How the West Really Lost God! (?)

I wonder. Perhaps the West isn’t losing God. Perhaps it is just beginning to find out who God really is.

How the West Really Lost God is something I’m not sure I know, even after reading Mary Eberstadt’s new book. She seeks to turn the common idea that the decline in religion led to a decline in the family on its head. So she offers considered evidence that in fact the decline in the family led to the decline in religion. Or more properly, that the two are so intertwined that those movements within Western culture that diminished the importance of the biological family snowballed into what she sees as Christian churches in a free fall toward self-destruction.

The evidence Eberstadt offers is of three sorts. First she show empirical links between the strength of the biological family and the strength of religion. Then she shows demographic evidence for links between changes in the family and declines in Christianity. For Eberstadt these links lay the ground work for all theories relating secularization to the family.

With this established she seeks to show that traditional explanations for secularism in the West (which she takes as the loss of God) are inadequate both in terms of chronology and explanatory power. Their failure demands recognition that there must be some other factor, what she calls “the family factor”. And while she acknowledges the problem of establishing cause and effect rather than simply observing coincidence in history, she shows convincingly that in many if not all cases it was the decline in the family that preceded the decline in religion in specific culture.

In the final step of her argument she seeks gives several reasons that churches, by loosening their moral strictures related to sexuality and the family, would logically if unintentionally foster a decline in religion. Specifically the removal of prohibitions against divorce and remarriage, the approval of birth control, and most recently the approval of gay marriage she sees as both undermining the biological family AND creating rising generations of children for whom the central images and ideas of Jewish and Christian scripture are as incomprehensible as traditional Christian moral injunctions.

The book closes with arguments on either side for a pessimistic and optimistic view of the future of religion in the West. Only in a kind of epilogue does Eberstadt takes up specifically how the loss of religion can be equated with the loss of God, expanding on the third point above to point out that the Enlightenment’s greatest atheists (Nietzsche and Rousseau) were men without families and who never had families.

While the central thesis of this book, that “the family factor” helps explain secularization and the decline of religion, may well be true, it is run through with a conceptual problem that weakens all of its arguments and renders its conclusions suspect.

Eberstadt consistently equates God’s presence in Western culture with Christendom and Christianity in its institutional forms.  And she appears to limit the contribution of Christianity to the family to it’s strict moral rules concerning sexual behavior that legitimize only the biological family.

In making these associations she frequently confers with historians and sociologists, but rarely or never with theologians, and thus she defines God, religion, and the family in terms that Christians themselves may not recognize. She acknowledges that changes in Protestant Christian understandings of the moral injunctions surrounding sexuality and the family were based on a desire to actually be inclusive and loving. She doesn’t see that this might be driven by a desire to contextualize the message of the gospel and express the nature of God in changing circumstances.

Instead her implicit touchstone for authentic Christianity appears to be the Catholicism of Benedict the XVIth, and ultimately for all its effort at objectivity the book appears to be an extended apology for his views relating to Christendom and its ailments.

Nor are her sociological observations sufficiently complete. Much of the vast growth in Pentecostal Christianity, particularly in Latin America, doesn’t arise out of strong families. It also arises as those trapped in weak and dysfunctional families seek alternative forms of emotional and spiritual solace and support.

And here we see the greatest problem of this book, its failure to consider the role of the Christian community not so much as an extension of the family, but as an alternative to it. Eberstadt sees the possibility of revival in a Christian reaction to the cataclysm of decline that would restore its strong moral injunctions in support of traditional biological families. But many would argue that revival will come as Christian communities provide an alternative family to those who come from broken homes and false understandings of human sexuality.

That would reiterate Christian history. It is hardly surprising that the biological family is a key assumption of both Jewish and Christian scripture. Yet scripture also understands that the family can also be a broken and even oppressive institution. The most memorable families in the Bible are the most dysfunctional. Indeed, with the exception of Ruth and Boaz all the families in the Bible are dysfunctional. Even Jesus was raised by his stepfather.

It is precisely in God’s care of the widow, the orphan, the childless, the outcast, the adulterer, the prostitute, and even the murderer that God’s full nature as lover and redeemer of the world are revealed. Thus it is these for whom care is demanded by scriptural ethics, and these are among the first gathered into the family of those who call God father and Christ brother. Only God’s love for all these broken and incomplete families rescues the common trinitarian symbolism from itself being exclusive and oppressive. It isn’t the family that brings (or pace Eberstadt fails to bring) these refugees from the family to God, it is God that makes family a possibility even for them.

The root of this failure in Eberstadt’s analysis may be that she does not consider the role of fictive kinship and its importance in the formation of the early Christian community. Her promotion of the specifically biological family as fundamental to healthy Christianity leads her to ignore the ways that Christians have understood what Jesus means by “being born again by water and the Spirit.” And so she also fails to consider alternative families that are so central to Christian history, and particularly Catholic and Orthodox history. Convents and monasteries, and even though she doesn’t see it, brotherhoods like her oft mentioned Opus Dei are surely as critical to the church as the biological family unit, something which even a sociologist can see and any historian should note.

But Eberstadt, like Benedict whom she appears to approve of, apparently cannot conceptualize Christianity without Christendom, and thus ignores entirely its pre-imperial beginnings and despairs of its post-imperial future. (It is an amazing lacunae that she seems to think that the derision with which the pope’s visits to Germany were treated came primarily from a general distaste for Christianity and not from the fact that he was believed to have presided as bishop, arch-bishop, cardinal, and pope over some of the most horrific cases of pedophilia and sexual abuse by priests. Few things have been as destructive of positive attitudes toward Christian teaching on the family as that ongoing crisis.)

Eberstadt performs a valuable service in both critiquing standard theories of secularism, and pointing out the ways that religious institutions are in some respects dependent on having strong families. But she is far less convincing in arguing that believing in God and comprehending the meaning of scripture are dependent on being raised in complete biological families, perhaps because she appears to ignore large portions of the Christian community and long stretches of Christian history.

Still, she may be right in her central thesis. It may be that Christianity as it has been known in the West these last several hundred years (she really doesn’t consider pre-modern Christianity) will be continually weakened by rapid changes in the family, and the breakdown and reformation of the family away from biologically related persons. Yet not everyone, not even every Christian, will regard that as a bad thing. Perhaps the West isn’t losing God. Perhaps it is just beginning to find out who God really is.


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