What's up with the French?

May 30, 2005

SOMETHING SURPRISING IS GOING ON IN FRANCE, FAR FROM THE MADDING DEBATE ABOUT THE EU CONSTITUTION. Observers are detecting a post-secular renewal of spiritual interest.

Not that anyone suggests this was a factor in the French ‘NON’. But while the spotlight is on this country, let’s take a deeper look at what may be a significant indicator of where Europe may be heading.

Steve Thrall, co-convenor of the Hope for Europe cities network, and based in Paris with International Teams, alerted me to a French business journal which recognised the recent upswing of religious interest and its knock-on effects on the business world. ‘God, the Stocks are Rising!’ declared the cover of its 72-page special edition. ‘After a materialistic 20th century, religions are coming back in force,’ the magazine wrote. ‘In France, this rise in spirituality is pushing out secularism in both schools and business.’

Christianity Today also ran a cover story earlier this year called ‘The French Reconnection’, subtitled ‘Europe’s most secular country rediscovers its Christian roots’. CT postulated that the postmodern French had ‘deconstructed deconstructionism, seen through the utopia of socialism, and realized that wine and other sensual delights only go so far in filling what French philosopher Blaise Pascal described as the “God-shaped void.”‘

This challenges the popular image of France as the bulwark of secularism where for a whole century, church and state have been separated. In 1905, the government forbade schools from religious instructions, took over much church property and stamped the nation with a state-sponsored secularism that continues to the present day. And this despite official figures showing 70% of the population belonging to the Catholic church, only one in eight of whom attend church each month.

French politicians consider it their priestly task to protect the ‘holy’ principle called La√Øcit√©, which safeguards this church-state separation. The state should not interfere with religious groups but neither will the state allow religious expressions in state affairs. It means that all religious groups are free and the state will not meddle in any of them. For evangelicals, this was partly good news as a hundred years ago, their pastors were regularly thrown into prison. It also means the state does not recognise theological degrees. On the basis of La√Øcit√©, the government banned the wearing of headscarves for Muslim women, Jewish yamakas and large crosses for Christians in public institutions, including schools.

David Bjork, a missionary for nearly 30 years in France, wrote in ‘Unfamiliar Paths’ that most of the French would use all the following phrases to describe themselves: ‘I am French. I am Catholic, I believe in reincarnation. I am a Christian. I am an atheist. I am a scientist. I go to a healer when I am sick. I am a rationalist.’ The terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Catholic’ had little to do with belief, but rather with the culture they grew up in, he argued.

But now missionaries and evangelists are reporting a new openness and interest in spiritual issues. France Mission reports that an opinion poll conducted two years ago revealed one third of those calling themselves Christians had recently returned to the faith, compared to only 13 percent a decade earlier. The CT article quoted a Paris-born American evangelist, Cyril Gordon, as saying he had been far better received in Paris than in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles: “We are constantly talking to French people who walk up to us wanting to know about Christ.”

The French Bible Society reports more Bibles are being sold than ever before. Even secular bookstores and supermarket chainstores have begun selling Bibles. A new study Bible, La Bible Expliqu√©e, recently sold a record 80,000 copies in one month. While evangelicals have often been considered sectarians, they have grown 700% since 1950, to 350,000 members. Pentecostals make up over half of this number. A new evangelical congregation has been planted every 11 days over the past 35 years, making a total of 1850 in all France, compared to 760, in 1970. There are possibly another 1000 informal, immigrant fellowships and congregations meeting in homes. Dr Henri Blocher, a theologian of world-renown whom I met at a European theological conference last year, talks of the healthy evangelical church growth among a younger generation who reject their socialist parents’ cynicism.

Relationships between evangelicals and Bible-oriented Catholics have been encouraged under secularisation, as leaders and lay people alike have realised that what they shared in common is greater than what separates them. The Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, points to both the charismatic movement and the Alpha course as Protestant gifts to the Catholic tradition. Visitors to Notre Dame Cathedral, where Reason was enthroned as goddess during the French Revolution, see large posters inviting participation in the Alpha course. Since 1998, the course has multiplied into over 300 study groups.

African and Asian immigrants from former French colonies are settling in large numbers in France, bringing with them their own colourful and vibrant expression of evangelical faith. The multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic nature of their fellowships witnesses to the phenomenon of globalisation, and points towards a church made up of all nations, all peoples, all tribe and all tongues, as described in Revelation. Possibly up to five thousand formerly Muslim North Africans have become believers while in France. Many support groups have grown up to help those who choose Isa (Jesus) and consequently face death threats and isolation from their families and communities.

Some pastors believe that evangelical communities have an important role in reducing Islamic radicalisation of immigrants. By helping them to assimilate, finding jobs, apartments and friendship, and offering language lessons in French, fellowships can meet social and spiritual needs unmet by government healthcare schemes.

Spiritual interest is not confined to the churches. Leading French intellectuals are taking a second look at secularism. Political analyst Dominique Moisi observes a much greater preoccupation with spirituality now at both religious and philosophical levels than in the recent past. Aleksander Smolar, lecturer at the Sorbonne says: “You can feel there is a problem of soul in Europe; people are conscious of a void and there is a certain crisis of secularism.”

Frederic Lenoir editorialises in a new magazine World of Religion that the ‘secularised and de-ideologised’ West has a deep need for meaning: “Ultramodern individuals… are still confronted by the big questions about origins, suffering and death.” A spokeswoman for the largest French religious publisher, Cerf, says that many general-interest publishers are turning to religious books for commercial reasons, in response to popular interest. A former marxist rebel comrade with Che Guevara in Bolivia, philosopher Regis Debray, now writes books exploring God and religion.

One of the most persuasive arguments for re-examining France’s Judeo-Christian roots comes from Jean-Claude Guillebaud and his Re-founding the World: The Western Testament (2001). Guillebaud, an editor with a prestigious publishing house, credits Christianity with inventing the idea of the individual, as well as the notion of equality. The 20th century, he asserts, has been a century of disillusion. Marxism, evolution, socialism, hedonism, consumerism, globalisation, scientism and militarism have all failed us. Guillebaud’s argument is that the world of the future is one we need to re-invent on Judeo-Christian foundations.

Politicans also need to tackle spiritual questions, says Nicolas Sarkozy, head of Jac

ques Chirac’s conservative ruling party in France, in his book,
‘La R√©publique, les r
eligions, l’esp√©rance’
. Sarkozy, a likely successor to Chirac as president, believes that religion’s place in France at the beginning of the third millennium is central. Sarkozy promises to ‘argue for a new relationship between religions and the public authorities.’ The ‘religious phenomenon’ can contribute to peace, to balance, to integration, to unity and dialogue, he believes. ‘The Republic should debate this, and reflect on it.’

For now, however, the French might just be a little allergic to the word ‘debate’.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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