Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Incredible Lightness of Being....secular

We complain quite a bit in the United States about the absence of God from public venues. And when one travels to Europe the void is, by comparison, substantial. While I've been here, the village church bells have greeted each morning, Catholic and Protestant bells both heralding the new day with great fanfare at 7AM. There's another fanfare at noon, and a final at the closing of the day at 6PM. The bells at the top and quarter of every hour all day, and even in the middle of the night, if you happened to be up because you're bothered by jet lag, or because you want to check the Seahawk score, the bells are ringing - more quietly, but still active at the top of each hour.

Then there are the crosses on the summit of mountains. A new cross has just been installed on the top of the Dachstein, and I'm told it was greeted with much fanfare, including the presence of the local pastor to bless the event. Don't forget the prayer days in school, religion and Bible classes for all children, and holy holidays. Whenever I hear statements, made by the religious right in the US, about secular Europe, it's hard not to start laughing.

Whenever I'm here I ponder the relative value of the respective models on both sides of the Atlantic. We think we have culture wars in America, but ours are child's play compared with what's unfolding in Europe. Because the symbols of the state are the symbols of Christ, there's no way for Muslims not to feel completely marginalized in Europe. Thus, the Christian symbols are challenged, sometimes violently, by those who reject them, resulting in heightened cultural/religious tensions. What's a European government to do? Take the crosses off the mountains? Take the bells out of the churches? Or should the symbols of Muhammed and the Buddha be added to mountaintop, along with daily calls to prayer, and Tibetan gongs ringing in the villages? Neither option will be acheived without intense grief, anger, perhaps even bloodshed (there's been some already).

And so, in light of the culture wars on this side of the pond, our secular state, in the present moment, seems quite appealing. When the state is careful to sanction no particular religion, the playing field, in theory at least, is levelled. Thus there's room at the table for Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Christian. All can drink from our cultural fountains because they stem from a river of neutrality. Are there liabilities to this secular state? Too many to name in this short space. And it's nice to wake up each morning to church bells.

On the other hand... in a shrinking world and global economy, it seems that any state that is deeply grounded in one particular religion is sure to face tensions and turmoils that would have been inconcivable even 50 years ago, when the world was much larger, cultures more monochromatic, and answers easier if only because the dialogues unfolded amongst people with a general cultural consensus. Those days are gone forever. In their place: pluralism - and I'm wondering what you think - is secularism a more workable model for times such as these?


At 1/12/06 15:09, Blogger lantius said...

I was thinking of this very topic today when I was reading about the controversy surrounding Keith Ellison's desire to be sworn into Congress on the Koran rather than the Bible.

I say, if the state will be kind enough to stay out of my Church, then I'm willing to keep my Church out of their state. It doesn't seem to do either of them any good to get intertwined.

At 2/12/06 11:23, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While in Italy for several months I had the privilege of attending the local "American" church. Though technically one denomination, it was made up mainly of Protestants from across the spectrum who wanted to be able to worship together in English.

Amazingly there were people from about 35 different countries, many from Africa (thus "American" was a bit of a misnomer). The problem was that many of these people felt marginalized by Italian society because they were not Catholic and because they were not "Western." One of the few places they were welcomed was the American church, even though it meant learning a third language for many of them. I was surprised that these African Christians were so marginalized from the society and if they are, then how much more so would be an African Moslem?

I often wondered if having a state sponsored religion further alienates these immigrants who already stand out simply because of their skin color. It gives them one more reason to feel as if they do not belong there. A mosque was planned to be built in Tuscany and there was uproar. Does this “force” immigrants to become Italian Catholics if they want to remain? Yet, knowing that racism runs very deep in much of the region, I have a feeling they wouldn’t even be welcomed if they were to convert. Is it religion, or is it culture and history, or further yet a combination?

At 3/12/06 20:10, Anonymous Dave said...

In Venice recently, there were so many bells ringing in the morning that I about to evacuate...

At 4/12/06 21:11, Blogger scott becker said...

Excellent question, Richard. As you know, Bonhoeffer developed this topic at some length over his last several months in prison. He went so far as to suggest that the world's autonomy from God--its capacity to reason "as if God were not a given"--was a sign of maturity that the church should welcome and not resist. In this context, however, the church is not to withdraw from politics, but to encounter it with a God “who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.” Bonhoeffer continues, "The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.”

I would want to make sure, however, that in embracing secularism we don't relinquish some of the symbols and images that describe God's work in the world, and thus lose important resources in our struggle against injustice: the images, for instance, of the Exodus, the Good Samaritan, and the healing of the man with the withered hand, which have played such important roles in the Civil Rights Movement, Abolition, rescue efforts during the Holocaust, and recent efforts to work for better living conditions for working immigrants.

Perhaps the question is whether, by secularism, we mean a flat out ban against all faith claims or simply a willingness not to establish any one worldview (whether theological or non-theological) as the required context for political discourse. It seems to me that a flat-out ban on religious language in politics would become both impossible and oppressive: the dominant worldview would become the only acceptable one, and voices of protest fueled by alternative worldviews would be silenced. But what if people were encouraged to participate on the basis of whatever traditions shape them--Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Pagan--with the one expectation that participants in political discourse learn to listen to one another, to phrase their objections civilly, and to work together to discover areas where their social concerns overlap? I don't this is all that unreasonable.


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