Lessons learned, the future and what religion can offer
Back in the days when the talk was all about the steps towards creating the European Union, a whole range of promises were made. Unification would safeguard peace, and the Union would expand. It would benefit disadvantaged areas through regional financial assistance. Borders could be made more open, to promote trade and make products more reasonably priced. Bureaucracy would be reduced, economic growth would be promoted and employment market conditions would be improved. People could travel freely throughout Europe, without obstacles at the borders or the expense of constantly changing currency.
These were the promises. So what has happened? All these things were introduced. Proof of this lies in empirical data. But it only corresponds to half the truth. Our part of the world lives in comparative luxury. But the other half of the truth is that these achievements are now beginning to crumble, not so much through the fault of Brussels, but rather because of the selfishness and negligence of people, groups and nation states.
Loss of order
The old (sometimes romantically imagined) order of peoples, groups and nation states has broken down, but a new spiritual order has not yet moved in to replace it: we live in an “interregnum” of fragility, liquidity, ambivalence. Within this vacuum, authoritarian movements have come to the fore.
Firstly, the breakdown of the “canopy” of common values means that people are becoming more insecure. They are on the quest for a “Cosmos”: a unified, consistent constellation of values. A source of meaningfulness is needed: unity of standards has for a long time been determined by religion, then by nationalism, and finally by rationalism and modern ideologies such as Marxism. The weakening of such systems of meaningfulness has for a long time been bridged by affluence and consumption: people who buy from one another are hardly likely to shoot each other. But it appears this is not enough in the long-term, especially when cracks begin to show in the promised growth in affluence. The authorities are promising a restoration of the “right” values, using methods that usually lie far apart from those values. But in a pluralised and individualised society, it is impossible to have a mutual value system, or a comprehensive culture of leadership or a system of socially-oriented attitudes.
Secondly, people have tribal instincts: a desire to belong, nostalgia for a homeland, a nation. They search for a feeling of community, the sources of which are dwindling, and they seek integration and inclusion; but the groups are in a state of flux. Nationalism, too, is nothing more than a bigger version of “tribal thinking”, maybe the biggest possible (which would make Europe impossible as an object of identification). Authorities promise the restoration of the “tribe”, a closing off from those outside, the reconstruction of a state completely contained by a closed border, the elimination of everything foreign.
Thirdly, people no longer know what is happening. The lack of transparency in all areas of life has become a strain – stressful and overtaxing. The world is strange, everywhere they look. The answer to what can be done always seems to get tangled up in complexity. The authorities promise the simple solutions: the leaders, who after all originate from the “substance of the people”, will slash through the Gordian knot. But there are no Gordian knots any more; if there were, the people involved wouldn’t find them, and if they did, they would have no swords to slice through them.
Fourthly, everything builds up gradually into a scenario of fear. Everything becomes uncertain, from life at home right out to the whole world. Fear is the universal reaction, especially when the very material basis begins to totter. Only authoritarians dare to promise security. There would be no problem if only the guilty parties could be named... Everything can be made good again: a community of “us” versus “them”; mob rule; fear turning into hatred.
What can we do?
People do not enact tax laws with their hand on the Bible, but as a responsible person, a European, a Christian. Let us do what we have to do, but do it decently.
Firstly, we should not abandon common sense. We should avoid succumbing to euphoria or panic. We should not act like “celebrities” by putting ourselves under the spotlight. Nor should we crawl away into a corner as if hounded. We should keep cool – very cool.
Secondly, we have to cling to the belief that every person has the freedom to act, that they are not merely a bundle of social influences, that they are indeed responsible for their own lives. They should not “dumb down” their lives as self-styled victims or the opposite, jokers, but should “get a grip” on their lives.
Thirdly, people should pursue their own religion while also caring for their “neighbours”, the majority of whom, after all, have the same spiritual roots. Doctrinal teachings are open to interpretation, and they need to be capable of alignment with social configurations. When talking to representatives or followers of other religions, it need not always come down to questions of dogma.
Fourthly, it is important to be able to work out a scale of feasibility. Anyone can wish for or ask for something, but that is a cheap transaction. It is much harder to cultivate tenacity through sharing expertise and willingness to compromise, using sound judgement and reflection, to broaden the scope of what is feasible into the realm of what is desirable.
Fifthly, people should not be fearful. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all refer to God’s trust in people. Whatever happens in this world, we should not be prey to fear.
Prof. Dr. Manfred Prisching is Professor of Sociology at the University of Graz.
Editor of the article: Michael Kuhn
Originally published in: Denken+Glauben 182. Graz 2016, pp. 3-5. We thank the publisher for permission to publish an extract here.
Translated from the original text in German
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.