One of the most interesting theses to emerge in recent years comes out of Mary Eberstadt’s book, “How the West Really Lost God.” She claims the decline in religious belief in the West is the effect rather than the cause of family disintegration. That is to say, as people have had less children, the result has been that their belief in God has tended to wane. As a father, this thesis strikes me as profoundly and importantly true, and the Christmas season seems the perfect time to reflect on it.
Roger Scruton, in his book “The Soul of the World,” calls our gratitude for the gift of being the “fundamental religious truth.” When we find ourselves amazed at the very existence of the world around us; when we grasp the contingency of it all, the sheer fact that none of it had to be, yet is; then we experience the emotions that are at the heart of reverence.
Everything about a child’s birth confirms this intuition. Her presence in a house is a continual revelation of the joyful contingency of being. Where she plays in her room, there was once just emptiness. Where she runs through the grass, was before just grass. Where she strews spaghetti and juice across the table, there was merely a neat vacuity. Her laughter splits the void’s silence; her cries, as well. She dances always against a background of nothingness. One cannot help pausing a hundred times a day, stunned to recall there was a time when the walls of your home did not resound with the vibrancy of this new creature.
A Beautiful Presence Points to Grace
But a child is not just present; she is beautifully present. In my most ecstatic moments, I think nothing else deserves to be called beautiful besides a child. She has that special quality of beauty that might be called aptness, or the fitting. All of her characteristics harmonize wonderfully, so that even in her tantrums and mischief, one has a sense that it is right and proper for her to behave so.
A child’s behavior may be sly, rowdy, defiant—but never inappropriate. I do not wish to veer into sentimentality: the fits of a toddler can give a parent fits. But how many times do we find ourselves smiling amid these fits, and discovering even in their outbursts an appropriate charm? That is the charm of beauty.
This quality of beauty induces in us a sense of being graced with the child’s presence. It’s a sense that something so supremely good must have been willed in some manner. I do not say that anything is proven or demonstrated by such a feeling. But it offers us a way of understanding God’s creative role entirely different than the mechanistic, engineer-like conception so common in the modern world. Thus the materialist theories of our age melt right away. Their gross inadequacy to explain what we behold is exposed.
This skepticism of skepticism only grows more acute as we watch our child grow. The growth we witness is that of a mind and a personality. It is the growth of a soul. It is a development of understanding, of social capacities, of emotional sympathies and civil proprieties, all having their obscure origins in conscious experience.
So it is a development that can only be explained in terms of conscious experience: in terms of desires, of intellectual comprehension, of interpersonal responsiveness. Talk of connecting neurons or expanding cerebellums does not come anywhere close to satisfactorily explaining these phenomena. So once more, the materialism which is our age’s great alternative to religious faith is found wanting.
In Her Need, We Discover We’re Not Enough
To love anyone is to be intoxicated with his or her presence, to be drawn out of oneself and entirely into the existence of this other. This drawing out may not lead to God—often it does not—but it is certainly a necessary first step on that ascent to heaven. To love our children is to be drawn into their flourishing, to desire it more than anything else in the world.
We cannot feel this desire without becoming aware of how much that flourishing depends upon us. There is the material dependence, of course: Am I providing for her? Am I maintaining a safe household for to grow in? But this dependence extends to her emotional and moral growth as well. It is a dependency of character. Am I setting her a proper example of honesty and integrity? Am I brave when she needs me to be brave? Have I purged myself of those vices I wish her to avoid?
The moment we consider how much our child depends upon ourselves for her proper moral growth, we cannot fail to sense our own moral inadequacies. We remember all the sins of our youth, and shudder to think of how much they have impaired our own character. We imagine what we wish our child to be, and realize how woefully short we come of providing the model for that ideal. We wish her to be so much more than we are.
So we go hunting for grace, searching for that power outside of ourselves which may inspire in us the rectitude our child deserves for her guidance, and which we are all too incapable of supplying out of our own moral resources.
A Child Thinks Joy Is the Reality
Again, this search need not lead us to religion, but it is uncanny how often it does. I think one reason for this is that membership in a religious community provides us access to stores of ancient wisdom. There is an idiotic habit in the modern world of suspecting whatever is old and venerable. But in matters of true importance to us, we do not think in this way.
We wish to be lead by the surest knowledge; by the forms of thought that have been tested by time. So we refuse to allow our child’s growth to be determined by faddish opinions. We are insistent that it be determined by “the best that has been thought and said,” and the simple fact is that religion has been one of the chief repositories of such thought and saying throughout history. This is why parents so often rely on religious institutions to educate their children.
The Christian church has been uniquely successful in this role throughout history. Under her tutelage, the culture of the West flourished and progressed. But there is another, simpler reason why the presence of a child in the house would lead a parent back to her. A child’s essential mode of being is wonder; a thrill with the world she inhabits. Everything is a source of joy to her—a straw, a trip to the grocery store, a father’s horrid singing of a lullaby. Her tantrums and crying fits are a transient, albeit tempestuous, break from this state of mind. Her fundamental attitude is contentment.
The Christian religion, as I understand it, has always taught that joy is the reality, and everything else an illusion; that the goodness of created world is what is true about it; the evil of that same world a nugatory. The child alone seems to understand this.
I could go on in this same ecstatic vein forever, so I will force myself to draw to an end here with one consideration for the reader: how much different would our society look if all of our laws and institutions took their impetus from this one intuition, that the child is the perpetual revelation of God’s grace? What if we regarded the sum of our duties as adults to be comprised in the single task of making our social world worthy to receive and nurture that grace? Only consider it.