RELIGION AND DEMOCRACY: AN EXCHANGE OF EXPERIENCES BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
THE CESNUR 2003 INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
1) Backgrounds of the dialogue
In the multireligious society of the Netherlands the protestant churches are only one of the providers of religiosity and spirituality. The amount on the spiritual supermarket is big and multicoloured, the churches are only one of the participants and providers, they are almost not noticed at all. The question is: what is the reaction of the big Dutch protestant church (when I am speaking about the church, I always mean this one) on their colleagues or competitors on this religious supermarket?
We can find three attitudes. The first possibility is absolute neutrality. The church does not see the other ones, she acts as if the other ones do not exist at all. The second attitude is antithetical or polemic: the church fights the other providers of meaning , places her right opposite to the wrong of the other ones, and claims alone to know the real truth. The third possibility is working together or acting together. The church is proclaiming her own truth, but is doing it in contact and consultation with the other ones and refuses to execrate them. In this case we can speak of dialogue. It is never the case the church chooses only one of these attitudes, mostly it is determined by the religion or the church one is meeting. So we can see the church mostly has an attitude of absolute neutrality or negativity against the so-called sects of new religious movements. The antithetical attitude nowadays is not known by the church itself; we can find this attitude within some wings of the church, e.g.. in the evangelical or the strongly orthodox wings. The attitude of the dialogue we can find in two different ways. We have the material-dialogical attitude to the evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic churches. The church knows she has an inner connection with them and is striving to make this solidarity stronger. We also can speak of an ecumenical dialogue. A formal-dialogical attitude we can see in the position to the other great world religions: on a very specific way with the Jews, in a more general sense with the Islam, and on a marginal way with Hinduism. In this dialogue we cannot find a striving to an ecumenical solidarity, but a striving to act together and to discover on which themes agreement can be found.
How is the attitude of the church to New Age? This attitude still is in development and I have the intention to show this development in this paper. The complicating fact in this case is that many New Agers (I give them this name) are a member of the church. Of course mostly the New Agers can be found outside the churches and mostly they are not thinking very positively about the churches, but it should not be underestimated how many members of the church are attracted by important ideas of New Age. The church has New Age inside itself. This implies that the church cannot react on a very neutral way, she cannot negate the fact she has so many members how have ideas which are in fact non-christian. It is also not possible, at least not favourable, to react on an antithetical or polemic way. The consequence could be she expels these members and gives them not a legitimate place within the church. These members at best can leave the church voluntarily, and in the case not they can be suspended. Of course, a church which holds very strongly to her ideas, can do this, but to a church like the Dutch one, which knows in itself a great multiformity , this is absolutely impossible. Then the third attitude remains: the dialogue. The church cannot avoid this attitude because many of their New Age-members are/were asking the church clearly to give her opinion on their ideas. Also there came many questions of ministers/priests who were confronted with the fact that many believers accepted the idea of reincarnation or received messages from the other world. What had to be their reaction on this. Furthermore, in the end of the eighties a group aroused , consisted of ministers and priests, who presented clearly a specific characteristic theology, fundamentally determined by ideas of New Age, of which they declared this represented really what Jesus had taught. In short, the church had to react, she could not avoid to start the dialogue with the ideas of New Age and with her members who were adherents. What kind of a dialogue it had to be? Material (ecumenical) or formal? This was exactly the problem , with which the church was confronted. In this paper I will show that the church began with a more material dialogue, but ended with a formal.
2) The beginning of the dialogue
The management of the church, the synod, took the challenge and started with the dialogue. In 1992 a conference was held with the title New Age, visions from the Christian faith. The interest in this conference was enormous, mostly the participants sympathised with the the ideas of New Age and wanted clearly an official reaction of the church. The synod recognised how strong the ideas of the New Age where in her midst and resolved not to avoid the dialogue, but to act. She appointed an official to study this theme, who had to produce a report. In 1994 this report was ready and was presented to the synod. The report, called The church have a secret. Between old and new was very clear. On the one side it pointed the church had to realise that world and the thinking in the world have changed. The old structures of thinking have passed away, one has to think holistic, dogmatic thinking is not appreciated, the stress is laid on the personal religious experience, people are interested in a direct spirituality or even mystics, there is a longing to concrete methods of meditation, which can be connected with the personal experiences, etc. The report stressed that the churches did not realise this in a sufficient way, and that it was very important to be open to different ways of thinking and believing within herself.
On the other side the report clearly pointed out were the fundamental differences could be found. Four complexes of questions were presented.. At first the questions about the image of God. Is God a Person, a Thou, or can we speak about the the divine as impersonal and present or living in everybody (and in everything)? The report is clearly: In its essence God can only be viewed as Person, but this Person can be very near to man. In the second place, arising from the former point, there were the questions about creation or emanation. Is everything from its beginning divine, or is all what exists created by God? The report chooses the latter point of view. With this theme of the creation are connected questions about evil and the origin of evil, and also the question of the human responsibility. Evil is not an aspect of God, it is not created by God, and what its origin may be, man has made it came over him and he has to fight the evil. In the same time much stress is laid on the responsibility of man to the whole of the creation. In the third place, the report gives much attention to the community. In short: the most important thing is not self-realisation, but the neighbour. The way to the real self is only possible by mediation of the other. The ecclesiastical parish is very important here. The fourth complex of questions has to do with the future. It is stated that reincarnation is not a possibility, because this idea means that the real life on earth is negated, and the future is reduced to becoming born again in another life. Every man has an unique and not repeatable life, here and now on this earth, and after this life the Kingdom of God is expected, the Kingdom which also is nearing man from the future. Also important here are the questions about evolutionary growth and development and the meaning of the suffering. The report states that the growth is not a necessary thing, and also that it is not right to give meaning to terrible suffering (it may not be said: this is karmic necessary).
The synod accepted the report as a subject of discussion to the churches, but added something. It was said a fifth point was necessary. In the report nothing was found about the person and the work of Jesus Christ, and this theme had to be mentioned. It is important to say that Jesus atoned man with God and eliminated the suffering by his death. Man cannot realise his salvation on its own, he needs God. Also, so was stated, when the bible is speaking form Christ, it never can be the divine spark within man, a kind of Christ-principle.
2) The development of the dialogue
The reactions on the report were very different. Orthodox Christians and church members had no problems with it, this in contrast with the New Age-christians. They had the idea they were not taken seriously, they established the church did not have indulged in anything, and in spite of the kind and nice words, the kernel or essence of the Christian dogmas was maintained. May be there could be found in a formal way a kind of reconciliation, for instance the plea for meditation and the stressing of the fact that holistic thinking could be a very good opportunity, and also the importance of the personal religious experience, but in material respect nothing had changed. So the question remained: is it possible as member of the church (or as a Christian) to adhere to ideas of New Age?
The church could not avoid to continue the dialogue. She appointed a full-time official, who had to publish a fundamental study on this subject and also had to organise a big conference. In 1997 she published her book She is herself on which she is waiting, with the subtitle The values of the Church, New Age and Science. In 1998 the conference was organised with the theme Between the Fish and the Aquarius. Again the interest in this conference was enormous, many people had to be refused to participate.
The book does not, like the report of the synod did, give a sketch of the controversies and differences between Christian faith and New Age, but presents mostly how in the both religious traditions is acted and how the way of thinking is. Very important are the ways of thinking (New Age is speaking of holistic or unity-thinking, the church mostly knows dualistic or separation-thinking) and the consequences of it. In the same time a very important new item is brought forward: the questions about the alternative ways of healing, paranormal healing, spiritualistic healing. In general the author did not give her personal ideas and also mostly did not state if things were compatible between church and New Age, only regarding the idea of reincarnation she posed it was not possible to combine this with the essentials of the Christian faith.
The conference did not focus on the material dialogue. Among the speakers were many adherents of the New Age movement, who clearly stated their position, there were some Christian speakers who mostly spoke about their personal experience with God in their life, and only sometimes some critical remarks were made about New Age. In the many subgroups and also in the plenary discussion it were mostly the formal aspects with which was dealt. The central focus was on the question: what can a New Ager learn form the church? And what can the church learn from New Age? It appeared that the results of this central question mostly were of a formal character.
What the church can learn form New Age? We can find the following answers: an non-dogmatic attitude, the aspect of freedom in think and acting, openness to people with other ideas and other beliefs, giving room , the stress on the personal religious experience, the working with silence and meditation, the idea of a personal responsibility (the idea of self-realisation) , the presence of a positive view of life (Man is in its essence good), the importance of symbols, the reading of the bible on a different way.
What New Age can learn form the church? We can discover the following themes: the use of rituals and symbols, the aspect of the communal celebrations, the idea of belonging together, the non-individualistic approach, the presence of a solid structure and organisation, the more concrete way of believing, the being rooted in history and tradition, the strong orientation on the bible and especially on Jesus Christ, a responsible sense of sin and evil, and at last: the idea of God as a Person.
Everyone who studies the results, has to see that almost all the results are of a formal character. With a single exception they are not material. It was not a surprise that at the end of the conference strongly was asked to organise in the future conferences with a specific material character. The subjects which were proposed by the participants of this conference were the following: more then 40% of the participants had the opinion that the theme of reincarnation (and karma) was very important to study more. As a second subject was proposed the image of God (and also the image of man), with the questions about personality and impersonality. The third subject regards the supernatural reality: what kind of reality it is? What can be said about angels, entities, Masters, guiding spirits, etc. and what can there be said about the messages and information which are given through in channelling? The fourth subject concerned history: what are exactly the origins of the Christian church? Is the Christian church only one of the developments from the first Christians, and did there also exist quite different communities? And were there more and many visions on Jesus Christ and why the vision of the church is the right one? With this is connected the them of gnosticism. This were the most important subjects, which were mentioned. There were more subjects, but it can be said that they mostly can be combined with the above mentioned four subjects. So were mentioned: the authority of the bible in connection with the authority of the messages given in channeling, paranormal experiences, the question if enlightenment is really an absolute opposition to the Christian salvation, about the mystical tradition, the healing by faith, paranormal ways of healing, about the question if the world is real or illusion.
As the results of the conference were only formal and the participants clearly had the wish to have a dialogue with more stress on the content, the management of the church could not avoid to continue the project Dialogue Church and New age. She appointed temporally a part-time official (a term was not mentioned, but it was clear it could not be more then some years), with the task to organise conferences about the themes which were proposed above.
3) The end of the dialogue
The official started rapidly. He organised a conference in 2000 with the theme the image of Jesus. It cannot be told if this conference would have attracted many people, because one of the heads of the church department, who was responsible of these conferences, withdraw the participation of the church. The reason was that the speakers, who were invited, were much too one-sided: almost all the lecturers were adherents of the ideas of New Age en almost none of them had an ecclesiastical point of view. This was considered as irresponsible, the church could not allow this would be happening. Therefore the local churches of the city of Den Haag (were to conference was to be held) decided to continue with this conference on its own, and to pay for it. So the conference was held, but it cannot be said there was very much interest. There were no clear results. The images of Jesus within the church and within New Age were presented and compared, but nothing was said about the question if they was compatible or not.
The second conference was held in the beginning of 2001, with as subject the new revelations and the authority of them, compared with the authority of the bible. One of the results at the side of the participants of the church was that it became clear to them that these new revelations always have to checked with the bible. They do not have authority by its own, even not if the one who is speaking claims to be Jesus Christ himself, it always has to be compared with the bible. The channelling may say the things of the bible different, but it is not allowed to say different things.
The third conference was held at the end of 2001, with the theme reincarnation and karma. People listened to each other very open, from the side of the church really was tried to come close together, but the definite result was that the participants of the church stated that reincarnation was not compatible with the Christian faith. Also was stated from the side of the church that the concept of karma is used on a negative way, when is said that all what can happen to somebody, in principle is his own choice and has the functions to learn the lessons of life.
When we have a survey of the whole, I am inclined to say that the interest in the dialogue of the church and New Age has gone. It has to day with the fact that on the last three conferences it became very clearly the church has not the intention to adapt itself to the ideas of New Age. Of course there can be spoken about new revelations, but they cannot get authority and it is impossible to punt them in the place of the bible. Of course there can be discussed on the theme of reincarnation, but the church does not see a possibility to connect this with her ideas about the uniqueness of human existence here on earth and with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Of course it is possible to study the images of God and Jesus, but is clear the church will hold her ideas about God who is Person. There are more themes, about which the church wants to speak with New Age, and there are aspects of the Christian faith the church can reformulate or can stress more than before, but to renounce her message of change it fundamentally is not a possibility. This is the cause that many New Agers and church members who are sympathising with New Age, consider a dialogue as superfluous. It will not have any result, one can only see that the New Age-ideas one has, are not similar to the ideas of the church. And although these church members are not removed from the church, the question to them is what their position can be within the church. Will they organise themselves as a new wing within the multiformal church, or will they leave the church and try to find somewhere else a place which is fit to them? Whatever may be the result, to my opinion the material dialogue is over. It is revealing that almost directly after the third conference it was clear the official could not be remain connected with this project of church and New Age. The function was abolished, and although the project officially was not abolished, nothing will happen anymore: it really has come to an end.
I concluded that the dialogue between the church and New Age in principle is over. The points of view are clear: the New Agers do not get influence within the church and the church does not have the intention to adapt her message. In this respect the situation in the protestant church in the Netherlands can be compared with that of the Roman Catholic Church. In the end of 2002 the Vatican published a report about New Age. The contents of it are very clear: the church does not want to go in the direction of the world of New Age and that she strives to reformulate the essential teachings, without changing them.
Two questions result form this all. The first: made this dialogue sense? The second: must the dialogue to be continued? If this must be the case the questions arises: what is the goal of this dialogue?
Made this dialogue sense? The answer is essential positive, we can see the following reasons:
n a real interest existed in each other, the other one was not denounced, one was really interested of the ideas which the other one knew. It is a pity that an agreement could not be found, but the open interest remains a very important fact.
n The church did not only listen to the other people, she also has learned something of the New Age. Within the churches nowadays is more interest in meditation, an orientation can be found towards the Christian mystical tradition, more stress is laid on the religious experience, the church tries not to think too dogmatic, there is an agreement that holistic thinking also can be very fruitful to the theology, aspects of the christian faith are stressed, which had become forgotten, etc. The church really has learned something. At the other side it is more difficult to say if there has been learned something, as the convinced New Agers remain very convinced and will not leave their convictions.
n It is also very important that now has been showed that Christian faith and the New Age ideas represent a different kind of orientation. It is good t know the frontiers of each other and to the members it is also helpful to know where the ways of both are parting.
n The result is that in principle the church has accepted the New Agers as official members and had given them a place within the multiform church. By starting the dialogue the synod implicit showed that the New Agers could remain member of the church, even if their ideas are not accepted and sometimes rejected. If this multiformity is a desirable one is not the question here, it is fact that this is the situation.
The second question was: must this dialogue be continued? If this is the case: which are the goals of it? It seems to me that in material respect the dialogue does not make much sense anymore. One knows the points of view and the ideas of each other, one knows the other will not renounce his ideas, so a continuing dialogue would mean a repetition of former viewpoints. Of course it is useful to remain in contact with the other one in order to see if there are developments, but a real material result is not to expect.
I would have a plea to continue the formal dialogue. The reason is simply social: it is very well to know the people one is living with in this culture and society, good and thoroughly. There exist already enough prejudices and judgments about the other world religions and new religious movements. To know each other means to see what is essential to him, and also here is valid that to know someone is to respect someone. Or, different formulated: if one knows what inspires someone and what is important to him, there is more understanding. The goal of the formal dialogue is: to stay in contact, to know more and more the other one, in order to have a society in which people can peacefully live together.
At last I have a question to you as listeners to me. I sketched the situation in the Netherlands. I am very curious if in your own country a comparable situation and development can be found. I am also curious how the situation is in other protestant countries.
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