Today Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, is in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union, along with his colleagues Jose Manuel Barroso (EU Commission President) and Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament). Last Wednesday morning in Brussels, Van Rompuy talked openly about his Christian faith with those attending the annual prayer breakfast of the European Parliament.
Finding myself seated at the table next to the president’s, I pulled out my iPhone to record his address. In his opening remarks, he conceded it was unusual for a politician who was Flemish and Belgian to talk about faith, although, he added, it was something he often had done.
“How did I come to reconnect with the faith of my childhood after a break of 15 years?” Van Rompuy began. “What were the reasons, assuming there was a rational reason? In many respects, faith is comparable to a kind of falling in love. It is in many cases a serendipitous experience, finding what you were not looking for.
“Jean Guitton, the famous French philosopher, once said that every man must at some point choose between mystery and absurdity. Faced with the enigma of being, of existence, one can give oneself over and trust oneself to Someone or Something that transcends you, that transcends human beings. We do not know it but Someone has the solution to the mystery.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in Christianity, choosing to believe in God as the answer to the mystery goes beyond Deism, the Great Watchmaker or the Unmoved Mover. Christianity is about a relationship with God, who becomes his or her God, a personal relationship, not with an Almighty God to whom we submit [as in Islam-JF], but with a God of love; not as a relationship of equals, obviously that is impossible. It is a kind of a father-child relationship which does not simply presuppose subservience. And that’s what makes Christianity unique in comparison with other religions.
“However there is no evidence for this choice because here we are in the realm of the invisible. Noone has seen God, let alone God above. Christ came to speak to us about him at a certain point in the history of mankind.
“The miracle of faith is that the faithful are aware of these problems and yet they believe. They do not know the answers which are part of the mysterious or the absurd but they make an act of trust. They believe that someone can give life and death meaning according to standards which are beyond human understanding.
“Faith is in any event a leap beyond reason. However it must not be a kind of medication against the ills of life. Indeed, that is a selfish approach far removed from love that always involves others. Faith has often been inspired by this need for protection.
“Some say that the state and medicine has taken over this role. For instance the absence of social security as we know it, what we call the welfare state, is invoked by some to explain the important role religion continues to play in the United States.
“The long period of peace in Europe and the near-disappearance of humanity’s age-old fears is also blamed for emptying the church. Welfare and peace are deemed to make God less necessary.
“Yet the need to find meaning has certainly not lessened. There is more than ever a need for an ethical attitude towards others. Egoism is a negation of ethics. Christianity seeks to strip away egoism, which is not the same as stripping away the ego, as in Buddhism. Christianity knows peoples’ weaknesses and provides for forgiveness.
“That’s why we must increase our detachment from what is unimportant, what is not meaningful, and increase our commitment to what really matters. Spirituality is exactly this quest for the Giver of meaning. The spiritual person is not unworldly but is free from the immediate and goes in search of the ultimate. Spirituality makes us stronger in the world. It prevents us from being consumed by worldly values.
“Ladies and gentlemen, life is a road to perfection. The culmination of the good life is sometimes very near to the end of it. Those who achieve it early in their lives are on the road to sanctity. Human beings like me need much more time to get there. “
During the breakfast I had a brief chat with Van Rompuy and gave him a copy of my book about Robert Schuman, architect of the peace which today’s ceremony in Oslo acknowledges. Clearly these men share a kindred spirit.
Till next week.