How the West Really Lost God:

A New Theory of Secularization by Mary Eberstadt

Eberstadt's basic argument is that religious decline doesn't just lead to family decline, but rather in some ways also causes it. While I realize this is not primarily a theological treatise, it does address religious issues and therefore has an underlying theological premise of sorts.  In that regard, I must say that some of the argumentation raises theological red flags in suggesting that "at least some of the time family drives faith" [page 103].

Of course, as Lutherans we understand that what drives faith is Word and Sacrament, not whether one procreates or experiences "family" in a positive sense. However, I can still agree with the main direction of the underlying theological argument. The primary effective point here is not that having kids makes one have faith, but rather that NOT having kids can tend to lead to a loss of faith.

THAT is something I can agree with.  Why? "We also reject and condemn the dogma that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost are not lost by willful sin, but that the saints and elect retain the Holy Ghost even though they fall into adultery and other sins and persist therein." [FC Ep Good Works ¶19]

Augustine, Luther, and countless others warn us that contraceptive sex is "worse than adultery".  Among other differences, adultery can be a sin that one stumbles into in a moment of passion. Successfully separating sex from procreation, on the other hand, requires constant planning and persistence.

There's a big difference between the sins we stumble into and the sins we live in. One doesn't stumble into successful birth control practices. One must work at it quite diligently - "living in it" - and this includes NFP. And, as the Epitome makes clear, faith and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost are lost by such willful, persistent sin.

So, the theory that contraception has contributed to a loss of faith is quite consistent with good theology. Let me quote the author making the point of her thesis question on page 113:

"...why is it not more fitting with the facts to suppose that the dramatic collapse of fertility, used again as just one proxy for the state of the family (because it is the easiest to measure), has been helping to drive the collapse in religiosity, rather than just vise versa? That not having babies any more made people less likely to bother about - or hear, depending on your point of view - God?"

Indeed, it makes a great deal of sense.  Unfortunately, Eberstadt also believes this can work in the opposite direction (toward creating faith).  This may make logical sense when it comes to human reason.  However, I would contend that this theory is contrary to a monergistic Lutheran understanding of conversion.

One of the primary reasons she gives as to why it would be reasonable to believe family can help bring about faith is that the analogies, symbols, and images children and family provide are important adjuncts to the Word, helping the simple-minded to understand, for instance, the love of a heavenly Father. Instead, I think it is more proper to see the love of God as a principle analogy by which people come to properly understand marriage and family - in fact, the only way one can properly understand marriage and family. Without having received the gift of faith through the Word, one cannot understand the love that only faith can see. The fact is, the gift of faith comes without "understanding" in the cognitive sense that I think she is postulating here.

Faith is given in the simple words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Does a baby “understand” or “comprehend” these words? Is it a valid baptism if the infant does not yet speak the language the words are being spoken in? Is it a valid baptism if it is done by a Roman Catholic priest in Latin? You know the answers to these questions. The Word, in and with the water, does great things. It does seemingly impossible things. The child does not need a picture book or analogy in order to receive faith from the Word in baptism. Neither do the simple-minded who may not have intact loving families need things outside of the Word.

My point is that we may say that the symbol of the family can and does serve the Word by helping to explain the Word, aiding in ongoing catechesis, but we cannot look at it as creating or sustaining faith. That job is something we reserve as belonging to the Word and Sacraments exclusively.  Christianity initially spread through the conversion of people living in the Roman Empire at a time when it could be argued that the family had disintegrated worse than it has yet in the Western world today.  So, I would argue that the decline of the family does not limit the power of the Holy Spirit to create faith when and where He wills to grow the church even in the face of this modern secularization of Western Civilization.

That said, there is yet another way to frame the arguments of this book in such a way that they do not do violence to proper theology.  Eberstadt defines and explains religious decline, secularization, and even "Christianity" much more broadly than a Lutheran theological discussion allows one to.  In what I wrote above I have not acknowledged the broader license Eberstadt claims as a sociologist in discussing this. However, I do think my theological arguments are important, as Eberstadt does not approach this without making theological arguments of her own, which is precisely what I have taken issue with above.  Having made my theological point, I will now admit the broader, nontheological, sociological truth of Eberstadt's thesis.

It does appear plausible that having children and intact families lends itself well to people thinking more "religiously."  In this regard we can even acknowledge the connection between religion and fertility among non-Christians (e.g. Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, etc.).  Even within our own churches it appears that when people begin to have children, they tend to come to church more.  However, we must admit that there are plenty of hypocrites in every church and, indeed, in every religion.  The sociological point here is not a theological one of whether the "religious" are actually "true believers".  It is simply an observable fact that people of many faiths tend to pay more attention to their given religiosity if they have an intact family.  Having children itself is a transcendent, or even "religious" experience.

There are many other aspects to Eberstadt's sociological arguments that are worth considering.  The broader point that a society that values a "Christian" identity of sorts in regard to its laws, its institutions, its culture, etc., tends to be a society that benefits all its members, including those who do not believe.  This is the broader negative effect of "secularlization" with which Eberstadt is primarily concerned in this book.  The West has "lost God" and Eberstadt make a strong case that family decline may, in fact, be contributing to the ongoing secularization of our society rather than family decline simply being a result of secularization.

Having highlighted the theological issues I wrestled with in reading this book can thus be recognized ahead of time, such that if and when you read this book you can do so without the distraction these theological considerations tended to cause me.  It is worth the read, though even she admits it is speculative exercise and not a book that seeks to provide definitive answers.  Her goal was to offer a unique perspective on secularization that may help explain some of the unanswered questions found in other perspectives.  I think she does that well.

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