‘Beware of Amsterdam … that provokes God in his face, in which Atheists and Devils have their abode.’
The Welsh preacher who issued this warning was not complaining about Saturday’s Gay Pride boat parade, a celebration of LHBT* lifestyles witnessed by several hundred thousand Amsterdammers and visitors lining the famous canals.
These words were penned in 1656 at the height of Holland’s Golden Era, when Amsterdam’s reputation for tolerance of diversity was already well established across Europe.
Amsterdam has a long history of tolerance, something not always seen as a good thing by other Europeans, including this Welshman, Arise Evans. He and others complained that Holland was a ‘retreat for all rebels and a sanctuary to the worst of men’, including ’heretical and schismatic Protestants, Catholics and Jews’. ‘Heresies, schisms and anti-monarchical principles’ were hatched in Holland to spread poisoning and contagion to the rest of Europe.
Two such ‘schismatic Protestants’ were Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, pioneers of the Baptist movement and early supporters of religious toleration and freedom of conscience. Strongly influenced by Mennonites during their Amsterdam sojourn in the early 1600’s, these English non-conformists hailed their host nation for its toleration of all peaceful religions–at least, so long as they didn’t make themselves too visible.
Helwys and Smyth argued for separation of church and state and for the freedom of conscience. The author of possibly the first ever English book defending the principle of religious liberty, Helwys wrote an appeal for such freedom to James I, stating: "The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them."
Not amused, the king imprisoned Helwys in Newgate Prison where he died in 1616. But Helwys’ legacy lived on, and was to influence the thinking of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, and thus the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.
Tolerance used to mean the ‘the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with’. Today, however, ‘tolerance’ seems to demand acceptance of behaviours which for most of the human story have been seen as abnormal. Yet anyone–Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or secular–uncomfortable with the constant and disproportionate attention given to the ‘rainbow constituency’ is made to feel abnormal and out of touch with the times.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the celebration of diversity as an enrichment to society is increasingly expected, as illustrated by the recent statement to shareholders by a Starbucks CEO that supporters of traditional marriage and not ‘diversity’ should invest their money elsewhere.
So, does this all point to the final triumph of secularism? Has Amsterdam, the Netherlands and Europe generally become so post-Christian that it has reached a point of no return?
Evert van de Poll, lecturing professor during the Schuman Centre Masterclass in European Studies in Amsterdam two weeks ago, insists that beneath the surface, most Europeans still retain a special relationship with the Christian faith. Christianity is still the default setting when Europeans seek spiritual meaning at times of celebration or loss. The solid minority of committed Christian believers remains the largest social group, he says, quoting historian Philip Jenkins. Christianity is still taken for granted as part of the cultural landscape.
Both Amsterdam and Europe as a whole present us with a paradox. Despite widespread secularism, Christian presence and influence is still widespread. In the city’s Red Light district, for example, there are probably more churches and Christian ministries to be found than in any comparable square kilometre in the country.
Over the next fortnight, as we embark on a ‘pilgrimage’ from Dublin to Canterbury, we will encounter more evidence to get perspective on our times. As we follow in the footsteps of Celtic saints like Patrick, Columba, Aidan and Chad, we will ask what they did right to attract the pagans of their times to their message.
And when in London we ponder John Wesley’s impact on what he called a ‘godless’ society, we will be reminded that the ‘good ol’ days when everyone attended church’ never really existed.
Till next week,
Till next week,