Tim Keller: Three Ways with Families

Posted: February 14, 2011 in america, culture, family, secularism

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, recently wrote an article entitled “Three Ways with Families” in which he discusses the alarming decline of the birth-rate in the West.

In the article, Keller offers two possible explanations for this decline:

“First, there is the sacrifice factor. For the last thirty years, sociologists have documented that secularism fosters individualism. A 2003 Ben Gurion University study found religious communes in Israel did better across the board than secular communes. (Cited in“Darwin’s God”New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007.) The reason? The members of secular communes simply were more selfish, particularly the men. Men who went to synagogue regularly were much more willing to sacrifice for the family and the community than men who did not. Despite the new financial incentives to have children that European governments are now offering, many people can’t imagine a happy life with the severe loss of independence that comes with parenthood. As the studies since Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart have shown, secularism teaches that every individual determines his or her own purpose in life—the autonomous self is sovereign. In this world-view, family life looks like the loss of personal meaning and happiness.

There is also the hope factor. My European friends tell me that their secular neighbors are much more pessimistic about the future. They (rightly) see oceans of injustice and poverty in the world surrounding islands of democracy and prosperity. They are keenly aware of the ecological and technological disasters that are possible, perhaps inevitable. Why bring children into such a bleak world? Religious persons, however, have a profound assurance that in the future is final justice, or paradise, or union with God in some form. They have an over-arching hope that makes them more optimistic about bearing and raising children.”

At this point, however, Keller offers an important warning against making an “idol out of the family”:

“According to theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Christianity was the very first religion or world-view that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus himself and St. Paul were single. “One…clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.” (Stanley Hauerwas,A Community of Character p.174) Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children…

“[Now, in the overlap of the ages], both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life… that witnesses to God’s kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world.” (Hauerwas, p.191)

He concludes:

“The gospel-based community practices a view of family that is contrary both to the cultural idols of secular and traditional societies. The gospel frees singles from the shame of being unmarried they find in conservative cultures. Their truest identity is in Christ and their assured future hope is the kingdom of God. Even bearing children, in the Christian view, is merely nurturing more lives for the family of God. That can be done in other ways than the biological. On the other hand, the gospel gives us the hope and strength for the sacrifices of marriage and parenthood that is lacking in liberal cultures. Christians grasp that they were only brought to life because of Jesus’ radical sacrifice of his independence and power. We know that children are only brought to life and self-sufficiency if their parents sacrifice much of their independence and power. In light of the cross, it is the least we can do.”

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