Friday, November 23, 2007

The Economist and a Defense of Christendom

I recommend taking a look at the November 1st issue of the Economist, which features a number of articles on the role of religion in the coming century. The magazine points out that religious observance is rising worldwide and that "faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century." The approach the Economist takes towards religion is refreshingly fair and neutral - it is not blind to the dangers of fundamentalism but, at the same time, it understands the amazing complexity and vibrancy of the world's religions. It also understands that faith is flourishing, in part, because of globalization - something the Economist vigorously supports:
"The idea that religion has re-emerged in public life is to some extent an illusion. It never really went away—certainly not to the extent that French politicians and American college professors imagined. Its new power is mostly the consequence of two changes. The first is the failure of secular creeds: religion's political comeback started during the 1970s, when faith in government everywhere was crumbling. Second, although some theocracies survive in the Islamic world, religion has returned to the stage as a much more democratic, individualistic affair: a bottom-up marketing success, surprisingly in tune with globalisation. Secularism was not as modern as many intellectuals imagined, but pluralism is. Free up religion and ardent believers and ardent atheists both do well... From a classical liberal point of view, this multiplicity of sects is a good thing."
The issue also contains an article on the state of Christianity in Europe, which may not be as moribund as most people think. In many parts of Europe, smaller churches of evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals are growing rapidly. But the state churches are still hurting, with active church attendance reaching new, pathetic lows. But the empty pews should not necessarily be interpreted as a lack of faith. Grace Davie of the University of Exeter argues that many Europeans regard the state churches as a sort of "'public utility': there is one state-backed supplier, and most Christians follow their religion vicariously (in the sense that somebody else does your churchgoing for you). For instance, around 75% of Swedes are baptised as Lutherans, but only 5% regularly go to church. The church pockets a staggering $1.6 billion in membership fees, collected by the state through the tax system. It has been rare for Swedes to opt out, though that seems to be changing."

This situation in Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries) is interesting because, while active religious participation is rare, the state church itself is not unpopular or discredited. It still plays a welcome, albeit small, role in the lives of the Swedish people. Most people still pay their church fees, baptize their children, get confirmed, and have a church funeral when they die. But otherwise they rarely set foot inside a church.

Of course, the notion of "vicarious Christianity" is exactly what Kierkegaard was railing against in his Attack on Christendom. And it would be tempting to say, with him, that the Church of Sweden (or Denmark) is a sham, no more than kulturprotestantismus at its worst. But that judgement might not be entirely correct. The fact that people still turn to the church in "life changing" moments - birth, marriage, death - is significant, I think. Indeed, it may be that the states churches, by encompassing the entire nation and not just a small group of "true believers", are a testament to the sovereignty of God over all Creation. As the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren writes in Creation and Gospel:
"By their very existence the national churches of Europe represented a form of faith in Creation, even in those times when the Creation faith was neither theoretically articulated nor the subject of reflection in university theology. Parishes with geographical boundaries are purely external arrangements, it appears; but built into this arrangement is a profound faith in Creation: the place of work, birth, death, matrimony - everything is encircled by the church and therefore by the Father of Jesus Christ."
Whether the state churches of Europe will be able to continue to play this role in the future remains to seen. It may be that they're merely "running on fumes"; after all, no church can survive for long on mere tradition and convention. Most damningly, the national churches may be serving as obstacles to a genuine revival of faith, since they encourage the complacency of "vicarious Christianity." Christianity on European soil might have to begin anew, and this would entail the demise of the national churches. But I'm not sure. Would Swedes miss the national church if it was gone? Would anything take its place?


CPA said...

What your reservations about considering the Swedish state church, etc., show is that they are still religious, not that they are still Christian.

Coleridge made this distinction in discussing the Church of England. As a body it was England's "national church", that is, the body of persons and property dedicated to teaching the nation what it thought to be true about life, the world and everything. As a "happy accident", as Coleridge put it, this national mindset happened to accord with Christian doctrine, and so the "National Church" was also a part of the "Christian Church." But he implicitly could envision a state where that is not so. Indeed previously it had not been so when the "national church" taught Wodenism and so on. And in Sweden I would argue that the church teaches what the Swedish nation thinks about life, the world, and everything. And while that is not pure materialism or atheism, it is not Christianity either.

Anonymous said...

Actually, they are not even necessarily religious. The church may play an important role in matters of birth and death in Sweden – but often becuase it's traditional, and even agnostics and atheists want rites and something to remember.

オテモヤン said...