Echoes of Modernity in the Theologies and Praxis of Churches in Contemporary Latvia

Article excerpt

This article has two main purposes The first is to show how many of the issues the church faces today are a continuation of modernity. (1) We are living in times often characterized by the term "postmodernity" or "the other modernity". We need to remember that "modernism may be dead but, behind the facades of postmodernist architecture, it is certainly dominant" (2). The second purpose of this article is to interpret what these signs of our age mean for the mission of the church in the context of a post-socialist society, and how the church is reacting to them.

There are several issues that can be listed as going back to modernity:

1. Growing secularization of society

At the beginning of the nineties, Latvia, like other post-socialist countries, experienced national revival. The fact that its supporters indulged in this revival with an enormous intensity of devotion, and that for many people this highly ritualized movement gave meaning to life, points to the quasi-religious character of the phenomenon. At the same time, it activated institutionalized religions. Many people thought that this upsurge in nationalism was a sign of a long-awaited religious revival. Now that we are able to look to the recent past from the distance needed for a balanced analysis, we can begin to deconstruct both the national and religious revivals.

The process of political change at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s was very complex and should not be explained as a miraculous result of an awakening of a mysterious national spirit. It was partially inspired and monitored by the old regime, which was the same force that later failed to control it. We should also admit that religious renewal did not have a continuous impact.

According to sociological polls, about 300,000 to 600,000 persons in Latvia consider themselves Lutherans but only 30,000 are official members of the church. Of these, only a third (10,000) attend worship services regularly. (3) The dean of the Riga city district of Lutheran parishes, Janis Ginters, reports that in spite of the fact that the number of parish members in Riga has continued to grow, local churches have had to strike off from the list of active members quite a number of individuals.4 The Lutheran archbishop Janis Vanags says:

In the pre-war state of Latvia, Lutherans may have been a "people's church" but the Soviet occupation took from it any chance to be like that. In Soviet times faith was not a normal element of everyday life but something that took courage and sacrifice in honour of Christ... Today many "people's churches" are living off their great historical heritage. The Latvian Lutheran Church does not have this privilege. It has to work in the free market of denominations, religions and philosophies. (5)

I agree, and would add that even before the second world war the Lutheran church was not the people's church, in spite of attempts by the political powers to place it on the pedestal of national religion. Lutheran pre-war historian Ludvigs Adamovics has admitted that the independence of Latvia in 1918 did not put a halt to the crisis of Lutheranism. Since then, the people's church has remained more an ideal than a reality. (6) The statistics for Baptists are also worrying. There is still a small growth in membership but, compared with 1999 and 2000, the number of new members in 2001 slightly decreased. (7)

Living in a minority situation puts an additional burden on the church. At the same time, it frees the church from the laziness of status quo religion and motivates it to be a community of committed people. The process of transition for churches in post-socialist countries, which for many years have existed without enjoying any privileges, happens to be easier than for mainline western European churches. In eastern Europe, however, overcoming the inherited dualism is difficult and the risk of becoming a self-righteous community is higher. …