Religious Belonging in a Changing Europe

Essays in Ecumenical Theology I

The origins of this chapter go back to 2008, when as President of Societas Oecumenica I gave the opening lecture at its fifteenth academic consultation in Leuven. The title of the lecture and the main theme of the conference were identical, “Re-imagining Religious Belonging: Ecumenical Responses to Changing Religiosity in Europe”.1 Since that time religiosity in Europe has undergone further changes, and I have tried to integrate these in the current version of the text. The part on the changing context is completely rewritten, and other parts are significantly changed. The text as it stands also includes insights from two other lectures: one for the Table Society Europe on “Religious Search, Its Relation to Spirituality and to Religious Institutions in Contemporary Czech Society and Culture”, which I delivered in Prague in 2014, and which was never published, the other for the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) 2017 in Berlin, entitled “Ecumenical Situation in Europe”, which is due to be published in a prepared collective monograph.

This chapter focuses on three areas of interest, relevant for current ecumenical theologians investigating changes in religious belonging in Europe, and the impact these changes have on the vision of Christian unity, as well as on the models of good relations with others who travel with us on the way marked by an explicit or implicit desire for God and responsibility towards neighbours.

First, there is our changing context. It includes the alienation of churches in our societies on the one hand, and on the other, a twofold return of religion: in a “wild form” of religiosity where the border line between religious convictions and superstition is often unclear and as a rehabilitation of formal commitment to Christianity as a shield against Islam.

This takes me to the second area of interest, a focus on symbolic mediation. We need to ask why our contemporaries who, though realising that their religious search needs roots, only exceptionally return to our churches like lost sheep. What do our Christian symbols mediate and what do they fail to mediate? To introduce the theme, I will bring into dialogue the liturgical approach to symbols of Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983) and the anthropological approach of Paul Ricœur (1913–2005). Schmemann’s claim is that symbols become alive in liturgy from where they get their meaning, and where an all-embracing vision of life unites the world, the church and the Kingdom,2 while Ricœur claims that our whole language is symbolic, and that religious symbols unite in themselves all the human notions of the holy, as well as the non-figurative non-semantic transcendent moment.3 At the end of this part I will ask what images of belonging mediated by Christian symbols in our various traditions are at the same time part of the life-experience of our contemporaries, and what images represent a forgotten memory in which there is a potential for change.

Finally, the third area of interest continues and deepens the theme of belonging. Taking on board the changes in our context, the losses and the new possibilities, we need to ask what they mean for a confessional Christianity, within which the ecumenical movement has functioned and indeed reached some levels of mutual recognition of divided churches as parts of one body, of mutual cooperation in mission and social work, of consensus in various doctrinal, legal and to a degree even liturgical issues. In this chapter I will further consider the theme by pointing out three problems associated with our confessional belonging. The first is related to the question: to whom do we belong? The second asks about what kind of multiple belonging we practice. And the third focuses on the question: where is permanency in our belonging? All three, I believe, represent a challenge to re-imagining the unity of the church, and place the task of seeking unity into a wider context of relations to the world and to the Kingdom. They have to be dealt with both truthfully to our life-experience and to the “Other” making claims to us in our traditions.4 In the conclusion I will list questions I see as vital in the different areas of my theme.

Essays in Ecumenical Theology I

Aims, Methods, Themes, and Contexts

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