The Vanishing: Can Faith Fuel the Future?

Last year I mused over at First Things about Vienna, and how it had seemed, when I visited, to be vasishing before my eyes:

A few years ago I had occasion to spend a few days in Vienna. The beautiful city of museums and music remains a favorite but a forlorn one; its charming avenues and architecture and nightly concerts could not fully distract from the sleepy sense of diminishment that hung over the city, like the acquiescence of a cancer patient who has decided to forgo the next round of treatment.

“Vienna is dying,” I wrote in my journal. “While traipsing its avenues and hopping on and off of buses, we see a materialistic society bearing more dogs on leashes than children in strollers. The concierge is from Turkey. The hotel staff is mostly Asian, and the taxi driver appears to have migrated from Planet Neptune. For each characteristic coffee house there is a kebab stand. Where is Vienna’s tomorrow?”

I wondered, in the piece, whether self-hatred–combined with a dismissal of faith or notions of divine mercy–might be playing into Vienna’s vanishing.

On Christmas Eve, Mark Steyn went into demographics and the biblical:

. . .Of the four gospels, only two bother with the tale of Christ’s birth, and only Luke begins with the tale of two pregnancies. Zacharias is surprised by his impending paternity — “for I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years.” Nonetheless, an aged, barren woman conceives and, in the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy, the angel visits her cousin Mary and tells her that she, too, will conceive. If you read Luke, the virgin birth seems a logical extension of the earlier miracle — the pregnancy of an elderly lady. The physician-author had no difficulty accepting both. For Matthew, Jesus’s birth is the miracle; Luke leaves you with the impression that all birth — all life — is to a degree miraculous and God-given.

We now live in Elisabeth’s world — not just because technology has caught up with the Deity and enabled women in their 50s and 60s to become mothers, but in a more basic sense. The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Now, Richard Fernandez over at Belmont Club is wondering too about tomorrow. Jumping off of a piece about the liquidation of European churches, he asks if tomorrow will come and wonders why we must even ask the question:

Ironically this outcome was baked into socialism from the beginning. It was suspicious of “tomorrow”– that place where the worker would enjoy his benefits — and preferred to consume things today. The most hated tomorrow in socialist opinion was the Christian heaven. It was the “opiate of the people”; the object to which they lifted their eyes the better not to see the miseries of the present. The sooner man was rid of heaven and its earthly equivalents, the nation or the country, the better the new man would be. As John Lennon knew, the best way to understand socialism is to imagine a world without tomorrow.

Imagine there’s no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine all the people living for today.

And that is precisely what the welfare state consisted of. Living for today. Social security is a perfect example. It was never a “fund”; it was never anything more than a payroll tax moving money from young workers to old workers. For it while it seemed to work, but only because the West was running on the legacy of a generation that believed in tomorrow and had sacrificed its life and youth in World War 2 to secure it. The “living for today” lifestyle resulted in the spectacular party some may remember at the end of the 20th century: an era that valued unlimited sex, unlimited welfare, and sacrifice for God and country not at all.

Imagine there’s no countries.
It isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for.
And no religion too.

And then the music stopped. This was the silent scene where we came in at the beginning of the screening: the churches closing at the rate of two a week; the factories closing even faster. What Lennon failed to grasp was that any society that had nothing it would sacrifice for would find nothing worth investing in. And so here we are, dragging on the end of our smokes, tipping over any bottles that still might contain some wine. Because the vineyards are barren and will stay that way. The ultimate problem with “living for today” is that tomorrow eventually comes.

Fernandez is an awfully good writer. Read it all here

Demographics and philosophies matter, and both Steyn and Fernandez have written thoughtful, important pieces sounding necessary alarms, but I still continue to wonder, as I did last year, whether the re-embrasure of faith might be our best hope for tomorrow. As I’d written:

Catholics should appreciate the irony in all of this: The postmodern world has willfully misunderstood the Catholic Conscience for what they derisively hoot at as “Catholic guilt,” and yet it is the “enlightened” secularist culture that is condemning itself to extinction, because it rejects the concepts of “good” and “evil,” recognizes no sin beyond “intolerance,” and sneers at the need for a Savior; it is therefore unfamiliar with mercy and lacks the tools of absolution.

The humble confessionals of the Catholic Church have contained a billion battles between darkness and light, and from their cramped recesses have stepped forth people exposed to mercy, prayed over and created anew; no matter their age their souls are, in the words of Chesterton, “only five minutes old.”

Those imperfect, broken but absolved people–whether peasant living in the meanest hovel or prince in gilded palace–stepped away from the experience of confession on an equal footing, as mere and acknowledged mortals made redeemed Sons and Daughters of the Eternal King. Acquainted with Eternity and willing to perceive something greater than themselves, they could see beyond the day’s crimes, and that gave them hope; with the strength of spiritual vitality, they maintained their perspective about passing things, and kept living.

They ate the air, promise-crammed.

To a relativist, nothing matters, not even, in the end, himself. A person of faith though, even if he despises himself, still wants to believe that he was loved into being, still has the love of God to count on and live for. If he cannot forgive himself, at least he has God’s forgiveness to hold on to.

Without that, the notion of “tomorrow” would be too bleak to contemplate.

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