I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Birth, Family, and the sensus divinitatis

The following is a long quote on families and religious inclinations from Hoover Institution. The general line of thought being that the experience of birth and family draws human beings into a transcendental frame of mind.

The conventional causal chain runs something like this. One by one, and thanks mostly to the Enlightenment, a few brave souls in Europe came to recognize the charlatanry of the continent’s historic Jewish and Christian faiths. As they did, it became clear that more and more people would eventually come to their point of view — that such a transformation is ultimately inevitable and, once widespread enough, would usher in a new and better era of history. (“There never was a greater event — and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”)

To begin sketching an explanation of religious belief complementary to this one, one must answer this question: What could it be about the experience of the natural family that might make an individual more disposed toward religion than he is without it? Though merely a preliminary attempt at an answer, several lines of explanation suggest themselves.

First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree....

Thus does a complementary religious anthropology begin to emerge, grounded on the primal fact that the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced. And it’s not as if birth is the only familial experience that has this transcendental effect. So do other common family events that defy ordinary, atomized human pleasure-seeking, including, say, the selfless care of an ailing family member, the financial sacrifices made for those whose adulthood one may never live to see, even the incredible human feat of staying married for a very long time. Further, in binding those alive to relatives both past and yet to come, family is literally death-defying — another feature that might make it easier for those living in families to make related transcendental leaps of the religious variety. Third, families and especially children also transform people in other ways — and not just by clipping adult wings, turning the former midnight rover into a man in slippers watching O’Reilly at 8 pm, but also in what may be the deepest way of all. All men and women fear death; but only mothers and fathers, and perhaps some husbands and wives, can generally be counted upon to fear another’s death more than their own. To put the point another way, if 9/11 drove to church for weeks on end millions of Americans who had not darkened that doorstep in years — as it did — imagine the even deeper impact on ordinary mothers and fathers of a sick child or the similarly powerful desire of a devoted spouse on the brink of losing the other. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too would there appear to be few in the nursery or critical care unit, at least most of the time.

In sum, because it treats belief as an atomistic decision taken piecemeal by individuals rather than a holistic response to family life, Nietzsche’s madman and his offspring, secularization theory, appear to present an incomplete version of how some considerable portion of human beings actually come to think and behave about things religious — not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather, and the rest.
[All bolding is mine]

I tie this in with our recent discussions on the sensus divinitatis (SD for short), the idea that human beings have the capacity to experience a sense of God through their interaction in the world and with the creation. Typically I think of SD in terms of experiencing awe in viewing a grand scene of nature. Or a sense of accountability to a higher power when we do something wrong. I had not thought about the experience of family and birth as something that might trigger SD, but the more I think about it the more it seems to fit the God-sense that human beings seem to posses.


Jason Hesiak said...

To note a couple things:

"All men and women fear death; but only mothers and fathers, and perhaps some husbands and wives, can generally be counted upon to fear another’s death more than their own." That's really freakin' cool.

Secondly...your surprise here reminds me of something else. Recenly I was discussing with a couple of married friends of mine (to each other) their sex life (eerrr...their sex problems...which involve a heck of a lot more than sexual issues/problems, of course). No, the conversation was not very graphic (that wasn't the point). Anwyay, to the point. My male friend was saying that he in his head separates the sex from the friendship.

That was a bit perplexing to me, since the sex is what distinguishes the married relationship (lacking for me) from the friendship (which I do have, with his own wife, for example). But more pertinent to this post, to support his point, he uses the verse(s) where Paul says that its better to be married than burning with uncontrollable passion(s). In other words, my friend sort of views sex as functional.

But...concerning sensus divinitus...I went on to point out the verse that commands the husband to love the wife as Christ loves the church. To me, this is an issue of "imageo dei," in which marriage is a picture of the fulfillment of the image of God in "Man."

Of course, in that picture, then, you can't separate the sex from the friendship. And, in my mind at least, this is connected to all the tough groundwork of staying married for 50 years, or to the basic idea of simply holding a family together. Or to all the touch groundwork it actually takes to have good sex with a marriage partner (freakin', talking to my friends, it sounds really difficult...you have to be unselfish, and loving, and kind, and patient...eeehh...lol).

And, to my point, such tough groundwork, or such love of man as to die for wife, is connected for me to what in our minds is typically separated from "experiencing awe in viewing a grand scene of nature." Interestingly, "a grand scene of nature" confronts us with our idea of "the image of God."

Not to attack you. Just using your surprise to think through something I was experiencing/thinking about lately.



Unknown said...

Selflessness is one of those things that are most surprising to evolutionists. It happens rarely enough, but when it does happen it turns 'the rule' of 'the selfish gene' right on its head.

There are naturalistic explanations but these are so obviously inadequate.

SD is pert of the Christian explanation as is the imago dei, and this is complemented by general grace, but my question here is do these concepts adequately explain the phenomenon of selflessness?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Does SD explain selflessness?

I'm not sure.

Does the Christian worldview explain selflessness. I would say, "yes" to this. This may be, perhaps, where Theism or Christianity has a one-up on naturalistic/secular viewpoints. (However, at the Theos Project we always reserve judgment on these issues until our friend, John Doyle weighs in.)

The point of a discussion on SD (at least for me) is not to have an explanation for reality and our experiences. This kind of turns into a God-of-the-gaps type of approach: God is the best explanation for things we don't understand. I don't have a problem with my Apologetics and Christian philosophy friends who do this, but for me SD is something much more existential.

My use of SD is simply to suggest that people respond and react according to the sense of God that they experience in everyday life. We feel the transcendent presence of higher purpose through family and birth. We have a sense of awe and majesty that we naturally reflect to a greater Being when we interact with scenes of nature and natural beauty. We feel accountable to a higher judge when we live immoral or impure lives.

Usually when we experience a sense of God we just enjoy it and move on. This is the spirituality of our world in 2007. I'm suggesting that people begin to explore this sense a bit more.

Celal Birader said...

I find the linking of SD to birth and family (and perhaps we could add death) a fascinating direction to take.

It has its possibilities.

As you all know, the locus classicus for SD is Romans 1.

I feel the Lord has impressed upon me echos of the SD in 2 Peter 1 particularly in the use of the expression "his divine power".

If you are interested to read more click HERE .

john doyle said...

With respect to Sam's comment about how altruism belies the evolutionists' idea of the "selfish gene," all my books are packed up so I can't cite Dawkins chapter and verse. Here's an excerpt from the wikipedia entry on The Selfish Gene:

When looked at from the point of view of gene selection, many biological phenomena that, in prior models, were difficult to explain become easier to understand. In particular, phenomena such as kin selection and eusociality, where organisms act altruistically, against their individual interests (in the sense of health, safety or personal reproduction) to help related organisms reproduce, can be explained as genes helping copies of themselves in other bodies to replicate. Interestingly, the "selfish" actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms.

The idea isn't that genes make individuals selfish, it's that the genes themselves are selfish. So genes build in instincts to protect and nurture your children even at your own expense. Why? Because each child carries 50% of its mother's genes and 50% of its father's genes on into the next generation. In a sense, then, the birth of a child ensures the parents' genetic survival even after they die -- kind of a transcendent feeling, that. Whereas the cry of a stranger's baby on an airplane might just annoy you, the cry of your own baby triggers a genetically-implanted instinct to soothe the baby. Mothers have more of this instinct than fathers because the mother is sure the baby is hers, whereas the father... can never be 100% positive.

God might have set up natural selection in such a way that instincts activating the SD through childbirth would have survival value. This reflects the discussion of a few days ago: knowing the biological mechanisms behind SD doesn't necessarily mean that God himself has been explained away. The same genetic mechanism for instinctive protection of one's own offspring operates in pretty much all species of mammals, but these other animals presumably don't have the brainpower or spiritual discernment to understand the SD connection.

john doyle said...

"This may be, perhaps, where Theism or Christianity has a one-up on naturalistic/secular viewpoints."

My point in the prior post was that, if SD is true, then the human ability to investigate naturalistic explanations of God's actions is itself a manifestation of SD. Galileo wasn't trying to disprove God; he was trying to discover something about God's power per Romans 1:19-20..

Unknown said...

Dawkins tries to extrapolate an explanation for selfless behavior from genetic conservancy. This certainly 'works' ok when talking of families. But it completely breaks down when faced with the gospel. "greater love has no man than this that he lays down his life for his friends".

The gospel begins and ends with the cross. Christianity may have lost sight of this a bit but the individual who loves Jesus and desires to follow Him will not have any doubts.

It was largely the failure of the selfish gene idea when faced with the fact that Christianity demands that we love others 'more than' ourselves that led Dawkings into the largely abortive idea of memes functioning like genes.

john doyle said...

"This certainly 'works' ok when talking of families."

Family was the topic of the post; I was giving the "selfish gene" explanation for altruism in families.

"But it completely breaks down when faced with the gospel."

The topic was sensus divinitatus. I wasn't offering an evolutionary justification of Christian morality. I wss just trying to outline how you're genetically predisposed to regard your own kids as a little bit of transcendence in the world -- a biological mechanism supporting the SD.

Unknown said...

Ktismatics, You're quite right. I was linking the apologetic response to the SD post. There is a sense in which the gospel should sharpen our awareness of the SD, but the SD is a part of all of us...

I like what Jon says too, the SD is somewhere pretty deep down inside of us and we should be more aware of it even when nothing amazing or unusial reminds us.