Devoted Dads

  What do Dietrich Bonhoffer, Albert Schweitzer, and G.K. Chesterton have in common? All of them were prominent Christians of the last century. But these champions of our Heavenly Father had something else in common, as well: All had exceptionally close relationships with their earthly fathers. In his new book, Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz says he initially set out to examine the lives of prominent atheists of the last four centuries. He discovered that all had fathers who were weak, abusive, missing, or dead. But then he began to wonder: Was it possible that what appears to modern eyes to be defective fathering simply reflected the social conditions of the time? To find the answer, Vitz compared the family conditions of prominent atheists to those of prominent theists from the same period. What he found is startling: Every theist he studied had a strong and tender bond with his father, or with a father substitute. And as adults, these men became known for taking on the intellectual forces of atheism.
For example, Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher and mathematician, was home-schooled by his Catholic father. Their relationship was close and affectionate. As an adult, Vitz writes, Pascal wrote "a powerful and imaginative defense of Christianity." John Henry Newman, the Catholic cardinal, also had a life-long, loving relationship with his father. Vitz notes that Newman developed a "clear and critical understanding of modernism," and wrote rational responses to it. Alexis de Tocqueville, French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, loved his father deeply. Tocqueville argued that religion is absolutely necessary in the public life of a nation—a view that was, Vitz writes, "really quite unusual" at a time when atheistic views of culture "were becoming standard in Europe." William Wilberforce is known as Britain's great Christian abolitionist, but few people know he was also a devoted dad. When his son Samuel was away at school, Wilberforce found time to write him more than 600 letters in which he poured out his love. Samuel later became a bishop who was "well-known as one of the major debaters in the conflict... over Darwinian evolutionary theory," Vitz writes. G.K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, was deeply attached to his father, who was Chesterton's constant companion when he was a child. Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian who was executed by Hitler, also came from a loving home. His father was a major presence in the lives of his children, whom he treated with respect and affection, Vitz writes. The great missionary to Africa, Albert Schweitzer, called his father "my dearest friend." Karl Barth, the Swiss-German theologian, also enjoyed a close relationship with his father. In light of Vitz's research, the importance of good fathering can hardly be overstated. His book helps us understand why scripture commands fathers to provide diligent spiritual leadership to their children—and why, in Ephesians, fathers are specifically instructed to avoid provoking their children to anger. Pick up a copy of Vitz's remarkable book, Faith of the Fatherless. It will help you understand why some people become evangelists for atheism—and why others become fervent followers of God.


Chuck Colson


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