The Atlantic Times, a German monthly, recently reported that faith in Europe shows new signs of spiritual life. This goes against most popular understanding regarding the influence of Christian spirituality in the lands of the Reformation.
Sociologists like Boston University’s Peter L. Berger argue against this report by saying: “There are a few upturns on some values . . . but [these] are not very dramatic.” He adds, in good sociological fashion, “I do not expect significant changes.”
But religion writer Uwe Siemon-Netto, a contributor to our ministry, correctly notes that “faith is not bound by the rigors of science.” And, Siemon-Netto adds, “Knowledgeable observers claim that for all the disastrous numbers showing religion’s decline in Christianity’s former heartland, the Holy Spirit seems to be at work in France.” Christianity Today noted the same in a recent issue. And well-known Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg observes that “atheism is in decline.”
Peter Berger does admit that there are some “unquantifiable upturns” in parts of Europe. These upturns include the increasing number of young people from non-religious parents who have shown up in churches asking for baptism in recent years. In the former East Germany the share of people saying that their faith is “very important” has risen from 14% to 23 % in the last twelve years, at least according to the magazine Der Spiegel.
There is also a massive Christian youth movement growing across Europe, mobilized by John Paul II. This movement has drawn hundreds of thousands of young adults. In it you have the making of something to watch in coming years. Add to this the sudden “rediscovery of Christianity by intellectuals” and you have another positive sign of change. Jürgen Habermas, a leader of the Frankfurt School of philosophy, says "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy, [which are still] the benchmarks of Western civilization.”
To some degree a renewed fascination with Christianity might be related to the rapid growth of Islam in Europe. In France, for example, adult catechism classes are overflowing and theology classes in Catholic universities are attended by students for personal edification, not simply to qualify for the ministry. And it seems Christian values are still held in pretty high esteem in Germany, at least according to several studies of moral practice recently conducted.
Uwe Siemon-Netto notes that this evidence is difficult to interpret because of the eclectic nature of the various pieces of anecdotal evidence. In Britain, for example, more Muslims worship on Friday than Anglicans on Sunday. But 70% of the newly ordained Anglican clergy in the UK declare themselves evangelical, some evidence that revisionistic theology might finally be in decline.
More than a quarter of a century ago Jewish born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger advised John Paul II that the re-evangelization of France must focus upon two groups—the young and the intellectuals. Le Monde, the famous French newspaper, has referred to the new pope as “a superlative intellectual” while at the same time he has named himself after Europe’s own patron saint, Saint Benedict. Siemon-Netto aptly concludes: “Hold tight. Most likely the future will show that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Christianity’s death in Europe were indeed exaggerated.” We should pray so. God is still the God of surprises!