As good as it gets?

July 23, 2007

Seen from our outdoor classroom, the summer snow on the Bernese Alps sparkled against the cloudless azure sky. A vintage paddle steamer plied the pale blue waters of Lake Thun through a fleet of bobbing white sails.

Faint sounds of Swiss cowbells in the distance added to the idyllic ambience of roses and lavender, archways and gazebos in the garden of the century-old Jugendstil schlössli in Einigen-our home for the last two weeks of the Summer School of European Studies.
The major challenges facing Europe today seemed worlds away from Lake Thun as we studied in the afternoons on the verandah. We looked out across the lake to half a dozen castles and chateaux on the opposite shoreline, and clusters of chalets high on the green slopes, against a backdrop of rugged rocky pyramids.
Occasional peals of bells, emitted from the slender spire of the church on the foreshore down in front of us, hinted at the lake’s long Christian presence. Built on ninth-century foundations, the church was possibly fruit of the labours of a seventh-century Irish Celtic monk. For local lore held that St Beatus dwelt in a cave on the opposite shore, after evicting the resident dragon.
This, it seemed to us, was good as it got!
After the two-week Heritage trip, covering 3500 kilometres through four countries, eight stopovers and visits to some thirty churches, we were ready for such a paradise.
We had focussed in these first weeks on the continent’s rich Christian heritage. Now we were to concentrate on Europe’s present situation. In particular, we examined three major challenges to a restoration of Biblical values and norms in a continent once synonymous with Christendom.
The first was secularism. Outside on the grass and under towering linden trees, we traced the development of the word ‘secular’ given to us, interestingly, by the medieval Church. It described a call from God to serve outside of a monastery or religious rule. All of life was, nevertheless, to be lived in obedience to God, whether ‘secular’ or ‘regular’.
Later the Reformation brought widespread ‘secularisation’. Monasteries were disbanded and monks and nuns married, following Luther’s own example. Life, however, continued to be lived in accountability to God, although many social functions previously conducted by the Church became state tasks.
After the French Revolution, ‘secularisation’ adopted an anti-Church, anti-clerical, anti-Christian and anti-God stance. As a belief that life should be lived without reference to God and faith, secularism eventually emerged to dominate much of late 20th century European thought. Personal belief was privatised, and not permitted to interfere with public life and functions.
The ‘secularisation myth’ became widely accepted as the inevitability of religion in the face of advancing modernity. In 1968, sociologist Peter Berger had predicted in The New York Times that before the end of the century, religious believers were likely to be found ‘only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture’.
However, by 1999 he had changed his tune, admitting that such an assumption was false and that the world today was as furiously religious as it ever was!
Together we worked our way through John Coffey’s Cambridge Paper, ‘Is secularisation inevitable?’ (see to read his conclusion that, although Christianity in the West had taken a severe battering in the last three centuries, today there were signs of life and good reasons to be encouraged.
Islam, and its radical form Islamism, was the second challenge we examined. Orientalist Bernard Lewis was our mentor as we read and discussed his 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture on our laptops, fed by long extension cords into the garden. We were conscious that Islam, a subject long thought to be the domain of the mission-minded, had come to stay in Europe. Of all people, Christians had to do their homework to understand the major shifts taking place under our noses.
Lynn Green’s recent talk at the Festival of the Nations on responding to Islam (downloaded from fed us hope that God was at work in the Muslim world, even in the most unexpected places. Lynn shared of surprising encounters with a Hezbollah leader and with whirling dervishes, which had taught him not to underestimate God’s sovereignty in today’s world.
The last-but-not-least challenge was that of the so-called new spirituality. This lapse into old pre-Christian paganism, mixed with westernised expressions of eastern beliefs, remains a virtually untapped mission field for European churches. The Lausanne Occasional Paper (#45) on new religious movements was our study guide for this topic, in which the authors urge Christian leaders to move from confrontational to incarnational styles of evangelism.
Even in this Garden of Eden, we were made aware of how these challenges were changing Swiss life. Alternative and new age ‘wellness clinics’ had mushroomed in Thun. One third of the population of Lucerne, according to a pastor friend, was New Age. The former Reformation city of Basel was now home to the world’s largest annual New Age healing fair.
The day we visited the Grössmunster in Zurich, someone had attempted to play a Moslem call to prayer from the church towers. Behind the facade of paradise, the acidic impact of secularism had eroded foundations of families and marriages.
Yet associated with each of these challenges we had also seen signs of hope this week. As if in confirmation, the most perfect, intense rainbow I think I have ever seen appeared over our garden classroom one day. It was so arresting we all had to simply stand, stare and snap cameras. For those with eyes to see, it was the promise of something even better!
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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