Where is God in the loss of faith?

The Social Pathologist has made an intriguing point about the secularization of the West.  Explanations of the disappearance of Christianity, whether provided by unbelievers or by believers, operate entirely on the natural plane of sociology and culture.  They give reasons why, for example, changes in social structure or technology might make the Christian God less plausible or attractive.  However, Christians believe that faith is a gift from God, a supernaturally infused virtue.  Purely natural explanations of secularization don’t necessarily assume that divine stimulus to faith is unimportant, but they implicitly assume that it is roughly constant, an assumption with little scriptural or theological warrant.  Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?

In fact, even assuming constant grace from God might seem troubling.  God surely foreknew that the outcome of such unresponsiveness to changing circumstances would be mass apostasy.  He could have saved many more souls via efficacious grace but chooses not to.  However, this dilemma presents nothing new given the doctrine of predestination.

What the Social Pathologist has highlighted is the strangeness of Christian claim, to which we seldom give sufficient thought, that faith is a supernatural gift.  If natural psychological and sociological reasons seem sufficient to explain the presence and loss of faith, what room is left for any supernatural cause?  Again, belief in the Christian God does not seem to be phenomenologically different from belief in Zeus or Odin, so why imagine that the causes of the former are any different from those of the latter?

The usual distinction between God as primary cause and other beings as secondary cause doesn’t work here, because we are dealing with a specifically supernatural effect (although natural agents like missionaries and parents obviously play their own roles distinct from the supernatural component).

The possibility that God has withdrawn, or rather reduced, his grace cannot be rejected out of hand.  We all admit that the possibility to know God through faith was severely restricted before the birth of Christ.  Surely the souls of pre-Christian men are no less valuable than those of post-Christian men.

We are of course not the first Christians to wonder about the mechanics of faith.  Consider Saint Thomas Aquinas, not as an authority, but on the contrary as a theologian with whom we are free to disagree (as opposed to, say, Saint Paul) but who devoted much thought to the subject.  I shall try to summarize what he says in the Summa Theologiae II-II.

Faith applies to what cannot be observed or demonstrated.  Because the arguments for are insufficient to compel the intellect, faith requires an act of free will.  If there was a time in the history of Christendom when faith was automatic and inescapable, it ended before Thomas’ time.  Among modern Christians, it is fashionable to contrast faith as believing propositions about God from faith as trusting in God.  Scholastics had more of a “both/and” attitude.  Following Augustine, Aquinas identifies three aspects of faith:  believing facts about God, trusting God, and believing for the sake of union with God.  The third is arguably the most important.  Thomist ethics is emphatically teleological and erotic.  We are to love God, our final and common good, more than we love ourselves, but God is to be recognized as our ultimate good and happiness and to be desired as such.  (Purely disinterested benevolence is regarded by Thomas in his writing on charity as a defective form of friendship.)  Clearly, faith and hope are tightly coupled for Saint Thomas.  By nature, men can recognize the value of knowing God’s essence, but only by grace do men desire the divinizing union which is the object of hope and faith.  As an act of will ordered to this ultimate good, faith can be meritorious.  It is also an infused virtue; faith acts of the will are elicited by grace.  By grace God is said to “move” the will; I might prefer to say “entice”.  As faith is driven by a recognition of God as good and desirable, charity is to be recognized as the form of faith as it is the form of other virtues.  No article of the Catholic faith is optional to Aquinas, but allowances are to be made for the muddled understanding of children, the uneducated, the weak-minded, and those who lived before the Incarnation.  Before the birth of Jesus, faith demanded only the confident belief that God would someday accomplish the salvation of mankind.  Having reasons to believe doesn’t necessarily diminish the meritoriousness of faith, but a faithful apologist should always be surer of the faith than in his arguments in its favor.

Taking this as a plausible Christian understanding of faith, one notices several things.  First, although it is dangerous to guess at the spirituality of those culturally distant from us, we are entitled to doubt that faith in the Christian God is phenomenologically equivalent to faith in Odin or Zeus.  Interpersonal union with a god is not clearly conceived as the ultimate human good in paganism.  What the Christian hopes for is easily distinct from merely being rewarded by the gods, from joining them and assuming their nature, from impersonal and self-achieved contemplation of a divinity, and from identification with and dissolution into a divine absolute.  Certainly some few pagans, Muslims, and others desired God in a way reminiscent of Christian hope, but we have no reason to doubt–and every reason to hope–that God was active in these men and women in some extraordinary way.

Second, the will is of paramount importance.  Men most often reject the faith not because they are convinced by arguments against it but because they don’t want it to be true.  Most unbelievers just don’t want what God is offering.  This is the great insight of Bruce Charlton’s Romantic Christianity, and it was also stated by Pascal in planning out his apologetic work.

The collapse of Christianity has happened mostly in the last half century.  I don’t think anyone would claim that any notable new intellectual developments on the question of God’s existence have happened during this time.  What has happened is the mass acceptance of the secular worldview (a combination of liberal tolerance and Leftist intolerance) as the more attractive vision.  A collapse in the desire to believe is what we would expect from a withdrawal of God’s grace, but also from a failure of that grace to compensate for changing cultural circumstances.  What has happened must be in accord with God’s permissive will, and so we are confronted anew with the mystery of predestination at the heart of Christianity.

17 thoughts on “Where is God in the loss of faith?

  1. Pingback: Where is God in the loss of faith? | Reaction Times

  2. Was there faith before Christianity? The Christian definition of faith is subtle and tenuous and likely differs from previous spiritual dispositions. Thus from Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” If I wrote these words on the blackboard and asked college students to make sense of them, it would be a futile exercise. Perhaps the answer to the question why so many have lapsed from faith is that what used to be Christendom has so stupefied itself, made itself so spiritually dense because so materially oriented, that the possibility of its grasping something so subtle and tenuous has disappeared. Or, to borrow an argument of Eric Voegelin, maybe, precisely because faith is so subtle and tenuous, it puts a paradoxically heavy demand on the believer — and again many modern people cannot sustain that demand. I would say that there was belief in Zeus and Odin, but not faith, as Hebrews, 1 through 3, define faith.

    • Well yes, right there in Hebrews 11 it talks about many great Old Testament deeds done through faith. So yes there was faith before Christianity.

      My understanding is that faith is the active sense of belief like charity is the active sense of love, although I may be wrong, I don’t think faith, hope, and charity are some esoteric, stretching concepts by things that children are capable of having and understanding,

      The spiritual war is alive and real and happens every generation. Individuals constantly and daily choosing up or down as it were. There is no substitute for faith, hope, and charity. Better systems, better rule following, more cunning arguments, manipulation of honor and shame socially, all the tinkling brass of 1 Cor. 13 won’t avail us.

      We would be less confused if we looked at the history books of the OT. There was continual oscillation between fidelity and infidelity and partial fidelity. There is no mystery. Humans choose based on intuitive knowledge at the most basic level. Free will means we can choose “life” or “death” spiritually. To be the kind of man who loves and trusts God or the kind of man who doesn’t.

  3. The disappearance of Christianity in the secular West can most reasonably be explained by the total rejection of objective Supremacy from “far left” to “hard right.” All of the secular West is anti-Perfection. Which is to say anti-Perfect Man. Which is to say that all of the secular West is anti-Christ.
    And of course, barely a single Catholic will assert the Supremacy of Christ or the Supremacy inherit to believing in the Supremacy of Christ.

  4. I just attempted to send a long and closely reasoned comment, but it seems that this was destined to disappear when my antiquated browser failed to establish a connection with the O. server. I don’t have time to reconstruct what I wrote, and so will simply say that humanity may resemble this old laptop that used to work far better than it does now. Or perhaps it resembles me, who used to be far better about keeping my software up to date. Should it really surprise us if God has said “to hell with them”?

  5. JMSmith,

    “Should it really surprise us if God has said “to hell with them”?“

    I think about this quite a bit. I wonder if we are also living in the days of Noah, only that the rains are coming down a bit more slowly so it’s harder to see.

    • Philistine that I am, I did not know about the sword after which you named your blog. The inspiration for Narsil? Well, we’re in need of Andúril right about now. Someone needs to start digging around in the Pyrénées.

  6. I’ve made this argument elsewhere on the Orthosphere, but I suppose it is apt here, too. God is the Eternal One, so in him there is no time or sequence (or any other sort of composition); so, no before or after. So he doesn’t know what we do before we do it, nor does he know it after we do it and only on the condition that we have in fact done it. If the former, we could not do otherwise than we do, and so could not truly act, and so could not – ontologically could not – have faith – or unbelief (or any other act of thought, word, or deed). We would not be free to do anything of our own will, and so we could not act; could not be. We would not be created. We are, in fact; ergo etc. If the latter, then God would be subject to his creatures, and not truly God. But God is who he is by definition, and eternally; ergo etc.

    So, predestination is how Omniscience appears to operate under the aspect of time. But time is derivative of eternity, and transpires entirely therein; is a procedure of eternity; so that the aspect of time is not absolute, but rather ineluctably relative. The aspect of eternity is absolute. Sub specie aeternitatis, our acts are not known before they happen, nor therefore are they determined before they happen; on the contrary: because there is in eternity no before or after, all our acts are known always at once, and there is in eternity no “before” in which they might have been determined.

    On divine Simplicity, the grace by which we are given faith is the same grace by which we are given being and freedom – including the freedom to choose unbelief. These all come along with our existence as a package deal.

    Thus faith is the natural state of man, and unbelief a defect of his being. Our confidence in the orderliness and intelligibility of things is the basic form of this faith. The Christian revelation is that Christ is himself the order and intelligence of things, by which and in whom they live, move, and have their being. But all cultures have anticipated this revelation, and hoped for it – indeed longed for it – because there is no way to conduct a human life, or therefore a human culture, other than on the basis of the supposition that the world is orderly and intelligible. Thus all cultures are in part, and somehow or other, protoevangelioi. For, as all of them hang together at least for a time, so each of them itself expresses at least a portion of the orderliness and intelligibility of things; a portion of truth.

    Some do so better than others, of course. Failure is a real option, after all.

    The possibility of our free defection from our true nature, and thus from the fullness of our proper being, is of course also given along with our being, and thus with our nature, as logically implicit therein. Again on divine Simplicity, grace must be constantly given; God never wavers in his love for us and faith in us, because he never changes, because he is Eternal; only creatures wax or wane in faith, sanity, health, being. They do so over the course of their lives; so likewise do their societies. This is as much as to say that there is really a history; that history is of real events, which really matter; that, therefore, both damnation and salvation are real options for us, and for our societies.

    So, yes, God allows this apostate age, as he allows all faithlessness; and as he allowed the Satan to oppress Job. There is no other way to get a Job, or for that matter an Adam, than to allow him to be subject to temptation, and free to fall. Nor is there any other way to get an angel, than to make him likewise free, so that he might decide for his own reasons – his own “reasons” – that he is interested to test or corrupt Adam and Job – and Christendom.

    We can expect that over the course of her career, Christendom will suffer many such privations as were visited upon Job, and indeed even upon Jesus. We can expect the same eventual outcomes they each achieved.

    • Thus, Perfection prevails Eternally…
      Such that “free will” is not deviation, rather, perfecting< participation per faithful co-creation.

  7. This post reminded me of John of St. Thomas’s account of the impenitence of the angels. Starting from the description of Judas in John 13:30 “Immediately he went out: and it was night”, JOST says that just as night can be understood in two ways so can impenitence or sin: in one sense night is the sun dropping beneath the horizon and in another sense it is the earth imposing itself between the sun and some portion of land. The sun dropping away is God removing his grace; the imposition of the earth is the impenitence of the will.

    Obviously the analogy has to drop the irrational or mechanical character of the relation between sun and earth in describing the interconnection between the divine and human will, but it paints an interesting picture about the relation between man turning his back to God and vice versa. This might be the sort of “secularization theory” more common to Scripture, the basic theses of which might be, inter alia:

    1.) In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21: 25)
    2.) Where sin abounds, grace did more abound (Rm, 5:25)
    3.) In those days there appeared in Israel transgressors of the law who seduced many, saying: “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us. (Mac. 1:11)”
    4.) As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many should be kept alive, as they are today (Gn. 50:20)

  8. Where is Isaiah 45:7 Good/Evil Forbidden Admixture Composite God during loss of faith?

    One possible answer: Playing games of chance with His Side-Kick Parthenogenic Offspring Satan (the Job story nut does not fall far from the tree).

    Satan he being the invisible/visible spirit composed animal-hooved-horned-etc-chimera-man personage in form (and in Unity with the Oneness of God – there is no place where God is NOT – Acts 17:28).

    They Both having power of mind over matter, time, space, causality, pre-determinism and retro-causality, Compete in Gambling on the faith-loser Outcome Next Step, They bet on what the faith-loser will choose next. And decide when/where to potentially bury the individual faith loser/or loser city alive in volcanic ashes. Or 9/11 dust. While they drink scotch and smoke cigars.


    Knowing this, some may have an option of accepting or loving it (their fate – amor fati):

    “We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.”

    Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life

    Or not.

  9. Additive to my prior cynical fait accompli comment, and I thank the author for catalyzing my thought with the question, I’ll create version 2 of the same question. That is, “Where is GOOD (not GOD) in the loss of faith?” Isaiah 45:7 GOD, in my prior example is not GOOD. He is a contaminated cross-breed Demiurge evolved from prior Platonism. GOD is missing his 2nd “O” chromosome. He has been transfected/commingled with EVIL.

    Further, Spengler is in aspirational error in the one quote because he has given up, abandoned hope.

    HOPE IN GOOD EXISTS AS A PERFECT IDEA/FORM. Therefore, it is aspirationally real.

    My where is Good in the loss of faith? version 2 answer: PERFECT GOOD AWAITS THE FAITH-LOSERS ASKING, SEEKING AND KNOCKING AT THE DOOR OF IT, AND DOING OF IT (GOOD). Through this upstream collaborative gauntlet struggle, the seeker will find it.

    Romans 2:7 “to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life”

    This also assumes we deserve our current fate in space/time – we deserve to be here, born against our will, and must participate in working our way out.

  10. >Most unbelievers just don’t want what God is offering.

    Or rather what they think God is offering, what other people tell them God is offering, or what they think other people mean when they talk about what God is offering. Look, in Pascal’s times people have received good religious education, and thus to turn atheist was to reject something people understood fairly accurately. But today? We either receive no such thing or a very distorted one.

    For example, as I have received none, at 16 I have read the NT without any explanation or help at all. And that turned out to be a bad idea.

    Christianity seems to have a wide range in world-accepting and world-rejecting behaviors. There is on one hand the world-accepting, red-blooded, “Germanized” version, that emphasizes that on the seventh day the Lord said the world is GOOD, implying how society worked through history, and your manly instincts of victory and conquest are good, and although you should aim at the first things, you will get through them these second things as well.

    Then on the other hand Chistianity has a world-rejecting element, the attitude of the hermit or monk, and more importantly reading the NT, reading Paul’s epistles without any instruction or explanation came across to me that they reject the world because they are weak, and they celebrate weakness. A bunch of losers who do not want to win. So at 16 I 100% bought into Nietzsche’s view that Christianity is slave morality and not suitable for real men who want to make life their b*tch.

    Of course at 42 my view is different. I didn’t become such a big winner at life and strangely I don’t even want to anymore, moderate successes are enough, I think m y 16 years old self was too hot-headed. And I do see a lot of Christians both presently and in history, who are not world-rejecting, who are strong, who are winners.

    But I still have some residual cold feet that keeps me away. I admit my reading of the NT was uninstructed and that is bad, that was the classic Protestant mistake, and the right thing is to get a proper explanation. Still, can one interpret the NT, Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s epistles as anything but world-rejecting and weakness-celebrating? Maybe the not-world-rejecting, winner-mentality Christians are just living in compartmentalized cognitive dissonance.

    So you see, I don’t know what God is offering. Because probably what Charlemagne thought about what God is offering is different from what probably Paul taught about what God is offering. I would want the first but not the second.

    • @Dividualist

      Likewise I think you should start with the Old Testament. It lays the groundwork for the New Testament.

      The NT won’t make sense as it should without the Old Testament.

    • @Dividualist
      Only by accepting Jesus as King as the Messiah sent into the world who rose from the dead and asking for the holy spirit in prayer as well as the gift of faith. Does scripture truly open up.


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