OrthodoxyToday.org
Commentary on social and moral issues of the day


The Churches and the Emergence of European Unity

Wolfhart Pannenberg

  • Print this page
  • Email this page
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Bookmark and Share

The end of the second millennium of Christian history seems to coincide with decisive steps towards a new form of European unity. The final political form of that unity is not yet clear, but it is already evident that the European nations are approaching a degree of economic integration that needs some political framework beyond a mere alliance of sovereign states. This situation raises understandable anxieties. Few people would like to see a monolithic bureaucratic and political structure established at the expense of the various national cultures. But European unity in the form of some kind of confederation should not entail such a thing as its consequence. On the contrary, a confederate organization may allow for an even higher degree of regional independence than the traditional form of the nation state provided. On the other hand, a new sense of cultural identity is required, an awareness of how all those national and regional cultures belong together within the encompassing unity of one cultural tradition, however diversified. Economic integration is not enough to bring forth and nourish the continuous feeling of belonging together. Nor can any political framework by itself achieve that purpose. In fact, the process towards European integration could hardly have developed to its present stage, if there was not already throughout the nations of Europe an awareness of sharing the same cultural world - notwithstanding the particularities of the national cultures that contribute to the abundance of our cultural consciousness as Europeans.

It constitutes an important task of intellectual leadership in our time to strengthen the awareness among the people of Europe of being united already within a single cultural climate. This element of unity is largely due to the common cultural heritage of the various European nations, a heritage that has been variously developed in each of them. One may discern two main sources of that common heritage: the continuing memory of classical integrity and the Christian religion. In the course of our cultural history, these two sources were sometimes in conflict, but mostly they were united in forms of a happy though somewhat strained marriage. In fact, it was mainly through the Christian reception of the classical Greek and Roman cultures that their heritage continued to be alive and periodically renewed in the course of Europe's cultural history.

It is true that to a certain degree modern European culture emancipated itself from both these roots. Greek and Roman art and literature lost their functions as classical models to be imitated or further developed. But even where no longer imitated, these models continue to serve as points of reference in the creative minds of artists as well as in the public evaluation of their work. The Christian religion has largely lost its formative influence on the public expressions of our cultural consciousness. In recent years, it is even losing its impact upon the consciousness of moral norms, not to mention moral behaviour. But it would still be difficult to conceive of modern European culture without its Christian background and heritage. Visitors from other cultures are often more sensitive to this fact than Europeans are. In the prospect of a uniting Europe the Christian roots and background of its cultural life could become more important again, because Christianity is one of the few potentially unifying factors in the emerging consciousness of European culture. Granted that pluralism is not enough to provide for the element of unity in our cultural consciousness, perhaps there should be a new appropriation of the Christian rootage of the various national cultures of Europe. Such a recovery of our Christian roots might commend itself more strongly, if the churches themselves had not contributed so heavily to the disruptions and tragic conflicts in the course of European history.

One might think in this connection especially of the medieval history of Western Christianity, of the many occasions when ecclesiastical policies encouraged and exploited national conflicts. Even more disastrous was the alienation between Western Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox churches, an alienation that was mainly due to the power politics of Rome, not only in the 11th, but even more so in the 15th century. Then, as Eastern Christians faced the ultimate crisis of their defence against the Islamic conquest, their leaders were blackmailed and their people betrayed by the West. These events continue to have their effect in the contemporary attitudes of Eastern Orthodox Christians and churches towards Rome and towards the Christian West in general, reinforced by more recent experiences of the policies of Western powers who - though no longer Christian repeatedly act in ways that from the perspective of Eastern Christians look like continuations of that typically Western betrayal.

Finally there occurred the disruption of the spiritual unity of the Christian 'West in the 16th century. This unwanted consequence of the Reformation, which originally aimed at a spiritual renewal of the entire Christian church, issued in more than a century of bloody warfare between Protestants and Roman Catholics in many European nations. At the end of this period of religious wars, social peace was finally restored on the premise of disregarding religious controversies. While in the past unity of religious faith had been considered the indispensable basis of social peace, since the middle of the 17th century this function fell to conceptions of human nature, while religion was reduced to the subservient function of motivating individual loyalty, or reduced even further to a matter of only private concern. Thus, the emancipation of public culture from its Christian roots that became characteristic of modern Western culture emerged as a direct consequence of the history of ecclesial division and religious warfare resulting from the period of the Reformation. Modern European culture arose in a process of emancipation from the divisive legacy of controversies over Christian doctrines. The humanistic vision of modern culture, to be sure, continued to be indebted to Christian motives. There was rarely an anti-Christian bias involved. And yet, the spirit of modern culture was born in an act of emancipation from the Christian past. That explains why modern society and the public consciousness of modern culture progressively moved further away from their Christian origins. A further consequence of this is that modern culture cannot easily be persuaded that its problems could be solved by recovering its Christian origins. These origins seem precisely what was left behind in the rise of modernity and replaced by freedom.

Emancipation is not enough, however, to keep a society together. It is only by the free participation of individuals in a common heritage and through various individual appropriations and developments from it that our individual freedom has its substantive content. This also applies to our European nations and to their possible growing together into a united Europe. In the formative process of emergent nations the memory of shared experiences, the consciousness of a common history may be even more important than the unity of language. The development of a sense of national unity in the history of the United States of America is instructive in this respect. On the one hand, the United States of America became a nation in their own right although their people or most of them shared their language with the British people. On the other hand, they formed a sense of national unity on the basis of their particular historical experience though for a long time substantial parts of their population did not use English as their mother tongue. The cultivation of a consciousness of common historical experience seems of considerable importance in the process of growing together. It is at this point, in the case of Europe, that the Christian churches can provide a particular service to the development of our common consciousness as Europeans.

As I said before, the contribution of the Christian churches to the history of our nations has been largely divisive, in former centuries anyway, and that explains to a great extent the alienation of modern culture from its Christian roots. Therefore, an important contribution to the task of recovering a unified vision of our European history that we all could share in spite of bitter memories of conflict and suffering in our national histories might consist in an act of confession by the contemporary Christian churches of their part in the history of European separations and conflicts. Ecumenism must not only concern itself with the present relationship between the Christian churches. It should also aim at reconciling our memories of separation and conflict in the past in order that that we can remember together our European history as a common heritage of promises that were at best partially fulfilled and of tragic failures that should be contemplated together in order to remedy their long term effects.

In former periods, the Protestant churches used to celebrate the centennial anniversaries of the Reformation of the 16th century in terms of extravagant praise of the liberation from the bondage of papal domination and of the rediscovery of the genuine gospel. In our ecumenical century, this way of celebrating the Reformation has become somewhat obsolete. It is true that Protestants continue to remember gratefully certain exegetical discoveries of Martin Luther that were highly controversial in the l6th century. However, Roman Catholic Luther research now joins Protestant historians in presenting Luther as a 'father in the faith', and indeed the recovery of the complex and profound biblical concept of faith was among Luther's greatest exegetical and theological insights. But as Protestants we should also be aware of certain less helpful aspects of Luther's temper, not assets if the dispute over his theology is to be settled peacefully. At the Augsburg diet of 1530, a peaceful resolution to the religious controversy was prevented not only by papal demands for submission on the part of the Protestants, but also by a reluctance on the Protestant side to restore former ecclesial property, that had been secularised in Protestant territories. Thus Philip Melanchthon's efforts at restoring unity by way of compromise were in vain. The Reformation that originally aimed at a renewal of the entire church on the basis of the gospel actually became the occasion for a break-up of the Western church; with the effect not only of lasting ecclesial separation, but also of a century of bloody warfare between the confessional different territories of Europe and even of civil war within them. The establishment of separate Protestant churches did not provide evidence of the success of the Reformation, but of its tragic failure. It is precisely this unintended effect of the Reformation, however, that marks its epoch-making significance in world history.

Other Christian churches may want to offer their own self-critical reflections concerning their share in the tragic events not only of the Reformation period, but also of Western European history in general. Self-criticism is more helpful than confessional controversy. But as a Protestant theologian who happens to consider a special ministry to the unity of the universal church as potentially beneficial and therefore desirable, I may also submit that the actual functioning of the highest office in the church in the course of the Middle Ages and afterwards was not always beneficial either for Christian unity or for peace among the nations of Europe. A self-critical assessment of the actual role of the papacy in the history of Europe could be of supreme importance in removing age-old prejudices against the role of Rome in the Christian church and enabling an appreciation of the service Rome might actually be able to offer to the benefit of the entire family of Christian churches.

As I said before: a common effort of the Christian churches to assess self-critically their involvement in some of the more painful episodes of European history could be their first service to the emergent cultural self-consciousness of an economically and politically united Europe. Such an assessment should include some self- critical reflection on the role of a number of churches in the history of European nationalism. In past centuries, particular confessional traditions contributed significantly to the national identity of some European nations. Thus Prussia and the Prussian-dominated second German empire was very much a Protestant country, while the Polish people were and to the present day continue to be a Roman Catholic nation. Similarly, since the 17th century, Britain has been considered the leading Protestant nation in Europe, especially in contrast to Spain. The close allegiance of the European churches to particular nations not only led to the intensification of national rivalry, but also to the tendency on both sides to invoke divine assistance in times of war.

European nationalism has been a peculiar, though rather ambiguous, phenomenon within the Christian cultural tradition. This is so because of the religious overtones of one's nation. The source of this secularised belief in a special chosenness can be discovered perhaps in its early stage in competition between the French and Germans for the legacy of Charlemagne in the early Middle Ages. Later on, in opposition to the ideological claims of the medieval German empire, French writers expressed a sense of Christian chosenness and mission for their nation among the rest of Christianity. In similar ways, in the 16th century, English and Spanish writers expressed themselves on opposite sides. Milton's celebration of Cromwell's revolution and, later on, the interpretation of America by its founding fathers in terms of Israel's acquisition of the Promised Land combined with its mission to humankind in general provide further examples of the same idea. The collisions between these secularised ideas of a special chosenness marred the history of European nationalism until the cataclysm of World War I - and beyond. In the present, the Christian churches should no longer lend support to this spirit of nationalism. The destructive outburst of its energies in former Yugoslavia might be taken as a warning. Rather, the churches could give testimony to the spiritual unity of the cultural history of Europe regarding its roots in the Christian faith.

Such a testimony however can be produced with plausibility only on the condition that the churches speak with one voice. Ecumenical unity is the critical requirement for a new credibility of Christian witness in the public square of European culture. No single confessional tradition can exclusively claim to represent the Christian roots of European culture and history, at least not plausibly so. It is true that the Christian origins of Western Europe are particularly present in the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Reformation claimed to stand in a more authentic continuity with these origins than what the Reformers considered to be the deviation and abuses that arose in the medieval church, yet there is no institutional and liturgical continuity with those origins other than in communion with Rome. On the other hand, the Reformation began as a genuine reform movement aiming at a revival of the true nature of the Christian faith, and through its idea of Christian liberty it became the fertile seedbed of modern culture. To a considerable extent, modern European culture developed from impulses that originated from the Reformation. This is true of the modem ideas of freedom of conscience, of individual human rights and to some extent also of basic ideas of modern democracy. Certainly, John Locke's concept of freedom was no longer identical with Luther's intuition of the freedom of Christians from the slavery of sin and from all human authority by their faith in Christ, which unites them to God himself. What Locke said about freedom was more closely related to the Stoic idea that in their original condition all human persons were equally free. But in the case of Locke this was no longer part of the glory of a past golden age of the human race which we children of a later period remember as being lost in the present state of human sinfulness but, like the Christian liberty of the Reformation, Stoic natural freedom was now claimed as the present condition of human beings. In the thought of John Milton, half a century before, civil liberty had been explicitly celebrated as the fruit of the Reformation's achievement of Christian freedom. This entailed that civil liberty is not licence, and in a secularised version Locke still conceived of freedom as obliged to reason, to the good and to the law. Later on, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel emphasized the origin of the modern idea of freedom in the Christian faith as it had been reinterpreted by the Reformation in terms of the immediacy of each individual to God. According to Hegel, this religious foundation of individual freedom continues to provide it with the splendour of an absolute value in spite of all its abuse. Thus the bond between the Reformation and the modern idea of freedom is certainly delicate, but it has been important and continues to be so, even where its religious origins are forgotten. In view of the danger that a liberty conceived in only secular terms easily degenerates into licence, Christians should be concerned to strengthen awareness of the religious roots of the idea of freedom in the public consciousness of our culture. But that should no longer be regarded exclusively as a Protestant prerogative. On the other hand, the relationship between Christianity and modernity remains inconceivable without the Reformation. It is, moreover, hardly separable from the painful rupture of the unity of the Western church. Not simply the ideas of the Reformers, but the religious and political conflicts of the post-Reformation period gave rise to the modern ideas of toleration, of human rights and of a liberal society. All these ideas have Christian roots, but they were not brought forth by the church authorities, who on all sides clung to more or less conservative conceptions. Rather, they were occasioned by painful experiences and conceived as remedies for religious and political diseases. The transition to modernity was not a smooth process of unfolding Christian principles. Though today the fruits of that process have been appropriated by the theological consciousness

So far, these reflections have been predominantly concerned with Western Christianity. But a uniting Europe will and must also include the nations of the Christian East, or what remains of them. To all Christians this should be a point of particular satisfaction bearing in mind a millennium of political and ecclesial separation between Eastern and Western Christianity. It should also induce Western Christians to admit and deplore the shameful treatment and neglect of the Christian East by the churches and the nations of Western Christianity. If we want to grow together not only economically and perhaps politically, but also in terms of our cultural consciousness and spiritual heritage, it is not possible to pass over these issues in silence.

Christian origins are forever rooted in the Christian Orient, notwithstanding the early foundation of a Christian congregation in Rome. It was in the East that Hellenistic culture and the ancient Greek heritage were incorporated into Christian theology. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emphasized recently that Europe would no longer be Europe, if it forgot its Greek heritage. But it was in the Eastern church that Greek rationality was adopted to express the universal truth of the Christian faith and thus caused the Christian history of Europe to preserve the memory of Greek classical culture. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox liturgy developed the paradigm for the celebration of the presence of God through his spirit in the worshipping community. Thirdly, and closely connected to Greek theology and liturgy, the Eastern church gave birth to a mystical spirituality, the subtlety of which is unsurpassed in the history of Christianity and still has resources to offer that might help to overcome the impasse of a rather narrow way of focusing on the consciousness of sin and guilt in Western Christian spirituality.

On another level, the Byzantine Christian empire sheltered the rest of Europe for centuries against the dangers of Islamic conquest. Western Christianity, however, did little to support the Byzantine East in its efforts. On the contrary, the pride of the Christian West was not only largely responsible for the rupture of church unity in the 11th century, but it also treated the Eastern Christians as heretics, not to speak of the looting of their capital Constantinople in 1204. In addition, they exploited, as I mentioned before, the desperate need of their Eastern fellow Christians immediately before the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine capital in the 15th century by attempting to blackmail them so that they might surrender the integrity of the position they had defended in the controversy with the West. Left without Western help, the Christian East had every reason to feel betrayed by Western Christianity after the conquest of Constantinople and of the Orthodox provinces in South Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, the Eastern Christian experience of betrayal by Western Christians and Western powers was repeated in subsequent centuries including the present one. Without addressing myself to the fate of the Armenians and other Christian groups in the Near East, a single example from our century may be sufficient: the expulsion in 1922 and 1923 of the Greek population from Asia Minor, where their ancestors had settled for more than three thousand years. It was an event of ethnic cleansing, the victims of which I perhaps remember with particular sympathy, being an Eastern German whose family had to leave their home in 1945. In the German case, however, it was a history of seven hundred years that came to an end; in the Greek case it was a settlement of three thousand years, profoundly connected with the origins of our European culture by Homer's epics and the Milesian philosophers.

For the sake of reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christianity in the formation of a common cultural consciousness of Europe it seems necessary to admit the self-serving recklessness of Western ecclesial and secular policies in many of their dealings with the East. It is also necessary to incorporate not only the memory of Greek classical culture, but also the theological, liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Orthodox churches within our awareness of European culture. Therefore reconciling the churches of Eastern and Western Christianity should be considered a major contribution to the emerging sense of a common European culture. The beginnings of that reconciliation led to the membership of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the World Council of Churches. The process reached a point of symbolic culmination in the exchange of visits between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in the sixties. But the process has not yet been brought to its conclusion.

Also incomplete is the realignment of the churches in the ecumenical process at large. The ecumenical movement among the Christian churches has been one of the most significant events of this century. Its significance is not limited to church history. At many points convergence replaced former confrontation. The theological dialogues between the churches clarified to a considerable degree the doctrinal issues that have separated the churches for centuries. Meanwhile the process of convergence has reached a point where the churches through their leadership have to consider steps toward restoring some form of unity lest new and divisive issues come up. The historical chance of unity may be missed. In this situation the churches need the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, who claims to be entrusted with a ministry of unity concerning the universal family of Christian churches. The exercise of this ministry must not, of course, be confused with the jurisdictional authority that the Pope enjoys in his capacity as Patriarch of the Latin church. It is a charismatic initiative that the ecumenical movement among the Christian churches needs, if it is to be brought to its completion. And this initiative cannot come successfully from anywhere but Rome.

In order to recover its Christian roots, Europe needs the re-emergence of Christian unity. In their present state of separation, the causes of which lie in the distant past, the Christian churches cannot call effectively upon the nations of Europe to remember and reappropriate the spiritual and cultural resources of their Christian past. The ruptures of Christian unity that have led to the separate existence of confessional churches and to their endless controversies have contributed so decisively to the calamities of European history and to the sufferings of the nations of Europe, that these separate churches continuously remind educated Europeans of the historical reasons why modern culture and political order have had to be cut loose from any religious foundation. But human life needs a religious foundation lest it becomes empty of meaning and self-destructive. The cultural history of humankind provides ample evidence that this function of religion is irreplaceable. This is also true of social life and public culture. The only question, in the long run, is what kind of religion comes to be of basic importance in the life of a culture. In this respect, if Europe is to preserve what has been distinctively European in its cultural tradition, it cannot easily dispose of Christianity, provided that Christianity does not present itself as sectarian, nor sells out to secularism, but continues to incorporate within itself the best heritage of classical antiquity and therefore openness to reason as well as the true achievements of modern culture. Might a reuniting Christianity also offer evidence of having learnt the lessons of history concerning toleration and the provisional nature of human knowledge even about the truth of revelation? Such a renewal of an ecumenical and therefore truly catholic Christian church could perhaps heal aching memories in European nations of past sufferings and bitter conflicts. It might inspire a new confidence both in the cultural unity of Europe and in the prospect and vigour of its renewal.

Wolfhart Pannenberg is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich and founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology.

This article can be found on the Church of Greece website.



Copyright 2001-2014 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2014 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.


Article link: