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The Gospel and the Making of Europe (Copenhagen, May 2012)

We need to know Europe because this is our land. In this video from the State of Europe Forum 2012 in Copenhagen, Dr Evert van de Poll explains why it is crucial for us, Europeans, to know our continent.

(Written transcript below the video)

You cannot talk about the European Union or the European project without understanding the idea of what makes us Europeans

Robert Schuman, a French-German, was not the only founding father of the European Union. Winston Churchill was also one of the founding fathers. He had the idea to create the Council of Europe in 1946. 

What would we be without the British in Europe? I am Dutch. What would Europe be without the Dutch? I live in France. What would Europe be without France? 

Cultural borders

Before I moved into France, I was very much involved with the young generation of angry Evangelicals trying to get involved in politics. I was involved in a lot of initiatives around a working group in the Parliament called ‘Not by bread alone’, trying to apply Christian ideas to concrete political issues. 

Now I am living in France but I don’t have the French nationality. Thus I can’t be involved in politics and instead, I am studying Europe because I think that a lot of our problems in not being involved are due to a lack of information about what Europe really is.

To understand what makes us European, I had to cross one of the major borders in Europe, which is not a national but a cultural border. It runs roughly around Brussels. There you cross a border, which is as deep as you can imagine, and it takes years to understand that in the South of Brussels, things are not as they are in the North of Brussels. 

At the moment, I am living near another border, near Perpignan, which is part of Catalonia, which I believe will be a country in the future. The border created by the Pyrenees is a crucial one to understand Europe. But it was only when I was living there and when I was studying Europe that I found out that I was living on historic ground. 

What makes us Europeans?

My study room has a view of the Canigou mountains of the Pyrenees. It was along the road where I do my jogging that in the old days that the armies of the Franks went to fight the armies of the Muslim invaders. During the 8thcentury in that part of Europe, where I have ministered now for more than ten years around Toulouse and Perpignan, historic battles were fought between the Franks and their allies against the Muslim invaders that came from North Africa. 

That was the first time that the word ‘Europeans’ was used. It was there that Europe was born not as an area but as an idea: the idea that some nations, some peoples belong together and that they are involved in a common project. This common project was very much related to a territory that shouldn’t be given to the Muslim invaders. 

So you have a Romantic idea in the Chronicles of Charlemagne written in that time.He was called ‘The Father of the Europeans’. His mission was to keep this area free for Christianity. And from that time on, we have Europe not merely as a geographical idea but also as a mental idea. And it is there that Europe was born as an idea.

You cannot talk about the European Union or the European project without understanding the idea of what makes us Europeans. We feel very different from each other. We can enumerate our differences and we even have difficulties in understanding each other. As an example, we could think of the differences between Greeks, British economists, German theologians or French journalists… we have a lot of problems. 

But when we meet together, like all of us here in an airport lobby, we will be considered as Europeans and we will feel that we belong together. 

I have found out that in my walk of life that has taken me along many countries of Europe I end up feeling European. The only way to survive in Europe is to be European. Because everything is muddled up even in Perpignan, where we now have an Anglican church. Everything is mixed up, so we become European in the end. But we still say that Europe stops somewhere, and that, again, is an idea.

What is Europe?

I am working in another kind of problematic country: Belgium. Belgian citizens say that there is only one Belgian, and that is the king. Otherwise the people have regional identities and seven governments to take care of their country.

I am working at the Evangelical Theological Faculty, which is based in the historic city of Leuven, in the premises of a former Jesuit seminary. When I wanted to talk about Europe with my students, I found out that they didn’t realise that they were living in a miracle; they just took it for granted that they were able to work there with people from everywhere in Europe. And they are living just outside Brussels, our European capital. 

The Flemish say that Brussels is their Jerusalem and that they want to reclaim it. In the meantime French people live there, but if the population change is going to continue, in 20 years time it will have a majority of Muslims. This is Europe again. 

A lack of education about Europe

I found out that there was a lack of information. So I wanted to educate these young people who are preparing for key positions in churches to think Europeanly, not as a kind of European centrism, not to exclude, but to have another mindset about Europe. 

I have developed a course on Europe and the Gospel[1]to be a tool for studying Europe. I will give you some snapshots of it, of main issues that we have to study and teach and pass on, because it is something that should not just be left and lost. 

Our purposes are fivefold:

a. relation between society, culture and the Christian religion in Europe

We need to explain and re-explain (because nothing is taken for granted) the particular relation between society, culture and the Christian religion in Europe. We need to retell it, because otherwise our next generation will not have a clue about how this area of the world came into being. 

Wherever you go in Europe, you have a story. And you always have a story of the Bible behind it. This is incredible. You go to a concert hall and secular atheists are singing the Gospel to me through the music of Bach. It is happening in Europe. So we have to explain how this came about.

b. Europe as an exceptional context for churches in mission

We want to gain a deeper understanding of Europe as an exceptional context for Churches in mission (in the large sense of the word – not only evangelism but also social mission) and identify mission challenges, because Europe is not like other places. We have to explain why this is so. Every American worker in Europe will discover it, but who is going to explain it to him? We have to explain why Europe is an exceptional case.

c. Cultural diversity and regional affinities.

We need to learn about cultural diversity and regional affinities. I will come back to that later.

d. European awareness as a basis for positive involvement

A very important aspect is to create a European awareness among Church leaders and concerned Christians, as a basis for positive involvement. There is a lack of materials, of books that have a bird’s eye view on Europe. We need to create a positive awareness of what is at stake in Europe.

e. Europe as an exceptional context for churches in mission

We need to equip them to take part in the political and socio-cultural debates about the future development of Europe. We have a lack of information. We often do not know what we are talking about. And still, we have so much to contribute. 

We have so much to say about the issues that are there. All the political issues are the end results of long developments that have their roots in the place of the Christian church and the reactions to it. So when we understand it, we can more intelligently take part and say our word because we have a word to say.

With regard to general perspectives, for many people Europe begins where their country ends. ‘I am going into Europe’ they say. This means ‘I am crossing my national border and I am going into France’. But when a French brother goes into Europe, he crosses the same border, but he goes in my country. Europe is where my country ends. So Europe is something from the outside. 

Europe is often loaded with negative images of Brussels’ bureaucracy, federalism, open borders and a flood of migrants threatening our culture. Europe has a negative image because it is something considered to be on the outside. ‘Here is my country, there is Europe’. And even the Flemish people, who have their Brussels capital in the middle of Europe, think of Europe being outside Flanders, which is not true of course. And for young Christians who prepare for mission work, South Africa is closer than Italy.

Added to that, we have the negative Christian apocalyptic images. We talk about militant atheism, secular humanist agenda or enforced pluralism. Europe stands for all these horrible things that are going to be thrown and poured out over us. Negative feelings about Europe abound. So what I want to stress in our education is that our starting point is: Europe is not outside. 

This is Europe. I am Europe. We are all Europeans. Whether we like it or not, this is our place. This is not an optional way to think about Europe. This is us. We are Europeans, which doesn’t exclude other parts of Europe. We are in it so we need an inside perspective. We need to say that Europe’s future is my future. Europe’s fate is my fate. We should underline this, otherwise we will miss the boat.

Issues needing study

First,we need to study the exceptional situation of Europe. In Europe Christianity is tied up with the past. This is our handicap. Europe considers Christianity to be an interesting but not relevant part of its history. This means that methods or workers from other parts of the world do not understand why there is so much indifference, because in Europe we have passed on to another story. That is the feeling. We won’t find that anywhere else in the world. We have too much history to account for. We need to study our history to set the record straight. 

One of the famous Catholic Archbishops in France was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was born in the same village as the former Pope John Paul II. He was a Jew and they had known each other from their youth. He became Archbishop of Paris and started a students’ ministry, talking with them about Christianity. 

He said that Christians should give up their self-imposed reluctance to talk about their contribution to the European history. We should give up our self-imposed reluctance because we have so much to say. If it comes to talking about the negative track record of Christianity, let’s also talk about the negative track record of the alternative to Christianity and then we will be even. I agree with this, but for that we need to know our history and our society.

Secondly, we need to study the idea of ‘Europe’. I talked about its origin. It was originally the idea of a Christianized realm. It evolved and developed. The European Union is based on the idea that we belong together. If that idea is taken away, there is no project, nothing to do together. Why then should we spend our time with difficult negotiations between Italians, Poles, Swedes, etc.? Why bother? Because there is the idea that we belong together. 

In my course I deal with the different images of Europe that are being used. The basic question is: where does Europe end? Why do we draw a line somewhere? The whole discussion about working together with Arab nations in North Africa, or about whether Russia belongs to Europe or not, has to do with what is our idea about Europe. We need to clarify that in our education.

Thirdly, I want to stress our diversity. The official motto of the European Union is: ‘unity in diversity’. It is the opposite of the United States of America, which is ‘E pluribus Unum’. This motto written on the dollar says: ‘out of many made one’. Umberto Eco, the Italian writer, said: ‘Europe is translation’. We need to pay the price of translation because we can only exist in diversity. If one takes over the precedence, it will be war again and that is the history of Europe. We need to constantly translate. This means that there is diversity.

If you look at Europe from a linguistic and ethnic point of view, you find three or four major areas: the Latin one in the South, the Germanic-Nordic towards the North, the Eastern Slavic one and the Balkans and Greece. 

Why do Western Europeans call Slavic people ‘Slavs’? This word had a negative connotation. Even in the time of Christianised Western Europe, Eastern Europeans who were conquered were sold as slaves. This is where the word ‘Slav’ comes from.[2] And I think that this cultural divide still exists. There is something of a prejudice in the West against people in the East, which is a very deep cultural border.

Compared with the religious map of Europe, we find again that there are three or four parts of Europe: the Roman Catholic area, the Protestant and mixed countries, the Orthodox area and the Southern part where Muslims are present. It is a fact that Muslims are part of Europe. I am against saying that Europe is something that excludes Muslims. They have always been a part of our history even though Europeans have an eternal mental battle against Muslims.

We can therefore see that there is a sort of cross over Europe. This socio-cultural cross over Europe is the result of the interaction between Europe and Christianity. Christianity has not only created our unity, it has also created our diversity. We cannot understand the specific regional identities anywhere in Europe without taking into account the specific Christian histories.

Fourthly, we should study the construction of Europe and tell the story. Just like the statue in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg ‘un cœur pour l’Europe’ (a heart for Europe), we need to give Europe a heart, take Europe to heart and care for it.

Fifthly, studying Europe is also studying its population. It is studying the immigration, the ageing of Europe. These are Europe-wide issues, which can only be talked about Europe-wide. 

Sixthly, we need to tackle the issue of Christian roots. However, when we talk about them, we can’t exclusively claim to be the only ones. Europe is built on more than Christianity but Christianity had a central role. That is what I am explaining in this course as well.

Seventhly, we need to be clear about our historical record. We can draw both a very impressive and a very disturbing picture about Europe, and both are true. Our history is a blessing and a burden. And we should be honest and clear about this and know our own history. But even though the churches were an obstacle to their own message, the churches were also the places where Christians found answers, and were pioneers in the same area. This calls for reflexion.

Eighthly, we need to understand the paradox of Europe. This is the fact that Europe is the part of the world that has been most influenced by the Christian faith (over the longest period of time than any other region). Simultaneously Europe has also been more marked and influenced by the abandonment of Christianity and by the alternatives to Christianity than any other part of the world. Both are true. And this is a paradox.

Europe turning secular

Christianity was the religion of Europe for a long time. Secularization is a European phenomenon as well. It was in Europe that, for the first time in history, people changed religion for nothing. People have always changed religions, but in Europe, people stopped being religious completely. This was revolutionary and it is a European phenomenon. It is a reaction to Christianity. 

To understand the secular mind, we have to see that it is secularized Christianity (and not secularized Buddhism). That’s why I believe that when Europeans become interested in spiritual answer, in the end they will think that Christianity is the option. I don’t think that they will turn to Islam or even be interested in Paganism. Europeans are so bound up with Christianity, both positively and negatively, and this is where they will have to find their answers spiritually. 

This paradox is quite interesting. We can ask the question: ‘In what sense is Europe post-Christian?’ This can bring a full list of discouraging things. But we can also ask: ‘In what sense is Europe still Christian?’ A full list of things can be given which would give us a desire to be involved. This is creating the borders and the bridges for communicating the Gospel. The more you study Europe from a historical, cultural and social point of view, the more you understand the issues at stake when presenting the Biblical message as an alternative and as an answer to the problems that we are seeing.

Dr Evert van de Poll

Professor of Religious Science and Missiology at Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven and a pastor with the French Baptist Federation.

[1]The new edition of the book will be called Christianity and the Making of Europe. To be published soon.

[2]The author adds in his later edition of Christianity and the Gospel that the meaning of the word in Slavic languages is ‘glory’.

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