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The Church and societal change

Jean-Marc Tétaz

Translation Tony Dickinson

* [Translator’s note] In French Protestantism a “multitudinist” church is one which does not demand a profession of faith from its members but welcomes all who are seeking God, as well as their families, and which conducts baptisms (including infant baptisms), marriages and funerals for people who are not church members.

Theological thinking about the Church has for a long time concentrated on talk about the dogmatic teaching of the Church, what is called in theological jargon « ecclesiology ». It has been about explaining the essential characteristics of the Church, the characteristics which define what the Church is and must be. It has been oriented either according to the formulations of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed (381) which characterises the Church as « one, holy, catholic [in other words universal] and apostolic », or according to the confessions of faith of the Reformation, at the heart of which the « Augsburg Confession » (1530) has traditionally enjoyed a particular authority. This defines the Church as « the assembly of all the believers among whom the Gospel is purely taught and the holy sacraments administered in conformity with the Gospel », underlining that, for the most part, a diversity of rites and practices is compatible with the unity of the Church (article 7).
Theology and sociology
This way of proceeding hardly allows any theological legitimacy to sociological and anthropological approaches to ecclesial reality. That results in the existence of three parallel ways of talking about the Church: theological presentations, attentive to what is at stake doctrinally, empirical descriptions, which provide evidence of the growing disenchantment with the dominant ecclesial model, and sociological and anthropological theories which question the function of religion in relation to society and to the human being.
The risk of this tripartite approach is twofold. First, it prevents theological reflection about the Church and the analysis of modern societies from being mutually fruitful. Protestant ecclesiology too often remains blind to the profound changes through which modern societies have passed and are still passing. Confronted by the often discouraging results of empirical research, the Churches are ill-equipped to interpret these results within a wider framework and to formulate a response adequate to the situation. Hence the activism of programmes of institutional reform in protestant circles. This sociological abstinence does not, of course, mean that theologians are unaware of the social changes that are taking place or that they do not read sociological writings.
This is where the second risk arises. As the relationship between theology and social theory (or religious theory) has not been the object of specific reflection and recognised in its theological legitimacy, certain elements arising from social theory or anthropology are making an uncontrolled comeback in theological exposition. It would not be difficult to show how the ecclesiology of protestant theologians in the 20th century was secretly dependent on sociological theories. Protestant ecclesiology has most often taken shape as an anti-modern project. The majority of protestant ecclesiological projects developed between 1850 and 1950 conceived of the Church as « the institution which incarnates a successful anti-modernity » (F.W. Graf) and proposed « counter-cultures in relation to modern society” (E. Hauschildt/U. Pohl-Patalong). All the conceptions of the Church as a community based on the authenticity of interpersonal relations, in opposition to a society deemed to be depersonalising, follow this line. The ecclesiological programmes of figures as central for contemporary Protestantism as Karl Barth, Friedrich Gogarten and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have moreover been the subject of instructive analysis from this angle in recent years. The same applies to programmes which seek to reinforce and revitalise parishes by favouring the integration of the greatest number in parish life (an idea which came to birth in Germany at the end of the 19th century).
Rather than simply juxtaposing empirical sociological research and dogmatic ecclesiology as we come to a dead end on the theory of society, it is preferable to start a dialogue between these three approaches. This is the approach developed, especially in Germany, under the name of « Church theory ». « Church theory » suggests taking a sociological and anthropological approach to religion in order to reinterpret, on this basis, dogmatic pronouncements on the Church. The object is not to replace theology by sociology or anthropology, but to develop a theology which is sensitive to the realities of contemporary society.
Three characteristic concepts of our society
We can attempt to synthesise the characteristic features of contemporary societies with the help of three concepts: functional differentiation, secularisation and liquefaction. It is necessary to say a few words about each of them.
Differentiation. The evolution of western societies since the 18th century has seen the principle of functional differentiation impose itself more and more. This means that, in modern societies, each social function (law, economy, science, art, education, etc.) is taken care of by a specialist subsystem, which is broadly autonomous (justice, economic organisations, the universities and other academies, colleges, high-schools, etc.). Each of these subsystems possesses its own logic, but also its own language, as is attested by the development of specialist jargons, such as the language of lawyers, or that of economists, which are by and large incomprehensible to the general run of humanity.
Secularity. In traditional societies, and up until the dawn of modern times, religion provided the framework within which the totality of human activities and social practices belonged. It defined the values and the rules which were imposed on everyone, de jure or de facto. With the processes of functional differentiation religion lost this function of social integration. It became a matter of personal choice. In modern societies, each person is free to adhere to a religious faith or to declare that they are agnostic or atheist. And each person is free to change their religious allegiance. Neither in the one instance nor in the other does anyone have to fear any social, legal or political penalty. It is in this precise sense that all modern societies are secular societies: the secular option is open to anyone. French laïcité is one of the legal and political forms that secularity can take. But we have to be careful not to confuse the secularity of modern societies with the secularisation thesis. The latter affirms that the processes of modernisation have as a necessary corollary a loss of social relevance of the religious which will lead in the more or less long term to the marginalisation, or even the disappearance of religion. This conception of secularisation is undermined by empirical observation. Apart from the fact that the withdrawal of religion seems to be a development specific to certain European societies, we can still see, even in these societies, a renewed social presence of the religions, for better or worse.
Liquefaction. The final essential feature in this overview is the way in which social institutions and individual commitments have become fluid. The metaphor of the « liquid society » is attributable to the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. By this term he described a society in which the predominant economic logic brought about a destabilisation of all social structures. The institutions and social frameworks which provided a certain stability to the individual lives of past generations have lost their influence. The course of life has become chaotic and unpredictable, undermining the existentialist ideal of a life plan. The instability of the social world no longer leaves space for routines and habits which give a rhythm to everyday life. This liquefaction of the social world reflects individuals’ behaviour as they adapt to the prevailing instability.
The Church must adapt
These three features of contemporary societies entail three consequences for a theory of the Church. Religion does not escape global societal development; it is organised in its turn in a specific sub-system (churches and other religious communities) and so is equipped with its own language in which it expresses the problem for which it is responsible. As an initial approach let us say that it has to do with understanding the irrational aspects of the world and of existence, what happens without our being able to understand why, without being able to give it meaning. We talk readily in this regard about contingence. The function of contingence is to permit the control of contingence and transform it into meaning. As a result the Church has to understand itself as the institution which specialises in communication about questions of meaning.
The fact that our society is secular implies that adherence or affiliation to a religious community is, de facto and de jure, a matter for individual decision. Each person chooses whether they wish to link up with a religious community and determines freely the form which this link will take. The voluntary and individual character of religious belonging puts the Churches in competition with other offers of meaning, whether it’s more or less esoteric spirituality or philosophy (the very specific shape of French philosophy is incomprehensible outside the framework of French laïcité). One of the consequences of the secularity of the modern world is the individualisation of religious beliefs and practices. Whatever the mode of their self-understanding may be, the Churches have become in fact associative institutions, even if their offers of meaning are addressed to everyone, and not only to their members. People participate in the activities of a Church because they recognise themselves in the ideas and ways of life which that Church puts forward. Finally, the secularity of modern societies has as a corollary the coexistence of religions in the same social space. The Churches have to sign up for a pluriform religious field where not only different Christian confessional options, but also other religions, such as Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, are present.
The fluidity of contemporary societies spares neither the religious institutions nor their memberships. The one and the other become in their turn ‘liquid’. Each person chooses if s/he wants to participate in religious activities and selects the activities in which s/he is interested according to the needs and wants of the moment. But this participation does not necessarily involve lasting loyalty. It can be revised or modified at any time. Religious institutions have to adapt their offer to new patterns of life in a society which grants more and more importance to unprecedented experience, to event, to leisure and to self-realisation. In the domain of religion, too, the individual adopts the attitude of a consumer; so, the religious field takes on more and more the traits of a market in which the offers of the Churches are in competition with other religious offers, but also with manifold leisure activities, which all battle it out in order to gain the attention of individuals. If the Churches want to be heard, they must put forward offers which appear relevant to individuals within the framework of a fluid, secular society.
Offering resources for meaning
« Liquid » contemporary societies expose the individual to increasing contingence, since they undermine the framework of stable societies, daily routines and lasting commitments. Individuals can no longer rely on social institutions to ensure the survival of their identity. Constant reinvention is necessary, and so, of course, is the reformulation of the question « Who am I? » That confers a turbulent, incoherent and unstable character on biographies. Secularity, furthermore, confronts individuals with the necessity of defining for themselves what a successful life is, and therefore the way in which they understand what is good. They can no longer rest on a concept of life which is self-evident in society or in a social environment. The interpretation of one’s self, of life and of the world becomes a task which involves everyone. Religion is connected to the contradictions of the modern world. It has to provide resources of meaning which allow individuals to formulate a response, always provisional, to the question of their identity at the heart of these contradictions.
If contemporary societies exacerbate the need for this search for meaning by submitting the biography of individuals to contradictory constraints, they did not invent it. This plea for meaning is tied to the very nature of the human being. As self-conscious beings, human beings must be the subject of their life, ready to assume responsibility for their actions and their choices, and to answer for them before another. The anthropological function of religion consists in providing resources for meaning capable of supplying individuals with schemes of interpretation which allow them to confer a meaning on contingence, this contingence which contemporary societies exacerbate, and then to understand themselves as the subjects of their existence. The relevance of religion is then down to its capacity to put forward interpretations of life’s course which have the potential to integrate this contingence without denying or erasing it.
In contemporary societies the Churches are the institutions which specialise in religious communication. A communication is religious when it suggests an interpretation of experiences of contingence which works with the difference between immanence and transcendence and thus allows these experiences to be given a new and original meaning. From a rhetorical perspective one can describe religious communication as a process of turning contingence into a metaphor of transcendence. This process does not have recourse exclusively to verbal communication; rite, imagery and music are equally forms of communication which the Church has to use.
In contemporary societies, the interpretative frameworks put forward by Christianity (creation of the world, divine providence, justification and forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the dead, etc.) are no longer self-evident. Their meaning has become opaque to the majority of our contemporaries. In order to be able to assume the function devolved to religion, (protestant) Christianity must submit its doctrinal content to a profound work of transformation to restore their meaning for people today. This work must be carried out in close connection with contemporary culture. In this context, art plays an essential role. Artistic creation invents, in effect, new languages in which the contemporary forms taken by problems of meaning express themselves. Samuel Beckett offers an excellent example of this. But the same applies to contemporary music or the plastic arts. In this dialogue, the doctrinal content of Christianity can then be reinterpreted with the help of motifs and figures borrowed from contemporary culture, these motifs and figures receiving in return a new significance and scope. The common goal of this two-way process is the interpretation of the biography of individuals within the much larger setting of the world where every life story is inscribed: religious communication enables the individual to tell his life story differently, using resources from the reformulation of Christianity. The work of reformulating the doctrinal content provides, in a manner of speaking, a repertoire of metaphors with which religious communication will work to make new meaning spring up for individuals. It also allows people to transcend their life history.
Religious communication is the form which must be taken by what the Confession of Augsburg calls « instruction in the Gospel ». It is not, however, about a simple change in terminology. Instruction is a one-directional process: an instructor (the pastor) gives an instruction (the sermon) to those who are being instructed (the people listening to the sermon). Communication, on the other hand, is an interaction. Starting to think in terms of communication has the result of transforming the conception of preaching: the preacher no longer confronts his audience; he is himself a member of the community. Preaching is a suggestion of meaning which the preacher offers to the people he is addressing because he personally subscribes to it; it is not the proclamation of an absolute truth to which he should give his assent. It is this conception which Schleiermacher sketched out in his theory of the mediator in the addresses « On Religion » (1799). The mediator is the one who reveals to the other his religious life and so arouses a religious life of the same order in the other with whom he is communicating. So the theological theme of revelation is interpreted in the setting of a theory of religious communication: to be the bearer of revelation is to communicate a new manner of self-understanding, a new life, and to arouse the newness of life in the other. Also each person can be a religious mediator for the other. Between the preaching of Jesus and a conversation between two people the difference is only gradual. We are a long way from the Barthian concept of revelation, to which human beings can respond only in the mode of obedience!
Presence in society
The fundamental task of a protestant church in contemporary society consists in offering places in which individuals can find resources of meaning in order to interpret their biography. This thesis entails two consequences: the rejection of all models which turn the Church into a « counter-culture opposed to modern society » and the option for a multitudinist* conception.
The temptation to conceive of the Church as a « counter-culture » can take various forms, starting with the search for the village idyll lost to communitarianism. Each time it is about stabilising a personal identity exposed to the contingence of life histories and to the responsibility for choosing values and personal loyalties as this identity is registered in a social group which guarantees a mooring in a community and a person to person solidity. To this end we generally mobilise images from the past which put forward normative models of life and strongly integrated frameworks of life, in contradiction to the dominant tendencies in contemporary societies. Programmes of reform which aim at reinforcing the local community most often obey this logic. The same applies to communities which have signed up to the evangelical movement.
This form of religious integration is exposed to a twofold risk. First, it deprives itself of the possibility of recognising, greeting, and assuming the religious legitimacy of values, precisely those which are typically modern, such as the recognition of individual rights (recognised formally as human rights). That amounts to making, on this point, common cause with conservatism. Then, and it is the paradox of this kind of programme, the formation of strongly integrated groups serves only to increase overall social disintegration and the religious pluralism which they claim to be combatting. For the model of identity which they are promoting inevitably represents an additional option, and moreover one that is exclusive. Furthermore, this model understands itself as incompatible with at least the majority of the other options available, whose legitimacy it must, as a result, challenge. The integration which it proposes is possible only at the price of a kind of internal emigration which gives binding effect to a religious language, a life-style and a way of commitment, all deemed inviolable. The success of this anti-modern project comes at a high price: the loss of religious relevance for a Christianity which seeks above all to preserve its doctrinal and ethical purity.
Against the temptation of the Church as « counterculture » it is necessary to defend the option of a Church present in the heart of contemporary societies, a Church which takes the risk of being exposed to the processes of transformation and to the conflicts of the modern world. Based on the conflict-ridden and unstable structures of human existence, religious communication claims a universal relevance: the problems with which it deals are, in law and in fact, the problems of everyone; the resources of meaning to which it appeals are in productive dialogue with the common culture. If the Church wishes to do justice to the function that has been devolved to it in contemporary societies – being the institution in charge of religious communication – she must consequently understand herself as a Church of the multitude, in other words as a Church which addresses everyone and tries hard to offer structures sufficiently flexible to enable anyone to find at its heart the modes and forms of commitment corresponding to their expectations. For, in a « liquid » world, it is illusory to seek to impose on everyone a standard form of engagement with the Church; in this sense the classical model of the parish (which dates, anyway, only from the 19th century) belongs to the past.
Communication, presence beyond the walls
The expression « multitudinist Church » appeared in the 19th century, at the time when alienation from active involvement in church life became noticeable. So it expressed a claim to universality in conscious and assumed contradiction to the empirical data: the general scope claimed by a church which defines itself as multitudinist is at variance with the more and more exclusive sociological reality of ecclesial communities. The theological issue – and the justification! – for this mismatch between the (self) definition and the empirical reality of the Church consists first of all in not limiting to the parish environment the circles to which religious communication is addressed. But the multitudinist concept of the Church rests on another presupposition: the conviction that Christian content is not present and active only inside ecclesiastical institutions; in the modern world the Churches are not only particular institutions, they are also a particular form of existence for the Christian content which is equally present in other, more diffuse, forms outside the Churches.
The Churches must consequently give up the idea of seeing themselves as the sole agents, de facto or de jure, of Christianity in the modern world. On the contrary, they must develop a sensitivity to the non-ecclesial forms under which Christianity exists in modern culture. The diffuse presence of Christianity in modern culture is the form taken by what, in the context of contemporary societies, theology calls the invisible Church. Only this second aspect provides a theological and sociological justification for the claim to universality implied by the concept of a multitudinist Church.
Multitudinism requires a work of interpretation which makes visible this diffuse presence of Christianity in the culture. It is only in this way that religious communication will be able to appeal to the resources of meaning placed at its disposal by the culture for its work of creating metaphor. The Church can maintain this interpretation of the culture only by offering places carrying out a specific work of cultural mediation and religious formation. From the perspective of an interpretation of culture in the service of religious communication, cultural mediation has the function of making the contents of culture transparent as regards their religious dimension while in this way allowing individuals to decipher in the culture the modified forms taken by religious traditions, and specifically Christian traditions. They can then discover that their existence has always been part of an implicit religious dimension which the Churches’ work of interpretation helps to make explicit. This religious interpretation of modern culture is the way in which a multitudinist Church can do the work of religious formation. She then causes religious communication to appear as the form in which Christianity, as it is also present in contemporary culture, is put to the service of the interpretation of the biography, unstable and turbulent, of contemporary humanity.


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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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