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.