What should the role of the church be in Europe’s future? This was the question Gerard and Chrissie Kelly of Bless Network asked me to address at their recent BlessTalks day in Hilversum, Holland.
Following the popular TEDtalks formula, eight speakers had 13 minutes to present their topic, interspersed with Q&A sessions. Gerard introduced the theme, the future is another country, before my son Antonie kicked off the morning session with an impassioned (clearly his mother’s influence) call for the church to be a parachute for a world hurtling towards a potentially disastrous future.
Hope for Europe colleague Robert Calvert followed on the enriching role of migrants in shaping Europe’s future. Computer games specialist JP van Seventer awakened us to the potential for reaching into the growing world of gaming with digital parables.
Hopefully these and other talks of the day will soon be available on the bless on vimeo site.
So, what can you say about the church and Europe’s future in 13 minutes? Some no doubt would echo the columnist in the Wall Street Journal last week who, when asked what to look for in a new pope, suggested he should ‘do for the church what the last general secretary of the Communist Party did for the Soviet Union. A Party functionary tapped by the Politburo to shore up the shaken Soviet Empire, Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled it instead.’
If Nostradmus’ prediction that the 112th pope (Benedict was number 111) will be the last, he may get his wish. Assuming however that there is a future for Europe and the world, what then should be the role of the church? My answer hung on three words.
Europe suffers from amnesia. She has forgotten the source of her identity, of the values that shaped her culture, and of the underlying unity expressed in the word ‘European’ and which enabled the unique project we call the EU to happen in Europe and not Asia or Africa.
Europe is also suffering under amnesia, which has caused her to lose her vision, values, direction and destiny. As historian Christopher Dawson wrote: A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.
Europe’s culture cannot flourish cut off from the roots that gave it concepts of freedom, equality, brotherhood, tolerance and peace. One A4 page and 13 minutes don’t allow me to defend this–to modern ears–preposterous proposition. Yet how can we have brotherhood without fatherhood? or equality from a materialistic evolutionary process in which only the fittest survive?
We do not choose or invent roots. We discover them by digging deeply. Our task as the church is to jog Europe’s memory of the past, of how the story of Jesus and the Bible itself have so profoundly shaped our culture; and of how faithful minorities motivated by the love of Jesus and the Word of God have consistently and disproportionately influenced the past for the better.
Europe suffers also from a seared conscience, as described in 1 Tim 4:2. Of all continents, Europe has had the most knowledge of God and has suppressed that knowledge the most. The consequences as spelt out in Romans chapter 1 are evident. The multiple crises Europe is facing today–economic, political, social, religious and environmental–have spiritual roots. ‘Greed is good’ economics has become a zombie without a soul or conscience, ruthlessly efficient but without compassion, as Tomas Sedlacek writes in The economics of good and evil.
Luther’s stand was a historic milestone for freedom of conscience, that basic freedom that guarantees all other freedoms. Yet this freedom is being trumped by gender rights in a day when we are told that ‘unnatural is natural’. To be a prophetic presence may even lead, as in the past, to martyrdom, the ultimate statement of conscience which declares there is a higher authority than society or state.
Europe also suffers from shortsightedness resulting from a short memory that still believes Enlightenment values, reason and science will chart a progressive path towards a Europe of well-being and justice. But a secularism forgetful of history, and which wants to banish faith communities to the private sphere, will become itself a pseudo-religion, intolerant in the name of tolerance, illiberal in the name of liberalism, and tyrannical in the name of democracy.
Our challenge is to imagine a future Europe which truly respects religious freedom, also for Muslims and atheists, and champions a constructive pluralism allowing for public interaction between communities of all faiths and none.
Jürgen Moltmann called the church to be an arrow sent out into the world to point the way to the future. Our role is to jog memories, prick consciences and stir imaginations until the story of Jesus again becomes central in shaping tomorrow’s Europe.
Till next week,
Till next week,