Europe as a multiple modernity

Op mijn deurmat ligt de net uitgekomen bundel Europe as a multiple modernity. Multiplicity of religious identities and belonging, geredigeerd door Martina Topic en Srdjan Sremac (postdoc bij ons Amsterdam Center for the Study of Lived Religion). Ik mocht het voorwoord schrijven:

The project ‘Europe’ has never been without challenges, but one could say that ours is a time of exceptional demand. The economic and financial crisis is but one of the fundamental threats to the whole notion of European unity. Another is the fact that the raison d’être of European unity until recently was founded in the horrific history of WWII. Nie wieder Krieg, never again war, served as a compelling argument for several decades but this formula slowly but surely loses its convincing power when peace becomes a taken for granted reality. We have to redefine and renegotiate the value and merits of working toward one united Europe, regardless even of the specific legal and political structure it might obtain. In doing so, our issues are no longer found within the European sphere only, but especially in geopolitical relations. On a global scale, Europe may continue to be one of the key players, but probably only when it finds ways of overcoming its internal tensions and of building a shared purpose and identity. The present crises thus request a renewed search for the ‘soul of Europe’.

One should not be mistaken, however. The soul of Europe is not a monolithic entity and there is no simple way to define it. European identity is a plural concept. This has probably always been the case, but it is clearly the nature of our present situation. Even modernity is not one well-defined phenomenon but a series of pathways of change. Similarly, European modernity should not be reduced to one specific type, recurring traits notwithstanding. The ways in which modern European societies and identities are construed differs not only from country to country and from time to time; even within one society we can find highly variegated modes and models. Conflict is always right around the corner.

Add religion and the picture becomes even more complex. Personal identities are construed at the intersections of nationality, ethnicity, religion, family, and much more. One’s position in each of these arenas, in the center or at the margins, largely defines how the identity elements are negotiated. But like the other sources, religion appears with a myriad faces. Sometimes it serves to bolster a specific national identity, sometimes it helps to bridge two or more identities and overcome the tensions. In the end, this diversity requests us to study how individulals and groups navigate the complexities to create an identity world they can live in. The soul of Europe can be understood only if we start by understanding the soul of Europeans. The present volume offers precisely this kind of study.

Acting in a dual role as theologian and politician, I am grateful to the researchers and editors for bringing together this rich material. As an empirical theologian, I am encouraged once more not to look at religious traditions and official doctrines in order to understand the role and meaning of religion in contemporary society. Religion is found at the crossroads of identity struggles, politics, and ordinary life. It cannot be distinguished completely from other elements of culture, nor reduced to those. And more than in previous eras, individuals identify as belonging to two or more religious traditions. It is precisely these complexities that make religion so interesting, also for a theologian. It would be very meaningful to interpret the material offered here to answer the question what is sacred to people and how the relation with that ‘sacred’ impacts on their life, identity construction, and social and political choices.

As a politician, my main interest lies in how all these identity issues affect the development of sustainable societies on the local, national, European, and global level. It seems fair to say that religious/ethnic/national identities are important contributors to societal cohesion but also fuel many conflicts. This should come as no surprise for anyone who knows a little bit of history or sociological theory. Different though in postsecular Europe is the deinstitutionalized, globalized, and mediatized nature of contemporary religion. This means that we are dealing now with much more fluid shapes of religion and unexpected actors governing the field. By consequence, we have to rethink the church-state separation that is at the heart of modern societies. Rethink, not abandon. If religion is still a vital force in the world – and Europe for that matter – but religious organizations are less dominant, what does that mean for our efforts to manage religious elements in our societies?

Obviously, there is significant lack of synchronicity when it comes to the development of the religious field even within Europe. This volume testifies to the major differences between post-Christian and post-communist countries (to mention only that). Even in my own country The Netherlands, the role of religion varies greatly from modern urban spaces to traditional rural areas and from secular autochthones to more religious newcomers (both Christian and Muslim). This lack of synchronicity also means that in some places the deinstitutionalization of religion has gone much further than in others and that there may also be realms of reinstitutionalization.

There are different political styles and strategies to deal with all this diversity. Some opt for politics based on power exchange regarding the interests of different groups and this is clearly part of the political process. More important to my mind is politics based on ideals and worldviews. We have to negotiate the various ideals of what the world could and should be and our visions of Europe. It is in these conversations that together we will discover, or better construct, the soul of Europe.

The research presented in this volume offers many insights into the complex intersections of religion, identity, nationality. It allows us to build the kind of conversations we need for our European future. If we learn how to accomodate the multiplicity of identities and modes of belonging, then we will also build our much needed community.

The project ‘Europe’ has never been without challenges, but one could say that ours is a time of exceptional demand. The economic and financial crisis is but one of the fundamental threats to the whole notion of European unity. Another is the fact that the raison d’être of European unity until recently was founded in the horrific history of WWII. Nie wieder Krieg, never again war, served as a compelling argument for several decades but this formula slowly but surely loses its convincing power when peace becomes a taken for granted reality. We have to redefine and renegotiate the value and merits of working toward one united Europe, regardless even of the specific legal and political structure it might obtain. In doing so, our issues are no longer found within the European sphere only, but especially in geopolitical relations. On a global scale, Europe may continue to be one of the key players, but probably only when it finds ways of overcoming its internal tensions and of building a shared purpose and identity. The present crises thus request a renewed search for the ‘soul of Europe’.

One should not be mistaken, however. The soul of Europe is not a monolithic entity and there is no simple way to define it. European identity is a plural concept. This has probably always been the case, but it is clearly the nature of our present situation. Even modernity is not one well-defined phenomenon but a series of pathways of change. Similarly, European modernity should not be reduced to one specific type, recurring traits notwithstanding. The ways in which modern European societies and identities are construed differs not only from country to country and from time to time; even within one society we can find highly variegated modes and models. Conflict is always right around the corner.

Add religion and the picture becomes even more complex. Personal identities are construed at the intersections of nationality, ethnicity, religion, family, and much more. One’s position in each of these arenas, in the center or at the margins, largely defines how the identity elements are negotiated. But like the other sources, religion appears with a myriad faces. Sometimes it serves to bolster a specific national identity, sometimes it helps to bridge two or more identities and overcome the tensions. In the end, this diversity requests us to study how individulals and groups navigate the complexities to create an identity world they can live in. The soul of Europe can be understood only if we start by understanding the soul of Europeans. The present volume offers precisely this kind of study.

Acting in a dual role as theologian and politician, I am grateful to the researchers and editors for bringing together this rich material. As an empirical theologian, I am encouraged once more not to look at religious traditions and official doctrines in order to understand the role and meaning of religion in contemporary society. Religion is found at the crossroads of identity struggles, politics, and ordinary life. It cannot be distinguished completely from other elements of culture, nor reduced to those. And more than in previous eras, individuals identify as belonging to two or more religious traditions. It is precisely these complexities that make religion so interesting, also for a theologian. It would be very meaningful to interpret the material offered here to answer the question what is sacred to people and how the relation with that ‘sacred’ impacts on their life, identity construction, and social and political choices.

As a politician, my main interest lies in how all these identity issues affect the development of sustainable societies on the local, national, European, and global level. It seems fair to say that religious/ethnic/national identities are important contributors to societal cohesion but also fuel many conflicts. This should come as no surprise for anyone who knows a little bit of history or sociological theory. Different though in postsecular Europe is the deinstitutionalized, globalized, and mediatized nature of contemporary religion. This means that we are dealing now with much more fluid shapes of religion and unexpected actors governing the field. By consequence, we have to rethink the church-state separation that is at the heart of modern societies. Rethink, not abandon. If religion is still a vital force in the world – and Europe for that matter – but religious organizations are less dominant, what does that mean for our efforts to manage religious elements in our societies?

Obviously, there is significant lack of synchronicity when it comes to the development of the religious field even within Europe. This volume testifies to the major differences between post-Christian and post-communist countries (to mention only that). Even in my own country The Netherlands, the role of religion varies greatly from modern urban spaces to traditional rural areas and from secular autochthones to more religious newcomers (both Christian and Muslim). This lack of synchronicity also means that in some places the deinstitutionalization of religion has gone much further than in others and that there may also be realms of reinstitutionalization.

There are different political styles and strategies to deal with all this diversity. Some opt for politics based on power exchange regarding the interests of different groups and this is clearly part of the political process. More important to my mind is politics based on ideals and worldviews. We have to negotiate the various ideals of what the world could and should be and our visions of Europe. It is in these conversations that together we will discover, or better construct, the soul of Europe.

The research presented in this volume offers many insights into the complex intersections of religion, identity, nationality. It allows us to build the kind of conversations we need for our European future. If we learn how to accomodate the multiplicity of identities and modes of belonging, then we will also build our much needed community.

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