Mothering—Probably the Most Important Function on Earth
In a 2015 book, How the West Really Lost God, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt affirms that religion is like language—it is learned through community and the first community is the family. Rod Dreher, author of a more recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, agrees with Eberstadt’s conclusion. He says, “When both the family and the community become fragmented and fail, the transmission of religion to the next generation becomes far more difficult” (123).
As I read the observations of others who are addressing the obvious cultural battles occurring today, and see a recognition of the breakdown of the family as a sign of the cultural decay, I recall what, to me, is one of the most relevant, simple, and yet deeply profound statements, which I read four decades ago.
Good mothering from birth on provides the psychological core upon which all subsequent development takes place. Mothering is probably the most important function on earth. (emp. added)
I first read the above statement in the December 1978 issue of Biblical Notes, edited by the late Roy C. Deaver. It came from the reprint of an article in the Alabama Journal of Medical Sciences (Vol. 15, No. 3, 1978). The content of the article was originally delivered in our nation’s capital as a speech at the National Defense Luncheon (April 17, 1978). The title was “The Family and the Future of America,” and the author/speaker was Harold M. Voth, M.D., Senior Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst, Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas.
The speech and journal article by the late Dr. Voth were an urgent call for Americans to become aware of the crucible from which all life springs—the family. His emphasis was that the events within the family can make or break the individual and, collectively, civilization. Will Durant (1885-1981) observed that the family can survive without the state, but without the family all is lost in civilization. Dr. Voth argued, based on his many decades of medical experience in one of the most prestigious mental health centers in America, that the fate of mankind depends on the durability of the heterosexual relationship in conjunction with the stability and integrity of the family. It is in this context that his amazingly simple, yet profound, statement regarding motherhood appears. [Note: For a more recent treatment of “The Family as First Building Block,” see The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing, eds. James R. Stoner, Jr., and Harold James. Princeton: Witherspoon Inst., 2015.]
Twenty centuries ago, The Great Physician, made a statement, ever so brief but rich, when He, on the cross “bequeathed his mother, as his richest legacy on earth, to that disciple whom he loved most of all” (Campbell 68). His words spoken to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” (John 19:26), followed by those spoken to His disciple, perhaps as some conclude a cousin, John, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27), manifest the deepest of respect for mothers and motherhood. “Though the words are few, yet who is able to exhaust the fullness of tender affection which is poured into them? . . . And then the contents of the words themselves—how tenderly did He clothe in them His last farewell to His beloved parent!” (Krummacher 372-73).
In the bitter anguish and travail of His soul (cf. Isaiah 53:11-12; Psalm 22:1ff; Matthew 27:45-46), Jesus Christ took thought for His mother. The esteemed British expositor, William Barclay, has one of the most eloquent, thought provoking summations:
There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the Cross, in the moment when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of His mother in the days when He was taken away. Jesus never forgot the duties that lay to His hand. He was Mary’s eldest son, and even in the moment of His cosmic battle, He never forgot the simple things that lay near home. To the end of the day, even on the Cross, Jesus was thinking more of the sorrows of others than of His own. (299)
Among the great lessons taught by the Master Teacher—the Great Physician—are those implied in this brief statement addressed to His mother and His disciple, John, while Jesus experienced what the prophet had spoken to His mother when Jesus was but a baby. To Mary, Simeon had said, “Behold this child is appointed . . . for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) . . .” (Luke 2:34-35). As the “sword” was piercing her soul, her Son was exhibiting to this woman who had watched and wept over His childhood, His concern for her welfare and actions that imply the truth of what Dr. Voth affirmed: Yes, there is a great sense in which “mothering is probably the most important function on earth.”
-Charles C. Pugh III
Barclay, William. The Gospel of John: Volume 2. The Daily Study Bible. 1955. Edinburgh: St Andrews, 1965.
Campbell, Alexander. The Christian Baptist. Seven Volumes in One. 1835. Cincinnati: Central Book Concern, 1880.
Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel/Penguin, 2017.
Krummacher, F. W. The Suffering Saviour. Chicago: Moody, 1947.