Romanian TV presenter of Europa Christiana, Sever Voinescu leads a debate during the state of Europe Forum 2019 in Bucharest on ‘How can the Church Contribute to the European Project Today?’ (you can read the transcript under the video)
Sever Voinescu: I would like to moderate this panel according to the topics that you all discussed today and yesterday during the State of Europe Forum. As a first topic of discussion, I would like to put something that is almost obsessing to me in the last years. This is something that we are talking about all the time in our regular shows, and that is the topic of unity. You can see that at a political level, Europe gets more and more unity. Yesterday, at the summit in Sibiu, the European leaders, who were guests of the President of Romania, reaffirmed again and again their desire for a stronger unity and stronger solidarity inside the European Union. But at the same time, we witness that Christianity, as a phenomenon, continues its long history of splitting. I would like to ask to both of my guests whether it is not the case that the Christian leaders in Europe should take some lessons from the politicians of Europe. As we all know, the politicians in Europe have usually bad names. We love to hate them, but at the same time, we vote for them (this is something psychological and it is not exactly the topic of my question). Nevertheless they are in a way, still really engaged on the path of unity. But what about the Christian leaders, with all the churches, all the denominations, and unfortunately with such a long and very powerful history of splitting? I would like to take the thoughts of my two distinguished guests on this issue.
Evert Van de Poll: It is true that the history of Europe has been marked by opposition between different streams of Christianity. This has been one of the sad parts: the religious wars. One of the reasons why we have such a strong secular reaction is that people have rejected Christianity because of this strife. This cannot be denied. But the picture today is not as bleak as you would paint it. Since the last decades, there have been on-going dialogues, contexts and collaborations between representatives of churches. I think that the climate is much more positive than it has been for many centuries. Even the churches that were in the margins, such as the Evangelical churches, the non-conformist churches, the Baptist churches or the Pentecostal churches, are also opening more and more to contexts with other churches and representatives of churches. I myself teach in a theological evangelical faculty where we have professors coming from the Orthodox Church, from the Roman Catholic Church, from all streams of Protestant churches, and there is a good collaboration. It doesn’t mean that we agree, that is another matter, but we can respect and we can positively relate to people with whom we do not agree on all points. I think that this is happening more and more. Perhaps it is not seen so much by the great public but it is happening.
Petre Guran: To add to what professor Van de Poll said, unhappily, the difference between two levels of understanding Christianity, that is on the one hand Christianity as an ideal, what we think about it, and on the other what history turned out of Christianity, makes us so uneasy. As professor van de Poll observed, many in Europe have felt this uneasiness which has brought distance to the established churches. What we see indeed in history is this tendency to split. Everything started with the first Council of Nicaea. From the beginning, this was a terrible destiny. As soon as Christianity got in the vicinity of political power, even when political power was well-established and unitary, as in the time of Constantine the Great and of the emperors which followed from the 4thto the 6thcenturies, Christianity got into disputes and formed different sections and factions, and finally defined all the other groups as heretical. The well-known historian of the Orthodox Church, Father John Meyendorff wrote a book called ‘Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions’, in which he talks about what happened in the period from the 4thto the 6thcentury. This is an important question for the historians, but also, I think, for the politicians and the confessing Christians. What happened when Christianity got so close to the imperial power, so it seemed, was the fact that power created a level where something else entered in the equation than our simple faith in Christ. This something else was the world as it is defined in the gospels: ‘Now it is the hour of the spirit of the world’. The spirit of the world is the key, unhappily I would say, to this long history of divisions. If we look at the beginning of Christianity from the fourth to the sixth century, or the Renaissance with the creation of the what we now call the Protestant Reformed churches, we observe the same thing, that the spirit of the world is one which determines these factions that finally create political entities and end up fighting with each other. What is happening today is, in a way, that the distance which Christianity, that is Christian groups, communities or churches, are taking towards political power is allowing them to look in another way and to free themselves from what the gospel calls the spirit of the world.
S.V.: According to Petre Guran, the spirit of the world is apparently the main force of division and of splitting the church itself. But as I can see, the politicians are dealing with the spirit of the world all the time, and somehow, they manage to reach a certain unity.
E.V.d.P.: Paradoxically, without idealising it, the level of relative unity that has been reached in Europe, that we have common interests and solve our problems together, would never have come about without this Christianity that you are describing as being so divisive. After World War II, the Christians where the ones who decided that the time had come for enemies to sit together and to bring into practice one of the most radical Christian virtues, that is to ask forgiveness and to reconcile with our enemies. That was the step taken by a whole generation who had come out from the Second World War, who had considered that this could only be prevented from happening again if the peoples of Europe would bring into practice the Gospel message that had been preached to them for centuries and centuries, that is to reconcile with their enemy. Nowadays it is difficult, because we don’t have an enemy to be reconciled with. But when people decided to do that, there was a new energy being unleashed that permitted political leaders to seek unity and this was the key to it. What happens today in the conferences that have taken place in Romania and in other countries are the outcome of this initial step which was born into a Christian idea. So it is not a question of opposing the political world with the Christian world. Rather when the political world brings into practice a Christian principle, there is a blessing. So perhaps the Christians could learn from the politicians what a blessing it is when you bring into practice a Christian principle, and they could apply it to their own churches. That is what my suggestion would be.
S.V.: As you can see, professor Van de Poll is optimistic about what is going on. And indeed meetings like that show that there is a genuine solidarity among Christians all over Europe, from the Netherlands to Romania, because basically, we believe in the same Gospel and in the same Christian message. But Petre, you said that it is necessary for the Christians to feel this solidarity in order to somehow abandon the passions (political passions, not the world passions), but at the same time, we are citizens of this Europe, we are called to vote, we want to see Christian Democrats much more present in the European Political landscape, their presence to be much more profiled, because, unfortunately, it is not as it used to be. So how can we find this unity by abandoning the world while we have to work in the world?
P.G.: We are basically speaking about two different things and we have to keep it in mind. The first is the common political action which is possible in Europe today only on the basis that Christianity, and Christian groups of confession, lost any political power in their own political communities. It was only when the reformed churches ended to be a significant cultural and political factor in their countries and when Roman Catholic communities ended with almost no power of influence in their countries, that they began to cooperate. So in fact, French Revolution and the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment of the 18thcentury brought up a new political condition for Christianity in Europe. Even though the culture remained, the group of clergy first, and the Christian groups then, became a kind of defeated minority in most of Europe, with maybe some exceptions in Italy or in Spain until recently (although Spain had a civil war but I don’t want to enter into details). Nevertheless, it is only after World War II first of all on the European continent, that a group of defeated nations, that is France – even though it was on the side of the Allies – Germany and Italy, three big components which started thinking over Europe. They understood that in a general war in Europe, there is no possible winner. The winning part is as damaged as the defeated part. It is interesting to note that the totalitarian systems which dominated Europe in the first part of the 20thcentury, mainly the Fascist and the Nazi regimes, as much as the left-wing totalitarian parties, were philosophically antichristian. This allowed Christian leaders to emerge as defenders of democracy. They were the only reasonable and responsible leaders capable of taking over defeated societies and nations at the end of the first half of the century. We owe this to the generation of Christians – Roman Catholics, Protestants, Reformed – who sought how to combine the resilience of the Christian communities. This is the mystery of the Christian communities: when they are in trouble and in difficult times, they are able and they find the energy to resist persecution and totalitarian regimes. They were being witness about this moral energy which allowed them, first of all, to resist the attraction to totalitarian systems, to fight and to maintain the right of the other. This is what brought Christianity so close to democracy: the respect for the right of the other. I think that this is indeed what we have to fight for in Europe today, to understand that the only way to be true to our own beginnings of a united Europe, is to respect the freedom of the other.
S.V.: This is a very powerful idea that we sometimes forget, that maybe the more legitimate defenders of democracy in Europe when democracy was really endangered were Christians. This is unfortunately not so much underlined, one of the biggest truths of the history of Europe which is repeated. Nowadays, apparently, democracy faces a new kind of enemy which we call populism. Populism is the worst word nowadays in European media and politics. But on the other hand, some people are almost driven crazy by the fact that what they call populism has a very strong support in the European societies. If we assume that populism is a danger to democracy and that, at the same time, Christianity is a natural defender of democracy, since it is a religion for all (Christ talks to everybody, from kings to the poorest member and the most marginal member of society), how can we defend democracy from populism as Christians and having such an openness toward society?
E.V.d.P.: first of all, regarding populism, people who are called populists do not call themselves that way. It is a negative term that others use. People would call themselves patriots, nationalists, for freedom, democrats, antiliberals, and so on. But the basic idea of populism is a mistrust in those who represent us. There are different forms of democracy. In the old Greek cities, there was direct democracy where the gathering of the citizens decided on the spot what had to be done, they had their representatives for one year and then they were voted out. That is not the democracy that has emerged in Europe. The democracy that has emerged in Europe is one where we place our confidence in our representatives and these people have to discuss together what is in the best interest of all. What we call populism in Europe are the large movements that have lost confidence in those who have been voted to represent us. And so movements want to bypass the parliament and rule directly over things that concern them. With regards to the Christian faith, we cannot say that the Bible teaches openly democracy in a modern sense, but it teaches that every person has eternal moral value, and this is at the basis of democracy. Translate that into democracy means that the majority should take into account the interests of the minority. This is the basic idea of democracy. As long as our representatives do that, the minorities can see that they are taken into account as well. A good democracy functions by the balance between the different groups that represent the people. As soon as the governors start to create the impression that they only serve the interests of some people, and not of all, then people disaffect. When it comes to democracy, the Christian teaching has always been that the democratic institution should not only listen to the rule of the majority but also listen to the concern of the minority, and that makes democracy. This is a simple rule of conduct that is best preserved by a pluralist democracy. This means that people can choose their representatives according to different political persuasions. They are represented by people who have different opinions, because the nation has different opinions, and they should seek the common good together. That is the idea of democracy. If this democracy is not functioning well, people are disaffecting. Even though it is not really true, many people say that the European institutions are not democratic and are not representing them. They feel that they are not taken into account, so they think that they don’t want that kind of Europe. In some countries, such as France, there is a majority system. There are two rounds of elections. The first round gives the real scores across all parties, and then the two biggest ones decide who will have the majority. If one party is the biggest with 25%, it gets the absolute majority. This means that three quarters of the people are not represented in the Parliament. This creates a big problem because who will take into accounts all these minorities? A simple rule of the Christian perspective on democracy always takes into accounts the minorities, even if they are a minority.
S.V.: I would like to continue the question to you, Evert. On the one hand, there are all these people called populists, such as Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and others who appear to many as defenders of Christianity, and on the other there are those democratic elites, elected as you said, maybe not that fairly but nevertheless elected, who appear to many, in a way or another, as enemies of Christianity. Since you explained to us that Christianity matches perfectly to democracy, how come that people who are theoretically at least on the side of democracy appear as enemies of democracies, while people like Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and many others appear as defenders of Christianity?
E.V.d.P.: As long as a person is elected, there is a democratic basis. As far as I know, no one in any European country, at least within the European Union, is in power without having been elected. So there are voters who vote for them, but the question is whether they are going to rule out others. It should also be recognised that in some countries, the political leadership, the elite as we call it, has become very much estranged and alienated from the Christian values or even the secularised Christian values that have for a long time determined the political and social world. They want to vote for laws and legalisation of things that many people feel are going against their Christian traditions. It is here that the so-called nationalists and populists come in and exploit the situation, saying that they are going to defend the Christian traditions, so people should vote for them. But it is ploy because it is not the Christian religion that they defend, but the Christian cultural identity, that is the buildings, the churches, the traditions, the stories. Most of the populist voters do not go to church, most are nominally Christians, who adopt in their personal lives the values of the secular elite. They are not that Christian in their worldview but the cultural identity rings a bell, it is the history of their country, it is the doors of the buildings that they want to defend. One point of the program of the Rassemblement National in France is to finance the restoration of all the church buildings. This is a good point for traditional people but they never go to church. It is not the religion that they defend but a cultural symbol. For instance, the Cathedral Notre Dame in Paris has been on fire, and in two days, people have pledged almost a billion euros to rebuild it. They don’t want to rebuild it because of the prayers that are said there, but because of the stones that have been built. It is the symbol of the nation, of the culture. But there is no interest in reviving the prayer life in the church. That’s not the point. So nationalist parties are culturalising and even secularising Christianity by defending the Christian roots. So we should distinguish Christianity as a cultural thing, that is the churches, convents, monasteries, crucifixes that are part of the cultural landscape in which we feel at home, and the Christian faith that has been practiced and prayed.
P.G.: I am sympathetic with this idea of the distinction between the cultural dimension and the mystical dimension of Christianity. In fact, Christianity is so much centred on the mystical dimension, which is also Christic, that it is ready to sacrifice the cultural side. This is what Jesus of Nazareth was saying to the clergymen of his time: get beyond the small rules and observations of the Old Testament, you are more respecting the smaller rules and the stones of the temple than the spirit and the essence of our faith. We just need to return to this very energetic preaching of Jesus of Nazareth, to being careful not to throw away the essence of Christianity by according too much importance to the cultural aspect of the religion, and being careful that this cultural aspect might not be taken over by forces which are antithetical to Christianity and to Christ himself. One cannot forget the vision of Vladimir Solovyov, in his last of the three dialogues about war and peace, in which he gives an account of the antichrist. One of the offerings of the antichrist to the Orthodox Church was to create a museum of liturgy, and each of the churches would receive a gift. His vision is a warning to this twist, to this separation between the cultural dimension and the mystical essence of Christianity. We have to be careful and aware that this might happen. Cunning politicians might use their Christian discourse not in favour of Christianity but, in a way, to damage.
S.V.: I enjoy so much to do Europa Christiana every time. But there is one specific moment that I hate, when people are whispering in my ears that the time of the show has come to an end and that I have to cut the discussion. I don’t know why but I always have to cut the show when things become more and more interesting and absorbing in a way. This is exactly what happens to me today. I would like to thank our two panellists: Professor Van de Poll and Petre Guran. This was just the opening of a very interesting discussion and I am sure that the next occasion will continue it. I would like to end up this meeting with the words that I end up every edition of Europa Christiana which is: ‘keep reading and keep praying.’ Thank you.