The Burden of Tradition
In addition to our weekly blog posts, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 8 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. To increase their circulation, our website will publish new pieces each week as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The State of the Church,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the first of eight installments.
The state of Christianity in Europe is deeply paradoxical. Christianity is woven into the histories and national identities of Europe’s peoples to an extent that is unmatched on any other continent. Mighty cathedrals still dominate the skylines of our cities, and churches are at the centre of our towns. Countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark are expressly Christian states with an established Church, whereas Norway has enshrined the country’s Christian heritage in its constitution. Whilst being on paper the most Christian of continents, the situation on the ground looks very different. Despite having been the centre of Christianity for millennia, Christian observance in Europe has plummeted drastically in the past 60 years. Europe is increasingly known as a bastion of secularism. This has occurred whilst Christianity worldwide has experienced rapid growth. What led to this weakening of Christianity in its previous stronghold, and what can the Church learn from this development?
What has effectively happened in many parts of Europe is that the Church has ceased to be relevant in people’s day-to-day lives and has been relegated to a role of representing tradition.
The state of European Christianity illustrates the danger that tradition can pose to the vibrancy of the Christian Church. What has effectively happened in many parts of Europe is that the Church has ceased to be relevant in people’s day-to-day lives and has been relegated to a role of representing tradition. The large institutionalised churches dominating the European religious landscape are increasingly functioning as venues for weddings and funerals, rather than as a community of believers. Christianity becomes a tradition that can be brought out for the Christmas season to get into the holiday mood. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with tradition, but a purely traditional faith is nothing more than culture. It lacks the dynamism that results from a more personally experienced faith. If the Church is complacent in limiting itself to this role, it will progressively become less present in people’s lives.
One observation I made living in Hong Kong was how differently Christianity was perceived in East Asia compared to in Europe. Whereas Christianity in Europe was associated with tradition, it was primarily associated with modernity in East Asia. This is of course conditioned by the different historical circumstances in which Christianity has developed in the two regions. Christianity has permeated virtually all aspects of European traditions in the centuries since it became the official religion of Rome under Constantine. East Asia’s historical encounter with Christianity, on the other hand, was tightly associated with encountering technologically advanced Western colonial powers. In an era where the West was seen as the epitome of modernity, its dominant religion came to be seen as the “modern religion.” Yale historian Jonathan D. Spence has, in particular, emphasised the importance of Christian mission schools as transmitters of Western science and medicine in 19th and early 20th century China. Furthermore, many of the most prominent voices for modernisation in China were devout Christians. Sun Yat-Sen, who is widely regarded as the father of the modern Chinese nation, is the most prominent example of a Chinese moderniser who believed that Christianity and modernity go hand in hand. Many of these trends have resurfaced again after Deng Xiaoping re-opened China to the world in the 1970’s. One example of such a trend is that numerous Chinese students become Christian when they attend school or university abroad. Given that they constitute a well-educated segment of the population, this contributes to Christianity being associated with modernity.
It is vital for the Church to be forward-looking, conceiving of itself as having a mission for the future, rather than becoming engulfed by concern for the past.
Put somewhat simplistically: in Europe, Christianity is seen as the past, whereas in East Asia it is seen as the future. Although the factors that brought these trends about can be difficult to reproduce, there is something to learn from this comparison. It is vital for the Church to be forward-looking, conceiving of itself as having a mission for the future, rather than becoming engulfed by concern for the past. To nurture such a forward looking perspective is one of the most important tasks ahead for the Church, especially in societies where Christianity is deeply ingrained in a country’s national tradition.
A faith primarily focused on tradition has the tendency of becoming an identity marker, rather than constituting a genuine relationship with God or a lifestyle of following Christ. European churches are particularly susceptible to this development due to their high degree of institutionalisation. Since institutional churches have a large administrative apparatus and a more hierarchical structure than independent congregations, they tend to be less dependent on the voluntary work of the congregation. As a result churchgoers feel less ownership and responsibility towards the communal life of the church; the church service will happen regardless of whether one helps out or not. Furthermore, since the European state churches are mostly financed by the government, there is less of a need for Christians to support their church financially. The danger is again that believers become less invested in their church and that religion, over time, thereby becomes less important in people’s lives. These might be some of the reasons for why Scandinavia has some of the highest church membership rates in the world, with over 70% of Danes and Norwegians being members of their respective Lutheran state churches, whereas only 3-5% of the population attends church at least once a month 1.
The challenges facing Christianity in Europe are largely related to the inability of the Church to be relevant in people’s lives: it either tends to be just a tradition or it is far too institutionalised. To bring Christianity out from the background culture and into people’s lives is the task that lies before European Christians. Such an effort requires a rethinking of how we conceive of living in community as Christians. To be a community of believers is much more than meeting in church on Sundays. What is largely lacking in European Christendom is smaller groups of Christians living life together; striving together to follow Christ. Investing time in building a community of fellow Christians around us is important in all contexts, but maybe nowhere as pressing as in Europe where Christianity is ever-present in tradition but often absent in people’s daily life.
Lucas Didrik Haugeberg (GS ‘18) is a Norwegian student in the Dual-BA program between Sciences Po Paris and Columbia University. He is an ardent traveller who enjoys exploring different cultures, cuisines and landscapes. Lucas loves discussing philosophy and politics, and he is particularly interested in questions relating to what constitutes a Good society. In the future Lucas hopes to follow Christ through a career in public service.
- “Denmark,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, September 13, 2011. ↩