Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Saving Europe

The English-language web page of the Serbian Orthodox Church features an article on European unity by Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German Protestant theologian and ecumenist.  

In a manner typical of Protestant theology--that is, rationally, logically--Pannenberg argues that Christianity is perhaps the best possible unifying force in creating a common European consciousness.  He points out, however, that " the contribution of the Christian churches to the history of our nations has been largely divisive, in former centuries anyway, and that explains to a great extent the alienation of modern culture from its Christian roots."  Nevertheless, "the modern ideas of toleration, of human rights and of a liberal society... [all] have Christian roots, but they were not brought forth by the church authorities, who on all sides clung to more or less conservative conceptions. Rather, they were occasioned by painful experiences and conceived as remedies for religious and political diseases. The transition to modernity was not a smooth process of unfolding Christian principles. Though today the fruits of that process have been appropriated by the theological consciousness of all churches, most of them were opposed in earlier days to the ideas of human rights and civil liberties….The common reception of those ideas in the present situation of the Christian churches and the recognition of their authentically Christian content, should not provide an occasion for ecclesiastical triumphalism, but should motivate some self-critical examination of the reasons and structures that in earlier centuries prevented the churches from producing such ideas as an element of their teaching."  

Isn't that a mouthful?  Let's unpack.  

What Wolfhart is saying is that the reason why modern people generally ignore Christianity is that much of the violence in European history after the Reformation was by nation states who identified religious particularity as the prime motivation or justification for violence.  And throughout these Wars of Religion, leaders of the various churches were vociferous in the proclamation of the divine justification of their nation's war making. Secularization, therefore, was seen as a kind of saviour, reducing religious particularity to a matter of mere personal preference and thus general irrelevance.

Nevertheless, the ideals that have emerged from the secular modernization process are clearly rooted in Christian ideals, ideals that had been championed by the mendicant monks of the West and the god-bearing Fathers of the East.  Secular ideals such as tolerance, basic human rights and civil liberty, which are now accepted as self-evident goods by virtually all Christians and have their roots in Christianity, were nonetheless developed largely outside the churches.  Why was that?  And what should the churches do to heal what has been broken?

Wolfhart suggests that the churches begin with a self-critical examination--good, old-fashioned repentance I think it is called.  That is, the churches need to own their profound failures, and only this will lead to a deep rejection of triumphalism. Finally, he suggests that any possible reuniting of Christianity will both require and evidence its "having learnt the lessons of history concerning toleration and the provisional nature of human knowledge even about the truth of revelation." 

This article caught my attention mostly because I have been thinking about the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov which I posted yesterday.  It seems to me that Wolfhart's suggestions, while certainly reasonable on one level, merely promote a more fundamental problem in Europe's churches.  So long as our knowledge of God is expressed primarily in rational propositions and appeals for repentance are formulated largely in terms of reason, I don't think Christians will be able to escape from the habit of coercion.  For, it seems to me, that the very thought process of rationalization involves a kind of oppression of a way (or perhaps ways) of knowing that is fundamental to humanity and certainly more conducive to the knowledge of transcendent realities.  I am referring here to an intuitive knowing, or a knowing of the heart, what I think contemporary Orthodox writers like Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos refer to as noetic perception.

St. Seraphim's call to gentleness and his appeal for the acquisition of inner peace while not judging or condemning others seems to me to be a much more effective means by which the churches can begin to find a way toward repentance and perhaps a way toward unity--and, perhaps, a way toward the salvation of Europe and the world.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

What you are writing about in this post reminds me of Paul Evdokimov's focus on the possibility of "ontological brilliance". St. Seraphim is talking about the same thing in his quote - "glowing hearts" that speak without speaking, the "burning bush" that causes people to turn aside and take off their shoes in reverence and draw as close as possible to the life of God. The Mother of God is our best example here and there is an icon called the Burning Bush that is of the Mother of God surrounded by the apostles and saints.

I recently attended a scholarly presentation that developed a matrix to identify the most effective Christians...the 4th and "top" quadrant included persons who could both articulate and act in accordance with their beliefs. Therefore, the Mother of God, the first Christian, the one who bore Christ within her as we are all called to do, doesn't quite get an "A". But the assumption in that evaluation is that just because she didn't articulate (or at least didn't articulate much in the Bible), she couldn't articulate. The belief that you cannot be truly inspiring/powerful/effective without words proves how modern and Western the church has become. It is not that speaking is wrong - of course words have done much to help and heal. (This blog for instance!) I think it is more to do with the "need" to speak and "impose" and "convince", and maybe a lack of trust in God and patience with the long process of repentance and transformation.

Maybe if the church and those within the church could let go of the need to have a political/powerful voice, they have the chance of becoming a voice that can actually be SEEN and recognized as a source of wisdom and healing.