Book Reviews: Wise Stewards
Title: Wise Stewards: Philosphical Foundation of Christian Parenting
Author: Michael W. Austin
This book receives the read again rating of a 8. It is a book that christian parents will find helpful to read more than just once.
Why I read this book?
I’m an admitted philosophy buff. I love thinking about those universal questions that transcend all ethnicity, cultures, and geography: Why are we here? Where are we going? What are we? What is there? What ought we to do? What constitutes happiness or the well-lived life? What, is? Philosophy literally means, “love of wisdom,” and can aid us (if done rightly) in forming intellectually rigorous and practically fruitful answers to questions and choices we make on a daily basis.
Dr. Mike Austin, professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, provides a great resource that helps us form a philosophy of parenting. The goal of his book, Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting (Kregel, 2009), is “to help Christians (especially parents or future parents) to think deeply about the family and then put those reflections into their daily lives.” This book aids parents in developing an understanding of what family is and helps formulate an ethic for parenting that can be put to work in family life.
Philosophy vs Theology
Before we push forward down the deep path before us, a quick statement regarding philosophy versus theology is warranted. As Christians, our theology informs our philosophy. It constrains it and stands as the shoreline that bounds the chaotic ocean of philosophical pondering. Without theology, philosophy is wisdom run amok, and those who do not rightly constrain their philosophy with a sound under girding will certainly end up lost at sea, grasping at vain and for an anchor.
Now to the Book
The book opens up with the necessity of such a book: the lack of a Christian ethic for parents. While much of Christian moral philosophy has been devoted to the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage (and thank God for that), relatively little has been done to address what most people feel are the biggest threats to the family today. Dr. Austin cites a survey published by Facts and Trends magazine saying that the top three threats (surveying 695 pastors regarding the three biggest threats to the family in our community) were divorce, negative influences from the media, and materialism. Close by were answers like absentee fathers and poverty. So, what can philosophy add to address these questions? While they are almost always at the forefront of debate from a policy standpoint, what can the seemingly abstract practice of philosophy teach us regarding solutions to these societal ills? Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas were concerned about the good life, and how we as human beings can achieve it. What ideas ought to be fostered and practical decisions made so that everyday life can be lived well? What is the parent-child relationship? What is the nature of parenthood? What virtues do we foster in our families and what authority do we have to do so? These are the vital questions that, when answered, can help families and communities address the concerns facing them today.
It might seem, prima facie (at face value), that the question, “What is a parent?” is common sense. But, you’d be surprised at how many possible answers that question has. Dr. Austin gives extreme left and right views and offers a biblical middle ground that most Christians who read it will close the book satisfied.
Being a parent, most would say, comes with certain rights and responsibilities. What causes those rights and responsibilities to obtain? Some argue that parenthood is strictly a biological connection. People still today talk about the “real parents” of adopted children. Some philosophers attempt to establish a genetic argument that parental rights are grounded in the genetic connection between a parent and child. Others attempt to show that a gestational mother should have sole claim to custody of a child. Dr. Austin lays out these arguments and then gives multiple examples (using analogies or thought experiments) to show that they ultimately fail to ground parental rights. He argues well that, while biological connections are valuable and important, that are by no means a necessary component of the parent-child relationship and parental rights. Dr. Austin says, “the aspects of parenthood that have primary value include helping children to become flourishing individuals within a loving parent-child relationship. It is the moral, social, and relational aspects of parenthood that are essential to its value.”
Next, Dr. Austin introduces the concepts of stewardship and shalom, but before doing that he discusses some flawed views of parenthood. When one first reads these ideas put forth by various thinkers, he or she might find them odd and even grotesque. But, anyone keeping up with the latest news or political debates surrounding the family will see nuances of these very ideas permeating the discussion. It is critical that we have an understanding of them. One view of parenthood is called the radical collectivist view. This idea, represented even by the great philosopher Plato, is that the state’s interests trump the interests or rights of the parents and children. In Plato’s ideal city, the rearing of children is done by “the collective,” or state, and children wouldn’t even know who their biological parents were. Stories from North Korean defectors reveal that the early (and probably contemporary) Kim regime had a view of parenthood very much like this, where children were removed from their parent’s care in the very early months of life and immediately began to be indoctrinated by the state (see Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader for detailed discussions about this and other North Korean practices under the Kim dynasty). Dr. Austin rightly shows this idea to be seriously flawed. Generally speaking, these extreme views come crashing right into the wall of common sense. Many times, in the spirit of C.S. Lewis, common sense is our best philosophical tool.
Dr. Austin then presents a middle way between these two extremes: the stewardship view. As parents, Dr. Austin believes, our goal is to bring about shalom in the lives of our children. We should desire and work for our children to have abundant lives, lives of “wholeness.” The word shalom is usually translated as “peace,” but has a much deeper meaning. It incorporates the ideas of wholeness, tranquility, well-being, safety, welfare, and contentment. Dr. Austin explains that while the physical manifestations of these states of affairs are good (as in better than otherwise lacking them), our biblical worldview mandates that we seek these things in terms of the Kingdom of God. Apart from Christ, our children will never truly experience these things. It is our role as parents to guide our children toward that end. As culture defines it, happiness is simply physical pleasure. A more biblical and classically defined happiness is, “…a life well-lived, a life of virtue of character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness and goodness.” While physical satisfaction is not inherently wrong, it cannot be the end achieved by any means. Austin notes that if Christian parents fulfill their role as stewards of their children, they (children) cannot simply be viewed as problems to be solved. This small portion of the book is a crucial one, so read carefully and ponder afterward. Historian Martin Marty develops this theme when he says, “The provision of care of children will proceed on a radically revised and improved basis if instead of seeing the child first as a problem faced with a complex of problems, we see her as a mystery surrounded by mystery. The need to deal with problems will, of course, be pressing in the case of every child, but if this need dominates the thoughts and actions of those who provide care, much of the wonder and joy of relating to children will be lost.”
In summary, Dr. Austin’s book fills a large void in Christian parenting literature. You will walk away with a renewed sense of your role as a parent (or future role) and how, in that role, we can best cultivate shalom and Christ-likeness in the children whom we’re stewarding for this very brief season of life. You’ll discover that many in our contemporary society don’t view parenthood rightly, and you will see why these views ultimately don’t hold up to the truth. One of the many aspects of seeking justice in this world is to show the truth to those around us. May we use what Dr. Austin provides in this book to rightly show what a parent is, what a parent’s obligations are, and how we as parent/stewards can work towards the shalom and flourishing of the little ones under our care.