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Ulrich Ruh {*}

Is God Necessary?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2012, P. 271-273
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


A few weeks ago, the religio-sociological study "Belief about God Across Time and Countries" made headlines in this country. Compiled at the University of Chicago, it deals with poll ratings on the status and development of belief in God in different countries around the world. It shows that the percentage of atheists is nowhere as high as in East Germany, which at the same time brings up the rear regarding the belief in God as a person. This finding has provoked controversial discussions about its political and specific denominational reasons, and about the particular situation in the former GDR. However, the study results show that also in quite a few other European countries the belief in God has now become a minority phenomenon.

As chance would have it, under the title "Über Gott und die Welt" the autobiography of the now 85-year-old philosopher Robert Spaemann came shortly afterwards in the bookstores. It contains, among other things, pronounced statements about the importance of the concept of God. If God did not exist, so Spaemann, there would be nothing but individual perspectives, which could not be assessed by some common measure. And further, "The denial of God eliminated the foundation of all truth claims and of all moral beliefs, and tended thus to eliminate those claims as such."

As little as the results of opinion polls can be equated with reflected philosophical positions and directly compared with each other, the suspense between the two observations is obvious and provides ample food for thought. On the one hand, the acknowledgment of God as an essential consequence of philosophical reflection, on the other hand, the evident distance from the belief in God of many of our contemporaries.


The Church is an alien Element in Society as a whole

For the Christian Churches, this faith is still a crucial raison d'être. In their divine services every Sunday God is quite naturally invoked in prayers and hymns; he is praised and beseeched for help - from the "Glory be to God on high" to "Now Thank We All Our God." In lectures and publications, their theologians deal with various aspects of God's speech in the history of faith and church history as well as with regard to today's challenges. In public statements on societal and ideological issues, the Church refers regularly to God and his orientating message - let alone the messages "ad intra": to her own members in parishes and other associations.

In society as a whole, however, the Church is an alien element: not least because she is talking about God as if it was the most natural thing of the world. This applies both to the general public and to the individual level. In contrast to the U.S., in this country as well as in other European societies, God is found only in exceptional cases in public rhetoric, especially in the political one. Relevant headlines of the tabloid press on the occasion of catastrophic events are noted rather as gaffe, and are given a disdainful sniff.



In private obituaries, the reference to God as the Lord of Life and Death is all in all rather the exception than the rule, even though of course some regional differences exist. On the occasion of public or private happenings, many contemporaries definitely accept religious rituals with their characteristic language, perhaps not without being touched by them in a strange way. But they are usually not a challenging and inspiring benchmark for one's own way of life, precisely because they always suppose God as the horizon and also explicitly take Him as their theme. It is therefore no accident that wordless and differently interpretable private rituals are most popular, as e.g. the lighting candles in churches.

This situation concerns by now both major churches. This is incidentally confirmed also in the study of the University of Chicago by the data relevant to Europe: Regarding the faith in God as a person, Catholic countries like Ireland, Poland and Portugal admittedly achieve the highest percentages. But at the lower positions, the Catholic moulded France is found next to the Protestant Sweden, Denmark (Protestant) just ahead of Austria and Slovenia (mostly, or almost entirely Catholic).

Since the 18th century, there was without doubt first a clearly divergent development of the Catholic Church and the Churches shaped by the Reformation. This can especially be demonstrated by the way of dealing with the topic 'God' in the modern age. In the Protestant camp, there was a strong differentiation: on the one hand, movements with a strong willingness to open up to the "gods" which were socially-culturally in vogue - from the national-religious up to the cultural-religious god. On the other hand, the cultivation of an exclusive relationship with God, which meant a partly enthusiastic but in any case decidedly personal piety, and the forming of appropriate communities.


A Closer Look also at the "Compulsory Program"

In contrast, at the Catholic side the focus was increasingly on a dogmatically clearly fenced concept of God together with a central authority for interpretation, and simultaneously on uniform expressions of piety. That's why the Catholic Christians in many places at least for a while turned out to be quite resistant to the modern secularization and the accompanying erosion of their loyalty to Church and faith.

Today, the Catholic Church has to face the same basic challenge as the major churches which emerged from the Reformation. Starting from their specific traditions and influences, the churches must respond to the fact that the vast majority of their members, more than perhaps a few decades ago, know what to think of the question of God and often develop their own image of God or the Divine. But they must above all also be able to cope with the fact that the usually rather inexplicit societal consensus has a farreaching impact on their milieus. According to it God is not necessary, neither for a humane ethos nor for a democratic, constitutionally organized society, which also means a peaceful coexistence between different religious communities..

The churches are well advised to see this consensus as an opportunity. It means first and foremost a sound relief. Wherever you take the non-necessity of God seriously just for God's sake, you are free from the in a church context often natural temptation to bring Him hastily and at every available opportunity into play. But this does not change the fact that God continues, as it were, to be a must for some ecclesial performances: especially for divine services but also for preaching. However, it can be an admonition to look more carefully also at the "compulsory program", and in all churches additionally to train the sensitivity of Christians: When and how should they speak about God - and when is it better to remain silent. There is clearly some need to catch up here - not only for priests and bishops.

Sure, it is possible to learn and practice various ways of prayer, and it may also be useful deliberately to introduce people in certain forms of worship. Means of expression for the faith in God may be developed in this way. But they may be communicated today only to very few Christians by the traditional osmosis within a religiously dominated environment, and they will find no real access to them by nothing but sporadic contact. However, it would be a mistake to assume the belief in God could be implanted or stabilized in people of our time through as many religious exercises as possible. One would thus easily produce over-saturation or boredom, and that would by no means be appropriate for the matter.

The fact that God, properly understood, is not necessary, must mean for Christians and their churches always a challenge, especially with regard to thought. The agitation about the "new atheism", which a few years ag caused a great stir in the German-speaking world, has now again calmed down a bit. But this does not mean that the serious arguments both against the existence of God and against the Christian understanding of God are eliminated. They remain virulent, although according to the Chicago study the proportion of "strict atheists" is rather low in most European countries.



The relevant arguments must therefore be disputed equally seriously - in scientific theology, at Catholic and Protestant academies, or in the church's adult education.


Self-confidence must be connected with Humility

However, here one should not proverbially answer rudeness with rudeness. In plain English: The Churches must by no means respond to the hateful polemics of some "new atheists" by too cheap advertising for the belief in God or even by aggressive tones. They know well enough from their own tradition that always also doubt belongs to faith and that the question of God philosophically remains basically controversial. Just today, it would be counterproductive to talk big in any way in defending the idea of God or the Christian faith in God. Instead, here a self-confidence is needed, coupled with unfeigned modesty.

God can precisely not be compelled to come back into a "society without God." And He does not become more plausible again for a majority by the fact that political and ideological pressure in favor of a supposedly scientifically based atheism and restrictions on the activities of churches and religious communities cease to exist. This became apparent after the turnaround not only in the former GDR, but also in other former communist countries of Europe. One need only recall the Czech Republic in this context. With regard to the belief in God as a person as well as to the percentage of "strict atheists" it is placed close to East Germany.

The individual and collective religious freedom is constitutive for democratically and constitutionally free societies, and thus also the right to reject the belief in God, to keep one's distance to it, or to form one's own conception of God. It is up to the interplay of social and cultural forces into which direction the coexistence ideologically and religiously develops. By its legal provisions the State only gives a binding framework for all citizens, and it enters into agreements with churches and religious communities, of which just in this country a particularly large number exist.

Against this background, it is difficult to make predictions about the future religious profile of Germany or comparable European countries. It must remain open, for example, whether and how the now highly visible presence of Islam will affect the public discourse on God and the general dealings with the belief in God within European societies that are traditionally shaped by Christianity but at the same time highly secularized. This could definitely become an important issue for the Christian-Muslim dialogue.

There are many indications that, regarding society as a whole, the trend toward secularization will continue, as well as the erosion of the major Christian churches. With this it would also be preprogrammed that the concept of God continues forfeiting its self-evidence and inspiring force, in particular also the concept of God of the Christian faith: with its specific synopsis of God as Creator, as Father of Jesus Christ and as Holy Ghost working in world and Church. Christians who, despite all the questions and doubts, are very concerned about their faith and their religious community cannot remain indifferent towards this very probable development, and also the churches with their responsibility for the historical continuity and current realization of faith must be worried about it.

Precisely because it is possible to influence only limitedly the major societal trends and much less to reverse them, the churches in this country, to put it plainly, must do today their homework, the Catholic Church, too. It will ultimately not help them any further if they, with eloquent reference to the much more serious crisis of the faith in God, push structural pastoral and doctrinal challenges aside, and put the debate about them on the back burner.


Avoiding Self-blockades

Even if the church would brim over with creativity and sensitivity in view of the undeniable crisis of the concept of and the faith in God - what is absolutely not the case, the constrictions regarding the ministry and teaching of the Church would remain an obstacle. A church that in large parts of Europe is so much under pressure of secularization and erosion should actually not accept any self-blockades. The guiding question should be: What have we to change in the structures, decision processes, and the appearance of the church, in order to avoid further damage of the already modest prospects for a credible presence of the message of the living God?

This would also be an eminently ecumenical challenge. In their recent history, the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches have made different experiences in dealing with modern trials and tribulations regarding the concept of and the faith in God. They could particularly learn from their respective shortcomings and mistakes, and in a positive sense compete with each other in the field of mental approaches and practical efforts, where it is necessary today to bear witness to God in word and deed - despite all human weakness.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'