Reflections on the Decline of Christian Europe

abandoned-church08I have been on this subject before, and I may have some insight not being a sociologist or a “new atheist”. It is very difficult to get any kind of objective understanding of a situation that seems to elude anything but subjective opinions and simplistic propositions. However, there are ideas floating around that might help our own circles avoid some of the very things that cause people to be alienated from Christianity. It is frustrating to live on a continent with so many monuments to its Christian past, but which will have to be put to other uses or demolished.

The general assumption over the past few centuries is that Christianity was a force of darkness and fear, and that only by denying God or any kind of transcendence could man find fulfilment and happiness in his new found rights to life and freedom. So in came emphasis on education, reason and scepticism in metaphysical matters. One idea strikes at the heart of Christianity – that belief in God is motivated by fear and anxiety rather than love of truth. Atheism largely consists of recycled arguments from the eighteenth century, but has evolved in its subtlety.

There is something else that can be blamed for the decline of Christianity, the easy availability of other religious traditions and spiritual philosophies. This has come from immigrating peoples from other parts of the world, particularly those parts of the world colonised by the various historical European empires. Thus, we have a massive influx of Islam and Hinduism. In an attempt to react against our racist past, we try to integrate foreign cultures into our own and the result is syncretism. Whether we think this is a good or bad thing, inspired by our desire of respecting and accepting people of ethnic minorities, it is eroding Christianity – or Christianity cannot adapt to such syncretism without cost to its own substance or claim to truth.

Christianity no longer runs in families, and this has eroded the meaning of tradition. People are merely free to choose a spiritual identity in which they think they would feel at home. There is no limit to the variety of products on the supermarket shelves. The decline of Christianity goes hand in hand with the erosion of the family and the notion of cultural tradition. There is a phenomenon of “cultural Christianity”, for example northern Irish republicans and loyalists calling themselves respectively Catholics and Protestants, but who are mostly alienated from their religious practice.

I don’t know to what extent the “new” atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and others are having that much influence. Those with knowledge of recent scientific work know about a movement away from materialism in the world of quantum physics. Old laws of physics are no longer absolute, and many things even in the realm of the “natural” escape our understanding. Reason finds itself humbled. Perhaps the “new” atheists spread their ideas by irrational means like cult gurus, appealing to desires for cultural identity and moral freedom rather than a search for truth and intellectual fulfilment.

Another thing to consider is the question of why Christianity seems to be dying in Europe, yet surviving in America where there are just as many challenges like consumerism, moral laxity, education and modernity. What is the fundamental difference between Anglicanism (for example) in England and the USA. The former is an established state religion, and the latter is no more established than the Methodists or the Roman Catholics. Does that make any difference? That contrast might be better seen between the theologically and morally liberal churches of the west, always eager to comply with political correctness, and on the other hand, the conservative churches of Africa, Asia and South America. Is it still the question of whether churches can still take advantage of cultural “primitiveness”, fear and ignorance?

Some are discovering that the old rationalist / secularisation thesis is incredibly patronising in regard to people in other parts of the world, a leftover from imperialism, and it is being challenged – just like Newtonian physics. Evidence of this is the USA, with perhaps an even more advanced state of modernity and consumerism. There is just as much in the way of social problems, poverty, warfare and propaganda from the “new” atheists. Perhaps swathes of American society are going the same way as Europe, just a little late on the uptake. Time will tell.

Is the question of separation of church and state the one underlying cause? Many of us have read something about Constantine and the support given by the Roman Empire to the Church, and then the same kind of support being sought from other monarchs and princes after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a long and drawn-out story. Saint Jerome is quoted as saying Ecclesia persecutionibus crevit; post quam ad christianos principes venit, potentia quidem et divitiis maior, sed virtutibus minor facta est (The Church firstly languished under persecution. After this, she turned to Christian rulers who gave her wealth and power, but she thereby grew weaker in virtue). People began to become Christians to get temporal favours, and no longer for reasons of spiritual conversion. Those who wanted to continue to be the older “kind” of Christian retreated to monasteries and hermitages in deserts. All being said and done, the Roman Empire spread Christianity to every corner of its colonised lands – and that influence became Christendom. In becoming so influential, the Church had to become a society of both saints and sinners, people in it for their discipleship with Christ, and others in it for power and money. As the latter influence became unbearable at various times in the history of Christianity, the splits appeared as the former sought the freedom to be Christians. Denominationalism has always been part of American life and introduced an element of competition and the ability to self-reform. In Europe, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation were a bloodbath! To this day, denominationalism outside England on this side of the Atlantic just doesn’t seem the “thing”. It’s OK for ethnic minorities but native (French for example) have a choice between Roman Catholicism, “mainstream” Protestantism or nothing.

Was it not Christ who warned that those who live by the sword would die by the sword?

The French Revolution showed what happens when the Church is tied to an unpopular kingdom, and why the nineteenth century in France produced two Liberal desires: the separation of Church and State and Ultramontanism. In Europe, the Church lost the working class as crisis followed crisis, caused by industrialisation and the hecatomb of World War I. They turned towards the various political demagogues of the twentieth century who seemed to have more to say than the increasingly irrelevant state churches.

Disestablishment of churches would not be the only thing to highlight, blaming Erastianism for everything, but to a significant extent. Free and independent churches, of sacramental and “reformed” traditions, also seem to be in decline. As in the twentieth century, some people are eager to listen to demagogues and Pentecostalist preachers of talent. Some are attracted to themes and ideologies similar to those of the 1920’s and 30’s in Europe. Many challenges to Christianity like New Age and the ideologies seem to have lost vital energy and are of appeal only to the margins. Doubtless, Churches that remain independent of the “mainstream” would seem to have more of a basis of credibility.

We finally come to a notion of some independent churches wanting to imitate and perpetuate trappings of their parent bodies as they were when they were connected with secular power. This idea will certainly question many of the cultural trappings we have: bishops’ violet cassocks, church buildings and ornate liturgies. I do notice that few people are turning to western sacramental Christianity or liturgical traditionalism. There are two possible answers: adapt the offer to the market or make Christianity such that it doesn’t need to attract those who are motivated by something other than Christ himself and their spiritual life. The latter is the way of the monasteries and the little Christian communities in the catacombs – the “creative minority”.

That seemingly “Jansenist” idea has been popularised by the quote from Pope Benedict XVI in his old Salt of the Earth interviews.

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.

The election of Pope Francis seems to have come to refute this essentially monastic notion of Christianity. Surely we are called to “market” what we believe to be good and true, by whatever means will draw in large numbers of people. This will remain one of our most debilitating dilemmas, bringing us to agonise over the kind of liturgy and culture we love, wondering whether it would not be better to give it all up and seek relevance in the changing values of the “market”. I think Benedict XVI’s idea was not one of turfing out all the “dross” and just keeping saints in the church, but not going out and appealing to the lukewarm at any cost – a question of priorities.

Are we to be cultural or counter-cultural? The question remains and will not go away. We in the ACC are certainly marginal, and we don’t keep people out. We give priority to traditional worship and what we believe to be right, and never mind if no one comes! It sounds a bit simplistic, but what else is there?

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10 Responses to Reflections on the Decline of Christian Europe

  1. Simone says:

    The limit of the “traditionalist” view is that it reduces christian life to individualistic worship, or to very segregated communities at best, while we are supposed to pursue togheter one with the others our salvation. Jesus founded its Church as a society were the individual is helped by the structure to fulfil his spiritual needs, not as an exoteric cult or a solipsistic philosophy. Then we are supposed to find our way in the parish nearby home. But what happens when that parish is all but catholic, and that’s also true for other parishes and maybe the whole dioceses? Shall we go anyway for clapping allelujas and priestess disguised?

  2. Stephen K says:

    This is always a challenging topic, Father! Though I’m not sure what we should be lamenting here. Being in a state where one is not aware of other ideas? Being in a state where to be different is to be outcast? Being in a state where, there being no question about what we ought to do or believe, we hardly think of them at all?

    Like all analyses, mine too is a distillation, from a vantage point. History is truly our mental construct – constructed with the raw material of things people do, but arranged in the order that makes sense to us, and this of course is always and necessarily filtered and biased. There is thus less objective history than we think we possess, but more than we might at any time know.

    I am reading a book “God is Not Yet Dead” by a Czech Marxist seeking and thinking he finds in Christian love inspiration and faith for a modern Communism, Vitezslav Gardavsky (Pelican 1973). I cannot reduce with justice his thesis and his many observations, but perhaps I might describe the layout of his chapters. In Part 1 “Monuments” he considers Jacob, Jesus, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Pascal. In Part 2 “Theism takes a look at itself” he considers “The Religious Crisis – One of History’s Tragedies”; “Universality and Particularity”; “Theology and Modern Man”, and “Appeal”. In Part 3 “Atheism takes a look at itself” he considers “Atheism within Socialism”, “The Emancipation of Atheism”, “Atheist Profiles” and “Marxist Atheism as Metaphysics”.

    Starting with the disintegration into denominations at the Reformation, here is what he says in the chapter on “Religious Crisis” which is germane to your post:

    “…..an ever-widening circle of people experienced the Christian religion as something heteronomous….. People are no longer gullible enough to put up with having their personal standards and the standards of society in general dictated by revealed truths. In fact, the reverse: they begin to feel that rather than being a law imprinted by the Creator on to their heart and on to the natural order, the revealed truths are not part of this natural order and are alien to it.”

    He does not attribute this to anything so simple as rational reflection or maturity. He thinks it is complicated, but rooted in economic changes in the later Middle Ages (as one might expect a Marxist to say) and the sociological dissipation of quarantined community(s). After considering Jacques Maritain, he separates the religious critical interpretations into two, a Thomist one “peculiar to the closed circle of Catholicism” and a non-Thomist one, which I would characterise in my own words as globalist.

    I haven’t read further yet, and indeed, it is Gardavsky’s earlier comments on the relevance of the Christian vision and challenge to be found in the Apocalyse of John that most intrigues me, But I will venture to suggest, in my own words, that (a) I am not so sure that people cease to adopt or act on “revealed truths”. Today, the revealed truths are those peddled in the marketplace where it is difficult to immediately discern what is science and pseudo-science; and (b) I tend to think that the abandonment of religious edifices (in the religious, as well as the architectural, sense) is because many people no longer see traditional religious narrative as anything more than the other marketed products with which modern advertising is bombarded. Since the religious services and buildings and artefacts follow the religious narrative by association, thus discredited, so, they too become dispensable then disused. The discrediting, by the way, is not principally the achievement of people like Richard Dawkins, but primarily, in my view, the own-goals of the official religious.

    If you look at today’s Western religious landscape, you will see that those who have largely abandoned traditional religious association or participation still recognise what I call the virtue in and of demotic service, that is, serving people where they are found. It does not stand, obviously, for the full richness of meaning that the Christian culture over the centuries has conveyed, but it is rather stripped of what many people would regard as dross or decadence.

    The photographs of derelict churches are always haunting and painful for those with a particular aesthetic and historical sense. But I keep hearing in my mind litanies like “Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return” and I think need to save my tears for more pressing living things. I am quite open to the idea that we are a species that will one day become extinct through our own excesses, or to the idea that Christianity may actually be a monument to our hunger for God, not a monument to God’s hunger for us, or alternatively, that Jesus WAS God and meant what he said that we must give up EVERYTHING (even what we love) for Him.

    • At the risk of sounding flippant, I once wrote an article about “giving up religion for Lent”. This seems to be a theme that is creeping into our consciousness and very much in the ideas of Dietrich Bonhöffer. The ultimate Christianity is not a religion but a total transformation of persons and communities, the contemplation of God in the mechanism and dehumanisation of a modern city. God would even be present in Orwell’s Room 101 as Big Brother’s torturer tells us that the future is a boot stamping on a human face forever. Alternatively, there is beauty when our human machinations are made relative to them.

      We live the drama of the great post-modern unknown to which our own mortality seems preferable. I don’t know what to think, whether our time heralds the end or a new beginning, but one that eludes us completely.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, you get what I am trying to suggest, Father. Perhaps like Communism, the Christian kingdom of heaven is an ultimate state here on earth, achieved through a similar process or revolution from the implosion of the self-cannibalising system (Capitalism :: Orthodoxy and Denominationalism). In which case it is an elusive and probably impossible condition and we find that the kingdom of heaven is nowhere if it is not within each of us alone. The truly counter-intuitive of the kingdom of Christ is that it is not a culture or system or regime of any kind at all or none that we can plan or consciously construct, but merely – and much more powerfully – a fruit of the abandonment of all ego and control whatsoever in the pursuit of brotherly and sisterly love.

      • Every time I go out in my boat, the Kingdom of God seems to be at sea. The sea seems to be about the best image of God that exists on this earth – eternal and infinite, unpredictable, kind and murderous, the greatest healer, the place where man finds his soul, a sensually heaving swell. Man can pollute and exploit the sea, but hasn’t won yet! I only have a ten-foot dinghy and can’t go very far, but there are advantages a big yacht doesn’t have. See my old article Temptation on the High Seas. Moitessier survived through his deeply spiritual view of life. Crowhurst was driven mad.

        Here are a few lovely quotes I have found:

        “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” William A. Ward

        “The ocean has always been a salve to my soul…the best thing for a cut or abrasion was to go swimming in salt water. Later down the road of life, I made the discovery that salt water was also good for the mental abrasions one inevitably acquires on land.” – Jimmy Buffett

        “The sea is the same as it has been since before men ever went on it in boats.” – Ernest Hemingway

        “A sailor’s joys are as simple as a child’s.” – Bernard Moitessier

        “Men in a ship are always looking up, and men ashore are usually looking down.” – John Masefield

        “It isn’t that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.” Sir Francis Drake

        “It’s out there at sea that you are really yourself.” – Vito Dumas

        “When I forget how talented God is, I look to the sea.” – Whoopi Goldberg

        My regret is that during the winter, my boat has to be laid up in my back yard waiting for the next spring!

      • Linus says:

        As the great Eric Voegelin would say, let us resist the temptation of Gnosticism to immanentize the Eschaton in our own world and time. The world was always post-christian – we get that even from the great Prologue of Saint John the Divine. So even at the dawn of Christianity, there was a feeling that the “world” was already post-Christian. Why, even the Brahmin to this day every morning greets the Sun, and invokes the aid of the divinity therein, as if the Incarnation never happened. For Christ the Logos is at once revealed and concealed – revealed in the testimony of the Church, and concealed in the acts and phenomena of nature – so that we have a both Grace and Nature to consider. Isn’t Beauty revealed when the two meet?

  3. Evagrius says:

    “yet surviving in America where there are just as many challenges like consumerism, moral laxity, education and modernity.”

    It isn’t. It is wedding itself to Mammon in the hope of fending off Moloch. The difference here in the UK is that we have surrendered to both.

    We live in something a little like a cartoon, in which the animal has run off the cliff and is still attempting to run furiously, and has yet to realise there is nothing beneath its feet. That is western civilisation. Rome has fallen, but no-one seems to have noticed the walls have come down, the enemy is within, the statues are smashed and the gold, increasingly, carried off. (I speak metaphorically, of course.)

    The West is dead. What I find amazing is that no-one has noticed that it was the Enlightenment which killed it.

    • What do you suggest? Find somewhere else in the world? I don’t ask you facetiously, just simply. Have you thought about it?

      • Evagrius says:

        Sorry for the delay in my replying.

        I have thought about it, Fr., and the simple answer remains: I don’t know. One of the few things we can do is attempt to rebuild the old syntheses in new ways, do the old good things with more vigour, and to cobble together the old forms of Christianity out of the material we find around and about us. We must use the elements of postmodernity to our own ends, inasmuch as we can. So I suppose my answer is twofold: first, we must be more Christian, not less (even to the extent of loading ourselves with more of our cultural baggage than would have seemed necessary in the past; in the postmodern world, semantic density is useful armour), and then to use this to reshape what is around us into a Christian image. We must be at once open to the world and ready to defeat it.

        If this is practicable, possible, or even coherent, I don’t know. I am assuredly not certain it is the right answer. I am a ‘Roman’, and that colours my views. It also gives me a certain perspective on how best to deal with modernity. Here in the UK, it seems to me that accommodation, or appeasement of the world has led to failure and visible death, while the more traditionalist approach is currently thriving (though whether that growth is parasitic on the larger Church – i.e., internal converts, without a significant external missionary success, or not, is hard to assess.) So I attempt to build an answer on what appears to be working for particular factions within the SRE.

        But then, how does one resuscitate a dying civilisation, split across thirty-odd nations and languages, and which started some two hundred years before your birth? Alas, the younger generations do not seem to be stuffed to bursting with Bonaventures, Hildebrands, and Raphaels.

      • Evagrius says:

        One further thought: Perhaps, as in the great Dark Age, the answer must come from a new Cluniac Order?

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