try to instill good Christian values into my children.
Teach the faith tradition. In addition to addressing values, parents described various ways they try to transmit their faith and sacred traditions to their children. Ten percent of mothers’ responses and 14% of fathers’ “teach” responses fell into this subcategory. A Jewish mother named Arella explained the importance of teaching her children religious traditions:
[I] try to pass on the traditions that are special and that are important. You know, how to make meals for the holidays. [Also, to] go to shul. My focus, I guess, is what happens at home. I mean we go to shul as a family. I go to shul, sometimes alone and sometimes the kids come with me. But in the house what I teach them is: This is how you set a Shabbas table, and these are the foods that you prepare for a traditional Sabbath meal, these are the foods that you prepare for a traditional Rosh Hashanah, which is [the] New Year’s [celebration]. . . . I think teaching them how to make a Jewish home [is important], so that when they have a Jewish home, [they won’t have] to look in a book.
Kathy, a Catholic mother, reflected,
If I can give one thing to my kids, it would be this faith. Not a bunch of money, not a bunch of whatever else. . . . Not things at all. If they can have that [faith] in life, I would be fulfilled.
Fathers said similar things. Ron, a Conservative Jewish father, expressed,
In terms of Judaism, [I want] to give them a sense that this is a tradition that is worth preserving. To show them by example, and by instruction, that this is a tradition that commands respect, that deserves to be perpetuated, and that they have a responsibility to perpetuate it. But not out of . . . obligation, but that this is worth doing. That it’ll be a positive influence in their lives. This is part of the self-definition that we embarked on [in our marriage] 22 years ago. We [want to] set something in front of them that they would want to take, to be a part of themselves. I think it is of paramount importance that this tradition continue, and it can only continue by positive example. So the children have to see something there that’s worth doing.
Eli, a Modern Orthodox Jewish father, said that he likewise felt a duty “to transmit the tradition in as far as I understand it.”
The data indicated that both mothers and fathers have similar desires to be good examples. Mothers and fathers of faith both reportedly rely on their religion to show them what (and how) they should try to be. Parents reportedly strived to model their relationship with their children in a manner consistent with their belief in God. Many reportedly drew on a commitment to God and their religious faith as a guide for what they should be as parents. Parents expressed their desires to be consistent examples and to live so that what they taught their children was demonstrated in their own behavior. Parents not only wanted to teach their children about their religious beliefs, they also reportedly strived to become models of what they were teaching their children.
Many parents expressed a sense of responsibility to provide spiritual, physical, and/or emotional support for their children in and outside the home. They spoke of the importance of being available and ready to help their children through effective communication. Parents reported that they felt responsible to provide emotional and physical security. Parents also wanted their religious practices, beliefs, and sacred traditions to live on through their children. Along with religious values, parents wanted to teach their children to have a strong, healthy sense of religious identity.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet asked, “To be, or not to be?” Any of us can ask ourselves, “Will I choose to be, or not to be, my better self?” In other words, will I hold to my deepest beliefs and commitments or will I give in to various forces that invite and entice me to be less than I want to be—and less than what those whom I love need me to be? We hope that scholars and practitioners will find creative ways to ask others to explore these and other identity-centered questions about calling, being, and action.
Our study is only one preliminary, exploratory step along this path. We hope to see many studies that attend to the deeper, existential questions that concern human beings as they consider what is most important for them to be, to do, and to become. We believe that this can make for better scholarship, better practice, and better lives. We may even be able to help more people avoid coming to the end of their lives and experiencing the existential crisis of what Ware (2011) reported as “the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves” (p. 39). Perhaps the item “be true to myself and those I love” should be at the top of the bucket list of every human being striving to become fully human.