CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Post-Modern Culture: Changes in Religiosity and Spirituality

by Maija Kule (Director, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

1. Religious situation in Latvia today: orthodox or post-modern?

There were always present certain religious traditions in the Latvia society. In the modern times these traditions have been primarily Christian in character - mostly Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Ortodox, baptist, Old Believers and some smaller denominations. Latvia is and has been a multi-confessional state. For example, Riga's Old Believers parish is considered to be the largest Old Believer parish in the world. This church in Latvia is unique in the fact that favourable conditions outside Russia have been created to preserve Old Russian culture and religion. The Old Believer church of Latvia proves the possibility of the succesful and stable social integration of Russians in Latvia. This is the result of tolerance and understanding of others nation's culture and religion - a policy followed by the Latvian state. What means integration of Russians? some time ago has mentioned: "When asked whether Russian Ambassador to Latvia (A.Rannikh) saw differences between the Russians of Latvia and those in Russia, he replied 'undoubtedly". Russians of latvia have adopted typical characteristics of the basic nation. They are not as emotional, they are more balanced and pragmatic.

Religious institutions have played a very important role in the unification of the Latvian nation itself and the development of one Latvian culture (as a common Latvian language, the standardization of grammar, a common religious heritage etc.) In this sense the religious institutions which came from the West made the Latvians into a distinct Western rather that an Eastern nation. But it must been mentioned that Christianity came to our region through violence; it was a result of the German agression. The Latvians (and Estonians) were the last nations in Europe who accepted Christianity in the thirtheenth century. Also for centuries the religious institutions supplied the basic value system and the code of conduct for the Latvian society. Quite obviously there was and always remainded a number of pre-christian views in the Latvian thinking, but since the 17th century the Latvian society became more and more a christian society. The Reformation gave rise to the development of the Latvian written language and book printing. later Lutheran faith and German clergy provided good teaching, urged Latvians to live in a Christian manner, encouraged education and schools and even started a tradition of song festivals.

President of the Latvian Academy of Sciences Jānis Stradiņš characterizes Latvia's history: "During the course of centuries, the quite complicated relations of our nation and our evangelical beliefs have been interwoven with national, social, and even economic and political motifs, for example, the Christian faith in contrast to the pagan cults of our ancestors, and the differences between peasants and landlords, Latvians and Germans, Christian values and national awakening, Christian values and the ideas of atheistic socialism." [1] As some sort of inner resistance, Latvians kept alive for centuries former pre-Christian religion, old mythology, folklore, deities. For a long time it was a sort of resistance against foreign invaders. The world of pre-Christian religion, mythology, folklore is still alive in Latvian culture. Therefore some scientists are trying to speak about religious syncretism in Latvia.

Within such a context the traditional role of religion has been to a large extent integral and value sustaining. Religion had underwritten a collective consciousness and had provided feelings and evalutions in which the collective mind was grounded.

At the same time the religious bodies themselves were not very much involved in the struggle for the Latvian survival. The main reason for this was that for long time they were dominated by different foreigners, most notably by the Germans. Up to the Independence of Latvia in 1918, the Lutheran churches were basically in the hands of the German pastors and German aristocrats. The Polish influence was very strong in the Roman Catholic church, and the Eastern Ortodox church was tied to the Moscow Patriarchate. Religion as a source of values had been transformative agency in society for centuries.

Catholicism numerically is the is the reigning religion in Latvia. But it does not mean that it reigns as far as spiritual values are concerned. If I may say so ( the cardinal Pujats would surely disagree), Catholicism in Latvia today realized only a few of its possibilities and values, namely most ortodoxal ones. It has concentrated on the Latgale region - where Catholicism reigns historically - on strengthening its institutional and organizational basis, elementary religious activities (preaching sermons, performing the christening, confirmation, burial rites). What is lacking in Latvia, however, its intellectual dimension of Catholicism which has been for centuries so powerful in the history of Europe. As Thomas Aquinas doctrine side by side with faith admitted the decisive role of the mind, the intellectual life in Catholicism in many regions and centuries in Europe has been especially developed. Un fortunately, it cannot be said of Catholics in Latvia of today. There is little dialogue with society, little participation in the cultural life, main works of contemporary Catholic philosophers (Maritain, Gilson, Marcel, Rahner) are not translated into Latvian.

One of the characteristic sign of non-intellectual life of Catholicism in Latvia is the absence of interest about professor's Staņislavs Ladusāns S.J. (1912-1993) intellectual heritage. Ladusans is the most prominent representative of Latvian Catholic academic philosophy of the XX century, who worked out cognitive phenomenology and many-sided gnoseology. His research has received international recognition as he has been president of four World Christian congresses of Catholic philosophy, has published numerous books in Portuguese and in Latvian and has been full member of Roman Pontifical Academy of St.Thomas Aquinas.

             Ladusāns' beseech was to build integral philosophy on the basis of many-sided gnoseology. He had great plans: he wrote Religious Philosophy in which he emphasized the ideas of integral humanism and had planned to write a three-volume Metaphysics.

        Unfortunately, in Latvia among Catholics there are no enthusiastic followers of his work who could develop critical realism, cognition phenomenology and many-sided gnoseology as thoroughly as it was started by Ladusāns. The publication of his manuscripts has become stranded. The Jesuit movement, active in Latgale region in the 19th century, has dissappeared.

It seems that some responsibility for preserving Ladusāns' heritage in religious philosophy should be undertaken not only by Latvian people, but also by the Catholic Church. Ladusāns' contribution to Latvian religious philosophy deserves a more many-sided evaluation and greater care should be taken for the spiritual work of this splendid intellectual of the Latvian nation not to be lost for future generations and the world.

 I hope, the situation will change when a new generation of priests returns from Rome, a generation that has been educated at the Pope's universities and has felt the breath of the world Catholicism.

Lutheranism could show its connection with society and its ability to attest the values of Protestantism during the years of the Third Awakening (1988-1991). Tn late eighties, young priests who had graduated from Latvia University Physics and Mathematics and Chemistry faculties and then turned to religion were extremely popular. They managed to conduct a dialogue with society, attest moral values and could present Lutheran beliefs in a modern context. Their interpretations of Christian values are on a knife-edge. Interpretations frequently seems to be very-postmodern. I have heard one sermon in country side small Lutheran church when spiritual nature of Jesus Christ has been interpreted as iron and his spiritual nature - as electricity.

Young Lutheran priests have many followers, they were shown on TV, interviewed, they published books and work at the Faculty of Theology, University of Latvia as teachers. Dr. of Theology priest Juris Rubenis has published about ten books - religiously tended fairy tales illustrated in the style of na•ve art (painter Māris Subačs). Critical reviews in press have recognized books as postmodern writtings. But it is only one side of religious life in Lutheranism. From the other side the ortodox approach and fundamentalist tendencies in it are strengthening. The Lutheran Archibishop's Jānis Vanags refusal to agree to women ordination for priesthood is a testimony to it. Women are ordinated in many places in the world, including the Latvian Lutheran Church in exile.

 National minorities of Latvia pursue their own religions. The most part of them have been formed by non- latvians: Russians, Koreans, Tatars, Armenians, Moldavians, and others. Some of them originated as a result of missionary activities.

Baptist parishes in Latvia are one of the most active missionary and charity organizations. Religious institutions interact with other spheres of social activity. Some missions do socially important work, such as "Steps", The mission has opened a children's home for children from different confessions. The work of the English-American Missionary society must aldo be recognized. "The Salvation Army" of Latvia was restored in 1991. Among non-Christian religious and charity organizations the Riga parish of the Krishna society provides social care in Riga by feeding the needy. Rather different people join social charity movements organized by the church, still others admire the exotic nature of Hare Krishna or lend an ear to the Baha'i or New Age teachings.

2. Post-modern conditions and religious life.

We can speak about the flowering of sects and new religious movements in Latvia at the beginning of XXIst century just like in many other parts of the world. The reasons for it are several. One of special obstacle is the past history of a region, the general demographic pattern of its population, ethnic composition and 50 years spent under the Soviet atheistic regime. It weakened the traditional confessions.

During the years of Soviet occupation in Latvia, a dialogue between the Christian and the secular world was not permitted. According to the official Marxist-Leninist ideology, Christianity was to be eradicated from the people's mind, the role of the church in society had to be reduced to nothing. Whole generations grew up for whom religious life was essentially unfamiliar and unfathomable. The religious life experience was cultivated in the families of believers and in those congregations that led a struggle for survival in those times. Atheism and the accompanying materialism and pragmatism, simplifies world outlook, and utopianism served the purpose set by the Communist system, that of rebuilding society with the help of materialized force and violent ideology and not with the help of idealistic polishing of the fragile spirit and self-revelation. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (Бердяев Н.) was right to an extent when speaking of the religiosity of atheism and observing that atheism were striving to take the place of religion, [2] but it was a very superficial phenomenon.

The 1990s have been times of great upheavals in Latvia's political and cultural life. As the Latvian philosopher and theologian Visvaldis Klīve observed: "The preservation of Latvian nationality was seen as a Christian religious duty. In Latvia itself membership and participation in church life became to some extent a protest movement against the Soviet authorities. The great interest in ecumenical relations by the Latvian church leaders gave significant visibility to the Latvian nationality in the international organizations at the time when it was not fashionable to talk about Latvia." [3] Religious values have been used for national and political strategies.

The atheism of Soviet times disappeared with the political changes in 1991 because Marxist ideology had not penetrated the profoundest layers of consciousness and life values. But it has created one very dangerous thing - the tendency of simplifying of any world outlook, belief into materialized force and violence, denying of transcendental truth and sacral feelings. Religion has been interpreted in pragmatic manner - as useful phenomenon for human reasons. F.A. Hayek explains the success of religion in the context of confirmation of fundamental human values. He writes: "Among the founders of religions over the last two thousand years, many opposed property and the family. But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family." [4]   

When religious life revived and obtained a wide cultural, political and economic context at the post-Soviet period, we have mentioned that family values  are weakened but idea of property become the highest value. Such secular values as money, power, social status started to dominate. Society was enthused over the wish to regain the lost Christian values, but with time this religious idealism naturally abated and new questions arose. People discovered the difficulty of cooperation and the discrepancy between romantic religious enthusiasm and reality. For many people who tried to return to religious experience in the nineties religious experience reshaped mainly into aesthetic experience and remained an ineffectual background to the real affairs of life. Modernity destroys traditions. Traditional religions have no longer the power to compel or to frighten. They are gradually turning into a museum of culture rather than a gateway to an everlasting life. It is one of the reasons why different forms of new religiosity appear in Latvia.

The victory of science preached by the era of Enlightenment failed to realize. On the contrary, grows the dissatisfaction with the environmental pollution, the increase of genetic deformities, dangerous projects of cloning, ideas of euthanasia, and it is all blamed on science and medicine. That gives rise to different new forms of religion, including scientology church. In Latvia, just like in all other post-Soviet societies, mysticism and occultism prosper.

In industrial society youth has to a great extent freed itself from the guardianship of parents and school, and so it can plunge into the waves of religious, sexual and drug-induced adventures. Post-modern orientation is already individualized, already set free from traditional religious life. In premodern civilizations, the political power newer fully penetrated the day-to-day life of the local community. In the present day, in Western countries the destruction of the local communities is going to reached its apoguee. The division between great and little traditions has today almost disappeared. Individualism and changing identities prevail. Postmodernism learn to forget the idea of universal values. As old certainities start to crumble, there is a tendency to feel that all views are equally valid, all kinds of experience are accepted. With the fall of the grand metanarratives more attention is paid to the 'little narratives' of regional issues, individual adventures and everyday life. The commonplace is converted into pluralistic cultures. There arrives a cloud of relativism and "weal thought", says Vattimo.

            This possibility is cunningly offered by the market in the sphere of spiritual values. David Harris: As the consumer market is flexible and more dynamic than the older ways of regulating identities, much more fluidity is apparent: people can change their identities more frequently, experiment with them, select more options from a cultural supermarket with far less commitment that before (p. 109, Gelenn Ward. Postmodernism, 1997). Values are destabilized and it does not gives satisfaction.

Youth is looking for charismatic leaders. In Latvia they are more based on the activities of the Russian community as people of Slavonic origin are for the greater part unwilling to approach the Orthodox Church and are keen on introducing new religious forms. They are characteristically tended towards practical, social life. The congregations exercise a great influence upon their members' moral and social bearing: people give up smoking, started help to others. In this way people recompense their loneliness, social alienation, absence of stable identity, gain the feeling of support and are satisfied with the possibility to subject the leader.  It is this feeling that is lacking in the social life of the new democracies as it cultivates the values of individualism, risk and forceful activity. The influence of charismatic type of congregations on religious life may grow in Latvia in the nearest future because they compensate for the lack of communicative values that the traditional religions - Catholicism, Lutheranism, and the Orthodox Church fail to supply.

The flowering of new religiosity does not arise in Latvia as part of anti-Westernism or anti-fundamentalist movements. It appears as something magnificent and extraordinary and joining the new trends gives people the sense of unaccustomed feelings and compensation for lost universal human values.

[1] Stradiņš J. Martin Luther and the Impact of the Reformation on the History of Latvia. - Dialogue between Christianity and Secularism in Latvia. Annals of European Academy of Sciences and Arts, vol. 15, N. VI, 1996, p.75.

[2] Berdyayev N. Istoki i smisl russkogo kommunizma. Moskva, 1990, razdel 7. Kommunizm i hristianstvo.

[3] Klīve V. The Latvian Struggle for Survival: A Religious Perspective. Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1993, No.1,  pp. 51-52.

[4] Hayek F.A. The Fatal Conceit. The Errors of Socialism. London: Routledge, 1990, p.137.


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