Is God Coming?
"The battle for God" - so the "Spiegel" titled an article on this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Other media too noted how much this year the German bestseller lists are shaped by titles dealing with religious subjects in the widest sense or even tackle the question of God - from the Jesus-Book of the Pope over Hape Kerkeling's Pilgrim's Diary and Veronika Peter's monastery experiences up to "God" by Manfred Lütz on the one hand and the "God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins on the other. In addition there are further relevant new publications that did not manage to get in the literary charts but reinforce the impression that here was something like a - be it a surprising, be it one that was to be expected - trend.
The current problems of Europe could not be solved unless God again found his place in the life of the continent. That was emphasized by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, at the General Assembly of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) in October at the Portuguese Saint Mary's shrine Fatima. With it he took up a pattern of interpretation that always enjoys great popularity with some European Church representatives. According to that pattern the fundamental evil of our time is that God has been banished from state, society and public life, or even wants to actively banish him. Freely adapted according to a new spiritual song that begins with the sentence: "It goes without God into darkness."
Thus God obviously is again being talked about, and at the same time his absence is more or less strongly being deplored. Does that mean that the spiritual situation of Europe is becoming increasingly grave in the sense of a confrontation for and against God? Or are the phenomena today observed ultimately only a superficial ruffling, rhetorical battles in a field in which the question about God belongs for many, if not for most contemporaries not to the really urgent problems?
Increased Attention to the Question of God
Also in previous periods of the modern age there were very different shades in the assessment and treatment of the question of God. That, for example, shows a look into the European literature in the second half of the 19th century. In the great novels of Dostoyevsky in dramatic dialogues is time and again wrestled about God, are fundamental questions of faith and disbelief very directly dealt with; whereas in the approximately simultaneous work of the novelist Theodor Fontane little is to be felt of such seriousness, are religious affairs rather casually met - inconspicuously as part of the subtly depicted and discussed life reality of the nobility as well as little people.
Today in public debates and private discussions is little to be felt of Dostojewskij's passion in dealing with the question of God, but also the nuanced discretion rich in allusions with which Fontane - or in his way also Thomas Mann - deal with that topic is not typical for our time. Typical is rather a mixture of short-lived media hype and widespread insecurity, which is not least fed by a lack of familiarity with traditional language material, as for instance prayers and church songs, but also theological-philosophical terminology.
The conditions forming the framework for increased attention to the question of God are in the Europe of today in some respects favourable. So the churches and other religious communities can everywhere freely announce their message of God and his significance for human life and actively advertise it, both in the inner area of the congregation and in the general public. A few decades ago that was not yet so in all parts of Europe; in communist countries the churches could not at all or only in a very limited way express themselves in public. The ruling system propagated an ideology for which the question of God was a relic of the past and the Church was only of interest as custodian of the national heritage.
Today in Europe there is no longer not only no atheism imposed or at least supported by the state. A decidedly atheistic ideology is cultivated across the continent only by minorities that moreover have no large public influence. To say it over-subtly in Europe it is not chic to be a professing atheist; "popular atheism" regarded as a matter of course in the former GDR and parts of the Czech Republic does normally not turn up in an aggressive missionary way.
But that is only limitedly a reason for reassurance for those who want to keep awake the question about God. For the fading of atheist ideologies lets become aware of an essential feature of the modern world that not only shapes its structures but also the general awareness: the great spheres of reality are long since not founded religiously or state ideologically but follow their own laws and the dynamics ensuing from them.
This applies to the state insofar as it is not obliged to a specific religion as ideological foundation, but leaves - in the framework of its constitutional order - free room to the various religions. That is so in republics as in monarchies, regardless of traditional state church relics in England or Scandinavia. It also applies to economy, which meanwhile everywhere in Europe functions - under state-set conditions - by the free play of forces. It is a necessary concomitant of this fundamental economic autonomy of action that there is time and again quarrel about what measure of national or European rules makes sense and where one had better give free room to the market trends.
Also the complex system of science admittedly is by no means free of state and even more of economic influences and interferences. But according to its conception of itself science obeys no other directives than its own logic of research, whether it is in the area of natural science or of humanities. It gains its public reputation from the fact that it accepts responsibility for its insights as result of a research that is only obliged to the matter and free of ideological influences of any kind.
The major areas of life function without God
And finally art: directors, writers, musicians, visual artists give free rein to their creativity and occasionally give also offence or are punished by reviews. No state and even less church-religious Culture Commissioner decides on what novels or plays artists present to the public. Trends can be formed and then disappear, artistic preferences change, feuilletons try to give their readers an overview.
Today state, industry, science and culture work structurally "without God", even when some or even many actors go to work religiously motivated. That logic of its own of the major areas of reality, which is structurally detached from religious guidelines, is a partly laboriously gained achievement of the modern age, is a piece of secularization in the good sense, even when it in its turn raises questions and problems.
Also church voices want to draw the attention to such problems when they warn about the separation of art from transcendence, a "state without God" or a science that has lost responsiveness to fundamental questions, respectively is in danger to lose it. But they often do that with an insufficient awareness of the problems. Above all they insufficiently face the question, what in the modern age a "state with God" or a "society with God" might look like -without being a despotic system or restricting the civil rights. Only hardened Catholic traditionalists long to be back in a Christian state or a church censored culture - Franco Spain or the short-lived "Êtat français" in the non-occupied France under Marshal Pétain send their regards.
The only help against that is (that one) on part of the church respectively of Christianity to look again into its accounts and to bear in mind the current situation with all its ambivalences for the question of God. Instead of dreaming nostalgic dreams or taking refuge to blind resentment it would be necessary to take decidedly and with concentration the opportunities that result from it.
Here on the one hand theology is challenged. From its long history it tends like philosophy a rich treasure of thinking patterns and approaches out of which also today one can win arguments for God and against those who deny him. It must look for the discussion with today's philosophy and its approaches to thinking God. It is to press ahead with that business always in the awareness that the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" cannot be equated with the God of the philosophers, but that the two approaches to God must not be torn apart either what no doubt would be to the detriment of both.
The Church must not stand in the way of its preaching God
Theology is also needed where it is about the meeting of religions with their specific images of God and the intellectual debate between them - a task that might in the future, in a in a new sense multireligious Europe become more important. With it it is about the confrontation with the image of God of Islam, but also with the ideas of God in Asia's great religions, that absolutely have their sympathizers in Europe.
The Christian speech about God can - in a good or less good case - never entirely be detached from the actually existing churches and their history. Its opponents have always taken and especially today take their arsenal from the real or alleged misconduct in the long history of the churches, reproach them for making their message of God incredible by intolerance, hypocrisy and blatant failure, and having disqualified themselves as interlocutors who want to be taken seriously.
But also for the well-meaning observer of the scene there is no getting away from the insight that in today's society the attention is quickly directed to the church when it is about the accesses to the God of Christianity. Admittedly the belief in the God of Jesus Christ can perfectly pioneer itself also outside the visible church, but that is certainly not the normal case. After all a lived faith needs backing in divine service, coined piety and the church's creed, even if it does not need to simply identify itself uncritically with them.
The church must just under the present conditions do everything so that it is as little as possible in the way of its message of God. That includes examining time and again its language of preaching and announcing, i.e. whether it sufficiently takes into account the mystery of God and of the unavailability of his revelation in Jesus Christ. That means in any case refraining from superficial chatter and pious jargon, making a great effort to show mental clarity and sensitivity for the respective addressee. Where it is about the "only consolation in life and death" (Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism), any mental and linguistic negligence is out of the question.
The more so as in parts of our society actually something like a new open-mindedness for the religious in general and also - although so far in a less marked way - for the Christian faith in particular can be observed. Possibly the attention to the "new atheism" is connected with it: One does not want so to speak to hand over the field to religion without a fight. Add to that as further, not to be underestimated factor the increasing public presence of Islam in Europe, which directs the - unfortunately often one-sided or even distorted - attention to Christianity as religious force coining Europe's history and culture. But it would be decidedly unfortunate if in this context constant fears of threat would further gain ground in the "Christian West". The God of Christianity wants to be accepted and venerated for his own sake and not in defiance of the supposed strength of other religions.
Christians have good cards
Nobody can make reliable forecasts how religious matters will develop in Europe in the next few years or even decades. But one thing is certain: In this country and throughout Europe it ultimately depends in the present "battle for God" in the public and private sphere on the individual - and that will also remain so.
The credibility of the church and its message of God in the public depends on the credible testimony of the individual; the very desirable productive impact of the Christian faith on the various structural secular areas of life - from politics to culture - is only imaginable via the engagement of individuals. That it is necessary to cross-link these individuals is a different matter. At any rate, even though it is not done with them, the ability to articulate and to express oneself belong to credibility, so that the spark can really jump across and the always critically requested Christian faith in God can have its helping and liberating effect.
The new treaty laboriously come into being, with which the European Union wants to ensure a greater ability to act, will - like the failed constitutional treaty - not contain any reference to God nor explicitly mention the Christian heritage of Europe. The debate about those two issues in recent years gave a realistic picture of the strengths and weaknesses of Christianity in Europe, and has clearly shown that the Christian faith is far from being self-evident and uncontroversial. But that should Christians not frighten. In the debate about sense and consequences of the faith in God they have in any case good cards.