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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  • Y. A. Warren

    Though this post could have benefited from extreme copy editing, you make some extremely good points, especially in the following quotes:

    “…these are among the first gathered into the family of those who call God father and Christ brother.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

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

  • Yonah

    The West never had God.

    The West has as its basic dna and instinct that dog-eat-dog ethos of Roman crucifixion squads and Blackwater et al. The reason why Judaism has been called a virus in the West is that its ethos was completely different and threatening because it placed high value on the poor and weak….which is attractive to the many poor and weak under oppression in the West.

    The question as to whether Judaism (including its spin-off Jesus movement) could ever win a decisive victory over Dick Cheney & Co. was always dubious. To win, the religion would have to keep its wits about it and not get sucked into The West. The powers that be in The West have always oppressed family life through economic, political, and martial means. When religious institutions did not give in…did not get sucked in, they fortified their own poor and weak.

    But, as it is, over the last 40 years, religious institutions have abandoned all those who are not solidly middle class (prone to fund the institution substantially), and the sub middle class were left to psychologically, sociologically, and spiritually fend for themselves without real access to religious community. So. In a time when economic oppression has increased exponentially from secular elites, and when religious elites have tended to their own economic positions…that is a double factor in the decline of family. The problem is original Western dog-eat-dog values sucking in and neutralizing the holy virus….not gay marriage.

    Gay marriage is also not the cause of global warming.

  • http://www.paulfrantizek.com/ Paul Frantizek

    “[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.”

    Using institutions like convents and other monastic communities to tacitly argue in favor of single-parent, ‘gay’ and other so-called ‘alternative’ families is extremely disingenuous. Catholic natural law teaching is clear that the traditional/natural family is the core unit of human society.

    The Archbishop of San Francisco recently spoke on this very subject: http://www.sfarchdiocese.org/about-us/archbishop-cordileone/homilies-writings-and-statements/2014/Building-a-Civilization-of-Truth-and-Love-4036/

    “Every child comes from a man and a woman, and has a right, a natural human right, to know and be known by, to love and be loved by, their own mother and father. This is the great public good that marriage is oriented towards and protects. The question is then: does society need an institution that unites children to the mothers and fathers who bring them into the world, or doesn’t it? If it does, that institution is marriage – nothing else provides this basic good to children…

    “Love is the answer. But love in the truth. The truth is that every child comes from a mother and a father, and to deliberately deprive a child of knowing and being loved by his or her mother and father is an outright injustice. That is our very nature, and no law can change it. Those with temporal power over us might choose to change the definition of marriage in the law even against all that we have accomplished through very generous participation in the democratic process, but our nature does not change. If the law does not correspond to our nature, such that there is a conflict between the law and nature, guess which will prevail? And people will figure it out.”

    I completely agree with Archbishop Cordileone – people will figure it out, one way or another.

  • http://www.nwspiritism.com/ Brian Foster

    Most probably the drop in the numbers of whole families have contributed to a decline in people practicing religion, but I would say this trend has been with us since the start of the Industrial revolution, where the quest for consumer goods (materialism) became the cultures main goal. This unleashed people’s energies toward making money and satisfying themselves by buying instead of spiritual introspection. Once, this took hold and the sexual revolution began, all bets were off.
    I believe this shall pass, hopefully more and more people will start to see the emptiness in having the latest pair of tennis shoes. It may be a long process.
    According to Spiritism, in the future, we shall have a balance of spirituality and materialism, where people understand that a life of caring, charity, and learning is fulfilling.
    Spiritism, was founded by Allan Kardec in the 1850’s, where we are told that all humans travel through multiple reincarnations, in a quest to become better spirits. Eventually, science, religion, and philosophy will converge, where one doesn’t exclude the other.
    If you would like to explore more about Spiritism please visit http://www.nwspiritism.com

  • Russ Neal

    Dave Goldman’s book “How Civilizations Die” makes the point that having and raising children takes money from present enjoyment and invests it for a future purpose beyond the life time of those making the choice. So there has to be some future orientation that makes the sacrifice make sense. Evangelical Christianity has held an “imminent rapture” doctrine for a long time now and seen no need to invest in, say, a long term Christian conquest and advance of the kingdom on earth in history. Since Jesus did not in fact come and get us in 1988 it is left flailing and irrelevant.

  • Dan

    I won’t speak to the thesis of the book because I haven’t read the book, and I don’t know if the author “despairs of [Christianity’s] post-imperial future.” However the article associates such alleged despair with Benedict and nothing is further from the though of Benedict. Benedict despairs at the future of Europe, not the faith. As such his attitude is the opposite of what is attributed to him. Catholic dogma includes hope. Despair is not a permissible attitude. As to what Benedict actually has said about the future of Christianity in the West, it is this — the opposition of the alleged inability to conceive of the faith outside of Christendom:

    “She [the Church] will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

    It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

    And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

    The New Testament does not say the Church will convert the entire world. On the contrary, it says that in the end the end times there will be a great apostasy that leaves Church will be small and persecuted. Thus, again, there is no association in Catholic dogma between “Christendom” and the fate of the faith.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “Perhaps the West isn’t losing God. Perhaps it is just beginning to find out who God really is.” On this hope, I hang my ability to get out of bed in the morning.