family disintegration and religious apostasy

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1 been minor. Instead, Gaudium et spes provided an upbeat and buoyant analysis of the 1960s that caused the Church, in the name of religious liberty, to forgo collaboration with the state altogether. After Vatican II, the severing of concordats with Catholic countries sent a signal at odds with the Gallican tradition Perreau-Saussine says the council rekindled. In fact, the two Vatican Councils may also be seen as sequential rejections of Gallicanism: the rejection of absolutism at the first, the loss of preferment at the second. Since Dignitatis humanae was of American inspiration, its Gallican background has less explanatory power. The confusion of Catholicism and democracy that Tocqueville saw as beneficial had led to an interpretation of the temporal as the home of the spirit, such that the spiritual in its own right was superfluous. This was the difficulty of the prêtres ouvriers: democracy or Marxism, not the liturgy, was the urgent work of God. It was also the nub of the controversy between Le Sillon and Pius X in the early 1900s, alas not discussed in the book. The Thomism Perreau-Saussine blames for feeding reactionary sentiments was also associated with a wildcat democratic interpretation perhaps even more distant from Catholic thought. The council s consecration of liberal humanism (with no condemnation of Marxism) came right at the moment that liberal humanism was disappearing from French philosophy, as Foucault suggested, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. The doctrinal shift Perreau-Saussine describes ought to have taken place at the level of prudence. But since ultramontanism arrayed itself with anathemas, whatever the council said next would be seen as a change of doctrine, with all the accompanying effort that the analysis of doctrine requires. The council s presentation of doctrine in a context it called pastoral only contributed to this confusion. Like the Tocqueville he loved, Emile Perreau-Saussine saw not differently but further than the parties. Such delicacy and concision is usually the culmination of a life of thought. And it was, by fate of circumstance a loss made bittersweet through the gift of this book. Justum deduxit Dominus per vias rectas, et ostendit illi regnum Dei, et dedit illi scientiam sanctorum. family disintegration and religious apostasy Bryce J. Christensen How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization by Mary Eberstadt (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2013) T here is hardly any action, remarks Alexis de Tocqueville, however private it may be, which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their fellows. Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates. 1 Given its importance as the spring of all human action, belief in Deity deserves serious attention from scholars. But unbelief the fading of Bryce J. Christensen is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and author of the novel Winning and of The Portals of Sheol and Other Poems. 75

2 MODERN AGE WINTER 2014 belief in God likewise commands serious intellectual attention, for it is a fading that profoundly affects the entire sweep of human enterprises. Yet as essayist Mary Eberstadt examines the scholarly theories advanced in recent years to explain the decline of faith particularly Christian faith in the Western world, she uncovers inconsistencies and conceptual lapses. After subjecting those inconsistencies and lapses to a withering critique, Eberstadt advances her own persuasive account of how Christian belief has all but disappeared from much of Europe and increasingly from the United States. Drawing on a wealth of sociological data, Eberstadt establishes the intellectual need for an explanation of the decline of Western Christianity. European Christianity, she shows, is now but a shadow of what it was seventy or eighty years ago. Both [Christian] belief and practice, she remarks, are diminishing among Christian populations in almost every European country. What is more, the evidence suggests that in its religious life, America appears... only a few years or decades away from where, say, the Netherlands is right now. Among the massive consequences of this cultural turn against Christianity, Eberstadt stresses the way that a growing number of Western individuals greet the milestones of life with no religious framework at all. It is hardly a wonder, then, that religious stories and music and rituals honed for millennia, studied generation after generation... have become for many modern people of the West as remote as the cave paintings of Lascaux. Nor is it surprising that a growing number of prominent individuals and institutions now evince open hostility to religion especially Christianity. In Europe and increasingly in America, laws that once discriminated in favor of Christians now actively discriminate against them. Yet when Eberstadt turns to the standard academic explanations of the secularization of once-christian lands, she finds strange incongruities and ruptures in logic. She finds fatal flaws, for instance, in the common view that science and the Enlightenment and rationalism caused secularization. How can this theory account for the sociological data indicating that Christian religiosity... has in fact been more concentrated in the upper classes than in the lower, and more likely among the educated than among those who are less so? The relatively high level of Christian commitment among the well-off also renders implausible the view that secularization is simply the result of material progress. Likewise intellectually unsatisfactory is the notion that the world wars caused the turn against Christianity, since historians report a boomlet in religiosity throughout Western Europe just after World War II. What, then, is the explanation of the West s remarkable abandonment of Christianity? The true explanation, Eberstadt argues, inheres in what she infelicitously calls the Family Factor. (Given the character of the academic literature on family life that she has scoured, perhaps it is inevitable that Eberstadt would pick up a few of the stylistic tics of sociology.) Stressing that the family has been an important, indeed irreplaceable, transmission belt for religious belief, Eberstadt details a collapse of the natural family evident in high rates of divorce and single parenthood, in low rates of marriage and marital fertility, and in increasing reliance on institutional family surrogates such as day care and rest homes. Even the biological basis of the natural family is being further subverted or weakened by a number of practices... [including] in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, anonymous sperm donors, indefinite egg freezing, and other experiments. 76

3 Of course, many observers have recognized a linkage between the decline in religious belief and the transformation of the family. But most have regarded the decline in religious conviction as a cause of this transformation of the family. Eberstadt forcefully challenges this way of thinking, asserting that the causal relationship between family and religion specifically, the religion of Christianity is not just a one-way, but actually a two-way street.... Family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right one that also potentially affects any given human being s religious belief and practice. Family and faith, Eberstadt elaborates, are the invisible double helix of society two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another. In defending her position, Eberstadt ponders quite compellingly the way families and especially children... transform people in ways that may incline people toward religious belief. Citing Whittaker Chambers as a prominent example of this transformation, Eberstadt reminds readers of how he experienced a soul-changing epiphany by studying his newborn daughter s ear, an epiphany that ultimately led him to reject atheism and believe in God. No doubt the experience of parenthood leaves some atheists unmoved. (Stalin had three children.) But many parents would fervently endorse Eberstadt s understanding of the sequence of events culminating in birth... as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. Such experiences do indeed cause many parents to explore questions of divinity [more] than they did before they were parents. Eberstadt stands on solid ground in emphasizing the importance of the family in fostering religious belief. It is hardly an accident that Christians name their God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Acts 3:13) by telescoping three generations of scriptural family history. Not just birth but also death or the threat of death can invest family ties with a singular power to pull men and women toward religious questions. As Eberstadt remarks, If the cataclysm of 9/11 drove to church, for weeks on end, millions of Americans who had not contemplated stained glass in years as it did imagine the even deeper impact on ordinary mothers and fathers of a sick child, or the similarly powerful emotions of a devoted spouse on the brink of losing the other. Surely family love gives individuals an extra incentive to contemplate eternity. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too are there fewer inside the nursery as opposed to out of it and the same for the critical care unit. Eberstadt underscores the predeceasing of parents by children as an event or an anxiety that renders us more inclined toward belief in the infinite to a supernatural realm that is somehow higher and less well understood than this one. And she astutely invokes the poetry of Shakespeare s King Lear, of Euripides s Medea, and of Dante s Inferno in making her point. But as the poetry of poets as different as Charles Causley ( Eden Rock ) and e.e. cummings ( if there are any heavens ) makes clear, the death of parents can like the death of a child also prompt thoughts of eternity, so turning us toward the God of Easter hopes. Eberstadt is wise in inviting her readers to ponder great literature when considering how family life can turn men and women toward God. Readers who accept that invitation may continue literary reflections as Eberstadt moves from her discussion of how the family nurtures 77

4 MODERN AGE WINTER 2014 Christian faith to her discussion of how family disintegration fosters apostasy from that faith. With material culled from survey sociology and from recent journalism, Eberstadt amplifies her recognition that in a world where natural families are often weak... the very language of Christian belief, literal and figurative, is destined to be less well understood than it was before. Yet even a brief foray into literature can enlarge Eberstadt s perceptive warning concerning the theological consequences of family ruptures. For instance, when we hear Dick Diver lament at his father s grave, Good-by, my father good-by, all my fathers, we more fully understand why Fitzgerald regarded his character as a spoiled priest. 2 And when we hear John the Savage cry out in Huxley s Brave New World, vainly pleading for a world recognizing both marriage and God, we understand why his cries are an absurdity to the uncomprehending citizens of the utopia/ dystopia that Huxley depicts. For we recognize that these family-less and promiscuous sybarites simply lack the life experiences necessary to understand wedlock or Deity. The urgency of John s cries should indeed come home to twenty-first-century readers who realize that Huxley himself marveled in 1946 that the antifamily and irreligious utopia he had depicted was far closer to reality than he could ever have imagined when he wrote the novel, fifteen years earlier. 3 And without question it is much, much closer to reality now than it was in 1946! Literary works including Huxley s Brave New World, Zamyatin s We, Burgess s The Wanting Seed, and Eliot s Choruses from The Rock can thus help readers fill out the implications of Eberstadt s insightful but inevitably elliptical comments on the passions now driving antifamily and antireligious politics in the West. When, for instance, Eberstadt acknowledges that politics... [now] func- tions for some people as a secular religion in a world where the expanded welfare state... [has become] the dominant protector of the individual... undercutting the power of the family, we may glimpse the adoration of the Benefactor ruling the One State of Zamyatin s novel. And we may hear again Zamyatin s protagonist D-503 yearning, If I had a mother, like the ancients: mine yes, precisely, my mother. To whom I would be... not number D-503, and not a molecule of the One State but a simple human being a piece of herself. Similarly, when Eberstadt briefly chronicles how the normalization and even sanctification of contraception has helped pave the way to the celebration of homosexuality, we may remember how a neo-malthusian state wages war against fertility and evangelizes for homosexuality in Burgess s novel. Eberstadt points to a certain form of liberalism as a rationale for meaningful collective action, a rationale that incorporates in the individual s sacred rights a right to defy traditional Christian teachings about sexual morality. What Eberstadt has in view here is the thinking of those progressive activists Eliot ridicules for dreaming of systems so perfect no one will have to be good. Clearly, our best imaginative literature can help readers move beyond Eberstadt s timely and persuasive analysis of how the West lost God to a deeper understanding of why the West lost God. Yes, the West lost or is losing God by jettisoning marital and family commitments. And Eberstadt merits high praise for clarifying this culturally devastating development. But our best novelists and poets can now help us see just why confused and misguided men and women have turned against both family and God. Our most acute literary artists can illuminate the counterfeit religion that is fast replacing Christianity, a surrogate religion 78

5 fusing the Dream of Self with the Vision of Utopia in a modern mythology that blocks from view both the family and the God who laid marital and family responsibilities on Adam and Eve as He exiled them from the Garden. 1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), Cf. Hugh Kenner, The Promised Land, Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 7.2 (1974): Aldous Huxley, introduction to Brave New World (1946; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1969), xiii. christianity answers Joseph Amato Exposing Myths about Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012) am adding this book to my reference I shelf on culture, politics, philosophy, and religion. I am putting it next to C. S. Lewis s Mere Christianity (1943), which presents the basis of Christian faith underlying denominations; David Bentley Hart s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009), an intellectual antidote to the so-called New Atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris) and their caricatures of Christian culture and Joseph Amato is professor emeritus of history at Southwest State University. His most recent book is Jacob s Well: A Case for Rethinking Family History. religion; and Dale Ahlquist s Common Sense 101: Lessons from G. K. Chesterton (2006), illumining the wit and wisdom of the great writer of a century ago. With a bibliography, a chronology, and both subject and person indexes, Russell s Exposing Myths about Christianity offers educated audiences a rigorous (and truthful) assessment of current and historical Christianity. The book is the latest of his nineteen volumes about Christianity, including a classic five-volume study of evil (his history of the devil). His latest works A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (1997) and Paradise Mislaid (2006) are a joyous, lightfilled history of Christian theology, art, and poetry about heaven. But it was in Inventing the Flat Earth (1991) that Russell explicitly anticipated the spirit of the current book. There he irrefutably debunked the notion that educated people in the Middle Ages believed Earth to be flat, a falsehood fabricated in the 1800s. In the current book Russell again spreads his nets wide and deep. His catch of falsifiers and mythmakers and their untruths is portioned into eight bins: 1) Christianity Is Dying Out ; 2) Christianity Is Destructive ; 3) Christianity Is Stupid ; 4) Jesus and the Bible Have Been Shown to Be False ; 5) Christian Beliefs Have Been Shown to Be Wrong ; 6) Miracles Are Impossible ; 7) Worldviews Can t Be Evaluated ; 8) What s New Is True. Each bin contains different types of misrepresentations about Christianity and refutes them. In section 1, Russell takes on the contention that Christianity is out of date and dying, pointing out that it is growing rapidly everywhere except Europe and North America. He goes on to disprove the accusations that it is superstitious, mythical, magical, and antiscientific. Section 2 rebuts a menagerie of blatant falsehoods, 79

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