Archive for May 2019

Two Swallows

May 16, 2019

Happinez

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Two swallows don’t make a summer, says the proverb. Yet two recent Dutch books about reflection on roots could perhaps signal a significant climate change in Europe concerning interest in the Bible and Christianity.

One is written by Inez van Oord, the publisher of Happinez, a very successful New Age glossy magazine offering happiness through a range of eastern spiritualities. In her book Rebible (2017), she surprised her readers by saying that ‘in recent years we have embraced Buddha like a teddy bear, read spiritual gurus and visited ashrams and monasteries in India, and eventually you ask yourself: what are my roots, where do I come from? That is actually Christianity. We have been born on Christian ground. I have let the years go by, but I found the time ripe to explore Christian spirituality. The nice thing is: we can do that again. It’s okay to talk about Moses. You want to know who you are. Who knows? Perhaps it’s more familiar to return to Christianity. That has rooted my youth, that’s where I came from. So the question is: what can I do with it?’

Our true identity needs to be found in our roots, says van Oord. Which doesn’t mean returning to the stultifying legalism of yesterday’s church, she argues, but rather drawing fresh inspiration from the ancient wells of scripture. Inez (hence the title ‘Happinez’) took a journey of personal discovery through the Sinai wilderness with her theologian brother in pursuit of such inspiration. Rebible was the result.

Van Oord’s ability to ‘feel trends’ earlier than most enabled her to start several publications widely resonating with readers. If she is right in her intuition, we may well be entering a season where the spiritual emptiness of our secular age will prompt more to reflect on their spiritual roots.

Robbed
That this new sound comes from a leading spokesperson for the New Age movement is surprising enough. But a second and more broad-ranging book published recently comes from a former editor of a national left-wing newspaper who now believes Dutch society threw the baby out with the bathwater some four or five decades ago.

OngelofelijkIn her book Ongelofelijk (‘Unbelievable’, 2018), Yvonne Zonderop describes her sense of liberation as a young woman after leaving the Catholic church in disgust, along with other members of her generation. During the sixties and seventies, faith disappeared behind the front door, she writes. Secular became the norm. Freedom, individualism and autonomy became the celebrated values.

Yet, Zonderop now realises, this personal liberation has had great social consequences. Something important has been lost. Her generation has raised a whole new generation without Christian roots, which for centuries had nurtured and formed western culture and morality. A common foundation for society has been eroded. Who knows what the Exodus meant? she asks. Who can explain the biblical scenarios Rembrandt painted? And who realises that without Christianity we most probably would not have a democratic constitutional state?

After decades, Zonderop has come to see that her generation had robbed themselves of the cultural context in which they had grown up. Yet now it is becoming obvious that the alternatives to religion for offering meaning and values are scarce. Millions of Dutch people continue to waver between faith and unbelief. In politics, the Christian heritage keeps resurfacing, she observes, because it is the source of our culture, democracy and ethics.

She quotes a doctoral candidate from the University of Amsterdam who researched individualisation as the motto for Dutch education after World War Two. Observing that baby boomers valued individuality, he concluded: ‘but, woe to you if you did not wear jeans or did not criticise religion!’

Which recalls for Zonderop a comic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian film in which the Messiah figure tells his crowd of followers that they are all individuals, they are all different; to which the crowd responds by chanting in unison: ‘Yes, we’re all different!’ Then a lone voice pipes up: ‘I’m not.’

Pioneers
Zonderop now views the ideal of individual freedom as having held Dutch society in a strong grip, of which the collective departure from the church is just one example. But freedom has now become a devil’s dilemma: when you make a mistake, you’re on your own. Today’s youth, she argues, seek the support circle of friends to fall back on. Social capital is more important to them than individual freedom. Religion can become a source of meaning for them again.

The loss of togetherness is more broadly felt in society these days, writes Zonderop. People miss the social cohesion formerly offered by trade unions and churches. They miss the ‘vertical dimension’, where someone higher than you is looking after your welfare, whether that be a group leader or God.

The book’s subtitle, “About the surprising comeback of religion,” refers to the closing chapters which describe a number of new expressions of church in the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, today. A wave of pioneers is appearing, both within and outside the church, showing rumours of the death of Christianity to have been greatly exaggerated. Zonderop ends her book with a surprising citation from a Muslim German-Iranian art critic connecting the loss of the spiritual dimension with the rise of populism.

Jeg modte JesusIn his intriguing book, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity (2017), Navid Kermani observes: “It is completely understandable that many Europeans are afraid for Islam and seek security in the familiar. If you no longer know your own culture, you can’t be open to other cultures. It is a great shortcoming if you don’t know what Pentecost is. German literature of the 19th century can’t be understood if you don’t see the Christian allusions. Many writers of that time were ministers’ sons. German literature and music are saturated with Biblical references. If we don’t know that legacy, we don’t know ourselves. And then we become susceptible for racism, xenophobia and nationalism.”

Shining
Another secular journalist, Charlotte Rørth from Denmark, recently wrote about a totally surprising encounter she had in a Spanish church. In I met Jesus (2017), she described herself as a complete outsider to the church: “For us, the basis of everything is that one asks questions, looks for proof, finds answers, continues learning as time goes on. But suddenly I know something that I did not yet know half an hour before and which I cannot prove.”

Till then she had only known about Jesus from a distance. Now she saw him so clearly in front of her – surrounded by his disciples – that for her there was no more doubt: “He was simply there, and he is alive! And He loves me so much that I have no choice but simply to love others too.” When she came out of the church, others asked her: “Why are you surrounded by such a light? You are really shining!”

Her book, which quickly reached the bestseller lists, has been hailed in Denmark’s secular press as breaking the taboo on speaking about religion and spiritual experiences, a significant step forward for freedom of speech in a very secular country.

This is perhaps what philosopher Charles Taylor predicted in A Secular Age: “We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no-one can foresee.”

Jeff Fountain

Narrating the Gospel: The relevance of Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ for mission in Europe

May 5, 2019

A secular age

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Hard news was obviously in short supply on Friday December 28th, 2018. Hence, The Times ran a feature about a YouGov survey of 1,660 people in the UK. The findings suggested that there are more people attending church (albeit less frequently), a reduction in the number of professed atheists, an increase in the number of agnostics, and an increase in the numbers of those who say they pray occasionally.

This single survey is hardly a game-changer, but it does seem to confirm what other surveys of the last five years suggest: that it’s time for a review of the way that many Christians in Europe have become conditioned to thinking about faith across the continent. Most of us tend to see the history of Christianity in Europe in two main periods. During the first period from around the 4th to the 18th century, Christianity provided the framework for understanding morality, faith, social order, God, and just about the whole of life. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century, science and reason overthrew religious credibility and authority and the slow, steady demise of Christendom set in. If life in the earlier period was lived under a sacred canopy, in the latter it was lived from a secular launchpad.

For academics who retained an interest in studying European Christianity, a debate raged about how best to support this version of events with the best statistical data available. Callum Brown provoked attention (and sales) with his book The Death of Christian Britain (2001, 2009). Grace Davie puzzled, at a late stage of her thinking, over Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (2015). Some argued that modernity was necessarily and inevitably secular. Others described national Churches dealing in things of ‘ultimacy’ and ‘transcendence’ on behalf of their respective nations. The debate was lively and fascinating.

In the middle of these debates, I was trying to advise Baptist churches in the UK about the nature of their mission task through into the early 2000s. It was challenging. Many church pundits and commentators were convinced that secularism had triumphed, the churches were in terminal decline, and that the churches of Europe should either oppose science and reason to their dying breath, or that they should strike an uneasy truce with secularisation.
Twelve years ago, Charles Taylor took around 800 pages with A Secular Age (2007) to tell a different story. Taylor was a Catholic, Canadian philosopher with a huge reputation. In 800 pages he says a lot of things that deserve much more space than we have available in this short article. However, it’s worth trying a short summary.

Here we go! Taylor suggests there are three ways to understand how ‘secular’ is used. Firstly, prior to the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, ‘secular’ was used to describe all the non-sacred things that religious people did. Eating, washing, travelling, and trading, for example, were all ‘secular’ activities, pursued by religious people with a sense of the transcendent presence of God, or the divine. Secondly, following the Reformation (‘The Reformation is central to the story I want to tell’, A Secular Age, p.77), and fuelled by the European Enlightenment, ‘secular’ became a way of describing the non-religious.

You were either religious or secular, being both was no longer possible. People could now choose to live their lives without the approval of a transcendent being. Instead, they could live mostly self-validating lives with reference only to immanent realities such as human reason, the nation-state, science, etc., and in some cases developed extreme hostilities to religion.

Taylor argues that European Christians have largely accepted this second understanding. As a result, we have typically tried to live out our Christian witness by picking a fight with human reason and science. The problem with this, if Taylor is correct, is that our arguments then rest on the same assumptions that reason and science rest upon. Simply put, we often resort to logic, historicity, and empirical defences of our faith. These are arguments based in the appeal to immanence.

Taylor argues for a third way of understanding ‘secular’: that religious and non-religious people alike are secular because we inhabit an era in which faith, atheism, and humanism are all available as options. More than this, they are options that do not have to be watertight categories. Taylor notes that there have always been people who, ‘want to respect as much as they can the ‘scientific’ shape of the immanent order… but who cannot help believing that there is something more than the merely immanent…’ (p.548).

For Taylor, the loss of transcendence in a secular age is disastrous for human beings. Elsewhere, his work on ‘social imaginaries’ is his personal effort to re-engage human beings with story, mystery, the poetic, the numinous, and the imagination. European Christians who refuse to deal with the miraculous, the presence of angels, the inspirational lives of saints (they don’t have to be Roman Catholic saints!), the real presence of God in the everyday, the possibility of sacred spaces, the necessity of resurrection, the reality of evil with personality and intelligence, and the life everlasting, among many others, have simply lost sight of the missional power of these elements of our Christian story.

Taylor would encourage us to refer to all these, often, and to tell stories that inspire and stimulate imaginative leaps (slowly shuffling forward might also be OK) that enlarge the possibility of faith for those willing to listen. He talks of ‘the power and genuineness of the experience of wonder’ (p.607), for example. A growing number of evangelicals see that Taylor’s insights encourage an approach whereby apologetics that rely on story and narrative are more persuasive, and convincing, than apologetics that rely on argumentation and empirical data alone.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is not an easy read. It’s big, for one. However, he writes in such a rich and compelling way that it’s easy to miss the fact that he’s actually telling us a very sophisticated story. He also quotes poetry at length (see pp.761-765, for example). That’s all deliberate, because he’s trying to persuade and inspire the imagination of his readers in a way that he argues is necessary in our secular age.

Reading Taylor is also an immensely hope-filled and optimistic exercise. Reviewing him for The New York Sun, Michael Burleigh captures this well: ‘A salutary and sophisticated defence of how life was lived before the daring views of a tiny secular elite inspired mass indifference…’ Taylor offers the intriguing prospect that we may yet see a return to an “Age of the Spirit.”

Taylor frequently talks of the shared human ‘aspiration to wholeness and transcendence’ (pp.262-627). As a Roman Catholic, Taylor would not be embarrassed by Christians engaged in thoughtful and genuine efforts to re-enchant Europe by planting many and varied seeds of transcendence. Such language might seem a long way from what many of us understand when we use phrases such as ‘proclaiming the gospel’. Taylor wouldn’t distance himself from this, but his work does challenge us to reconsider whether our understanding and proclaiming of the gospel has lost all sense of enchantment and transcendence, and is instead too much reminiscent of a verbal ‘fist-fight’.

If we were, instead, to re-learn the art of narrating the gospel in a way that captures its weird, miraculous, other-worldly, subversive, and transformative intent, it is still possible that Christ’s followers in Europe will live to feel that they have contributed, in some way, to a future ‘Age of the Spirit’.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College. darrellj@morling.edu.au.