(First in a six-part series on family)

The family today is a kingdom under seige. It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of this fact.

Many forces within our culture are conspiring against the family. What is happening? Simply put, at virtually every level, community is breaking down: Marriages are breaking up at unprecedented rates, families are moving apart as never before, neighbourhoods in essence no longer exist, civic life is fragmenting to the point where politics no longer work, and whole countries are breaking up. Clearly there is a certain cancer within the human community. Why is family life breaking down?

A number of simplistic answers abound: Conservatives tend to blame it on a false sense of freedom in the culture, on feminism, on gays, and on the liberal media. For liberals the blame is attached more to the high rate of mobility, geographical and social, in the culture. What are the real reasons? What forces today are working to deconstruct the family?

The family today is being derailed by a conspiracy of circumstances. However, what is working against it is not so much any conscious ideology or new concept of family, but a blind, brute flowing together of a number of forces: narcissism, an overly-romantic notion of family, the descralization of sexuality, and the loss of sustaining prayer and rituals within family life. What is implied here?

Narcissism … Today we live in a culture that puts its highest premium on private freedom, private choice, private goals, individual rights, and individuality. Much of this is healthy and is a moral advance, but there is a down-side to it as well, especially as it affects family. It is no accident that the word privacy takes its root in the word deprivation. To be private is to be deprived and, today, to a large extent, we live lives deprived of family. We have our private careers, private homes, private cars, private rooms, private televisions, private computers, private radios, and private space. Good and healthy as this is to a point, much of it takes us away from family. Moreover, an excessive attachment to privacy, imperceptibly but steadily, helps make it more difficult for us to make and sustain permanent commitments or to sacrifice ourselves (our dreams and our agenda) for others.

An overly-romantic notion of family … Tied to our excessive need for privacy is the notion that family takes its ultimate root in sexual and emotional intimacy. Intimacy, and it alone, is understood as the force that binds us together in family and community. Hence, we have begun to think of our spouses mainly in terms of lovers and our children very much in terms of what they can fulfil in us psychologically and emotionally. This a dangerous. When we do this, a number of things happen which often spell the death of a family: First of all, we ask our spouses and children to be what they cannot really be, namely, an emotional honeymoon without an end. When they can’t deliver this we tend to move on to seek it elsewhere.

Thus people are searching not so much for a family as for a lover. This has consequences. When we identify family too simplistically with intimacy, we tend to cut ourselves off from those precise supports (extended family, neighbourhood, public life) which could help sustain our marriages and families. “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” That’s true. But it also takes a whole society (especially an extended family) to sustain a marriage and family. One man and one woman in an isolated hut is a formula for divorce not for marriage and family.

The desacralization of sexuality … Today, in Western culture at least, sexuality is no longer understood as a sacred thing. Among other things, this means that we have severed the age-old connection between sex and marriage. Today sex can be had within a marriage or outside of it. It can be serious, sacred, and open to the creation of new life, or it can be purely recreational and closed to anything beyond the feelings of those engaged in it. In our culture, hormones are not seen to have a sacred character or social consequences. Family struggles to survive in such a situation.

The loss of sustaining prayer and rituals within family life …  Today family life not just under a certain seige from the outside, it is also in danger of disintegrating from within because it generally lacks common prayer and those sustaining rituals that can serve to bond a family in ways that the family cannot induce through their own efforts. The old axiom: “The family that prays together, stays together”, is not a pious slogan but an empirically tested principle. Without common prayer and regular rituals families tend to fall apart.

Families today are, all too often, falling apart. How might family be imagined and re-imaged in our time? The subsequent articles in this series will attempt to answer that question.