Last week we wrote about the two-week Heritage Trip, my wife and I host each year, starting in Amsterdam (June 28), and finishing in Geneva (July 12). This first module of the Summer School of European Studies focuses on the Continent’s Christian heritage.
Then we need to ask, where do we begin to understand the present? Module two of the school is week three, July 14-19, and looks at some of the biggest challenges facing us in Europe today, and at signs of God at work across the Continent.
For many do predict a bleak future for Christianity in Europe. Secularism, Islam and Islamism, and New Spirituality all threaten to undermine what is left of the Continent’s Christian heritage.
In recent years, the babble of voices from both sides of the Atlantic proclaiming Europe’s demise has grown to a deafening din. Books including Eurabia, Menace in Europe, and While Europe slept warn of dying Caucasian populations and burgeoning Muslim communities, dwindling congregations and sprouting mosques, and a moral vacuum being filled by radical fanaticism.
Into this cacophony comes a lonely voice of dissent. “Wait!” cries Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis. “Before writing the obituary of European Christianity, before consigning the continent to the fringes of the Muslim world, let’s take a reality check!” Reality, he says, is nowhere near that grim.
Jenkins is one of the sources we take a closer look at during this week of the summer school. Population statistics simply don’t bolster scenarios of Muslim ‘invasions’, he argues. Europeans are not as godless as often assumed. There is much evidence of ‘faith among the ruins’. And many of Europe’s new immigrants are bringing with them a vital and contagious faith that is renewing the face of European Christianity.
Visions of ‘imminent European collapse’ contain a fundamental contradiction, claims Jenkins. ‘Eurosecularity’ may seem to have ‘gutted the continent’s Christian heritage’. Yet prophets of Muslim dominance in Europe assume that Islam will somehow be immune to these same overwhelming pressures.
In fact, he suggests, the resurgence of Islam itself may be good news for European Christianity. Many Europeans are being forced to take a renewed interest in their Christian roots. As mainstream Europeans rethink the religious roots of their society, some at least are being led to take that religious dimension more seriously.
A persistent undercurrent of spirituality remains among old-stock Europeans, expressed in ‘surprisingly medieval forms of devotion’ such as pilgrimage, which is enjoying widespread revival as a spiritual exercise. Devotion among youth is evidenced by the 100,000 youth visiting Taizé each summer, the one million attending World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, and engagement in many new movements both Catholic and Protestant including Focolare, the Alpha movement, ProChrist, the Thomas Mass for contemporary ‘doubters’, Soul Survivor… and on the list goes.
While much is made of the growing Muslim presence in Europe, he points out that in the context of the whole continent, it is nowhere near as great as usually assumed. Drawing from the World Christian Encyclopedia, Jenkins shows that, in the year 2000, Europe’s evangelicals, charismatics and pentecostals (of all denominations) outnumbered Muslims about two to one, and will do so for the foreseeable future.
Immigration into Europe is usually associated with Islam, but many migrants are Christians, a major factor in the shape of tomorrow’s Christianity. Not only will the high birth rate among the rapidly-expanding immigrant churches boost the Christian figures, but these new Europeans are turning Catholic, protestant and charismatic-Pentecostal churches into centres of vibrant and colourful worship and witness. Of Britain’s ten largest churches, four are pastored by Africans. Europe’s largest church, in Kiev, is pastored by a Nigerian.
Jenkins devotes several chapters to the Muslim presence in Europe, describing the many sectarian and ethnic divisions. While radicals and militants may flourish, he writes, their opponents are numerous and significant, as are the historical forces working against extremism.
Europe serves for the Muslim world the same role that Holland did for Europe’s Christian societies during the Enlightenment-a space where exiles can take refuge, explore radical ideas and publish books that would be elsewhere banned. Islamic scholastic critics of the Koran can seek to develop a more democratic Euro-Islam in the safety of Europe.
In short, Islam’s encounter with Europe is likely to create an ever-more adaptable form of faith that can cope with social change without compromising basic beliefs. At the same time, and contrary to expectation, Christianity is surviving amid ‘Eurosecularity’ and could well emerge stronger for the challenge.
Jenkins suggest that perhaps the best indicato
r that Christianity is about to revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days. After all, he reminds his readers, the Christian faith is all about death and resurrection.
The quote heading the last chapter reads: “If you are the type of person who buys stocks and bonds, I’d buy Christianity. The price now is very low… it has to go up.”
Want to understand the present better? Why not join us this summer in Einigen, Switzerland? See www.ywam.eu/sses
Till next week,