Saturday, February 28, 2009

When It Rains, God Is Dead

Err, it pours.  We meant that when it rains, it pours.

Just last night, courtesy of Charles Taylor, we were musing on the relationship between faith and reason, and the meaning of life in a secularized society.  Specifically, we were musing upon the role of the Reformation in secularizing the West.  And this morning -- behold -- the Times runs an article on secularism in the Lutheran nations of Scandinavia.

Obviously, their editors checked the Egg before presstime, to see what ideas were hot this week.

The article, by Peter Steinfels, describes the work of sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who spent months talking to Danes and Swedes about religion.  "It wasn't easy," Steinfels observes, because "Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world."  This is disconcerting, for those of us who care about such things, because they are also among the most Lutheran nations in the world.  And, strangely enough, Zuckerman's research shows that both statements are true.

The stories about just how irreligious the interview subjects are make for funny reading, at least if you don't care about the condition of their immortal souls.  They didn't want to talk about religion, or God, and when they did talk, it turned out they had nothing to say on the subjects -- Zuckerman's descriptors include "benign indifference" and "utter obliviousness."  Asked "basic "questions about God, Jesus, death and so on -- a phrase which seems to us self-contradictory, but never mind -- "thoughtful, well-educated Swedes and Danes" found the questions entirely novel: “I really have never thought about that,” one of [Zuckerman's] interviewees answered, adding, “It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”

Zuckerman seems most interested in the fact that, despite the dire warnings of Christianists, Scandinavia's secular society has not descended into amoral anarchy.  Apparently, he seems to say, it is possible to possess humanistic values even without locating for them a transcendent source.  He believes that he has found an answer to the question, "What happens to the Christian West when it is no longer Christian."

But the situation is more complex than this.  What Zuckerman actually found was this:

[t]he many nonbelievers he interviewed ... were anything but antireligious .... They typically balked at the label “atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Ah.  So the society isn't entirely secular -- people believe in God, and turn to the church for critical rites of passage.  It may be "social religion," but it is still religion.  And in fact, we're not even sure that's all it is:

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

Or, as an older fellow named Jens puts it:

“We are Lutherans in our souls — I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah. It’s an old, good, moral thought.”

That fellow defines Lutheranism in a peculiar manner, but one which would probably ring true for many of his compatriots.  A professor of ours once derided Calvinist accusations of "Lutheran social quietism," by pointing out that all the major social democracies were in Lutheran countries.  He was right, at least by Jens's understanding.  Luther, needless to say, would tremble in terror at the thought of his name being linked to a life of good works devoid of faith.

But that doesn't mean that Lutheranism, or Christianity, is a dead letter.  For the privilege of the church membership Zuckerman's subjects apparently continue, if we understand correctly, theys are required to pay an extra tax.  The national churches are official state churches -- although Sweden may have disestablished lately; somebody please fact-check us on this.  As we at the Egg have observed before, the presence of a state church supported by public money indicates a "Christian nation," in a way that, say, church attendance does not necessarily do.  In other words, from our perspective, Denmark is a Christian nation and the US is a secular one.

Now, there's still the matter of what people believe.  We'd very much like to know which "traditional teachings of Christianity" Zuckerman's subjects denied.  Because in American church pews, it is not remotely uncommon to find worshipers who blithely affirm the transmigration of souls, for example, or who deny the Real Presence.  In other words, many Christians quietly hold beliefs at odds with received dogma, and  -- while it is certainly a challenge for pastors -- it doesn't mean that they aren't Christians.  They're just wrong.

To put it another way, the Scandinavians do derive their values from a transcendent source.  But, through the generations, that source has been obscured.

So in fact, Scandinavia doesn't look quite so much like a test-case for pure secularism (which, at least until the Christianists win their Constitutional amendment, would be the US and maybe France).  Scandinavia looks more like what happens when the Church in a Christian society becomes complacent, and fails to teach doctrine firmly.  Society doesn't collapse.  People don't cease to be Christians, according to the loose definition they have been permitted to accept.  They just become Christian heretics who don't go to church very often -- an expression that would describe 10-20% of the membership roll at any congregation we have ever served.

We're not saying this is good, mind you.  Just that it's not really secular.

1 comment:

mark said...

I guess I would characterize them as hopeless rather than secular. Is that being too unchristian, Father?