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All You Need Is ...?

On dysfunctional families, love, and the existence of God


by James Leroy Wilson
January 3, 2001

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All You Need Is ...?_James Leroy Wilson-On dysfunctional families, love, and the existence of God Based on the lords a-leapin' in my back yard, it is apparent to me that Christmas is still going on. This affords me the opportunity to switch gears and get somewhat philosophical. After all, Christmas is supposed to be about what God has done. If God has done things, he must be real. I will make here a brief, and perhaps novel, argument for the existence of God.

What is the number one social problem in America today? If the media's interpretations are correct, I think it is "dysfunctional families." The common characteristic of the dysfunctional family is selfishness, where one or both parents put other things, like drugs, a lover, a job, or bitter grudges, ahead of the family. The primary indicator is that the kids in the family don't feel loved. In dysfunctional families, the bonds between spouses, between parents and children, and between siblings, are valued less than relationships with friends in the outside world.

But I'm not writing about the collapse of the family and its negative social impact. Instead, I ask why the dysfunctional family is sad or unnatural. Those of us fortunate to grow up in loving families and loving extended families know why, of course. It's because of that lack of love. With family, beginning with one's spouse, to love seems natural. It's like the most natural thing in the world. The dysfunctional family, then, seems unnatural. Disordered. Not right.

But it is also fair to turn around and ask a member of a loving, functional family: why do you love your sister even more than your cousin, your father more than your uncle and your daughter more than your nephew or niece? Lifelong friends more than new acquaintences? Any of them more than that weird-looking guy in church or your irritable boss? And even him more than strangers, foreigners, or criminals?

What is at once natural with the immediate family becomes diluted. The less familiar we are with people, the less inclined we are to love them. We replace the natural inclination of love with rules of etiquette and laws of the state. Keeping peace and order, ruling with one's head rather than with one's heart, creating ideas and ideals for society based on universal law rather than love, this is what we do.

Apparently, just loving everyone is too hard.

Or perhaps we just choose to make it hard.

Perhaps the sad part is not the existence of dysfunctional families but that we all participate in a dysfunctional world. Loving family members make sacrifices for each other without thinking about it, sometimes even cheerfully, because the welfare of each person is more important than the costs involved. But when dealing with those less familiar to us, with strangers, we are less inclined to make such sacrifices. Our heads take over our hearts and prudence based on self-interest, not love, dictates what we do.

When we want to understand people, we say we want to get inside their heads, because that is the most intimate, personal area. There we see how people perceive things and how people think and feel based on their own desires. We see the strengths and weaknesses of their mental machinery. But we don't say that we want to get inside their hearts. The mind is inward-looking, but love is outward-looking.

Selfless self-sacrifice has an impersonal quality to it. It's as if the person is not really doing the action but rather the person submitting to what love requires. If I love my job, I am concerned not with my own rewards and honors from that job but rather with the job being done well. And if I love another person, I am not concerned with how that person will think of me or reward me; to paraphrase Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, that person's happiness is the end in itself and not just a means to my own happiness.

Losing one's self in an act of love suggests that love itself is an independent entity; like truth, it just is regardless of what we personally want, think, or feel. Love is not generated by the individual, rather, the individual chooses to submit to love, to become an agent, a slave, so to speak, of love, and love is revealed not by him, but through him.

All too often Western Christianity promotes an idea of God as an angry father, ticked off at every minor lapse, and that we are just sooooo lucky He sent His Son to clean up our messes and forgive our sins, because if God didn't do that we would be in really big trouble. Let me propose another way of looking at it. If love is a real thing, that is, an active force like I just described, independent on what you or I want to think or feel about it, then that force is God. What else are you going to call a benevolent force in the universe?

Here I'm just suggesting the possibility that love is a real thing, that is, something whose true essence is independent of human perceptions and conceptions. Time prevents me from attempting a really persuasive argument for this proposition in this space. But if love is indeed real, then God is real, and it would be prudent to let love possess us, to let love direct our moral reasoning and conduct instead of depending on reason alone. To, as Lenny Kravitz put it, Let love rule.

Editor's note: this column was published slightly later than normal due to server problems.

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