Friday, April 2, 2010
[From Editor, 2010-04-02:
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End 'From Editor']
I often feel that if one wants to write a book about a non-native country, one should do so within a week or two after arrival. Why? Because after a couple of weeks, the wonder disappears and the strange or noteworthy things become 'normal'. It is as if one becomes blind to things after becoming familiar with them. So here I am, not to write a book, but just to note a few things after my recent 24-day trip to Benelux (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg].
The occasion was primarily a couple of lectures I had to give at the University of Antwerp, but I also used the opportunity to 'observe Christianity in its natural habitat' and research about language use, especially English use, in these countries. Here I'd like to reflect mainly on religious issues.
When I mentioned to several Europeans that one of my interests is to observe Christianity in its natural habitat--i.e., in countries which were once called "Christian", such as Europe, U.S.A., Canada, Australia, & South America--they all said very casually, "Well, Europe is no more Christian." When I spoke with a young couple, I began a generic sentence with, "Supposing you, as a Christian,..." and the man immediately cut me short to say, "Don't assume we are Christians!"
Although missionaries from former 'Christian countries' still engage non-Christians in many 'non-Christian' countries around the world and work hard to convert the 'pagans,' it is a sad fact that even in their own countries their sermons and calls to conversion will go unheeded. I heard repeatedly from priests and the few practicing Christians that young people in Europe don't come any more even near the Church. Most Christians in Europe, a priest told me, are "Chretiens aux quatre roues" (Christians on four wheels). Apparently, they come to Church only on four wheels: when they are carried as babies in a baby-carriage, when they are brought to first communion in a decorated car, when they arrive to contract a marriage in a luxurious stretch limousine, and finally when they arrive as dead bodies in a hearse. Even the age of "Sunday Christians" has gone! Sundays are too frequent!
When I engaged in conversation with some young people, especially in the Catholicism-oozing Flemish city of Antwerp, they were all extremely gentle, caring, sincere, serious, and earnest. They only seemed to be turned off by Christianity or Christian discourse! After one of my lectures on Hinduism and Christianity, a participant, presumably engaged in educating the young in religion, commented: "Whenever we announce a meeting related to Christianity or Christian practices, hardly anyone signs up! But if we announce a meeting about Yoga, Zen, Mindfulness, or any such Asian spiritual matters, people sign up in large numbers!" She was not the only one commenting that way. Another Catholic priest said that whenever he offered anything Christian such as Ignatian Exercises or Catholic Moral Teachings, hardly anyone signed up; but if he taught Asian meditative techniques with a title such as "Mindfulness" or "Yoga"--each session lasting even 90 minutes or more--many people signed up. "They not only sign up, but also persevere, never missing a session!"
Another thing that struck me was the large number of Moslems (as visibly identifiable from their garb, hair-style, hair veils, living quarters, restaurants, food stores, etc.) especially in the Netherlands and Belgium. Certain areas in Belgium had several Islamic blocks and numerous Islamic areas, as if designated for them. I also noticed mosques in several cities as I was traveling far and wide within Benelux by train. In fact, because of their exceptional appearance, Moslems and Afro-Europeans strike you more often than the White Europeans whom you tend to take for granted. Women with children--the children being either inside or outside the womb--and young adolescents too were mostly non-Whites.
Europe is perhaps still Christian at least in architecture! There are numerous churches, Cathedrals, and monasteries still in existence though hardly any of them serving the purposes they were originally created for! They are now special theaters, or museums, or stages for entertainment.... Cathedrals serving modern needs! The Jesuit Catholic Church in Brugge (the very beautiful ancient city in Belgium) is a typical case in point. Unable to maintain it and unable to pass it on to other religious groups, the Jesuits seem to have sold it to an enterprise that apparently promised to use it for cultural purposes so that at least the vestige of religiosity may be preserved. However, in a short time, the buyers seem to have sold it to another entertainment company, and currently it is used as a theater that caters to those who want to experience entertainment as it was several centuries ago: with fire-spitters, fire-eaters, magicians, sexy dancers, etc., etc.
Clearly these are simply facts... What they signify is open to many interpretations. Is Christianity finished in Europe? What has caused the decline? Will anything resurrect Christianity in Europe? Will they have another St. Francis of Assissi or a St. Ignatius Loyola who diverted the course of history? Who in Europe pays attention to the doctrinal, moral, and ethical minutiae that priestly and religious persons dictate, sermonize, propound or write volumes about?
When I asked similar questions to some locals, including Jesuit priests, many seemed hopeful and not at all desperate or alarmed. While even acknowledging the current gloomy situation, they all thought that it was only the swing of a pendulum in the non-Christian direction, and it will swing back in the Christian direction. One observant priest stated, "I think Christianity as we knew it is gone and won't come back in Europe. However, a new form of Christianity, much more meaningful to the modern humans, will emerge out of the current crisis."
[photo credits: Wikipedia]