Monday, 22 April 2013


During the night, Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, come over to Macedonia and help us’.  Acts 16, vv6-16a

I doubt if St Paul did an options appraisal before deciding to go and preach in Asia Minor and Greece; Asia Minor was his home patch, and aiming towards Rome, the centre of the empire, made obvious sense. But his decision had important consequences: it led to his new religion eventually becoming the official religion of the empire; it also made it a deeply European religion. Others less creative than Paul went south to Egypt and Ethiopia and east to India, but neither Africa nor Asia shaped the new religion. So Christianity’s European-ness begins with Paul himself and his contemporaries. His idea of the afterlife, for instance, is influenced at least as much by Plato and other Greek thinkers as by his Jewish heritage. The sense that the body was essentially bad but the spirit good is Greek, not Jewish, in origin. The notion of a triune God of three interconnected, co-equal persons, one of whom had been present on earth could never have been conceived of within orthodox Judaism. No wonder Paul fell out with the followers of the real Jesus back in Jerusalem! This Europeanisation continued after Paul’s time. The Eucharistic vestments of the western church originated in ordinary Roman dress. The basilica design of churches is that of the courts of the Roman emperor. Even the term ‘diocese’ was originally used for a sub-division of the Roman imperial administration.
                The church’s festivals were intimately linked with European traditions and conditions. Rome had inherited from the ancient past an annual celebration to mark relief that the days had finally begun again to lengthen after the winter solstice; what better way to revel in the promise that we would be saved from cold and starvation that by lighting fires and feasting! Rome’s Saturnalia, as it was called, had its parallels throughout Europe; in the far north it was called Yule. This could hardly be ignored by the developing church; the only solution was to give the whole thing a Christian meaning as a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  No need to consider the accuracy of the date; no-one knew the year, let alone the date, of Jesus’s actual birth. And there is still for us in Europe – and now in North America too – some sense of why you might want to celebrate the coming, the Advent, of a new, saving Light of the World in the cold and dark of mid-winter. It is no accident that it seems odd to celebrate Christmas on hot Australian beaches; the Christian religion wasn’t designed with Australia in mind.
                If the winter solstice promised good things to come, springtime marked their arrival. Everywhere in Europe as elsewhere there were rituals to mark spring and its fertility, the new life beginning to appear in the fields and woods. In the north-west of Europe, the goddess of spring was venerated under the name of Eostre. The death of Jesus had in fact taken place around Passover, observed annually by Jews in late March or April, so marking his resurrection at a time when new life was clearly visible in nature seemed entirely appropriate, providential even. And why not call the celebration ‘Easter’, to make the link unmistakable? Over the centuries the church’s year continued to develop in and for its European context. Nine months before Christmas helpfully places the Annunciation, the announcement of the conception of the boy who will be Christ, in late March, the time of year when in Europe everyone was powerfully aware of fertility. To remember the dead in the festival of All Souls seemed appropriate in early November, when the leaves had fallen and the harvest had been gathered in, when the life of the European agricultural year was drawing to its close.
                So the theology, ritual and festivals of the church are deeply indebted to the wider and older European heritage and to the very climate of Europe. Just as Hinduism’s name proclaims it as the religion specific to Hindustan, India, so we might appropriately call Christianity ‘Europism’, the religion specific to Europe. But Hinduism was never a missionary religion; no-one thought of taking Hinduism beyond India until it was taken with Indian migrants as part of their heritage. By contrast Christianity – Europism – has often sought to export its religion to people outside its existing community. Having been shaped by the particular setting in which they developed, any such missionary religion has some difficult questions to face when it is taken to new settings. Because religions begin as an attempt to deal with the particular difficulties of their original setting as well as with the issues that humanity as a whole finds difficult, they tend when they travel to want to import solutions to problems that do not exist in the new setting. The pathetically laughable example is of nineteenth century Christian missionaries insisting that tropical converts wear European clothes for the sake of Christian modesty, but the problem is much deeper than that.
                Taking our ‘Europism’ beyond Europe demands that missionaries ask what is truly at its heart, what cannot be jettisoned without losing its essence, even in the most alien environment. Is it at heart indissolubly linked with its European past, with basilicas, Yule and spirit/body dualism? Is it at heart the whole way of thinking that European, and later ‘Western’, civilisation has built and continues to build through its creative use of its various inheritances? Is it at heart about the institutional church? Is it at heart a commitment to seeing how the insights of Jesus of Nazareth may be applied in different circumstances? Or what? But this is not just a matter for missionaries. The Europe we live in is not the Europe of the Middle Ages or even of the nineteenth century; from those perspectives, ours too is an alien environment. We too have to ask ourselves the same questions. Our answers will say much about us and about our real faith. 

No comments:

Post a Comment