This Konrad Adenauer Stiftung symposium in Cadenabbia, Italy, began on Sunday by setting the scene for the main theme: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung. It did so by discussing Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. Day Two continued by examining Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit – looking at some of the challenges to religion in Europe and some of the cultural changes that lie behind them. Day Three focused on how several different religious communities are responding to religious pluralism: the Orthodox in East and South Eastern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church in France, and the Church of England in the light of increasing religious illiteracy. We concluded (prior to a boat trip across Lake Como in a thunder storm and visits to a couple of nice places) with a discussion about the future of religion in a pluralist Europe. Needless to say, the whole conference thus far has been intelligent, informed and fascinating. (Although, as usual, I feel like the dunce in the class…)

Professor Dr Radu Preda from the University of Babes-Bolyai in Romania did a superb analysis (in embarrassingly fluent German) of how the Orthodox churches have responded to the radical changes in East and South Eastern Europe: Die Situation der Orthodoxen Kirchen in den Transformationsländern Ost- und Südosteuropas. Acknowledging that Orthodoxy cannot speak with one voice – because of its national and ethnic ('tribal') polities – he went on to relate the church's mission in relation to territory and power. What is clear is that those churches that found freedom in the end of Communism have simply been so compromised by their allegiance to the 'new' political powers that they have lost their prophetic voice. The big challenges are (a) pluralism and (b) corruption.

This was followed by Professor Dr Henri Ménudier (Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle) describing the situation in France with its particular and unique process (ideology?) of laïcité. Addressing the title of Proposer la foi: Das Angebot der Kirche in Frankreich, he described the challenging situation facing the church there (what's new?) before going on to suggest where the challenges are actually throwing up opportunities where the church is willing to be creative. Inevitably, celibacy, women priests and the Roman Catholic Church's sacramental response to divorced people (50% of marriages in France, apparently) must be up for grabs. Pluralism is a further challenge, and he surprised me by saying that there is little dialogue between Christians and Muslims in France. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of social and political debates in France.

It is never easy to follow good, informed and fluent speakers on any subject and in any circumstances. Following these guys didn't exactly fill my heart with overflowing gladness. But, I had been asked to do a paper on Der Weg der Kirche von England gegenüber Unwissen und Distanz zu religiösem Glauben. I will post the basic paper separately, but I offered a glimpse of how we in the Church of England try to engage creatively in a context of pluralism, religious illiteracy and media variability in respect of religion in general and the church in particular. As always, the real value came in the questioning and debate that followed the paper. The point relayed back to me by both theologians and journalists (there are several serious journalists here, including the Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – and he is a really good bloke) was my comment that the church has always been a mess, is a mess, and always will be a mess…, so get used to it and relax a bit more.

After a heavy three days we spent the rest of the afternoon on Lake Como and continuing conversations into the evening. I know I am privileged to be here and to be invited to take part in conferences like this. I think, though, that such engagement feeds my mind and soul, represents the best Continuing Miniaterial Development that I cold ever do, and, at a time of great uncertainty about my own ministerial (episcopal) future, gives me the space to withdraw from the immediate pressures of the diocese and reflect on broader themes that shape how I see God, the church, the world and myself.

We conclude in the morning with further papers and discussion before headig for Milan and the long flights home to Bradford (via Munich and Manchester), but I probably will not get space to post before leaving.

 

‘Syncretism’ was a word I learned at theological college. It was pretty obvious from the way it was expressed that ‘syncretism’ is a VERY BAD THING. It basically means the attempted reconciliation or fusion of different or opposing principles (systems of belief), practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion. It is most often used by one religious group to demonstrate how another has become contaminated by elements of the dominant culture, thus rendering the group impure, suspect and, perhaps, heretical.

What is interesting about syncretism is the fact that whenever the charge is made, it almost always is selective. So, the ‘pure’ church can distinguish itself from the ‘impure’ (syncretistic) church by identifying the particular accommodations made by the other group to the ‘false’ culture. Of course, one of the biblical texts that can be ignored here is the one that refers to ‘motes and beams’ (or splinters and planks).

geiko muller-fahrenholzIt might seem odd that I have moved from misery about popular television yesterday to something more esoteric today, but the reason is simple: I have been reading a very interesting book. While at a conference in Paderborn last Monday, Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz gave me a copy of his book, America’s Battle for God: A European Christian Looks at Civil Religion (2007, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids/Cambridge). It is a fascinating analysis of the American psyche as seen from a European perspective and in chapter 3 he remarks on the selective nature of syncretism when used as a charge against others of the same faith. Having noted that superheroes such as Neo in The Matrix ‘are variations of the Christ figure, but with a “gospel message” markedly different from the biblical one’, he goes on to remark:

The point that concerns me most is that what we encounter here is an interesting – yet irritating  – example of syncretism: that is, a melange of Christian and non-Christian images and ideas… I am not overly concerned about religious syncretism, as long as it is understood as a phenomenon that is both unavoidable and constantly in need of self-critical appraisal. Wherever the Christian faith… has taken root, it has to some extent absorbed the cultural habits and religious traditions of its cultural context.

Now, that is undeniable. I hear people scream about all sorts of ‘compromises’ that suit the particular prejudices of particular groups, but no group of Christians (or human beings…) can be exempt from the cultural and social reality of being in the world at a particular time and place. Mueller-Fahrenholz goes on:

But the process of syncretism becomes dangerous when its reality is being denied: in other words, when and where religious communities claim that their message is the “pure” ancestral faith, the “orthodox” representation of the foundational message, then syncretism borders on heresy.

He then singles out conservative evangelical groups – but the critique clearly applies to other ‘parties’ as well – as being ‘deeply influenced by … modern … ideologies, though the movements’ members insist that they are nothing but purely biblical in their orientation’. He concludes as follows:

…it is this claim of orthodoxy that prevents them from seeing how deeply their faith has been invaded by contemporary, neoreligious winner-loser dichotomies.

51E%2B%2BywvS9L__SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_SS75_Basically, his charge is that those who claim most confidently to be ‘biblical’ are simply being (a) blind to their own syncretism and (b) selective in identifying (according to other assumed criteria) the ‘sins’ of others as being syncretistic while assuming that their own lifestyle is ‘orthodox’. For example, Jesus says a lot about money and little about sex. I have been asked to withold Communion from someone having an affair, but nobody has ever asked me to withold Communion from someone whose financial practices might be dodgy. Mueller-Fahrenholz goes on to look at American civil religion and the massive blind spots in American Christian culture – possibly only visible from the outside; the same exercise needs to be done for Europe. But the point is simple: we are all inevitably syncretists and, like alcoholism, the first step to addressing it is to admit it.

We see this running through the arguments in the Anglican Communion as well as other churches and religions. Half a century ago the Anglican Communion handled the matter of polygamy in Africa with wisdom, trust and generosity. The church always needs to have its robust debates about the Bible and ethics, but it also needs the debates to be characterised by what I have called in another context a ‘confident humility’. I can always spot the syncretistic compromises of  my neighbour whilst remaining blind to my own and convinced of my own purity of approach.

ThielickeI think it was the great German evangelical theologian Helmut Thielicke who was asked in a 1950s American seminary what he thought of women wearing make-up – the current divisive taboo. He thought in silence before saying something like: ‘It offends me so much that the tears run down my cheeks, along my cigar and drop into my beer’ – thus identifying a few other American evangelical ‘sins’ that simply weren’t ‘sins’ in Germany. Point made.