Europe and the Failure of Orthodox Christianity


I have just returned from an extremely pleasant vacation in Denmark. Although it was mostly a purely escapist experience full of secular pleasures like watching movies and eating smørebrød, I also wanted to experience first hand one or more religious services. Unfortunately, my pre-trip research into the religious possibilities in Denmark confirmed in my mind the difficulties that lie ahead for Christianity unless it experiences a truly progressive reformation. More broadly, it demonstrated in my mind the correlation between the intellectual failure of orthodox Christianity and the need for just such a reformation in the face of a post-Enlightenment world.

I felt truly disappointed as I tried to search, in vain, for an organized expression of progressive Christianity in Denmark. Certainly it is hard enough finding progressive Christianity in a nation as large and religiously diverse as the US; in the tiny nation of Denmark, it was impossible. While there do exist pockets of organized progressive Christianity in American mainline denominations--with some congregations explicitly embracing the label, if not the theology, of progressivism, and with published authors like Marcus Borg and John Spong readily available in American bookstores--in Denmark, the situation is quite different. The only choice available to religious seekers within the Christian tradition is that of orthodoxy. When asked to choose between, on the one hand, abandoning one's intellectual foundations at the church house door in order to satisfy one's religious curiosity, and on the other hand simply leaving Christianity altogether, many Danes (quite understandably) choose the latter. They simply are not afforded the option of an intellectually viable religious experience that makes sense in the post-Enlightenment world. As a result, most Danes simply eschew religion altogether. This is, indeed, a phenomenon that we find throughout Europe, where religious attendance throughout much of the continent is quite low. And the blame for this low attendance, I believe, can be placed right at the door of the European churches themselves. As long as these churches insist that believers must adhere to certain dogmas that most modern Europeans simply can't accept, attendance will continue to be low.

The stranglehold that the orthodoxy has on Christianity is apparent in Denmark by looking at the denominational breakdown. One denomination in Denmark has a virtual monopoly on the Christian faith--the Danish People's Church, which is a state supported Lutheran denomination. There are, in addition, various small so-called "free churches", which do not rely on state funding. While the official Lutheran church is overwhelmingly orthodox in its theology, to its credit it is not fundamentalist (for example, a bishop from the Copenhagen cathedral stated in a Danish language interview that the Bible is "not a cookbook"). Unfortunately, with the exception of a small Unitarian church (which generally resembles UU churches in the US), the rest of the free churches almost without exception are more conservative theologically than the state church. These free churches include independent Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostalists, Methodists, and various evangelical churches. There are some English-language churches among these--including one that is run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and an Anglican Church. None of these appealed to me as a place where I would choose to attend Sunday morning services.

What is interesting to me about this is that this sad state seems to correlate rather strongly with the remarkably secular nature of Danish society. Despite the fact that Easter, Good Friday, and Maundy Thursday are national holidays during which most people get the day off from work, the Danish people almost entirely ignore the Christian religion. It being Holy Week, the state of Danish religious belief was discussed quite a bit in the national media during the time I was there, and the results were interesting. The English language weekly newspaper Copenhagen Post reported last Friday that, according to a recent poll, "only one in five Danes believes in the Resurrection and over 50 percent flatly deny that it ever occurred." A TV news report that I saw one day last week reported that over 50% of Danes never attend church.

The lack of religious diversity in Danish Christianity has led most Danes to assume that you have no choice but to toe the orthodox line in order to satisfy your religious cravings within the Christian faith. On Easter Sunday, as a matter of fact, one of the two major Copenhagen newspapers, Berlingske Tidende, claimed in an editorial that defended the notion of the literal resurrection that Christian belief is a "combined package", "a belief system...that one can either make up one's mind for or leave behind". This all or nothing embrace of the orthodoxy is, of course, complete nonsense. When Danes are repeatedly fed this lie, is it any surprise that so few Danes attend church?

The Easter issue of the New York Times magazine featured an article on Pope Benedict that underscores this problem. Throughout Europe, the rejection of organized Christianity is rampant: "In Western Europe as a whole, fewer than 20 percent of people say they go to church (Catholic or Protestant) twice a month or more; in some countries the figure is below 5 percent. In England, fewer than 8 percent go to church on Sundays," points out the article. At the same time, Americans report much higher church attendance. And yet--here is where it gets interesting:

But the story is more complicated than this. “The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions,” says the Spanish sociologist José Casanova, who is chairman of the sociology department at the New School for Social Research in New York and an authority on religion in Europe and the United States. “In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.”
In other words, there is a great, untapped religious craving that exists in Europe that is not being fulfilled. Could the reason it is not being met is that orthodoxy has a stranglehold on Christianity there?

The Times article points out that the lack of church attendance in Europe is largely a phenomenon of the traditional church services. In Catholic countries, for example, more innovative services that are lay-led are drawing people to them while conventional masses are often mostly empty of worshipers:
Data on declining church attendance obscure the fact that there is a good deal of spiritual hunger in Europe, but it is largely outside institutional religion, a phenomenon that the British sociologist Grace Davie calls “believing without belonging.” The Vatican is aware of this and says that the lay Catholic movements may represent a bridge, a way to bring the aimless, searching, largely secular Europeans back into the fold.
But it seems doubtful to me that the Vatican will ever bring secular Europeans "back into the fold" because these lay services exist precisely because they offer an alternative to what the Roman Catholic Church gives them. Whether these lay-led services are progressive in basis (which perhaps they are not) or not isn't necessarily the point; the point is that church attendance per se is not a true barometer of religious interest. The Vatican wrongly confuses the conflict as being between secularism and Christian orthodoxy, when in fact the real problem is that there are those who may wish to choose alternatives that don't fit neatly into that simple binary division--and many of those people may be attracted to progressive Christianity. As the Times article puts it,
But the problem is that the spiritual hunger that exists in Europe seems to be precisely for what the church can’t provide. Polls show that Europeans distrust institutions of all kinds. For an institution that is practically synonymous with hierarchy and control, the lay movements may represent as much a threat as a promise.
When all is said and done, the only way that this religious hunger can be satisfied is if Christianity is loosed from the bonds of orthodoxy and allowed to incorporate a post-Enlightenment understanding. Until a reformation of Christianity in this direction really takes place, large numbers of Europeans will continue to find their spiritual hunger unfulfilled.

All is not lost, however. There do seem to be signs of stirrings of progressive thought, at least within Danish Christianity, as I observed on my trip to Denmark. It is, of course, being met with the usual resistance from the guardians of dogma. The Copenhagen Post article that I mentioned above, for example, reports:
Svend Andersen, a noted professor of theology, recently said that the Resurrection should be seen as a "symbol", while bishop Jan Lindhardt of Roskilde diocese told metroXpress [a free Danish newspaper] that he did not feel concrete belief in the Resurrection was a necessary requirement for being a good Christian.

The remarks prompted Anders Dalgaard, vicar for the Church Association for the Inner Mission in Denmark, to request all the nation's bishops to send pastoral letters out to their parishoners stating that Jesus's rising from the dead is an undeniable dogma within the Chrisitan faith.
Svend Andersen, for the moment, appears to be something of a lone voice within Danish Christianity. He is a theologian, not a bishop, and while it is interesting to hear that bishop Lindhardt said that belief in the Resurrection was not a requirement for believers, it is worth noting that he himself did not express any such doubts of his own. In fact, the Danish state church has demonstrated that it will suspend any clergy members who do express such doubts, as it did a few years ago in the case of Thorkild Grosboel. Still, it is a hopeful sign that we are starting to see some cracks in the orthodoxy there, and perhaps these developments will lead to a future development in progressive Christianity within that nation and elsewhere in Europe.


Cynthia said...

Wow. Excellent reporting.

A dear friend of mine in Germany feels quite the same about church in her country.

Orthodoxy makes me weary.

Eileen said...

Excellent analysis, and, you basically honed in on all the quotes from the NYT article that struck me, and which I just didn't have time to quote.

What we have here is the desire to let a thing die, before they'd ever concede to let it change. Sad really.

The lay movement thing really intrigues me - it shows that spiritual needs are still out there. It's meeting them that will be the turn key in all this.