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 Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?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The possibility that God has withdrawn, or rather reduced, his grace cannot be rejected out of hand.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.