Prof. Dr Sigrid Müller (University of Vienna): Challenges and Forms of Hope for Theology in Secularised European Societies [Conclusion]

The International Conference “Theology between secularization, secularism and multiculturalism”, held at CSWU on February 21, 2014, in Warsaw achieved its aim of promoting discussion about where the discipline of theology currently stands in contemporary Europe, and of creating an atmosphere of listening, learning, discussing, and questioning, and even providing those who attended with many perspectives that offered hope for the future.

The European Society for Catholic Theology tries to choose topics for regional conferences that are of special relevance to the region where the conference takes place. Our Polish colleagues, together with the representatives of the Committee on Theological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences (CTS PAS) decided on “secularisation, secularism and multiculturalism”, a topic that describes well the contemporary reality in Poland. Well before the conference, the topic made me fear that very diverse opinions would be voiced during the conference.

After the first two papers, however, it soon became obvious that differences were not so much the result of individual positions or theological traditions, but of the history and culture of the nations and societies in which we live, and of the experiences that we have within a particular nation or society. And different experiences that we have on account of our social and cultural milieu produce different ways of searching for answers.

The different approaches to the subject presented in the six papers during the conference proved both intriguing and stimulating. As a summary, I would like to share with other participants and interested theologians the gifts that I received personally during the conference. They consist of several small gift boxes containing different types of hope, each of them linked to a few questions and to personal challenges.

The first presentation

I take the sentence: “The Church has no recipe for dealing with secularisation”. But I would add: “but it holds out many ways to deal with it”. We have heard two proposals that focus on how we might deal with secularisation, which were very different due to the historical situation in the countries from which their authors came: Poland and Germany.

From what I have heard in the presentations about the situation in Poland, these days Catholic engagement in Politics is viewed with a certain hostility. The temptation arises amongst some people to wish for the opposite situation: that the Catholic Church might rule the country, and that the state and the Roman Catholic Church might be reunited. When we try to analyse the situation, however, a number of questions arise that call for answers, such as:

-          Why do people in Poland think that Christian belief is opposed to freedom? Is there possibly an intrinsic or historical connection between the aim of overcoming a long period of communist ideological and political oppression, on one hand, and a general reluctance to accept any type of system that is felt to be authoritarian any longer? Is the Roman Catholic Church perhaps classed as an authoritarian institution?

-          Why are the majority of politicians in countries where the majority of the population is Catholic not, as a general rule, Catholic themselves? Could one reason be that lay Christians have not learnt how to defend their views in public, or is it that Christians, in the current age, need to learn how to reflect upon and defend their values, since they are no longer shared by a majority of people in their society?

-          How can Christians help to ensure that the greater role that religion seems to play in the public sphere in countries outside Europe will foster equal social justice for all people, whatever their race, social status, gender, or religion? Should our solidarity with minorities sometimes be more outspoken and visible, in order to show in which way Christian values can contribute to and promote the wellbeing of societies?

The second presentation

I take it that “only those Churches will be attractive in our times that are able to listen to and to deal with the values that are important to people in a given society”, e.g. in Germany the question of being individual. Churches need to encourage authenticity and persons representing the church should speak and act in an authentic way. An understanding of Catholic identity as a dialoguing one has been favoured in Germany, where historical developments over the past centuries have made it possible for church representatives, engaged lay people and politicians to cooperate freely, and where it seems that nobody needs to justify himself or herself for defending Christian values, as long as they do not discriminate against minorities. However, other questions seem to arise in this context:

-          Are we, as Christians and as members of the Roman Catholic Church, prepared to accept that dialogue also means that we need to renounce power, and that we need to allow for and positively accept plurality in society?

-          Are we, as Christians and as members of the Roman Catholic Church, prepared to accept “real” dialogue within the structures of the church, i.e. to find ways of searching to do what is best for the church as a community and for its individual members in a true exchange between lay persons and the persons involved in the church’s hierarchical structures?

-          For the role I currently have I have been given a placard saying: “Before you speak, think!” In the context of this discussion and the insights in this paper, I could formulate our task as members of the Church as follows: “Before you speak, listen!”

The third presentation

I find the following reassurance consoling: “The situation is not that bad: God will stay with his people!” Desperation is not the right answer; the situation is rather to be seen as a personal challenge for ourselves as Christians. We need to ask ourselves:

-          What is the state of my personal faith: Can I say, as Adam Mickiewicz put it into poetry, “whatever changes around myself, my God will always be with me, he will never neglect this world”? Can I put my hope in God’s wondrous ways of interfering in history that leaves the decision open that through the decline of Christian culture God may lead us to something even better, e.g. towards a closer relationship of the people and religions of the whole world?

-          Is possibly the missing act of personal faith and the consequences this missing act of faith yields to one of the sources for the fact that Christianity does not seem to be convincing any longer in a secular world? This is how I interpreted the suggestion given in the third paper with reference to biblical passages, that sin could be one of the sources of secularism.

-          Obviously, secularism is changing the question of being Catholic from the question of belonging to a certain publicly visible culture to the question of making a personal decision and taking responsibility – also by personal conversion.

The fourth presentation

This presentation reflected the situation in the Netherlands. I take the thought that God is present in our very secular world – and that there are also moments and structures in this secular world where God is not present. It is with eyes that are trained and accustomed to see deeper realities that we can detect God’s hidden presence in the good that we can identify in our society and develop. It is through a biblically informed sensibility that we are encouraged to denounce evil and injustice in the world. We are encouraged to engage in the public sphere, to engage in “public theology”, even in completely secularised societies. We are invited to ask ourselves:

-          Can we develop new ways of acting sacramentally, or detecting sacramental structures and deeds in the secular world - a world that is secularised, but at the same time longs for signs of “the other”; for signs that transcend our worldly reality?

-          Can we see God’s presence in the secularised world, as well as in structures that promote freedom and well-being for human beings?

-          Are we motivated to engage in worldly affairs by talking to our neighbours and to other people active in our society, by explaining our values and aims and by contributing to the “good”, since we know that God wants “the good” for all people?

The fifth presentation

I will take home the picture that we, as Christians, are a part of the same body - not only as parts of the Church representing the Body of Christ, but also as parts of the body formed by all human beings in a society. As Christians, we would often like to be the heart and brain of the society in which we live, but maybe we should sometimes be modest and be happy simply with being a helping hand. Along the lines of the paper, we could ask ourselves:

-          Do we share the comforting thought that religious identity helps a person to live in a multicultural society, as exposed in some biblical texts?

-          If we experience Christ as the source of our lives, shouldn’t we be happy that we often can feel more secure than others in the context of a pluralistic society?

-          What can we learn from Ruth who needed to adapt to the values of a different culture?

The sixth and last presentation

This presentation reflected on the fast process of secularisation in Belgium. I was encouraged to develop a more self-critical, reflective and a more self-confident Catholic identity, all at the same time! Self-evident Christianity seems to have reached its end: to become a Christian involves making a choice, and deciding on that choice. Even in a country in which the majority of the population still declares itself to be Catholic, we are called upon to become more and more involved in dialogue and conversation with non-Catholics, non-Christians and non-believers. We might ask ourselves:

-          Does this dialogue gain its importance from listening openly and sincerely to others, and not, in first place, from aiming to convince them? In this way, I can learn about my own faith, as well as about the presuppositions I make, and about where I need to deepen my own personal faith.

-          Are we prepared as theologians to assist the church in teaching people how to deal with the challenges that our secular age poses?

-          How can theologians help students and the members of parishes to develop a reflective and self-critical attitude; a spirit of ongoing conversion through dialogue with others; but at the same time nurturing a peculiarly Catholic identity?

This is a short and selective personal harvest that has been taken from some very rewarding papers. They would merit far more detailed discussion. Therefore, I hope that the very selective way in which I have had to deal with the theoretically well-grounded lectures held at the conference, will stimulate further theological debate about the challenges and opportunities that secularisation, secularism and multiculturalism present for the church and for theology.