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The West: God’s Graveyard?

In what can be argued as Kierkegaard gone wrong, the eminence of the individual is slowly becoming the hallmark of Western secularization.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard—who has been re-popularized throughout his Scandanavian homeland for his 200th birthday last May—hailed from Copenhagen. Denmark, a part of the Scandanavian “ground zero of secularization,” has fallen far from mere “Christendom”—the problem du jour of 1850s Denmark, when Kierkegaard wrote. Mary Eberstadt‘s latest book, How the West Really Lost God, presents a theory of Western secularization that could explain why only 10 percent of Danes and Swedes believe in hell, and why Kierkegaard’s Denmark is now one of the “least religious nations on earth.”

Eberstadt’s thesis: That the death of God can possibly be traced to the decline of the family in Western culture over the past two centuries. The “Family Focus,” as she calls it, is rooted in the concern that society lacks the virtues of the family, which lack comes inevitably with solipsistic consequences, the reverberations of which can be felt demographically, economically, and philosophically. We are, put simply, losing our children. Jonathan Last’s recent book—What to Expect When No One’s Expecting—which illustrates the demographic decline of children around the world, is a statistical testament to Eberstadt’s thesis. God is no longer present at the center of human activity. Not even Aphrodite or Venus, the mythological goddesses of Sex and Love, can be seen as inheriting the pride of place vacated through God’s displacement from the center of human actions. It is the individual, the atom of society, who is the centerpiece of civilization after the death of God is proclaimed. We have missed the forest of the family for the singular tree of the individual.

Even his last name is an appropriate icon of the decline of the West. Kierkegaard, Danish for “graveyard,” is an appropriate symbol of the Scandanavian state of religious affairs. Countries like Denmark, France, and Belgium stand today as graveyards of the Christian faith. When cathedrals are not desecrated and turned into fruit markets, concert halls, and bars, they serve as beautiful gravestones of formerly Catholic nations. Mirroring the attitude toward Christianity itself, the approach to these once-sacred places of worship has shifted to an attitude of blasé and quaint appreciation for the cultural artifacts of the West. Some attitudes are mocking and even downright offensive. Last year’s example of a Belgium Archbishop doused with water by topless activists at a conference is one of the most vulgar reactions to Catholicism in recent history. The Archbishop responded in prayer amid chaos.

But how many are Catholic in anything but name only? Eberstadt examines the present gap between profession of the Catholic faith and its practice; talk to any so-called practicing Catholic at a party for a half hour, and see how markedly different she is from the average citizen. Church on the major holidays (affectionately referred to as C & E Catholics), an adherence to the “golden rule,” and a heavy emphasis on “I don’t personally believe in X, but…” (insert divisive issue) are hallmarks of the separation between Church and faith. As Eberstadt pointedly asks in her book, “if large numbers of ‘Catholics’ in the West today are disregarding teachings as freighted with seriousness as these, what are they not disregarding?” To put matters bluntly, “when one dispenses with stereotypes and looks at the actual numbers, ‘Catholic’ Italy does not appear terribly different from the rest of the god-forsaken Continent,” Eberstadt writes. Even in the landscape of our own nation under God, a land fertile for the crops of grassroots evangelical faith and the blossoming mega-church, the essence of Christianity is often lost.

According to Eberstadt, even “mainline” churches in the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Lutheran tradition are in “dire straits.” Religions are falling to the crashing waves of culture that are crumbling the rock of tradition: Teachings on marriage, abortion, contraception, and euthanasia are influenced by the secular culture. A look at dating practice provides a great insight of contemporary culture in America and Europe: While some young women and men, desperate to find a “good one,” seek out pious men on Sunday mass, the Belgium women I’ve met wouldn’t dare to look for a man in church—no one is there. “Traditional American Protestantism appears largely over.” As Eberstadt points out, many elite colleges and universities host some form of “Sex Week,” allow a satanic black mass at Harvard, and even approve an S&M club on campus as a registered student organization. In this era, God has become more offensive in the public square than sex.

The book’s statistical explanation of why Scandanavia has some of the “least religious nations on earth” was evidenced in Belgium last year when an Archbishop was terrorized by radical feminists in defiance of Catholicism’s social teachings. The issues of feminist extremism from healthcare to gender equality stem from a culture consistently seeking to distance itself from the community of tradition, trading truth for trendiness. This selective intolerance is not an attitude unique to secular progressives. The attitude against moral imposition even within the church—“I personally think X is wrong, but who am I to judge others”—is the hallmark attitude of lukewarm Christians today, which perhaps explains why so many Catholics and Protestants don’t appear statistically unique in their birth rates—they are virtually indistinguishable from the contraceptive culture. Perhaps the most poisonous attitude among Christians in the public square is that of moral relativism in the sexual sphere: “I personally believe that married couples ought to never sterilize their marital sex acts, but who am I to judge if others elect to do so?” In Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Eberstadt’s many essays reflect on the side effects of the pill in our culture. Both Last and Eberstadt’s theses illustrate statistically and philosophically my own view that contraception is the bane of Western civilization.

“Eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?” asked Pope John Paul II to the French people. France has done what most nominal Catholics have done with their baptism: left it in the sanctuary, for a visit once in a while on a Sunday. The faith, for most people, is not something deeply considered. It is an hour begrudgingly given up on a Sunday, rather than an issue of life and death, a Kierkegaardian Either/Or choice of the aesthetic or the ethico-religious that determines salvation or damnation. Sanctity is a matter of taste. A man named Jesus is a character in a storybook that one learns about in childhood. The book is soon forgotten, gathering dust on a library shelf. It isn’t picked up and carried in one’s life like the cross on the way to Cavalry. It has become a mere splinter in the lives of Christians, subtle yet occasionally noticeable and worthy of attention. Rarely is Christianity is fully examined in light of the larger picture of human history.

What can transform even the most “ordinary, atomized human pleasure-seeking or the calculating, coldly rational decision-making homo economicus” is the act of procreation itself: A couple choosing to beget life. Having children is the most radically other-centering activity, the most selfless and countercultural decision a couple can make. According to Eberstadt’s thesis, conjugal love can save Christianity from its impending demise. For the Family Factor as an explanation for the secularization of the West explains better than all going theories the correlation between the individual’s relationship with others, the state, and himself. “Having children,” Eberstadt writes, “is experienced by most as a transcendental fact like no other.” It is the child that draws the person into a community with others, leads one away from an atomistic view of society, into a more altruistic orientation toward the world, and, quite simply, causes men and women to wake up early on a Sunday to worship God. “Participating in creation,” Eberstadt writes, “inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more open to the possibility of something greater than themselves.” Perhaps the general delay and decrease of this participation impacts men and women in their openness to God’s plan for the family.

Fortunately, Eberstadt writes, “religion’s obituary is no more assured than that of the family” because the individualist-secular model is economically, socially, and culturally unsustainable. All hope is not lost, “if only because the economics of subsidizing such decline have become untenable.” But perhaps the rational arguments made from economic failure and statistical worry won’t be enough for the radical uprooting of centuries-old attitudes about the relationship between family and state that need changing. Perhaps what we need is a change of heart: “Bit by bit, given changing minds, the incentives toward maintaining a family network might come to trump some of the disincentives that the affluent society inadvertently puts in the way of such efforts.”

The recent feast day of Blessed Karl of Austria, the model of a married man of God whose wedding day served as the centerpiece in my last essay on marriage, should serve as a reminder of what’s at stake for our culture. Given our crisis of social conscience from abortion to divorce, perhaps the West is not a graveyard of God as much as it’s a graveyard of the family. Eberstadt’s thesis is that the loss of the family is the primary catalyst in God’s death. In the words of Saint Pope John Paul II, we have an “important moral and cultural contribution of service to make to the life of your country.” He asks us to reflect our calling “to sanctify the world and to transform it—a transformation that begins with the family, which Eberstadt describes as the symphony though which we hear God’s voice.

 

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  • RaymondNicholas

    If only points like these were made in the interim report of the Synod and not the others…

  • Charles

    Excellent and on point: Brian Cummings wrote a fairly recent book on individualism as the defining feature of modernity (Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, and Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture). It is indeed not people’s opposition to religion that fuels the decline in N. Europe; rather, it is their apathy toward religion, symptom of the centrality of the individual where God is optional and personal pursuits are primary. . .

  • Thanks, this piece is quite perceptive, and points to the only way out… We urban intellectuals who dissect culture or lack thereof, were often derisive of the “family values” theme of Sunbelt conservatism a few years ago, replacing it with a religion-neutral concept of Randianism embodied by Tea Party. Today this is simply adjunct to and co-opted by the anti-life, production-oriented elite. That is why we are here, looking for the way back.

    The way back is through the family values priority. Whose lives are enriched the most when we embrace pro-life? That’s right, it is women, the same people who had been called away from their own lives by the false promises of material gain.

  • Eberstadt thesis (I surmise) is that having children is a necessary step for cultural Christians to return to a deeply rooted Christianity. But I suppose she does not also consider it sufficient.

    I, too, thought that for many of my friends marriage and children would deepen their faith and commitment to the Church, but intellectual commitments to many of the tenets of liberalism have lead to a chimera. On the one hand you do see a recommitment to the cultural Christian affinities of faith and its ceremonies. On the other hand, most of the commitments to secular tenets have been left vastly unaffected. The political corollary is the thesis that once women have children they are more likely to vote R instead of D. Quite frankly, I’m not sure that reality lives anywhere but on the spreadsheet of political operatives.
    More concretely, in Latin America, we have seen this cycle of cultural Christian to family repeated for generations and the local churches continue to see aging populations and declining attendance. Yes, there is a commitment to Church, but it often takes a very egotistical approach of demanding the church serve the family in their needs of schooling and fostering cultural heritage (for upper class families in Latin America, the Quincieñiera Party is often preceded by a Mass, but given how the teens are dressed, you’d hardly tell they thought it important…). What I see emerging is a third alternative: a cultural christianity lead with bolder colors, but ultimately not impacting the lives of those who adhere to it. Their consciences—malformed from the beginning—simply don’t prick them enough to deeply suffuse their lives and the lives of their children with the living faith.

    • Frankly, I don’t think the author is trying to make gains for the Church by reminding women of their reproductive potential, against the backdrop of other false promises especially those of our fallen economy. I simply think it is part of a sincere effort to bring people’s lives and the world, closer to the state that God wished for us, one that adheres to the Word of our Lord.

  • There’s a kind of problem with this genre of essay. It may be the case that, in fact, raising kids is more likely to make you think that there is a God. People I know who have kids seem ready to look at them and say “It seems something great beyond myself must have produced my kids,” in a kind of leap. But it doesn’t seem like raising kids is actual evidence for a God–it just makes people like to believe in Him.

    Or, to put it more bluntly, Christianity’s decline is surely far more influenced by the decline of what are perceived as any actual pieces of evidence for Christianity–by the decline of Christianity’s intellectual prestige. I find it mildly ironic that this essay mentions Kierkegaard, but doesn’t see fit to put any blame on his kind of thinking: given that (my understanding) of his philosophy is basically that “You’ll just have to make a leap one way or the other in the absence of any conclusive evidence one way or another.” And given this or something like this is the most common defence Christians offer (and I’ve asked Catholics and Christians about why to believe, and this is an *extremely* common defence), then surely it is easy to disrespect Christianity.

    If people cease believing a thing, maybe the problem isn’t with their way of life. Maybe the problem is with lack of evidence, or at least a lack of perceived evidence.

    • If you need evidence of God look at everything around you, or yourself in the mirror. There is no logic that can support that our world is a random fluctuation. God doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody, but it is appropriate to thank Him for your life. This is the gift you have, and He wants you to help pass it on.

      Jesus is Son of God who showed us the way to live in this world. Cleave to His word, that is the joy in itself, regardless of what you may hope to get in return.

      • Thomas Storck

        Well, “Interested in Truth” does have a point in that too many Catholics – not to mention Protestants (not “Christians”) haven’t the faintest idea how to defend their faith. You’ll remember that St. Peter (I Peter 3:15) tells us to be able to offer a
        logos – a reason – for the hope that is in us. Vatican I, moreover, teaches authoritatively that God’s existence can be demonstrated by natural reason. It used to be the boast of us Catholics that we could offer such a reasonable justification for our faith. I realize that many unbelievers aren’t interested in such arguments or profess not to understand them, but it’s important that Catholics be able to offer them so it doesn’t appear that we’re basically irrational.

        • Well, thank you Dr. Storck, and today it is a wonderful thing that I am able to offer your own online publications as reference, for those who thirst for rational proof! So yes, Mr./Ms. Interested… Please consider the volumes of spiritual and historical narratives at http://www.thomasstorck.org !

          At the same time it seems conflicted and defensive for me personally, to offer calm logic, while simultaneously asking people to open their hearts to the love of God through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, so much of what we are countering are products of reason and utility. The technocratic and meritocratic ways are stifling the human spirit and dividing and shackling us in so many ways. So I prefer to fight with simple right and wrong, and with basic emotion.

          • Thomas Storck

            “The technocratic and meritocratic ways are stifling the human spirit and dividing and shackling us in so many ways.”

            Ah, yes, but that’s because modern man, for the most part, identifies reason

            with a reductive scientism. But there is a better way, exemplified by the pre-Cartesian tradition of rationality.

            BTW, thanks for the tip toward my writings.

          • You’re welcome. As for the extreme scientism, there seems to be a new disrepute even among social scientists, about Darwinism elevated from general observations to laws, and then straight over to social sphere. Of course the agenda is usually to reshape man in a secular way, anyway, but it is also to combat imperialism, mass consumption and waste, broken local communities, even eugenics and biological engineering. So we have the Greens and Marxists and Anarchists in academia who are afraid to think in terms of our Lord, but in many cases they are now doing His work!

            Cheers!

  • Charles Russell

    Wow, Samantha, you present an extremely complex issue for us to digest! This is no small task and you make excellent points.

    I fear, however, that, while I detect a veiled critique of the economization of all human life, you have embraced Eberstadt’s economic model by suggesting that Christianity is moving toward demise simply because of secularization and declining numbers, specifically relating to the family. Eberstadt’s thesis that, “conjugal love can save Christianity” is, frankly, asinine. We have but one Savior, and while children can and should draw man out of himself and toward an other-cemteredness, it is only that one Savior who draws man into the love of God. What is more, the Scriptures clearly state that the gates of hell shall not prevail. Therefore, whatever the socio-politico-cultural appearances, we needn’t be alarmist and be seized by fear of truth passing away. God’s “death” is the reason the family in partial eclipse, and the partial eclipse of the family is the reason for God’s “death.”

    With regard to the apostasy of Europe, is it possible that, in conjunction with the issues you have mentioned, the apostasy is result of manifold failures on the part of Christians to present the one true faith in all it’s humanity? The failure to live the life that makes one more fully alive is a turn off. Perhaps some disregard truth, favoring the fleeting pleasures of the ethereal “now” because the faithful have used the truth as a bludgeon instead of a bridge. Is it possible? I think so. What motivation would they have then to approach the Throne of God for instruction on how to be in community? What motivation is there to seek their fulfillment as Christians? After all, Christianity is purifying what was from the beginning rather than simply providing some completely new way of being. So, perhaps the death of God is not tied completely to the collapse of the family.

    Having said that, Eberstadt presents a pseudo-Hobbesian notion that the family is merely a social contract, and by doing away with it, we are unraveling the fabric of society. Notwithstanding that the family is the most foundational element of society, the family spontaneously springs from human nature, and thus will not pass away, at least not forever. Thus, though man might be turned in on himself in many ways, he is by nature social. Man seeks after his fulfillment which cannot be found entirely in apart from his sociality. Therefore, though as a race we will suffer greatly for our defection from the family, and for a long time to come, it will not be forever.

    In spite of my critique, being truthful and truth-seeking we work against cultural tides that undermine full human flourishing: that’s exactly what Schroeder is doing here.