I was an only child. Perhaps I was a miracle, because my mother wanted more children but was never able to have any.
I was also, in many ways, a lonely child. As missionaries, my parents went where their church sent them. For my pre-school years, that meant a city populated by older missionaries whose children had long ago grown up. So I had few playmates.
My mother was both teacher and mentor. From her, I learned Victorian manners, health, and most of all, the English language. How words go together to convey meaning. When something I wrote didn’t sound right, didn’t feel right, didn’t look right, I didn’t need to consult texts or grammar books—I just asked my mother.
Then she died when I was 36. For months afterwards—no, for years—when I ran across an awkward phrasing in the manuscripts I was editing, I still said to myself, “I’ll ask Ma about that.” And then I realized that I couldn’t, anymore.
Around that time, I wrote a short essay for what the magazine I worked for called “The Back Page.” I wondered why I cared about the death of my mother, but not about the homeless man who died on the streets just blocks from where I worked. After all, didn’t we believe that all human lives were equal in the sight of God? What gave me the right to be more selective than God?
It was, in hindsight, a naïve cry of pain. My colleagues didn’t get the point. It was so obvious to them—of course we care more about some people than about others. We care about those who have shared our experiences, our values, our patterns of thinking.
But the idea I was exploring—however inarticulately—I later heard described in Darwinian terms as “kin selection.” In the natural order, mothers will fight most fiercely for their own offspring. Less fiercely, for siblings or parents. Even less fiercely for cousins and more distant relatives.
Many animals seem to have an internal calculator, some biologists have argued, that determines how much DNA they share, to decide how much risk they will take to protect each other.
But it’s not just DNA at work. Dogs will defend other household pets—with whom they share minimal DNA—against other dogs. Parrots pine away when their humans die. Humans risk their lives to save whales tangled in fishing nets.
I don’t think “kin” is a purely biological function. “Kin” is who we choose to consider close to us. And it seems to me that religion, at its best, urges us to broaden our notion of “kin,” beyond the conventional links of family, clan, and tribe.
So we can feel a kinship with correspondents on the far side of the world, whom we have never met in person. We can feel kinship with an old-growth forest, with cats and rats and elephants, with long-dead authors and still unborn children.
It’s why I prefer to refer to the “kin-dom” of God, rather than the more traditional “kingdom.” Closeness is not imposed upon us either by external rulers or by genetics. Rather, we can extend our close connections as widely as we choose.