E s s a y s
EUROPE AND "ABRAHAM´S LEGACY"
The theme of "Europe and religion" is extremely topical at the present time for at least two reasons.
The first is to do with the tragic events that occurred outside the territory of Europe on the very threshold of the new millennium. The terrorist attacks on targets in the USA and America's unfortunate intervention in Iraq, confront the world with the risk of a new division and the possibility that social and cultural differences will escalate into violent conflict. A striking feature of these conflicts is that anti-Western Arab groups define themselves in religious terms.
We can only hope that people in responsibility in the West (Western leaders?) will realise in time that the existence of terrorist groups and dictatorial regimes is only a partial expression of the a deeper tension between the West and a large part of the former "Third World" and that this tension cannot be resolved by force of arms. After the demise of the erstwhile "Second World" it is time to find a new model of coexistence between the former "First" and "Third" worlds. If countries with different political and economic systems, and which came into existence in totally different historical and political contexts, are to live side by side peacefully it requires, among other things, a inter-cultural dialogue. I recently visited the Sorbonne in Paris for a meeting of representatives of the oldest European universities to discuss the mission of the university in the age of globalisation. There was immediate acceptance for the view that dialogue with Islam is a matter of great urgency. However, one of the participants posed the simple question as to who would be the proper European partner in the discussions with Islam. Would it be atheists and agnostics, or rather Christians and Jews? What sort of face does the West - and Europe, as the cradle of its culture - want to show the Muslims and what sort of language will be employed? Will it be the language of secularism or the language of religion? And what might happen were the West to acknowledge its Christian and Jewish identity more forcefully? Would it simply increase the tension, by evoking the spirit of religious wars of long ago, or would it provide scope for a meeting with Muslims on the common ground of "Abraham's legacy".
And is there not, perhaps, another possibility - that the West will first of all realise fully and then prove it in practice that its secular character need not necessarily be anti-religious, and that instead, it is a legitimate outcome of the development of Christianity and Judaism that it offers scope not only for the ethical values of religion to be put into practice, but also for people of different persuasions to live together freely? Is it conceivable that, at least for certain currents within Islam, this type of division combined with partnership, and the possible co-operation between religion and politics, might be inspirational and acceptable? Why for many of us does this idea sound naively utopian? Is it because we assume that the separation of religion and politics is impossible within Islam, or because even in Europe this model continues to be an ideal rather than reality?
Is such a model more of a problem for today's believers, and for their churches and religious communities, or for the advocates of secularism?***
This brings us to the second question about how significant of religion is for Europe. The fall of Communism helped quicken the pace of European integration and enhance the process. The expansion of the European Union, as well as the drafting of a common European Constitution and efforts to bring the legislations of the member states more in line with each other, once more beg the question of the cultural and spiritual identity of Europe. Will the controversy about the wording of the European Constitution lead to superficial political skirmishes in the media about individual clauses, and a revival of the "Kulturkampf" spirit, or will it provide, on the contrary, an opportunity to rethink the relationship between religion, politics and culture?
It would seem that in Western Europe, politics and the media are still dominated by the liberal mentality that prevailed within the Western European intellectual elites for most of the 19th and 20th centuries and gave rise to various versions of the "theory of secularisation" Some of those theories assumed, in the light of the changing role of the major Christian churches in certain European countries during modern times, the gradually decline or even rapid extinction of religion throughout the world. Others did not go that far, but simply maintained that religion had shifted out of the public into the private sphere, but their assumption was that the process was irreversible.
When religion made a global come-back to the political stage in the last quarter of the 20th century, many were shocked. Religion appeared to them like Samson, once blinded and chained, a laughing stock, shorn of all his strength, here he was, his hair freshly grown, a frenzied titan threatening the pillars of our houses and the survival of all. One of the first books to situate the re-Islamisation of part of the Arab world in the wider context of the return of monotheistic religions to public life and politics was French sociologist Gilles Keppel's best-selling "The Revenge of God". It is now evident that the deprivatisation and repoliticisation of religion is truly a global phenomenon and does not only concern the monotheistic religions. "Religious terrorism" and "fundamentalism" are its most obvious, but by no means sole expressions. We can find religious symbols and very active religious groups nowadays in every part of the political spectrum from the extreme right to the extreme left, from fighters for civil liberties, human rights and social justice to supporters of authoritarian regimes, from ecological activists to extreme nationalists, from the United States and Latin America to the new states of African, from the Balkans to the Arab countries, from Israel to India or Japan.
The assumption of the authors and advocates of the theory of secularisation that what had been happening in Europe for some time would necessarily have to happen throughout the world is now regarded as erroneous, particularly by analysts of present-day society, who view it as one of the many prejudices of an arrogant and naive Eurocentrism. Religion has proved to be a more vital and multifarious phenomenon than it was viewed by the Enlightenment, Positivism or Marxism. In fact, the theory of secularisation had itself become a kind of substitute religious conviction for certain social groups and political currents; it no longer functioned as a scientific hypothesis but instead as a ideology in the service of power politics - in a "soft" version in certain western countries, or Nehru's India, post-war Japan, or Egypt, in a very "hard" version in the former Soviet empire or Communist China.
Even after the fall of Communism and in the face of the current revival of religion in many part of the world, many stereotypical views of religion dating back to the period before the present changes in civilisational paradigms are proving hard to overcome. In the media, in the heads of many politicians and within broad sections of public opinion, the prevailing view of the role and future of religion still derives from the ideology of the anti-clerical movements from the 18th to the mid-20th century. Paradoxically, this view of religion adopted precisely the clerical view of religion - in other words, restricting it solely to phenomena confined to ecclesiastical institutions and doctrinal systems and raising its hands in horror at all "religious innovations". If the present transformations of religion are to be understood, it is necessary to abandon these old ideological clichés.***
Ever since the Enlightenment, we in the West have been accustomed to regard separation of Church and State as the ideal model for the relation between religion and politics. This model that was the outcome of a historical drama in many acts, one element of which was the critical attitude to power adopted by many Jewish prophets and Christian martyrs: - the "papal revolution" against the emperor's monopoly of power in the struggle over the investiture, Enlightenment endeavours to protect the freedom of civil society from church interference, and the efforts of Christians to defend religious freedom in the face of totalitarian tendencies on the part of the State. There are many arguments in favour of retaining this mutually beneficial model in practical terms. However, if, today, we are seeking to understand the relationship between religion and politics, we cannot view it exclusively from the point of view of the relationship between Church and State.
Nowadays the State no longer has a monopoly of political life and the Church has lost its monopoly of religion. On the threshold of the modern age, the corpus christianorum disintegrated, ushering in the epoch of nation states and separate Christian denominations. These were to play a crucial role through modern times in Europe. For most Europeans, belonging to a nation and a religious denomination were the main pillars of their identity, and not infrequently, fanatical attachment to a particular denomination or nation combined with demonisation of others resulted in ruinous wars.
We still have nation states and individual churches, but their influence is considerably reduced. The dynamic of political life is increasingly provided by various new social movements and citizens' campaigns, often operating internationally while the dynamic of religious life is more supplied by various religious movements, often operating across the boundaries of the different denominations.
All human activity, including political and religious life, takes place within a new context, as part of the global information market created by the electronic media. Moreover, politics is increasingly in thrall to economics, which is increasingly globalised; the most important economic decisions, and therefore political decisions also, are taken at international level, in bodies that are subject minimally to the influence of democratic mechanisms operating within the framework of the national state. The tested mechanisms of political and religious that applied hitherto have to a marked extent been tied to the narrower framework of the nation state and church institutions and are hard to transfer into a wider context. Just as the classical model of democracy is hard to apply in broader contexts than the nation state, so also the classical form of pastoral work is hard to operate outside the traditional church structures . The media also play a major role in religion, as well as a small experiential communities operating rather like psychotherapeutic groups.
People sense a decline in the importance of classical political and religious institutions, parties and churches. Political parties and churches are often subject to sharp criticism which has an interesting psychological background. It would appear that many feel a certain nostalgia and displeasure - albeit often instinctive and covert - in the face of growing apathy in the areas of politics and religion (or, more precisely, because of the decline of previous forms of religion and politics) and blame this on the institutions. The untrustworthiness, corruption, ossification and non-transparency of churches and political parties and their leaders are allegedly to blame for the fact that society and the critics themselves are not sufficiently active in political and religious terms. Of course there may be an element of truth in such criticism - all human institutions throughout history have been pervaded by human weakness to a greater or lesser degree. However, it is also a case of projection, of seeking a scapegoat. The reasons why the style of political and religious life that applied hitherto is in crisis must be sought much deeper; this crisis is not simply due the incompetence of institutions and their representatives. It is the social and cultural context of religious and political life that has changed.
Every change in civilisation's paradigms requires "recontextualisation", whether in religion or in politics, and this is generally a lengthy and dramatic process of seeking new forms and a new style. (If one examines the transformations undergone by European Christianity, for instance, one can see how well the Church stood the test after the fall of Rome and during the great waves of migration in the fifth and sixth centuries, and how it did less well on the threshold of the modern era.) It is undeniable that people formerly identified more with institutions such as the nation state or a particular religious denomination. Nowadays they no longer regard institutions as their permanent home, but more like stalls in the market, which they walk past and pick and choose among what they have on offer. Often they identify with them only partially, and generally they also have many other identities. Likewise, in the West more and more people have a similarly non-committal attitude to institutions such as marriage and the family.
Naturally this trend gives rise to a conflicting reaction. Religious and national fundamentalism (nationalism) strive to return to a time when things were not yet complicated, to return to various basic certainties - the sense of security they receive by identifying closely with a powerful institution, tends to be at the cost of a tendency to demonise not only others who live and think differently, but also "heretics" and "liberals" in their own ranks who do not share their black-and-white view of the world. There is no way back, however, either to the mediaeval corpus christianorum or to "modern times", the era of secularisation and nation states, when religion became a philosophy of life along with others and the church became just another institution. It would be quite erroneous to deduce that people are less religious just because they are less interested in the institutional and doctrinal aspects of religion.
The Enlightenment was an age of reason - or, more precisely, the dominance of one kind of rationality - its underlying passion being to categorise phenomena and describe them. A typical legacy of the Enlightenment are galleries and museums in which the individual exhibits are classified and labelled for our enlightenment, or concert performances with printed programmes. Paintings, statues and music were torn out of their previous natural environment - church and home - and placed in special halls. (The final stage of this development is when churches are transformed into concert halls and family homes end up as interesting exhibits in skansens or "outdoor museums") Similarly, science in the modern age classified all knowledge; over fifty years ago, the Czech philosopher Emanuel Rádl concluded his work "The Consolation of Philosophy" by comparing modern science's attitude of to nature with the attitude of an autopsic surgeon to a corpse. He tells the story of a doctor who was one of the first to carry out autopsies; apparently on one occasion he had scarcely started to dissect the supposed corpse when it sat up in astonishment at the touch of the scalpel; the doctor subsequently undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance. Rádl predicts that nature, too, is not quite dead yet and is quite capable of rising up in the course of our scientific research and protest against what is being done to it. To what "holy land", Rádl asks, will we make our pilgrimage?
Yes, religion, too, which lay beneath the scalpels of the philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and many other experts, has suddenly come to life and revived. It is time for us to make a journey to the Holy Land.***
The Holy Land was the destination of Abraham, the "father of believers", who is honoured by the three monotheistic religions as their common father. Jews, Christians and Muslims read the stories of Abraham not just as literature, or as a record of events of long ago, but also as part of God's word. However, it was just by his tomb in Hebron that one of the first major terrorist attacks arising out of the religious and political hatred between the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants of the Holy Land took place at the close of the 20th century. In our time Israel has become one enormous battlefield - the urgent appeals for reconciliation and dialogue voiced by John Paul II during his pilgrimage at the start of the new millennium have fallen on deaf ears among the extremists on both sides. It would seem that the only way that reference to Abraham as the common father could help overcome the "global chasm" is if we manage to find a sufficient number of the wise and just among the representatives of the three religions; let us not forget that in his negotiation with the Lord over Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham signally failed.
The reference to Abraham could be the - now popular - reference to the "common ethical basis of the different religions" Kierkegaard rightly interpreted Abraham's faith as a the kind that cannot reduced to morality alone. It would be hard to make Abraham into a symbol of religion as a set of rituals, doctrines, precepts and proscriptions. He can be a symbol of the dynamic nature of faith, however. Abraham is the image of a man addressed by God and placed on the right way. Abraham's faith is one of setting out, commencing the journey: "It was by faith that Abraham… set out without knowing where he was going." (Hebrews 11.8). Emanuel Emanuel Levinas contrasts Odysseus, who returns home about his journeys of adventure, with Abraham, who knows that he will never return home.
In the course of history, as Karl-Josef Kuschel convincingly demonstrates in his book "The Abraham Dispute" , proponents of all three of the Abraham-derived religions have variously reinterpreted him and often cited him as one who legitimises the antiquity and authenticity of their religion, even justifying their claim of the universality of their tradition and its superiority over others - the Jews, Abraham the Chaldean is a "pre-Mosaic" Jew, for the Christians he is a Christian before Christianity and for the Muslims he is a "pre-Islamic Muslim".
Apart from the stories of Abraham in Genesis, the Hebrew Bible is full of references to Abraham, that represent a rich spectrum of interpretations of this figure. In Exodus, God is presented as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who was revealed to the patriarchs as El Shaddai, but he did not make himself known to them by his name Yahweh. In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy the covenant with Abraham is recalled as a forerunner of the covenant on Sinai. In the Book of Joshua, Abraham is described as a pioneer of monotheism and the struggle against idolatory (Joshua 24). Ecclesiasticus and Psalm 105 represent Abraham as an example of loyalty to God, as well as of wisdom and moral probity. For the Maccabeans and their uprising, Abraham is the epitome of loyalty to belief in one God and rejection of all religious compromises. In contrast, two Jewish authors who sought to build bridges between the Hebrew and Graeco-Roman worlds, Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus, stress Abraham's non-Jewish origin - for them Abraham is a sage, well-versed in pagan teachings, who became a worshipper of the one, true God by studying nature and by choosing the path of virtue.
Mohammed too saw in Abraham a man who, like himself, had graduated from polytheism to monotheism, by the power of his own reason, and sought to convert his family and people from idolatory. An early Islamic traditional source describes Muhammad meeting Abraham in heaven and discovering that they are physically very similar - more similar than any two men.
The name of Abraham crops up repeatedly in Jesus' sayings in the Gospels. In the Johannine and Pauline sources we come across traces of the controversy over who may be regarded as legitimate "children of Abraham" - it is a question of establishing the relationship of Christians to the Law, to the Judaic tradition and to synagogal rabbinic Judaism after the disaster of the year 70 AD. A number of studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the synoptic gospels fitted entirely into the broad spectrum of Jewish thinking of those days. The breakthrough came with Paul, who did not know Jesus or his teachings from personal experience and before hearing about him from Jesus' disciples he had adopted the attitude shared by Jesus' opponents from among the Pharisees, namely, that Jesus was a disrupter of the Law After his conversion, Paul did not abandon this attitude, but simply reworked it and, above all, made a virtue of it. Paul's rejection of the Law as something absolutely binding is not directed primarily at the Jews, but at the Jewish Christians, who were preventing other Christians, those converting from paganism, from coming to Christ other than via the Law.
Paul defends freedom of belief as against a binding Law by reference to Abraham - Abraham was before the Law and was the father of faith because he relied on God. He was called when uncircumcised - circumcision, the Torah, the temple, sacrifice - these all came later and were not a sine qua non for someone to be "an heir of Abraham". For Paul, accepting Christ meant being the posterity of Abraham (Cf. Ga 3.29), and the promise to Abraham applied to them also, because it applied to all people. Therefore "there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female" (Ga 3.28). According to Paul, Christ had broken down all barriers, had reconciled everything to himself and restored peace, when out of Jew and pagan he created "one single New Man in himself" (Eph 2.13).
This offer of a new identity, which implicitly called into question the existing cultural, religious, geographical and social barriers, was clearly the main resource for the spread of Christianity. François Vouga provides persuasively evidence to show in how many different aspects this vision of Paul's enabled Christian communities to create a common social space .
It might be said that this was the first and probably the most important "recontextualisation" of Christianity The Christian faith abandons the context of Judaism in favour of a space that is unified in terms of politics and law by Rome and created in intellectual terms by Hellenistic culture. The attempt by Philo to create a synthesis of Jewish monotheism and the sapiential tradition, on the one hand, and Greek philosophy, on the other, would seem to have been too sophisticated for it to become a popular force capable of influencing society; paradoxically it was Paul who paved the way for the successful synthesis of Jewish faith and Greek philosophy, even though he warned against the dangerous folly of philosophy while also rejecting the pillars of the Jewish religious identity.
Paul's vision of the Christian as "a new creation", a new and bold "project" of human existence, going far beyond the existing bounds of classical universalism, was a momentous and dynamic contribution to the culture that would later be described as "European" (on the basis of a tricky geographical definition). What Paul paved the way for is fulfilled when Christian theologians read the sentence that God from the burning bush uses to rebuff Moses when asked his name: I am who I am, as a metaphysical definition of Being, identical with existence. The rich "history of God" continues - after the Canaanite god El had been identified with the tribal god of the patriarchs, with Moses' God Yahweh from the Book of Exodus and with Jesus' Father from the New Testament, it was now the turn for the Biblical God of the Jews to be identified with the Supreme Being of the philosophers of Antiquity.
Every "recontextualisation" gives rise to new interpretations, new understandings, and new syntheses - but whenever faith "escapes" from a particular intellectual and cultural environment much is also sacrificed. Certain key metaphors of Christianity would soon become dead metaphors; this also applied to one of the key confessions of Christian believers: "Jesus is the Christ". After Christianity split with Judaism nobody was concerned any more about Jesus as the Jews' Messiah and the word "Christ" gradually came to understood as the "surname" of the founder of Christianity. Henceforth Jesus was for his adherents the saviour of the world; on the rare occasions when the title of Messiah was used it generally had negative and polemical connotations vis-a-vis the Jews, who refused to recognise him as the Lord's Annointed. Christians are prepared to regard Judaism positively solely as a "forerunner" of Christianity - the mostly fail to realise that post-Biblical Judaism probably has as little in common with the ancient religion of Israel as Christianity has - Christianity and Judaism have rather tended to develop in parallel. Christians often view Judaism in terms of Jesus' disputes with the Pharisees and see in it religious legalism and formalism; for many Christian theologians of the patristic epoch Iudaismos and Christianismos are not two "religious systems", two faith families, but two kinds of faith, or even two evolutionary stages of faith: first human beings were in thrall to the Law, then through Christ they come to maturity and true freedom. Here too Paul's legacy is evident.
What a bitter surprise awaited the Christians on the part of the Muslims, on the one hand, and on the part of the humanists and Enlightenment thinkers, on the other, when they started applying the same model to their own faith, and started to regard it as no more than a temporary phase, which had now lapsed!***
Europe is the scene of wide-ranging changes. The pace of political, economic, legal and administrative integration of the member and candidate countries of the EU has hotted up. As the birth-rate falls in many European countries, the number of immigrants from other continents is rising, changing the ethnic and religious structure of Europe's population, most strikingly in the capitals of the Western world. The demand is often heard from Christians: "Give Europe a soul". Even though I appreciate the concern expressed by this slogan, I can't help regarding it as a somewhat arrogant cliché. Is Europe really soulless? And even if it were, are any people capable of endowing Europe with a soul? Aren't those who are promising to give Europe "a soul" actually offering a mere ideology?
Of course, in the present phase of European integration the focus is on the "body of Europe" and the issue of Europe's spiritual identity seems secondary. However, is not the very courage to carry out this bold operation on the body of Europe that consists in widening and enhancing the European Union derived from the assumption that there is something that lends Europe meaning? That there exists and operates here some deep-seated unifying principle, the quiet intrinsic force of attraction holding Europe together in spite of all the changes? That there is something here that is hard to grasp, but which forms the basis of a European identity? Yes, the very political will to achieve European integration, however superficial its immediate motives might be, implies a belief in a "European soul". Europe neither needs nor expects us to "give it a soul", but we the Europeans of today need very much to learn to understand its soul and nourish it.
My teacher, Professor Jan Patočka, the Czech philosopher and martyr in the fight for human rights maintained that the essence of Europe was "care for the soul", that Europe came into existence at a time when in Greece "care for the soul" was regarded as the fundamental task of human existence and the meaning of the community, the polis. I am of the view that the archetype that influenced the dynamic of European civilisation more effectively was that idea of "being on a journey", the understanding of life as an answer to God's call, as symbolised by the story of Abraham, who is revered as a saint by all great faith families, whose adherents must learn to live together on the territory of present-day Europe after dramatic confrontations in the course of history.***
However, the Europe of today is made up not only of Christians, Muslims and Jews, but chiefly of those who have not found a spiritual home in any of these three communities of Abraham's heirs; they feel that they cannot take the path of faith that God once called Abraham to take, and which their ancestors trod for a thousand years It was seem that their voice is heard loudest of all in and from Europe, and that they who determine the present face of Europe. It now seems likely that the future "European constitution" will not contain any reference to "Abraham's legacy" and that Europe will be defined in terms of a secular culture that prevailed following the demise of an era lasting several centuries, during which the concepts of Europe and Christianity were seen as virtually synonymous.
A few years ago, the distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor delivered a brilliant lecture at the University of Dayton in the USA in which he raised the issue whether present-day Catholic Christianity ought not to attempt a synthesis of faith and modern culture, in the same way that on the threshold of the modern era the Jesuit missionary Ricci attempted the inculturation of Christianity into the lifestyle and way of thinking of the Asian nations. Taylor shows why it is difficult; modern culture is an odd mixture of Christianity and the values of modernity, which were often asserted in opposition to Christianity, so that what is non-Christian in European culture we often regard as anti-Christian. Nonetheless, if we look more closely, we discover something very paradoxical: some of the values that are clearly derived from the Gospel were only applied in Europe when the era dominated by Christianity had come to an end. For instance, modern liberalism pushed through the idea of the universality of human rights, thus putting into practice St Paul's vision that boundaries due to nationality, culture, social status or gender are unimportant.
Taylor maintains that what impeded the implementation of many of those values was not "religion" or "Christian belief" as such, but instead that "marriage" of faith with a particular culture. Although the idea of a "Christian community" was a noble one, based on the logic of incarnation, it inevitably gave rise to frustration and became a danger to faith This is because every human society implies pressure to conform and the sacrifice of lofty ideals to momentary interests, as well as many compromises and imperfections. There can never ever be a total marriage of faith with one specific society The attempts to substitute other beliefs for Christianity - such as Jacobinism or Marxism - have had far more tragic consequences.
Taylor is convinced that there must be careful study of the ambivalent nature of modern culture so as to identity the paradoxes that occur in the historical transformations of different currents. The times ahead of us are likely to provide scope for new alliances, meetings and co-operation; we must overcome the old boundaries of distrust.
In one text of the Babylonian Talmud we read: "On the day, that our father Abraham departed from this world, all the luminaries of the nations of the world stood in one line and said: Woe betide a world that has lost its driver, and woe betide a ship that has lost its helmsman." Maybe an honest endeavour to seek mutual links between the "children of Abraham", who, in the course of history, split into various faith families, and links between them and the people who stand outside that community, will restore to Europe and the world the hope that they will not be tossed by the stormy waves of the times, like a ship without a helmsman.
Delivered at the international conference in Prague on September 18th 2003