Keynote address by Dr Jean-Marie Gaudeul to the Dialogue Today and Tommorow Conference


Keynote address by Dr Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Advisor to the French bishops' conference on islamic affairs, to the Dialogue today and tommorow conference at Westminster Cathedral Hall on 10 November.

The Changing face of Europe

Challenge/Opportunity for the Church

A. Europe: a new reality in a changing world

1. Dimensions of the current evolution

A new awareness has therefore been brought to light.

a) Inner life and privacy

In Christianity, as in Islam, an increasing number of believers seem to be living their faith with an awareness of their personal dignity and their inner freedom. Of course, a large number of non-theological factors are involved in modifying the perception a believer has of himself, and of the relationship he has with the message his religion offers him.

Among all these factors, the dislocation of all traditional societies under the impact of urbanisation and the resettlement of populations, it is globalisation which, through cultural and economic exchanges, influences, more or less every inhabitant of the this earth. More and more, as stated above, individuals find that they have to choose, in their beliefs and in their actions without being pre-determined in their choice by society or institutions. In the end, a given individual will have to choose and decide. "What is religion other than one's own relationship with God? It is an intimate thing, a philosophy to which one adheres or not ."

Inner conviction, an accent on the spiritual dimensions of the faith, such an evolution does not go without a certain "privatisation" of one's religious affiliation. For a growing number of people, religious affiliation is increasingly a private affair which concerns no one but oneself, in any case, neither the State nor the official institutions. Of course, this evolution has its counterpart: the personal and private decision to believe obviously brings the possibility that the decision may be "not to believe" or "to believe differently".

b) the "democratisation" of religious institutions

In fact, the development in education has closed the gap that had appeared between the clerics and the faithful, between the ulemas and the mass of believers. The former customarily used to "define the doctrine" while the others would "accept it". This is no longer sufficient, as expressed by an Indonesian Muslim:

2. What is at stake for religious institutions?

This new deal , "believe, yes, but freely!" , does, in fact, pose real questions to religious leaders, at whatever level they operate. What is at stake is not the content of the message of which they are the witnesses and the guardians, but the manner in which they assume their functions. It is not the message that should be modified, but the way it is served and defended. We may say that it is less serious! In fact, whether they are Christian, Muslim or other, it is much more worrying and irritating to the professionals of the "religious".

a) The pastoral power of heritage?

Over the centuries, the different religions have followed rather similar paths: demanding, to begin with, a personal conversion on the part of the individuals they encountered, rapidly setting up a system for the transmission of the faith by founding families of believers, assuming that the faith could be passed on, from parents to children, through family education.

In Christianity, for example, while maintaining the practice of the catechumenate and the baptism of adults, children began to be baptised "in the faith of their parents". Parents and god-parents answered the questions normally asked of adults: "Do you renounce evil? Do you believe in God? etc."

Islam organised itself around the patriarchal family, a real backbone of society. If a father is Muslim, his children are automatically considered to be Muslim, and of course, he must see to the proper religious education of his children.

This was how an idea of the transmission of the faith, and education in the faith, through "family heritage" developed. Generations and generations of human beings were thus incorporated in a religion given at birth: people began to "belong" to a religion as one "belongs" to a family or to a nation. Changing religion became synonymous with treason. Groups actually protected themselves against it by fostering social cohesion and closure to others.

This cohesion was blown apart by the entry of all societies into the age of communications. Nations, societies and even families were unable to create a coherent environment around themselves to ensure the transmission of a single way of thinking: on the contrary, human beings encounter very diverse and mutually incompatible ideas, values and systems today at all stages of their development and formation.

It is therefore urgent for the religious authorities, of all religions, to question themselves on this state of affairs: the transmission of the faith through "heritage" is going badly, and worse and worse. With each generation, religious groups loose a considerable number of faithful who are listed as "Catholics" or "Muslims" but whose apparent conformity conceals an exit from the group and the relinquishing of their faith.

b) How is the faith transmitted?

Counting only on family and social pressure to keep people in the faith of the group risked letting the liberty of individuals assert itself as a reaction to the environment and the faith it wanted to transmit.

How many people from religious milieus admit that they don't want to hear another word on religion because they have had too much of it? This raises the essential question of education in the face of the growing awareness of freedom in young people approaching adult life.

Besides, the proposal of the faith is not made in a vacuum: young people are bombarded by other proposals that come from their friends and the media. If they have not learned to choose freely, they will only escape the faith of their ancestors by falling into the clutches of fashions, advertising, slogans, fake movements and fake gurus and emirs. The real problem of teachers of religion is perhaps not that of transmitting a pre-digested and ready-to-use faith, but to help young people to develop into persons capable of adult choice, who will receive, in the hubbub welling up from our media-driven society, God's call, in the same way as it reached the first converts, as God made it resound, each day, in the intimacy of their hearts.

The role of the family, in this context, is not diminished from what it was in the past. It is different, and perhaps infinitely more important and crucial than in the past. Forming free persons, capable of resisting ideological conditioning is much more difficult than merely transmitting family traditions. If in fact there is now a crisis of the family, it may come precisely from the incapacity of many to resist a conditioning which undermines, with adults, the values of marital service and fidelity.

In the future, only those whose education will have prepared them to be non-conformist will be able to become (or remain) a believer. Only those who have enough inner freedom will be able to resist the influence of a world where the indoctrination techniques are becoming more and more efficient and clever. Believers through heritage run the risk of becoming non-believers by environmental contamination, unless they have become believers by personal choice.

c) Finding new forms of socialisation

The passage from an inherited religion to a religion freely chosen is linked, for the believer, to a new way of placing oneself in relation to one's religious community.

How will it be possible to build this sense of community, to live as "Church" or as "Umma", while accepting this individualisation of belief? The desire to belong freely to a believing community does exist, but unity can no longer be built in an authoritarian way or by social pressure. We must therefore find new ways of fostering the exchange of words, consultation and the fine-tuning of one another gradually to bring about a sense of unity and a feeling of togetherness.

The temptation would be to manipulate the group in other ways: one of these, in particular, is especially dangerous. It consists in unifying the group against another group, provoking an identity fixation against another reality that one designates as an opponent. In certain parts of the world, we have seen new outbreaks of inter-community hatred that serve no other purpose than to weld the unity of a given group, without reviewing or building anew the ties that could unite believers who are less gullible than in the past.

In the long run, however, this kind of tactic risks emptying group membership of all meaning: indeed, very rapidly, where hatred serves as a solder, the religious identity is more and more defined by its opposition to "the other", to the detriment of the positive content of the faith.

d) To witness? To teach? To teach by bearing witness!

The media, advertising and cultural exchanges of all kinds may well spread mass culture to all the continents of the earth; the jeans and rock fashion may well seduce followers of all races and nations; nonetheless people find themselves more and more isolated in the face of the great existential choices and less and less equipped in the face of the trials of our human condition. Giving life, facing death, suffering or sickness, require an answer or a reaction that social conformity no longer suffices to provide.

Fashion and advertising impose themselves but family education and schools, churches and mosques can only ultimately propose choices and values. In critical moments, human persons find themselves alone in making their choices. But for the first time in thousands of years, these people have an embarras du choix : there is no single solution, no infallible system, no religion perceived as possessing all the answers; whatever some people claim,… individuals still perceive in the background other voices, other propositions, other Revelations, other Scriptures… Today, man is sceptical in the face of teachings, ideologies and messages. On the other hand, he seems avid for testimonies, confidences and memoirs… and for all things that show him how some well-known figure or other makes his essential options or choices.

For the great religions, as for all societies, teaching must become witnessing, or it will not work: "contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" The religious authorities, of any religion, have frequently been wont to remind their faithful of what they should believe or do by means of declarations or "fatwas". They speak in the name of timeless, eternal and absolute Christianity or Islam. More and more, ordinary believers refuse an "absolute" presentation of the message in which they think they perceive a confusion between the eternal Word of God and… what religious leaders, poor and rather ordinary men, think they have understood from this Word!

An idea of this kind calls upon the authorities of any religion to reflect on the way they operate. A declaration could be tinged with an element of testimony: "What I am telling you… is what I truly believe to be an essential part of Revelation…" Is a certain unanimity of belief lost because of this? Perhaps! In any case, one avoids the risk of proposing as the divine message a specific, human interpretation of this message, which ultimately would only be a form of idolatry. This de facto situation does not necessarily lead to theoretical relativism where everything is only subjective interpretation, but we do realise that objective truth is always received within the subjectivities that interpret it.

Old fashioned unanimity has given way to "à la carte religion" where all individuals recompose the content of their belief in accordance with the emergencies and needs of their own lives. The best can sometimes jostle with the worst. After a longish period of dispersion and fragmentation of beliefs, will we see a decanting and regrouping of religious choices? This should not be ruled out: history has indeed known periods of disintegration of affiliations and other times when people rallied to certain messages or certain institutions. The most urgent thing for religions, is to find a new way of proclaiming their message that reaches our contemporaries in their spiritual thirst.

e) To serve people and not to enslave them

People, today, change in their idea of religion and the way they relate with their faith community. Whatever our fears as regards these changes, the aspiration to greater religious freedom should not be considered as a flat refusal to believe in God or to submit to Him.

Some, of course, live it in this way. Others , and there are many , while claiming a new autonomy in this respect oblige religious officials , clerics or ulamas , to place themselves, in turn, in a real perspective of service to their brethren. Indeed, these "new style" believers defend the authenticity of their relationship with God: they are aware that no one, no master, no guru, can stand between God and themselves to domesticate their act of faith.

In the secret dialogue God has with each human person, the "specialists" of the religious such as pastors or ulamas, cannot substitute the divine Guide or interfere. They are only servants whose advice or knowledge is sometimes sought, but whose interference is perceived , more and more often , as an indiscretion.

None of us is the master of the spiritual life of his brothers and sisters. Whether they set off in the same direction as us or whether they follow paths that are unknown to us, we are faced with the extraordinary freedom… of God, who guides everyone as he wills. It is He who sparks off in the heart of each individual this aspiration to do His will as fully as possible.

B. What is at stake for Christians ?