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Back To The Roots (Brussels May 9, 2010)

Back to the roots (Brussels May 9, 2010)

On Europe Day, May 9, 2010, at the commemoration service in the Chapel of the Resurrection, Brussels, marking the 60th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, Dutch philosopher Evert-Jan Ouweneel explored the four values Schuman identified as fundamental for European society: freedom, equality, solidarity and peace.

We have come to a moment in Europe history where the failure of efforts to realise these values, outside of biblical foundations, offers a major opportunity to Christians to help point the way forward.

(Go under the videos to read the transcripts of the speech )

Sixty years ago, on 9 May 1950, the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, proposed to his German colleague, Konrad Adenauer, that their two nations should together form a European Coal and Steel Community, inviting other European nations to join them in placing their coal and steel industries under a supranational authority. The aim was “to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”.

Schuman’s proposal was a first bold step towards today’s European Union. He became known as ‘Father of Europe’. Few will know, however, that Schuman did not only envision Europe as a post-war continent, but also as a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values. In his correspondence with Adenauer, these two devout believers spoke of the providential opportunity they had been given to rebuild Europe on Christian foundations.

Over the last decades, Europe has clearly drifted away from this vision. A few years ago, it even turned out to be possible to exorcise any mention of Christian roots in the proposed EU constitution. 

How to respond to this as Christians? Should we give up on Schuman’s vision? Can Europe’s most respected values– equality, solidarity, freedom and peace–be dechristianized without any loss of strength and significance?

In this essay, I will explain that Europe has most certainly paid a price for disconnecting its basic values from their Christian roots. Dignity and solidarity became hollow notions, freedom and peace suffer from ‘imperial overstretch’. But more than considering it a tragedy, I would like to take it as an opportunity. Considering the value of equality, solidarity, freedom and peace, I see as many possibilities for the Christian faith to prove again its vital contribution to European society. I certainly do not expect or even wish for a return to the old days of cultural Christianity in Europe. The downsize of European Christianity is an opportunity in itself. But there is no reason to be timid about the Christian roots of Europe’s most respected values.

Equality as divine grace

It was profoundly original of the Hebrews to believe that only one God is worthy of our adoration and that no creature, in heaven or earth, should be worshipped instead. In Biblical times, most rulers in the Middle-East were treated and adored like gods, but the Hebrews remembered their kings in all their weakness and imperfection. It was precisely because of the shortcomings of kings like David and Solomon that the Hebrews kept their hope in the one true God. 

Centuries later, Jesus spoke of God making His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sending His rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). All are equally dependent on God’s grace! The early Christians confirmed this awareness and refused to worship the Roman emperor as a god. Like Daniel, they were thrown into a lion’s den for believing in human equality. Unlike Daniel, they paid with their lives for their belief.

Centuries later, the idea of human equality advanced the rise of democratic thinking in modern Europe. However, instead of sticking to the human dignity of being loved and cared for by God, the philosophers started emphasizing the human dignity of being able to know and act upon what is true and right. Human dignity became disconnected from its relational context and instead connected to human capacity. 

And now, again centuries later, we are in trouble. Looking back on our violent history, full of oppression and ideological bankrupcy, we have great difficulty with praising the human race for its ability to make right choices. As a consequence, our notion of dignity became hollow. Many try to save it by emphasizing the human ability to make whatever choices. But if our dignity solely depends on our ability to choose for ourselves, no matter the quality of our choices and no matter what others choose, we are lonely creatures and little different from a choosing monkey.

Here lies a tremendous opportunity for the Christian faith to prove its vital contribution to European society. Postmodern disappointment in human capacity is an excellent starting point to again embrace the Christian idea that human dignity is not build on human strength but on human weakness. The Good News is precisely this: that all are equally dependent and can equally benefit from God’s loving grace!

Solidarity as family duty

In the empires of Constantine, Charlemagne and late mediaeval Germany, the Christian faith was considered a crucial source of unity. All of these empires were united by one aristocratic institute, led by the emperor, and one religious institute, led by the pope. The one ‘catholic’ (universal) church was considered to be an expression of the one Family of God. Faith was not taken as an individual affair but as something turning people into brothers and sisters and uniting them for a life time.

Being a Christian was interpreted as complying with a ‘holy order’ which commonly coincided with the political order of a nation. Church membership was not so much a matter of individual free choice but primarily a matter of loyalty and solidarity to the people of one’s birth. We may not like this, but for centuries it had a strong advantage: since church membership was a national affair, also solidarity was a national affair. 

Already in the eighth century, Charlemagne obliged his subjects to pay tithes to the church so that, as a national institute, the church could take care of the neediest in society. From the 16th century, also Protestant churches–like the Lutheran Landeskirchen, the Church of England and the Dutch Reformed Church–became national churches. Since then, charity remained primarily a concern of national churches. 

This national and institutional solidarity did not disappear after Europe was hit by secularization. Only the kind of institution changed: after World War II the state considered itself primarily responsible for the welfare of its citizens. This situation continued for several decades until the welfare state turned out to be too expensive and in some respects too easy for people in need. Europe started shifting toward a more prominent role for civil society. 

And now we are in trouble. Already at the time of the French Revolution, people tried to liberate the notion of brotherhood from its religious context and turn it into a political notion referring to the participants of a social contract. Instead of being united under one heavenly Father and one King, people became united in a free pact. Solidarity became disconnected from the old family duty and instead connected to free will. 

But what to do in a society where many have lost the willingness to express solidarity beyond the point of not bothering each other? Like the notion of dignity, our notion of solidarity has become hollow: we ‘liberated’ the notion of brotherhood from the family duties that come along with it. Instead of a solidarity compliant with the ‘holy order’ of family life, we started celebrating the ‘brotherhood’ of giving way to boundless individualism.

Here lies an other opportunity for the Christian faith to prove its vital contribution to European society.Obviously, we cannot return to the old days of national churches. Instead, we may have to repeat the words of Paul in Acts 17. Standing in front of the Areopagus he said: “God himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things… In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, For we too are his offspring”. 

The notion of solidarity can be firmly based upon the Christian belief that all humans share the same origin and are thus united as brothers and sisters in the holy order of a God-given family. And within that worldwide family, some have come to know the One in whom they live as “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). And this is the Good News, that one day (if not today) the whole of creation will benefit from the solidarity expressed by these “children of God” (Romans 8:19)!

Freedom as community affair

Christianity set the tone in Europe’s appreciation for, not only equality and solidarity, but also liberty. Luther was one of the first to defend that faith is primarily a matter of the heart and that every one should first of all follow his or her own conscience. What he defended as Glaubensfreiheit would slowly–very slowly–turn into one of the most basic values of European society. But Luther never disconnected freedom of faith from a community of faith. He knew very well that, as much as the embrace of a particular belief is an individual affair, believing itself is not! We need a community of faith to know what faith to embrace and to persevere in our faith. Without the company of fellow believers, we will one day ask ourselves: why have faith if I am the only one?

In the 18th and 19th century, the emphasis on personal conviction advanced the discovery of individual authenticity, of ‘not neglecting your own (moral) sentiment’ and ‘expressing yourself in your own way’. Evangelical movements arose along with Romanticism, adopting a more sentimental interpretation of following your own conscience. At the end of the 19th century, authenticity became associated with one’s unique identity. ‘Being yourself’ became coupled to ‘being original’.

It all had an enriching effect on social life as well as Christian life, but after a while it also created suspicion toward tradition, including church institutes, doctrine and liturgy. More and more people started seeing traditional Christianity as an obstruction to authenticity. Particularly the old national churches, with the oldest heritage and strongest hierarchy, became associated with impersonal, intrusive and restrictive conservatism. After World War II, Europeans quit church in large numbers and started following their own spiritual path through life.

And now, we are again in trouble. At first, it seemed so liberating to quit the power structures of Christianity and follow one’s own heart. But it turned out that, without spiritual traditions and fellow believers, acting upon one’s freedom of faith can easily become a lonely and disorienting journey. Many educated Europeans sought refuge in Eastern spiritual traditions. But many more remained displaced and new generations were raised without any compass or community. This resulted in two major problems in European society: social isolation among older people and spiritual disorientation among younger people.

We cannot invent our own beliefs. However much our heart yearns for spiritual answers, it is history that provides them and society that preserves them. Whether we like it or not, historicity, communality and ‘seniority’ are still key features of a persuasive and persistent belief. 

Here lies a third opportunity for the Christian faith to prove its vital contribution to European society. In order to seize this opportunity, though, Christianity will have to deprive itself from its own individualistic tendencies and join the rest of Europe in rediscovering its own ‘Christian roots’. When we are called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations” (Luke 24:47), the emphasis is not put on individuals but on communities. We are called to encourage the rise of faith communities, for the sake of every individual! 

In a time where individual choice is suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’, the Good News is precisely this: that freedom is not a lonely venture but a blessing that dwells in the community. In the end, faith will only flourish in a Body where the arms, legs, knees and hands support and complement each other.

Peace as fullness of life

In the Bible, the word ‘shalom’ represents peace in its perfection, including wholeness, health, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, rest, harmony and the absence of agitation or discord. In Christian belief, it is clear that human beings are not capable of reaching such fullness of life on their own. Shalom is, therefore, always related to God’s grace, as it is written in Numbers 6:24-26: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you shalom.’ 

In the tough life of the Middle Ages, the church served as a holy place of refuge, of experiencing God’s shalom in the midst of death, illnesses, hunger and poverty. Divine majesty was like a counterpoint to daily misery. 

In the following centuries, this changed profoundly. Daily life improved, especially in northwest Europe, and people felt more in control of their own lives. Science became focused on creating health;economic life became focused on creating wealth. Striving for earthly progress even became a moral imperative in Europe. People connected the notion of ‘shalom’ to human capacity. God’s endeavour, ‘the restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21), was translated into an earthly call for mankind. 

Within a few centuries, however, the European quest for progress became detached from the idea that true shalom is first and finally an expression of God’s grace. And as Europe was making a lot of progress in the area of health and wealth, it simultaneously became the most violent continent on earth. The arrival of gunpowder literally blew up the feudal system and created an anarchy in Europe. From the 15th to the 20th century, no pope or king could gain control over the continent and realize a new Pax Romana. Europe was stuck in bloodshed, not only on the continent but in every corner of the earth. 

As Europe conquered the world, it thought God was on its side. But God was weeping for the oppressed and did not intervene when Europe destroyed itself in the first half of the 20thcentury. Only after it brought itself to a total–moral, political, economical and spiritual–bankruptcy, Europe switched to plan B: one community of peoples living in equality, solidarity, freedom and peace.

First, the aim was economic cooperation, then political cooperation. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, many other states joined the European Union. Suffering from its bureaucratic weight, the European Union started looking awkward and incomprehensible. In the eyes of many people, the idea of a united Europe had lost its charm. But there remains this amazing fact that the bloodiest continent over the last 500 years became one of the most peaceful continents over the last 60 years. For the first time in many centuries, Europe is busy with maintaining peace instead of being busy with preparing for war. 

Looking back, the overall result is phenomenal. But Europe is facing new challenges as a province of the world. Its set of values is heavily tested by global issues like poverty, migrations, pandemics, climate change, global terrorism, international criminality, nuclear weapons, an energy crisis, economic crisis and food crisis. In the face of these world wide issues, Europe is again confronted with the difficulty of living up to its own values. Like our freedom, our value of shalom is suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’.

Once more we encounter an opportunity for the Christian faith to prove its vital contribution to European society. We still need a holy place of refuge where we can experience God’s shalom in the midst of failure and global suffering. We still need God’s majesty as a counterpoint to the misery of our inner and surrounding world. And we still need a Messiah who is capable of overcoming all the difficulties we cannot overcome. 

This is why some Christians cannot stop repeating the last words of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus.The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” For whenever they long for a just and flourishing world and are disappointed in the human ability to make it so, they cling to the Good News that one day, under the leadership of Christ, the whole world will experience the true meaning of equality, solidarity, freedom and peace. 

Evert-Jan Ouweneel is a Dutch philosopher and corporate identity advisor to the European offices of World Vision. He delivered a version of this paper at the service commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, May 9, 2010, in the Chapel of the Resurrection, Brussels.

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