Are You the Hammer or the Anvil?

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Icon of the Twelve Apostles. Artist and date unknown.

Why is one person one way, and someone else is another?  Or, why am I like me and why are you like you?  I suspect that an awful lot of it has to do with where and by whom we are brought up.  Which can explain a lot.

My primary area of study in college was economics.  Much of economic theory assumes a marketplace where information flows freely, so that random people can pick and choose what they value most highly. This kind of works for what kind of car we buy or what we might choose to watch on television.  But I am not convinced that it works all that well when it comes to religion.

It seems to me that for most people, what religion a person might tend to practice (if one at all) has more than anything to do with our experiences from within our families from the time of childhood.  It is in our early homes where we experience “normal”, whatever normal might be.

When I was growing up, my mother was not much of a cook  Don’t worry, she knows this, and would freely admit it.  In her defense, she was a single mother who didn’t have that much time to get food on the table after work every day.  Therefore,  dinner from boxes and cans was pretty much the norm at our house.  The predictable result was that I came to love food that came from boxes and cans.  To this day, fried SPAM and mac and cheese (the kind with the powdered “cheese” in the blue box that no longer costs nineteen cents) is a meal I look forward to.  And Armour beef stew dolloped on top of a plate of sea shell macaroni is something I could eat three times a week.  Why do I suddenly have a taste for some Franco-American beef gravy?  Was/is this objectively good food?  Goodness, no.  But I love it because it is what I grew up with.  It represents “normal” cooking to me.

I think that a lot of people make their religious decisions the same way I approach dietary ones: you go with what you are used to.  Or in some cases, we choose the opposite of what we know in a sort of rebellion or repudiation of the way we were  brought up. When there is a change in faith, it often comes about as a result of marriage or some other major change in relationship.  But all of these ways of approaching faith (or the lack of it) are products of either inertia or a reaction against inertia. In my experience, not that many people conduct a genuine investigation into the big doctrinal questions.  Do not think I am giving Catholics a pass on this, because we are often the biggest offenders.

It is funny that among the major Christian religions, there is really only one that seems to be roped off from the rest.  It is no big deal to move from one protestant denomination or congregation to another.  Whether it is a jump or an evolution, it all seems to come down to finding a place where you feel valued and spiritually fed.  But to become a Catholic, well, isn’t that going a bit far?  Yes, actually it is.  I was certainly never going to do THAT and become one of THEM.  At least that was one of those little foundational tenets that marked the boundaries of my sense of self.

At some point I will be getting into my journey to the other side of the Tiber, but that is for some time in the future.  As for now, the question of “what do I believe and why do I believe it” is one that we should all be asking ourselves from time to time.  My day job is practicing law.  In making a legal argument, “this is the way we have always done it” or “I dunno, this just seems right to me” don’t get very far before a judge.  It’s all about authority.  Can I cite to a statute or some case precedent to support my conclusion?  Or is there at least some solid reasoning when the written authority is a little less clear?

I guess that my point here is nothing more than to invite you (and to remind myself) that we have a responsibility to look at some of these questions from a fresh perspective.  If your response to the question of “What do I believe and why do I believe it” is “Uhhhhhhhh . . . . “, maybe this is something that you should look into.  I can respect (even if I may disagree with) most well-thought-through answers to this most important of questions, whether they confirm your belief in a particular faith tradition, or in no tradition at all. This is the sort of place from which meaningful discussion and dialog can start.  The answer I have trouble respecting is when there is no answer at all.

I think that we men have some work to do here.  It is not uncommon that our wives (or mothers) make our faith decisions for us.  There was a time when no self-respecting male would want to admit that he knew nothing about what went on under the hood of his car or in the various systems in his house.  So why do so many of us lack a handle on the tenets of our faith?  Even worse, why do so many give no thought to faith at all and simply assume that everything will turn out alright in the end?  Because it seems that more and more people are raised in a households where “normal” does not include any kind of religious faith at all.  Saint Dominic once said that it is better to be the hammer than the anvil.  Although he used the expression in a different context (that of the need to master our human passions) the saying has some application here.  There are decisions to be made that could have some long-lasting consequences.  It is one thing to say “whatever” only to be dissatisfied when your steak is too well done.  It is quite another to take the chance that you might end up too well done yourself for the same reason.

It is not my intent to suggest that anyone is going to Hell because they lack understanding of this doctrine or that one.  However, when there are so many out there who are blank slates when it comes to questions with an eternal dimension, shouldn’t each of us who do practice a faith be in a position to explain it an answer questions about it?  It seems to me that each of us should be able to do this so that when someone comes along with questions about life and faith, we are in a position to have a conversation with some content.  In my faith life, I have spent time as the anvil and as the hammer.  Being the anvil was a lot easier, but  hammer is a lot more satisfying.

5 thoughts on “Are You the Hammer or the Anvil?

  1. I wasn’t raised with any faith. I felt a draw toward it as an adult, so I went looking for it.

    My three sons have been raised in the Church of Christ/Christian Church/so-called “community” church. My oldest son, now 30, declared at 17 that he thought all of this was so much hoo-hah, and that he would henceforth have nothing more to do with it.

    My next son, now 18, says he believes, but hedges on his baptism (in our faith tradition, we don’t baptize until someone is capable of making the decision to follow Christ). He is someone, like his dad, who can’t say he belongs until the beliefs of his organization align with his internal beliefs, and making those two line up is a slow process where he examines his internal beliefs and tries to harmonize them with the church, and lets teaching adjust his beliefs, etc. — it’s a long negotiation. I’m still negotiating, actually, and that negotiation has changed me and has also led me to move away from at least one denomination.

    My youngest son, who is on the autism spectrum and has a highly logical brain, was asked one day at church: Do you believe? Do you intend to follow Jesus? Then why not be baptized? Bing, bam, boom: he saw the logic, and was baptized.

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  2. Isn’t it interesting how much something like religious faith can change through three generations. There is something in each of the examples of you and your sons at different points in my own background. My middle son is where your eldest is, and my eldest just made initial vows as a Dominican brother, so how is that for variety? My youngest is in college and certainly practices the faith much more than I ever did at that age. The kind-of-Christian-by-inertia is the one I have the hardest time with, perhaps because this was me during most of my life up to and beyond college.

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  3. JP, this piece raises a lot of interesting issues, though I got distracted from your overall theme by your speculative asides. I don’t see why men have more spiritual “work to do” than women, nor do I think we as humans ever get to be righteous “hammers” by undergoing metaphysical changes, so I’d ask you to go easy on all us foolish “anvils.” Finally, a household with no faith tradition isn’t one that “assumes everything will be all right in the end,” any more than one that follows a tradition without much reflection. Based on your other comments, I think you agree with me on that, which is why I’m puzzled by some of these sidebars.

    All that said, you ask some great questions, and you have a compelling story of spiritual discovery to tell. I would certainly like to hear about your road to Damascus, or South Bend, as it were. 🙂

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    • I appreciate your comments. It is hard to step back from some basic assumptions, and comments like this one raise flags about things I ought to think about more. As for the men vs. women thing, something I see among Catholics (and from my protestant background) is that religion is often seen as “womens’ work”, something that your grandma, mom and wife take primary responsibility for. In my mother’s childhood, she tells of how all of the farmers would drop their wives and kids at church on Sunday, then go hang out at the general store until it was over. There has been discussion in Catholic circles in recent years of whether the Church has become too feminized and whether this is affecting whether young men are becoming as engaged in the faith as they should. An interesting question that I might explore at some point. I will also confess a bit of a learning curve – some of these more serious pieces may require a little more percolation between initial draft and publication, if only to refine my thoughts some more. Writing about old cars is so much easier!

      As for the hammer/anvil analogy, I can see how someone who considers the evidence for faith and finds none would be a hammer. It is making a conscious investigation and decision (whatever that decision might be) that makes one a hammer. You have always stuck me (from what little I know of your background) as one of these people, rather than a shoulder-shrugging-whatever-guy. Anyhow, I appreciate you keeping me honest. There is so much of us breaking off into our own little clubs and factions, which is something I would prefer not to do here, so your perspective is quite welcome.

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      • …and I appreciate your thoughtful response. I did hesitate before posting because the last thing I want to do is discourage your work here, which I respect, and look forward to. And now that I see more about your point about gender and faith – I guess I do see your point! It’s almost like you’ve got material for three or four posts here. Stay the course!

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