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.

Insty with an Update

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Gail Finke

    Elizabeth, this is an excellent piece. We must also wonder, why do we (the West) hate ourselves so much? The West blame itself for things its ancestors did, and punishes itself for the sins of its fathers, all the while whining that Christianity and Judaism inflict “unnecessary” guilt on “basically good” people. It is not my fault that Americans were mean to the Indians, that the Spanish were far meaner to the Indians, that some Americans bought slaves, that some Africans sold their enemies into slavery, that the Industrial Revolution was cruel and ground people into dust, that England condemned my Irish ancestors to certain death by the millions, that my Irish ancestors drank to much and fought to much and brawled with former slaves… I had nothing to do with any of that. But as a society we wallow in collective guilt for things we did not do.

  • newton

    It is interesting that you write about this today, in the day designated in the Catholic calendar as the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents. (I’m not Catholic, but since I was born and raised in a Spanish-speaking area, it is actually celebrated in the Spanish-speaking word with people playing jokes and pranks on one another, a la April Fools’ Day.)

    Mark Steyn rightly pointed that the “family tree is upside-down” in much of the Western world, but we only have ourselves to blame for this. Someone else pointed out elsewhere that parenthood has become a huge negative in today’s society, even in our elites: to have and raise children, it seems, has become a renunciation of adulthood instead of an affirmation of it. Children have become an “inconvenience” in today’s society. It makes me think of that part on the old movie “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”, in which the children were all confined to a dark and rat-infested dungeon while the adults had all the fun at the castle’s festive halls. We are too darned busy spending our children’s inheritance, and when they finally see in a few decades what actually happened, the reckoning will be… ugly.

    At best, we seem to have sold our future generations down the river, quite willingly. At worst, we have become the unknowing agents of the Evil King Herod, who viewed The Bethlehem-Born Child as a threat to his power.

  • mark†

    “why do we (the West) hate ourselves so much?” I think it is because we are not grateful. We are not grateful because we don’t believe in God. I am grateful to God (who is the author of all life) for my parents who raised and for the country and time in which I was born. If it is of God, then I have a responsibility to use the gift wisely and well.

  • Manny

    I agree this is an excellent piece. I’ve argued this before over at Deacon Greg’s. The more we let government do for us, especially take care of the poor, the more toward atheism we slouch. It is not a coincident that the leading socialists were and are atheists. Divorcing charity (true human to human charity not a government enforced redistribution) from taking care of the needy separates Christ from the giving. Once you separate Christ then it is not a surprise that people don’t feel His love and bond between mankind.

    As to the demographic shift, I don’t know if it’s related to a welfare state, or at least not directly. Perhaps, but it seems like something else is going on there, another compounding factor. In some respects it might actually be our high levels of education, and once educated the the need to fulfill one’s self given the kernals of self actualization that education instills. And so once educated we delay building a family. Actually the self actualization becomes more important than the family. Just my thoughts.

  • Greta

    We are victims of the left leaning “hate the west and religious” media and education systems. We have seen the left trying to go to places of massive abuse of their people and apologizing for America when America has very little to apologize for in the first place. American amazing story is lo longer a great story of growth with freedom, but one of the white man slaughtering the peace loving Indians. The Catholics are either the crusaders or they follow priest abusers and bishops who in total covered up the crime even though fewer were involved in abuse than in the vast numbers abused in our homes and school systems, also supposed to be places kids were supposed to find trustworthy. We have had an onslaught as never before in history against any form of authority, any true north right and wrong, while being for any form of perversion. We now have millions who are have no skill sets because of the left control of the education system and their willingness to give the unions total control over the school system and their unholy alliance with the Democratic Party at the expense of our kids, most of whom are in the poorest neighborhoods. We have stood by why the party of slavery has created an entire new class of slaves which they control by giving them just enough “entitlements” to keep them voting slaves and brought them local planned parenthood clinics to kill off enough to keep them minorities in our country. Now they are trying to do the same for the illegal immigrants by providing them with these same minimal “entitlements”. However, if one notices, the power in the Democratic Party never wants to see their own kids in these same school systems and they are the new ultra rich class of slave holders.

    America should have ended the Democratic Party right after the civil war as we banned the Nazi Party after WWII. It would have saved us the battles with Jim Crow segregationist, the church burning and lynching KKK arm of the Democratic Party, and the supporters of “entitlement slavery” and abortion mills.

  • Will

    Interesting how many northern European countries, with health care and pensions, are not going broke, and have the highest number of people satisfied with life.

  • doc

    I’d like to expand on Mark’s point about gratitude. Western culture lacks gratitude because most of us are ignorant of history and believe the scholastic claims of primitive utopias ruined by Western, Christian imperialists. When the last couple of generations have been taught that our culture has ruined the entire world, what else, other than self-loathing, should be expected?

    If the children of the West, Americans in particular, knew how uniquely fortunate they are, they might be a little bit grateful to God, their parents, and their country.

  • jcd

    Can faith fuel the future? I donot think so. Because it is nolonger the Faith. It is not just to the relativist that nothing matters but it is also to the modernists that enjoy the new mass. Changes were necessary in order to bring about the new values and the new evolving morality. The negative theology of tradition would have to be eliminated. See the Link below for the proof of this change.
    As the Holy Father said this Christmas Eve: “we must dismount from the high horse of our enlightened reason and find God in humility and simplicity. Christmas is a commercial celebration which hides the mystery of God’s humility.”
    The”new mass” is most often a celebration that in it’s very nature does not bring out the fruits of simplicity and humility as it nolonger includes the “negative theology” that Tradition holds on to because it is the “work of human hands.”

  • TXRed

    Will, many of those countries in the north have resources such as the North Sea oil that help their budgets (Norway, Sweden, Britain). But look a little closer and all is not well, in part because of the large numbers of non-assimilating guest workers and refugees.

    When I was last in Vienna what shocked me was the giant Wahabi mosque. Prince Eugen is probably spinning in his grave at the current inroads Salafism and Islamism have made in the moral vacuum that developed in Europe after WWII. A German Lutheran friend of mine believes that, at least in Germany, the association of church and state before and during WWII, plus the Holocaust and the influence of Communism and post-modernism, all combined to undermine official, state-funded Christianity and shattered the faith that things improve over time. Since things (society, culture, morals) do not get any better and Western Civilization is a facade, why have children? Why invest time and energy into the future, be it the future of your culture here on earth or a future with G-d? Islam makes converts in part because of the energy and the focus of Islamism, especially compared to the state churches of Europe (Church of England; “Evangelisch” [non-Catholic] or Catholic in Germany, et al). The hunger is still there, even if demographics and the Eurocrats seem to be working against Europe’s people.

  • jcd

    The decline of The Church and Tradition will alway produce declines in all areas of society. See more at:

  • Brian A. Cook

    Self-hatred? Isn’t there still that issue of the Holocaust having happened? Isn’t there still that issue of people wanting to get away from Nazism and set things right and build a better future? Isn’t that why progressives call themselves progressives? Never did I see any collective death wish on serious liberal websites. Also, if we don’t have the welfare state, don’t we end up with the likes of Somalia?

  • Brian A. Cook

    I did look at one of the links that you posted–the article on Vienna. It did acknowledge the Holocaust traumatizing Europe, though I still wish it did not interpret angst or a desire to get away from Nazism or slavery as suicidal self-loathing. I would ask that you consider responding to this criticism of Mark Steyn.