The Bible and Europe – where are we coming from and where are we going?
The overarching communication theme for the European Evangelical Alliance in the second half of the year 2020 will be “The Relevance of the Bible in European Societies”. Readers of the EEA Newsletter will be presented with different perspectives on this topic over the course of the coming EEA newsletter editions. To get the series started we were delighted by the opportunity to conduct an interview with Dr. Andrzej Turkanik, the founder and Executive Director of the Quo Vadis Institute in Salzburg/Austria. Dr. Turkanik is a friend and close companion of the EEA’s activities and serves voluntarily in the EEA’s “Issachar project” group.
What is your background and what does the Quo Vadis Institute do?
First of all, thank you very much for having me in this conversation. It’s a great joy to speak about something that I believe is hugely important for our European Society. I was born and raised in communist Poland. I was trained as a classical musician on violin and viola, and I have also studied art and philosophy. From there, I moved to other fields of study, which I thought needed more attention. I studied theology in Wiedenest/Germany and then went on to do my doctoral studies (Old Testament) in Cambridge/UK. I have always been interested in the connection of culture and scripture, and this is also the reason why the Institute which I am running now came to be. We founded the institute ten years ago and named it “Quo Vadis”, a Latin saying meaning: Where are we going? The name is intended to suggest a pause button, to stop and ask ourselves the following questions: Where have we come from as a society? Where are we going? What is our special moment in time? And why do we need to think deeply about that moment? And from there: what can we do? I am hoping that people of faith and no faith will be intrigued by some of these questions, as we ourselves are. I speak as a Christian, but I am happy to work with people who have a similar questioning mind and want to engage in a conversation about the direction of our society.
Where are we coming from? What has historically been the relevance of biblical scriptures for our societies in Europe?
I would dare to say that our European Society would not have developed without scripture. In fact, wherever you go, you will see the influence of the Christian faith, and by extension scripture, in all of our culture, all of our learning, and all of our legal systems. Basically, western civilization is founded on faith. On the one hand, we could talk about literature and the influence that scripture had on the learning of the elites on our continent. But at the same time, everywhere you go, into every little small church, in every valley, in every little parish, you will find “the scripture for the laity”: paintings of biblical stories. These images depict an overarching story of humanity’s walk with the God who loves them, and who has given himself to his creatures in Jesus, and provided for Salvation in this way. Scripture is basically what the whole of our European history is based on. And so, it is unthinkable to be talking about European history without mentioning the influence of the Bible. Our history is so saturated with scripture that we have become oblivious to it. If you read Europe’s great literary works, you find biblical characters all over the place. When you look at the current considerations of ethical questions, they are all based on biblical thinking. I think that it is very important for us to think about the overarching influence of the Christian scriptures, which has brought European society to what it is today.
For you personally, if you had to pick one place in Europe that really speaks to you in terms of our biblical heritage, where would you lead us?
It’s really hard to pinpoint a place. I am overwhelmed by the amount of biblical heritage we have in Europe. Across Europe, there is a sea of societal development grounded in scripture. There are so many individual places that have a historical relevance where people have met and decided that, for the sake of the Gospel, something needed to happen. And this has literally shaped the course of Europe as we know it today. But to mention one specific place: I would go to the border area between Macedonia and Albania, around Lake Ohrid. It was somewhere here that Cyril and Methodius worked on the Cyrillic alphabet and then brought the Gospel to the Slavic part of Europe. At this very place, one can sense the deep and still presence of scripture, a place where, through scripture, one of society’s core fundamentals was shaped: its language. Here, we encounter people who had a deep conviction to bring the Gospel to new lands, but who also realised that they had to provide the mechanism to do so. So they worked on a language and so developed an alphabet. For me, this is kind of a cradle of how I understand the relevance of scripture in the history of our European societies.
Why is our biblical heritage not common sense anymore in our European societies?
There is of course a lot that we need to unpack. But at the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that it has to do with the way that the European society has developed under the influence of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, among many positive developments, has brought in an alternative eschatology. Basically, you either have faith in a Jesus who is the pinnacle of history, or you see the enlightened mind, and the ability to understand and trust your own understanding, as the pinnacle of human history. You cannot have both. I think that the Enlightenment does play to our human nature, as we like to be elevated to a point where “We are Gods”. We want to decide for ourselves, with nobody forcing us to do anything. It is very easy for us to lose sight of this post-fall reality: If we can possibly erase the influence of the God of the universe, to whom, at the end of the day, humanity is answerable, we will. I think even those who want to call themselves followers of Jesus sometimes prefer to do this, even though we may have made a commitment. We do prefer to have our own freedom and decision-making powers. And so, in my view, over the years there has been a movement to minimize the influence of Christianity.
What is the different experience throughout Europe in the preservation of our common biblical heritage – especially the differences between Western and Eastern European countries?
I remember, a few years ago, there was a discussion in Germany whether Islam was a part of German culture. It was one of those moments in which I noticed a strong public reaction. I really do not want to go into political issues now, but it is clear to me that today the whole conversation is very much ideological. But I do think that once an alternative understanding of history is put in front of people, in some societies people will say “No, but we are a Christian country!”. Certainly, this is true of Germany or Austria and some other Central and Western European countries – here it is mainly an issue of culture. Whatever that means in practical, political terms is a completely different conversation. Nevertheless, there seems to be a common cultural understanding of the societal roots, whether one has living faith or not. Many ‘Europeans’ would still consider themselves historically and culturally more Christian than not-Christian.
In Eastern Europe on the other hand, I think that generally the threat of communism and the eradication of faith issues from society, have contributed to a deeper sense of cultural identity. Again, this is not about politics. However, in large parts of Eastern Europe, there is a fear of Brussels and a fear of the European Union, which has of course been used by right-wing parties. People in Poland, for example, say “We have been under a foreign yoke for 150 years” and they perceive their identity as a nation – being Polish – as intertwined with being Catholic, so faith is held dear. Regardless of where it is being threatened from, people resist – whether this threat is, in this current situation, the almost imaginary refugees, who will flood the country, bringing Islamic ideas with them. Or whether this is the Merkel-Macron-combination that will take away the Polish identity. Just to mention a few of these notions that play strongly on nationalistic and religious sentiments. I find it interesting that in some ways the division between the west and the east of Europe runs along these religious/nationalistic lines.
Looking into the future, in which way will the Bible continue to shape our European societies?
I think that one of the amazing things about scripture is that it provides a vision of a future worth living for. We as Europeans, we have a different mentality to North Americans, where you find the ideals of a wild west and an open frontier. In Europe, one could say, everything that can be tried has been tried already.
But there is a message that I believe scripture brings very strongly to us about the idea of renewal and the restoration of all things. I am afraid that we have lost the sight of that. In my personal view, a lot of Christian preaching over the last hundred years or so has focused on a truncated Gospel – by which I mean a shortened, smaller version of the Gospel, which is all about saving souls. The problem is: In large parts of Europe today, most people do not worry about their souls. They worry about what is going to bring fulfillment to their lives. Many people say: “I don’t really care what’s going to happen to me after I die”. And so, the people’s interests have shifted. But the beauty of the Gospel is such that it presents a vision and it primarily attracts people if this vision is communicated also. If only we were able to bring all the things that the Gospel actually addresses to the attention of people! Take Creation Care – especially in conversations with politically engaged young people, I find that this is a topic they strongly care about. But very often they do not connect the dots and do not come to the realization that the Christian faith has a lot to say about the thing they care about. Sometimes, in a conversation it happens that I share that I am a Christian and people are surprised: “I never heard any Christian say something about that, I thought you were only after my soul.” If we can recraft our message and get it back onto the tracks, moving from creation all the way through sin and redemption to the restoration of all things, this would be an exciting message for the jaded and critical Europe in the 21st century.
How can the necessary recrafting of the message of the Gospel take place more widely on the individual level but also on the collective level – in our churches and denominations?
I think we have lost our first love and we have lost imagination. The first church has used scripture to impact all aspects of life. If we allowed scripture to have a bearing on all of life, including all hidden elements of our lives, we would stop living in a bifurcated manner – a “Sunday life” and a “Monday life”. The next thing is: You cannot give an answer without asking the right questions in the first place. We cannot give answers without really looking at the problem in today’s societies. Like in this story of a graffiti on a bridge that said “Jesus is the answer” and somebody had written underneath it: “What was the question?” Again, the point is that scripture has got this unified vision of a good life: A good life now and a good life in the future – in the restored universe, in God’s presence. We need to recapture the imagination of people with regards to this vision and here, I think, it is hugely important that we bring in artists and their unique understanding of things. Life is not just a mathematical equation. It is an art more than a science. Therefore, we need more than a placard, standard understanding of the Gospel. Theology needs to be fresh, so that we inspire each other. I find it so fascinating that Paul writes to Titus: “make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive” (2:10b); that when you preach the Gospel, it is exciting for people to hear. This is a passionate thing for me. And how do I go about it? I get inspiration by asking others: “How do you understand this portion of scripture? How do you see this?” This is enlarging my experience of how God speaks to us individually and collectively, as a church, so that we can shine like the stars to the people outside the church.
I do not think it is possible to communicate the Gospel to Millennials without including aesthetics. Let’s look at the three transcendentals – the true, the good and the beautiful. As believers, we know what is true. We work on what is good. But we don’t know what to do with the beautiful, and yet we have a beautiful God and a beautiful scripture. There are so many elements of aesthetics: how God has created us, how he has created the world, and also in how he speaks today. These aspects need to be brought back again. What I would like to see is another reformation in our understanding of theology like in the past. Today’s questions are not Martin Luther’s questions. “How do I find a gracious God?” is an extremely important question, but it is not the question anymore that people in Europe today ask first.