Translation Tony Dickinson
Must Christianity’s increasing numerical weakness in Europe lead us to write it off as a dead loss? Has the time come to move on to something else? Henri Persoz finds in his practice as a preacher reasons for restoring the essence of Christianity; a restoration more necessary than ever to respond to human problems which have not disappeared.
Christianity’s loss of influence in Europe is sadly obvious. Protestantism in Germany, in Switzerland, in the countries of Northern Europe, is experiencing a startling decline. Catholicism in France is losing a lot of ground. If anyone needs convincing of that, they only need to look at the impressive thinning-out of the number of priests. Among our friends and neighbours Christianity does not have much meaning today.
I see the reasons for this situation in the fact that the Churches, on the whole, have not adapted to modern times. Too often they still hold on to a language that is several centuries old andand inherited from a still more distant epoch. They have done that so well that for many their speech has become incomprehensible and of no interest. What do these stories mean for our contemporaries, stories which tell of incarnation, of redemption, of crucifixion, of resurrection, of sacrament, of a man who is also God? How can his death on the cross concern us? Why did Christ save the world? And why had he not done that already? Who can believe that he is going to come back to earth? None of that any longer has much meaning for today. It is hardly surprising that our contemporaries, our young people, are no longer interested in these old stories which are too distanced from reality and from the difficulties of their lives. Admittedly there are still believers and a few people in the churches, though they are not, it is true, very young. However, in Europe we count many more non-believers than believers and more people outside than inside churches. So Christianity is clearly in decline today. Now that it no longer represents a social obligation, it does not succeed in drawing crowds, except, perhaps for the so-called “evangelical” tendencies.
And yet it has moulded our civilisation. It has defended, albeit rather late, equality among people. It has led governments to humanise the law, it has allowed the development of much practical solidarity. It has steered many men and women toward the care of the most impoverished. It has defended freedom. Luc Ferry in his book “Sagesse d’hier et d’aujourd’hui” has plenty of criticisms regarding Christianity. However he recognises that “the Christian moral code has given splendid wings to the fundamental principles of the great aristocratic ethics of [ancient] Greece.” He speaks “of a revolution on a colossal scale, to tell the truth the only important moral revolution in the last 2000 years”. He writes that it is not a coincidence if democracy has developed in Christian territory and nowhere else. Let us acknowledge that his words may have rather overtaken his thinking. From where does this great contrast come between the contribution of Christianity in the past, notwithstanding the great errors of the Churches, and what it has become today? Has its mission been accomplished? Far from it, in my opinion.
Certainly it has to be recognised that Christianity is more than 2000 years old and that during this time civilisation has been completely transformed by advances in knowledge, particularly in the sciences. And we can no longer think of Christianity as it was originally conceived, nor as the great theologians of the first centuries or the Middle Ages formulated it. Jesus himself was immersed in the culture of his time and undoubtedly had a view of the omnipotence of God and of the end of the ages which are no longer possible for us. It could be objected that Christian thought has itself evolved greatly and that its language is well adapted to the modern age. Not sufficiently precisely, since too many of our men and women today can no longer adhere to it. Nobody understands anything about the Trinity, but Christians are supposed to believe in it. Why was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary to wipe out the sin of humanity? Why did it save us? How could God accept that? And how can we believe that a life beyond death is still possible? Too much mythology and irrationality remains in all these doctrines for them to be able to attract the adherence of a great number of our fellow-citizens. Very logically, they turn aside from it.
So why remain a Christian? Precisely because in one sense Luc Ferry is right. Beyond the mythology in which Jewish culture (and still more the other cultures) was immersed at the beginning of our era, and which inevitably impregnated the gospels and the writings of the apostle Paul, Jesus tirelessly recalled the dignity of every human person and the solidarity which must of necessity accompany all relationships between human beings. He certainly saw that people thought of themselves too much and not enough of their fellow-creatures, that they were too dominated by their egoism. 2000 years have passed, but people’s problems remain and drag them along towards the worst catastrophes. That is why the Christian ethic is still necessary in our world with its excessive tendency to be dominated by the search for profit and its lack of consideration for ordinary people, those who struggle to survive or to live decently.
The gospels are impregnated by mythology. In that era it was impossible for them not to be. The Churches turned that into dogmas, also present, to an extent, in the gospels. But they no longer speak to us today. Most are no longer important. On the other hand, beyond what we can no longer believe, everything that Jesus says, and all his encounters, speak to us about the necessity of behaving differently, of paying more respect to human beings, of carrying out our personal revolution, of entering a new way of thinking, a new kingdom, of letting oneself be guided more by love. “That is the blood of the Lord” wrote Ignatius of Antioch. And that is The essence of Christianity, in accordance with the title of the book by the great German theologian Adolf von Harnack. The forty years that I have been preaching are forty years when all too often I fall back, through the chosen biblical texts, onto this hauntingly obvious fact: Jesus wants to lead his people towards a moral revolution. Let us notice, moreover, that this message has always been detected, down the centuries, by a great number of Christian thinkers. In our day, and on the Protestant side, “social Christianity” has take up the flame. Basically I think that it is because of this message that we must continue to support Christianity. In the world it is still inspiring countless good actions, countless commitments in countries in distress. Admittedly other cultures and other religions have the same motivations. So much the better. But I was born into Christianity and that is what I support because that is what I know.
I have always sought, in explaining biblical texts which are sometimes very difficult to understand, to allow myself to be guided by reason. In opposition to Thomas Aquinas,, I think that it is theology which must be at the service of reason; and not reason at the service of theology. When all is said and done, the preaching of Jesus is in no way opposed to reason, from the moment that we become interested in the main thrust of his message and not in his manner of expression, which is too marked by his era and his culture. That is why it is still accessible for our modernity, and even highly necessary.