The Family As The Cradle Of Theology -- By: Richard L. Hester

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 006:1 (Fall 1988)
Article: The Family As The Cradle Of Theology
Author: Richard L. Hester


The Family As The Cradle Of Theology

Richard L. Hester

Professor of Pastoral Care,
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

When I was about four I stood one day with my father in front of the spillway at the water treatment plant in Cameron, Texas. He managed the town’s water supply system, and in late summer afternoons he often took me with him into the treatment plant—a place of roaring pumps, rushing water, and large reservoirs. As we stood in front of the spillway he pointed to a pile of bricks nearby and said, “Son, don’t throw any of those bricks into the spillway.” I do not know whether the idea of throwing a brick into the spillway had occurred to me before, but from that instant I had but one thought—to throw as many of them as possible into the spillway.

I must have wondered just what magic and terror might lie in throwing a brick into that cascade of water. As soon as he was distracted by his work, I went to the pile of bricks and picked one up. I toddled over to the spillway and heaved it in. I went and got another and heaved it in. Shortly he reappeared. “I just told you not to throw those bricks into the spillway, and you’re doing it! I’m going to have to punish you,” he said. He turned me over his knee and spanked me.

This childhood memory provides a clue to primal theological education. My recollection has to do with the ultimate powers in the universe as I perceived them at the time. And the fact that I retain this memory among the countless ones that have been forgotten suggests a determining interplay between my early childhood experience and my present world view. The thesis of this article is that our understanding of God is decisively shaped within the family system. The family is the cradle of theology in which we begin to form a conception of God.

Sigmund Freud made an important contribution to our understanding of theology by identifying the linkages between childhood experience in the family and adult religious belief. His analysis of parent-child relationships gives theological illumination to events such as my encounter with my father at the spillway. Freud saw a parallel between the fears of the small child and the fears of the adult. The terror of adulthood, he said, has “an infantile prototype.” The helplessness we experience as adults is like what we experienced as children. In childhood we looked to our parents for care and for protection against danger. How natural, then, said Freud, that when we experience the dangers of adulthood we look again for a protecting parent.1

What are the terrors of adulthood? We are threatened from three directions, said Freud. First, our body is doomed to d...

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