Losing my religion – not religious but spiritual in Europe

Mika Vähäkangas, Lund University, University of the Western Cape, Helsinki University, Stellenbosch University

Western Europe has been undergoing a tremendous religious change during the last two centuries. What was previously the hard fist of Christendom has become the least religious area in the world. The secularization thesis proposed that the rest of the world would follow because secularization (with its disenchantment) would be a part of the package of modernization (Max Weber). However, modernity seems to be able to enter a culture without secularization – e.g. surprisingly many leaders of third wave Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in West Africa have degrees (up to PhDs) in science.

In Europe, there are large numbers of people who (still) belong to the former state churches without a strong sense of sharing the faith of the church (belonging without believing) and who believe without belonging (Grace Davie). In the case of the first group, a rather typical position is that one points out that (s)he does not believe the way the church believes. Quite often, the faith that is being rejected is the one presented by the loud conservative wing of the churches. Yet, it usually does not mean that one would not have any kind of faith. In the second case, one points out that one has a faith but does not need any organized religion for that. It is then rather typical to stress that one is spiritual but not religious (Ina Rosen).

“Sunset Yoga” by Andrew Kalat is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

You give love a bad name

In most of Europe, the churches have been a part of the state machinery for centuries, with tighter or looser connection to the powers that be. This Constantinian model was challenged after the Enlightenment. Much ecclesial thinking sees the Enlightenment as a nemesis. I am afraid that then one misses one essential dimension of Enlightenment that is in line with the Gospel – liberation. In France, where the Catholic Church was a part of the oppressive machinery, the Enlightenment led to aggressive opposition against religion (as a public phenomenon) whereas in the Nordic region where the state hijacked the Enlightenment, many leading Enlightenment thinkers were churchmen. The liberating outcome of the Enlightenment was, in practice, meagre but it strengthened the idea of liberation from the structures of oppression. Churches continued their role legitimating the status quo in the national(ist) states of the 1800s and onwards. After all this history, many in the Nordic churches’ leadership are wondering why there is resentment against the churches among the people! The majority churches have been, and in some ways still are, a part of the empire.

Another Enlightenment-related development is that when knowledge, and especially empirical knowledge, became the paramount of certainty (instead of divinely imparted revelation), this impacted western Christianity. On one hand, the Enlightenment developed the notion of religion (as a general category) which would deal with beliefs and values that could not be verified. On the other hand, religion should be a private matter due to its non-verifiable nature. Many churches perceived this as a major threat, accustomed that they were to construct the reality hand in hand with the political powers.

There were two Christian ways of combating the Enlightenment take on religion: fundamentalism and liberal theology. While they were theologically mortal enemies, they were siblings as bastards of Enlightenment. Both of them inherited the Enlightenment approach to knowledge and reality and their view of faith became predominantly akin to knowledge. Religion in Europe would then become not only a battlefield of identity politics (e.g. nationalism) but also of knowledge (e.g. evolution theory). European Christianity would then continue as a form of legitimation for both status quo and knowledge.

Across the universe

In Europe where Christianity was a part of the empire, Enlightenment developed the concept of religion while pushing Christian theologians into perceiving faith in increasingly knowledge-based terms. At the same time, the colonial empires expanded the European views on the variety of ways of believing around the world. The outcome was, however, not redefinition of religion following the new vistas but rather epistemological forcing of Asian spirituality in the Western religious mould in terms of clear-cut borders, doctrines, belonging etc. Thus, Hinduism was formed as the “religion” of those Indians who were not Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, or Sikhs. The multifaceted phenomenon of Buddhism was likewise forced into the western mould of religion.

Image: MV

When these Eastern (non-)religions started their expansion into the western sphere, they naturally challenged the Enlightenment notion of religion. The outcome was spirituality on one hand and secular-looking business (e.g. mindfulness and yoga) on the other hand. The notion of spirituality provided the Europeans’ uncomfortable relation to the status quo churches and fundamentalists with a vocabulary and an alternative. The quest for the transcendent had not disappeared from Europe but it had to find a new way and language that would now be spirituality. The Orient had challenged the foundations of Enlightenment religious-secular divide while keeping the spiritual a private matter. This can be considered liberation in the sense that privatised spirituality does not become a part of the power structures. At the same time, it lacks the transformative ability of more public forms of faith.

What if God was one of us?

Thus, the secularising shift from organised religion to spirituality in Europe has led to the demise of the church organisations. In many cases, the ecclesial response has been that of concentrating on defending the existing positions and concentrating on the organisational survival. Church organisation is implied as the precondition for the proclamation of the Gospel. This reaction has often only amplified the impression of churches as a part of the establishment and contributed to their downhill ride. In cases churches have been able to put their organisational interests aside and serve the communities in a selfless manner, their credibility has increased. Generally, it is more credible to live what you preach. There are also some churches and movements that have been able to relate to the rise of spirituality in positive manners. For example, retreat, meditation and other Christian spirituality movements (like Taizé) have responded to the felt need. In some few cases, like the Orthodox Church in Finland, even organizational churches have been able to ride the wave of spirituality. (However, in Finland this does not translate into much of church growth but rather to general positive relation to the Orthodox Church with some practices gleaned from there – Orthodoxy Lite.)

Image: Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki. MV

The rise of spirituality and fall of organised religion is a call for European churches to reconsider their nature. Would the way of the grain of wheat be a greater witness to the Gospel rather than sticking to the historic structures? That might lead to resurrections of Gospel values. The outcome might lead us closer to spirituality and a little further away from the Enlightenment contextual theologies.


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