Wise Stewards is more of a popular treatment of themes Austin explored in his scholarly publication Conceptions of Parenthood, which I reviewed last March. But it isn’t simply a repeat of the scholarly work as it also explores Christian ideals such as stewardship and “shalom” as well as key virtues for Christian families. The book has the quality of being short–but let that not deceive you–it is no easy read. Like any good philosophy book it is meant to be read slowly so that the reader will fully digest the complexity and substance of the ideas, and then be read again when they pondered seriously.
Austin is remarkably good at popularizing philosophy and it shows. Already the editor of two ‘[fill in the blank] and philosophy’ books (here and here) he puts his skills to use in serving the larger Christian audience by showing how good philosophical reflection can inform our approach to raising children. Ideas we live by are often hidden and assumed, and much less thought through accordingly. Good philosophers have always been in the business of asking the right kinds of questions to make these unhidden, and then show us how to think in slow motion so we can fully understand how they impact us and respond to them.
Expanding on his ideas of stewardship, Austin conceives parenthood as being entrusted with a child’s upbringing where the parent is under the obligation to invest wisely in things that will form a good and responsible future adult. This rightly encompasses parents of children who are not their biological offspring. Biology, for Austin, is a significant factor in parenthood, but it is not the most important one. The moral and relational aspects of parenthood are open to anyone who is able to fulfill them, and are not reserved only for those that contribute to the biological causation of the child.
This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but one only needs to reflect on whether a rapist should have parental rights over a child he helped cause or if it could be properly said that a sperm donor has a say in custody battles. Furthermore, mothers are not greater in parenthood because of their gestational role in the nurturing the unborn child to birth. All that essentially matters is for a responsible adult to take on the responsibilities of raising a child to be a responsible adult.
Moving on from this conception, Austin explores the other half of his title and explains what it means to be a wise steward. By far the strongest and most practical part of the book is his exploration of key virtues for Christian parenting. Austin carefully defines and lays out several that underpin what he calls “the good life” or “shalom:”
Intellectual virtue. Teaching children to value what is true and love truth cultivates a life that will find lying difficult. Learning how to think rightly will lay the foundations for how to act rightly, and things like hypocrisy, outrageous claims, tall tales, and anti-intellectual versions of faith that are ultimately abandoned in adult years can be avoided.
Faith, hope, and love. The three cardinal virtues of Christianity are about having the capacity to trust what is believed to be true, persevering through times of trial, and having the inner readiness to secure the goods of others, and they are essential to the good life that often find their most profound expressions in the most mundane of tasks.
Humility. Obviously there can be no true virtue with pride, but we are often mistaken about what humility entails. It isn’t thinking less of yourself, taking no pride in your accomplishments whatsoever, or making self-depreciating jokes. It is about having the ability to take a proper view of yourself that does not inflate or deflate your ego.
Forgiveness. While it is true that all the virtues must be demonstrated by the parents, this one is perhaps the most memorable in the minds of children. Parents should not expect that they will treat their children perfectly and ought to model forgiveness to their children by both asking for it and receiving it. If children can learn to resolve conflicts in the home they will be able to become peacemakers in their own lives beyond the home.
Patience. Learning to experience discomfort without complaint. At root, selfishness is undermined and a proper view of one’s circumstances is understood.
Compassion. Rather than just feeling sorry for another’s plight, one is moved into action to relieve another’s plight.
Frugality. Often conflated with “good stewardship” in Christian circles, but a key virtue nonetheless in learning how to live with less, be content with what one has, and not envy other’s possessions.
Finally, Austin concludes with a chapter on ethics for Christian parents when exploring reproductive technologies and the issues of discipline. In this chapter he takes the standard position of life beginning at conception and judges in vitro fertilization not to be totally immoral, but immoral on whether human embryos are destroyed in the process. If there are embryos left over the parents ought to see to it that they are “adopted” by parents who will care for them. He also finds gene selection to be suspect if the interests of the welfare of the child are not made central. It is right and proper to use gene selection technology to select out cancer, but it is (at least) suspect to use it to select for gender or eye color as it makes the parents desires central rather than the child’s welfare.
On the issue of spanking and corporal punishment, Austin is not opposed to it in principle, but sees how it may be difficult to practice well. He argues that such discipline should always have fostering trust between parent and child as a goal, and that children should be owed a “due process” when considering punishment. Ideas of punishment as expressing anger or “getting even” have no place in the Christian family.
All in all this is a wonderful book. My only wish is that Austin would have explored in more detail how having children contributes to parent’s happiness, though he does helpfully distinguish between different definitions of happiness when parents are surveyed. Often they reveal that people who have children are less happy, but this may only mean that they have less pleasure in life. When one considers happiness as a life well lived the responses are different, especially for parents who have raised their children into adulthood. Still there is much discourse on the relationship between joy and shalom that should not go unnoticed, and the wisdom in Wise Stewards can be reflected upon again and again as I will (hopefully) be reading it over and over in the years to come.