By Scott Keith –
As I write this, I am literally sitting in the shadow of the Strasburg Cathedral, France, not 150 feet from the main door. My entire panoramic world is consumed with this extravagant monument and house of worship built to honor God’s glory. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is 466 feet tall, which for 227 years (1647-1874) made it the world’s tallest building. Today it is the sixth-tallest church building in the world and the highest remaining structure built entirely before the end of the Middle Ages.
The cathedral itself sits right in the middle of the city of Strasbourg and can be seen from almost anywhere. The buildings––restaurants and souvenir shops––are built so close to it that it feels like the cathedral was dropped by a space ship to sit right in the center of town. It is literally the center of everything. When one lives or stays in Strasbourg, one can easily say that he lives in the shadow of God’s house. The cathedral’s ever strong and tall presence reminds me that at one point the culture, politics, economics, domesticity, and obviously religiosity of this wonderful city were all put second to and sat in the shadow of God’s house. When the bells would ring for mass, the entire city was reminded that it was time to stop what they were doing and leave their homes and shops and come to worship God. It shadowed everything they did and was the center of their life, which is why it is in the center of town. The town literally built up around it.
But what about now? Now it is almost empty, save for tourists who view it as a leftover oddity from a time gone by. While millions in France continue to attend religious services regularly, even at the Strasbourg Cathedral, the overall level of religious observance in France is very low. According to the Eurobarometer Poll conducted in 2010, 27% of French citizens responded that “they believe there is a God,” 33% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force,” and 40% answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.” This makes France one of the most secular countries in the world. So at best, 27% of French people are Theists of some sort (maybe even Deists), which may mean that they consider themselves Catholic or Christian of an expressly undefined and cultural type. This leaves the remaining 73% to be general spiritualists or flat out unbelievers. Further, less than .9% report that they attend church even somewhat regularly. In other words “God is Dead.” To many Europeans these three words, written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, summarize the state of modern European society.
The belief that the God who has saved all of mankind through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son seems to be in short supply here. At one time it was so strong that the people made it the center of their world and labored to build a cathedral to remind them. Now, I sit in the shadow of this splendid anachronism contemplating my own country and my own church. What happened here in France, in Strasbourg, causes me to wonder: is it happening to us as well? Any attempt I make in a short blog to answer this question will surely, and rightly, be responded to with heaps of criticism. But sitting here in the shadow of this place, I feel like I must say something.
At the very least, it seems safe to say that three movements were at play here in France––and most of Western Europe––which almost certainly had a damaging effect on Christianity, or rather Christian belief and faith. They are:
1) Higher Biblical Criticism
2) An intensely “personal” view of faith
3) Little to no apologetic evangelism
Biblical criticism, specifically the principles of higher criticism are based on reason rather than revelation, and are speculative by nature. In modern times, higher critical methods have been used in conjunction with the contemporary philosophical trends to “de-historicize” Holy Scripture. These techniques have caused many Christians to question the historicity and accuracy of the Bible. When Christians are taught that they cannot believe the history of the Bible, a Christ who saves because of what he did at a particular place and time (His life, death and resurrection) is not longer real. Rather than a real savior, Christ becomes merely a moral example of how we ought to live and treat one another.
This then leads to the view that faith is personal, because it deals only with how I act and how I think. Rather than being about what the other, Christ, has done for me, and what He gives me on account of His love for me, it becomes all about my actions. His righteousness is not exchanged for mine. Rather, my goodness is shown in how closely my story matches His. My belief in my potential is more paramount than the objective truth about my God. It is all “personal” in all of the wrong ways. When each person’s ideas of truth and reality are valuable, regardless of their “truthfulness,” what we are left with is no truth, only feelings. Thus, as long as a person doesn’t share his or her truth with anyone else, society will get along just fine. It wasn’t always like this. But after Europe spent a century at war over what some would say were competing belief systems, a faith that is personal and not imposing seems safer and more attractive to many.
It follows, then, that when faith is only a personal matter, and not based on something that is objectively true, it won’t be shared, and certainly won’t be defended. Thus evangelism and apologetics are both rare commodities in a style of Christianity that is endemic to modern Western Europe. (Ironically, the region of the world that once sent missionaries out to “Christianize” the rest of the world now receives missionaries so that it might again be “Christianized” itself.) Christianity was for years supported by high birth rates among Christian communities. Yet the birth rate in modern Europe is lower now than it has ever been with the average woman having 1.6 children. In this situation, if we don’t actively share and thus don’t defend the faith, the consequence will be unbelief.
So to wrap up, is this the whole answer? Probably not, but maybe it’s close. Does this remind you of anything? Increasing doubts concerning the veracity of the text of Scripture. You believe what you believe and I’ll believe what I believe. Lower birth rates. We do little or no evangelism and apologetics. This all sounds familiar to me. The church will always remain and yes there will be a remnant. But I am worried that we sometimes are too comfortable with the word “remnant” at the expense of remembering that our God is He “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The Bible is the true Word of God. His Word, spread through proclamation and evangelism and defended in apologetics, is the means by which people come to the knowledge of the truth. Our faith is personal but it is a personal gift that we in turn share. It is not personal in that it means something only to us, but rather in that it means life or death to all, personally. We should be aware of the reality that we are no better than the miserable sinners here in Western Europe; they are we and we are they. We too could end up sitting in the shadow of God’s house because we have forgotten how important it is to go in. We have God’s Word and we have His Sacraments: Word, water, bread and wine, body and blood. He gives us these not to hoard for ourselves, but to give them freely.