Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Is Europe an Exceptional Case? *

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Is Europe an Exceptional Case? *

Article excerpt

A number of factors must be taken into account if we are to understand the place of religion in twenty-first-century Europe. (1) These include the legacies of the past, more particularly the role of the historic churches in shaping European culture; an awareness that these churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of modern Europeans, even though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behavior of the great majority of the population; an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of the continent, which operate increasingly on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty; and the arrival in Europe of groups of people from many different parts of the world, notably the global South, with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host societies.

Each of these factors will be taken in turn in order to answer the question set out in the title: is Europe an exceptional case in terms of its patterns of religious life? The answer leads in turn to more questions. If we conclude that Europe is indeed "exceptional," why is this so? Or, conversely, why not? And what can we say about the future? Will Europe continue within the trajectory set by its past or will it become more like the patterns found elsewhere ? Or--it must be asked--will the rest of the world become more like Europe?

Cultural Heritage

Two points are important in relation to the role of the historic churches in shaping European culture; the Christian tradition is indeed a crucial element in the evolution of Europe, but it is by no means the only one. O'Connell identifies three formative factors or themes in the creation and re-creation of the unity that we call Europe: Judeo-Christian monotheism, Greek rationalism, and Roman organization. (2) These factors shift and evolve over time, but their combinations can be seen in forming and reforming a way of life that we have come to recognize as European. The religious strand within such combinations is self-evident.

One example will suffice: the Christian tradition has had an irreversible effect on the shaping of time and space in this part of the world. Both week and year, for instance, follow the Christian cycle, even if the major festivals are beginning to lose their resonance for large sections of the population. Or to put the same point in a different way, we have had heated debates in parts of Europe about whether or not to shop on Sundays. We do not, for the most part, consider Friday an issue in this respect--though this may change. The same is true of space. Wherever you look in Europe, there is a predominance of Christian churches, some of which retain huge symbolic value. This is not to deny that in some parts of Europe (notably the larger cities) the skyline is becoming an indicator of growing religious diversity. Europe is changing, but the legacies of the past remain deeply embedded in both the physical and cultural environment.

Vicarious Religion

Physical and cultural presence is one thing; a "hands-on" role in the everyday lives of European people quite another. Commentators of all kinds agree that the latter is no longer a realistic aspiration for the historic churches of Europe. That does not mean, however, that the churches have entirely lost their significance as markers of religious identity. In my own work, I have explored this continuing ambiguity through the concept of "vicarious religion." (3)

By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing. The first half of the definition is relatively straightforward and reflects the everyday meaning of the term--that is, to do something on behalf of someone else (hence the word "vicar"). The second half is more controversial and is best explored by means of examples. …

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