The Culture of Conscience and the Future of Europe

Thoughts on the programme of the Hungarian EU presidency

Talk given at the General Meeting of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary, 6 Dec 2010

The political agenda of the Hungarian EU presidency is to be built around the human factor, according to the preliminary document on the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency, available on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although the final programme is yet to be accepted, sometime in December 2010, following the evaluation of the achievements of the previous EU presidency, the direction of the preliminary commitment is cause for delight and concern at the same time for the member churches of the ECCH. Delight on the one hand, as those who have followed closely the emergence of the European Union and the consequences of its enlargement are painfully aware of the fact that economic interests have frequently prevailed over the human factor, and so far the union of values has not been truly achieved. Consequently, the focus on the human factor, the needs and welfare of individuals is appropriate, indeed. On the other hand, it is neither hasty nor unjustified to express our concerns and criticism: isn’t there a danger that such an ambitious promise will result in unrealistic expectations? While we do not wish to deny the importance of the achievements and the value of good intentions, the fact remains that the process has already led to countless examples of human disappointment and disillusionment, at times tragedy, because economic interests were served in an ideological-mythical disguise. That is why, on the eve of Hungary’s accession to the European Union, the Synod of the Reformed Church of Hungary stated: “let us pray for the spirit of a sound mind so that we can have joy but no false illusions.” The other churches share this mentality and opinion.


A ray of hope for the unification of our divided continent first appeared in our region about 20 years ago. We can still vividly remember the times of the Cold War, when two worlds were separated by the Iron Curtain and walls of concrete... What we need to realise with a sound mind is the fact that, since then, new walls of division have appeared in Europe, in three particular aspects:

  1. New walls have been erected between wealthy people, groups and nations and those suffering from varying degrees of poverty;
  2. The dividing lines of cultural, ethnic and national identities have become more strongly marked;
  3. There is also a huge generational gap between those who struggled throughout the decades preceding the regime change of 1989 – some in good, others in bad ways, making either sacrifices or compromises – and those who were fortunate enough to have been born later; between the operators and the victims of the past regime; between the advocates of “let’s forget about it all” and those who seek clarity;

These three new walls of division, “Silver Curtains,” spiritual gaps – or whatever else they may be called – are not unique to Hungary, but present in each and every society of East-Central Europe.

The question thus arises, what can Hungarian Christianity, the Christian churches of Hungary offer[1] to contribute to the development of the European Union? Are there any special issues, notions, thoughts or declarations that the churches and no one else but the churches can provide? Yes, there are. But before elaborating on that, there are a couple of statements to be made.

  1. We are not beginners...
  2. We have a long-term approach.
  3. If we examine the relationship of Christianity and the world, faith and community, it is apparent that certain values and forms of behaviour are recurrent, the same ones that are expected from churches today. The most popular 15th- and 16th-century works of art depict Judgement Day, salvation, damnation, the various aspects of the Gospel and the law in a way that apart from the concrete display of sin, virtues also appear: nourishing the hungry and thirsty, taking in newcomers and the homeless, dressing those without clothes, nursing patients, visiting prisoners, comforting mourners. Such images abound in famous European museums and churches (e.g., L. Cranach) – and the above-mentioned examples are services that the churches used perform in Europe, and still perform today. Nevertheless, in times of crisis the churches have always approached social and cultural problems on a structural level: through the foundation of hospitals and orphanages, schools and universities. This brought about changes in the church’s self-interpretation and organisation, such as the organisation of deaconry, teaching orders and economic activities. Initially, the contribution of the church to the shaping of Europe’s image was of a social and cultural nature. Later it was the process of secularisation, which is also rooted in Christianity: the spiritual-intellectual behaviour based on the faith in creation, the demythologisation of the world gave a boost to the development of natural sciences. The desacralisation of politics and law paved the way for the emergence of human rights, which was reinforced by the Reformation: the conviction that the personal relationship between God and man cannot be influenced or restrained by anyone made way for the freedom of religion and conscience. Needless to say, we cannot ignore the dark side of certain wrongful power structures that were created and maintained in the name of religion and religious wars, as well as witch-hunts and the Inquisition. In the view of certain observers, the concept of Europe as a notion of cultural identification aims to replace the “Christian West” or corpus Christianum. In such a brief talk it would be impossible and irrelevant to reveal and discuss every interpretation and historical aspect of the concept of Europe (several works have been published on this topic[1]). The point to be made here is that while we are (and should be) aware of this rich heritage, it is not by engaging in a futile debate about the interpretation of the past that the Christian church and theology can contribute to the upcoming stages of the EU’s development. There is little to be achieved through insisting on the idea that Europe’s spiritual and intellectual foundations were laid down by Christianity, or the idea that the contrast of Christianity and Humanism-Enlightenment is misguided... Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that the three pillars of European culture are Jerusalem, Athens and Roma. In other words, Christianity succeeded in having an impact in Europe through a theology that had strong ties to Greek philosophy, which enabled it to argue rationally and order its ideas systematically, and finally – with the help of Roman law – to be established as an institution; not to mention Islamic culture and presence. Therefore it is not a past-determined debate, but present- and future-oriented contemplation and actions that make Christianity impossible to ignore in modern Europe.
  4. We have a long-term approach. In 1992, in the wake of the regime change, the renowned Protestant theologian Eberhard Jüngel stated in Budapest that Europe will need individuals who base their decisions and actions on their conscience. The Christian church, and especially Reformed faith plays a crucial role in the shaping of the individual[2] – particularly in the formation of an attitude determined by conscience. Europe does need such individuals, who do not only manage, but also take responsibility for the emerging “cultural and living space” that is striving for unity and borderlessness. The danger of this novel Europe – said Jüngel in 1992, and his fears were later justified – is that the newly formed political and economic structures do not recognise or accept the idea of individual responsibility.[3] In order to counterbalance such a tendency, a culture of conscience needs to be established by the church, as there are no other organisations or institutions that could fulfil that role. The establishment and maintenance – whether that of individuals with a conscience or a culture of conscience – is a long and time-consuming process involving education as well as a value-centred and religious socialisation.

The above comments shed some light on the ways that the Christian church and theology can contribute to the process of unification. It is unnecessary to go into details about the achievements and experience of the church regarding social services (charity of love, deaconry), education and culture, the work carried out in the face of great difficulties, the efforts to promote the social integration of the deprived and marginalised. We wish to remain partners of the governments in power in this respect, to strive towards welfare. The efforts to achieve social reconciliation of nations and ethnicities need to be continued in our own circles. What I would like to concentrate on now, however, is some common heritage of Christian theology that is not necessarily common to all Ecumenical member churches, but forms the basis of the behaviour that could characterise our churches’ attitude towards the question of Europe in the future.

  1. One of the basic realisations of European theology is the fact that political power should always be the order of freedom, rather than the order of truth. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Pope Gregory VII and the Cluniac Reforms all indicate the difference between “imperium” and “sacerdotium,” between secular and spiritual power, the clearly separated functions of church and politics. Other cultures, be it Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist, are not aware of such differentiation. On the contrary, today’s religious fundamentalists call for religion and politics to be intertwined. It is Christian faith that points out that difference. The state’s task is to provide its citizens with the framework and conditions of freedom at all times, but it cannot assume power over their spiritual-philosophical beliefs. Why is this important? Because if politics or any other system, for example an economic system or the frequently-mentioned market, claims absolute powers and is being referred to as an invisible and all-encompassing factor, then the freedom of man is at risk. We have had plenty of experience with such ideologies and totalitarian claims, and we do not wish to become a part of that again... For us, the order of truth is only acceptable and recognised in the Gospel, which we believe to bring freedom, and this truth and freedom give protection against all lies that contaminate life – whether it is individual or collective, religious or secular, national, cultural, political or economic life – and serves only certain individuals’ and groups’ interests. Therefore the churches wish to become partners of the unifying Europe in every project and programme that aims to bring more freedom, security, equal opportunities to people, families and communities. What we cannot accept, however, is the ideologization of programmes and slogans, since the freedom of conscience is not for sale. (Sadly, in today’s political culture personal conscience is often overridden by party discipline and interests.) Still, we are glad to continue the education of people so that they become conscientious and responsible individuals.
  2. European Christianity and theology have a realistic view of man and human communities. We know that man is fallible. I do not wish to discuss here the theological interpretation of sin and the corresponding debate in the history of theology. What I would like to stress, however, is the fact that humans cannot free themselves from sin, but are dependent on grace, and this has its consequences in terms of both ethics and politics. The American James Madison (1751-1836), “Father of the Constitution” once said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[5] Thus the fallibility and temptability of man necessitate the control of power, the separation of its branches, public debates and the pursuit of consensus, in other words: more democracy. This rhymes with the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency: a stronger Europe is needed in order to preserve the human factor, to make politics a cohesive power, and to maintain a meaningful dialogue as regards the targets of sectoral policies. In terms of political ethics this means that, in the words of R. Niebuhr, “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In the meantime, we cannot refrain from the practice of solidarity and mercy towards those who are unable to better their own lives due to their sins or weaknesses, their hopelessness. The connection of the sinful man and God’s grace (and the obligation to pass on this grace to others), as a characteristic of Christian anthropology, is another aspect that Hungarian Christianity could use to help and inspire the responsibilities of government agencies.
  3. Christian theology is future-oriented. As a summary of today’s topic, we can say: Europe has a future. The Christian church operates in the hope and certainty that world history is not heading in the direction of the unknown, but towards a definitely identifiable goal. According to the Bible’s view of time, the old world is progressing towards a new one. We are often criticised for dwelling too much on the past, and not paying enough attention to the future. One can indeed be stuck in the past, but it is necessary to have a scientific approach to know the past, to reckon with the past, to create a culture of remembrance so as not to repeat past mistakes and sins in the future, and also to avoid what is humanly possible to avoid. A more fair and “more humanised Europe,” to use the words of Jürgen Moltmann, “is the historical form of Christian hope.”[6] Christian hope and theological eschatology do not call for passive observation but active deeds; it is the hope of the future that does not allow us to accept the injustices of the present. This future-oriented attitude provides purpose and meaning to our efforts to make our environment better, more human-scale and fair for future generations, who we are responsible for. It is the hope provided by Christian churches that can shake people from their Europe-scepticism and indifference: what we are doing today is not in vain, as tomorrow can be made better!

The most and best that Christian faith and Christian churches can do for Europe is to use the hope of the Gospel to stir the soul and conscience of the continent. In this respect the Hungarian government can truly rely on the member churches of ECCH; and the churches – with their realistic view of humans, placid view of the world, as well as their attitude of critical solidarity towards political and economic institutions – can be useful partners in bringing about a more humane Europe.

Prof. Dr. Sándor Fazakas

Chairman of the Social Ethics Committee of ECCH