Is it okay for conservative Presbyterians to talk about the perseverance of the saints in terms of social psychology? Not exclusively, but at least a little? The idea is that we certainly depend on the work of the Spirit to endure hardships and doubts. But what if the work of the Spirit includes the people around us, in our homes, congregations, friendships, social networks?
Part of what got me thinking about this was an exchange a while ago between Glenn Loury and Steven Teles about the former’s Christian background and how he experienced tensions between the fairly unsophisticated faith of his charismatic congregation and the intellectual cast of his peers at an Ivy League university. This was not simply a question of faith versus reason. It was one of whether Loury knew other academics who were Christian and, by virtue of associations with them, make his own Christian belief plausible. Here’s a link to that conversation.
These thoughts returned after reading Tommie Kidd’s post about Philip Jenkin’s reflections on fertility and religiosity. First Jenkins (via Kidd):
… there is an inverse relationship between the fertility rates of a community and that society’s degree of religious fervor and commitment. High fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. Conversely, the lower the fertility rate, and the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. That shift from high to low commonly takes place in a short time, a generation or so. Fertility rates thus supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization. What follows is a bare sketch, but I will deal with it in much greater detail in a book that I am currently working on–especially on issues of causation and correlation.
The classic example of demographic/religious change is modern Europe. Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular since the 1960s has also, in these same years, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates. Those rates are at their lowest in such countries as Spain and Italy, where they stand today around 1.3 or 1.4, and they have dipped well below that.
(Ahem. What am I missing about Humanae Vitae, Spain, and Italy?)
Religious adherence does have a lot to do with kids. In spite of horror stories about how many youth group kids “leave the faith,” people who took a break often come back into church when they get married and start having kids. Anecdotally, I know of parents who readily admit that they only go to church for the sake of their kids. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they would not go to a certain church because of a lack of children and children’s programs. My family would certainly have to re-evaluate our involvement at our current church if we felt like their programming for teenagers was inadequate (thankfully, it is terrific).
I too know of people who became pillars of Reformed congregations after having kids and recovering the faith that they had mainly abandoned during young adulthood.
But the point I am raising goes beyond families and child rearing. It has to do with the people with whom we hang out and how they keep us in the faith. You may have a doubt or two, but because you know other folks for whom these thoughts are not troubling, you may be inclined to go with the flow until you find a resolution. Conversely, without people in your faith tribe who reinforce your beliefs by virtue of their smarts, humor, outlook, sartorial display, or friendship, if you hit a period of doubt, are you more willing to consider unbelief?
Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is also behind providence, which are God’s most “holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”
So it’s not social psychology or pneumatology. It’s both/and, a win win.
Or maybe not.