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When the Finnish church goes secular
by Thanos Kalamidas
2010-10-20 07:17:53
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Usually I avoid writing about churches and religion since I have openly declared my atheism and my respect to others’ believes, and in my mind there is a very clear separation between faith – religion - and the people who “represent” this faith even if these people are clerics and priests. This separation I suppose helps me understand better the human factor into the idealism and I have pretty similar attitude to most kinds of idealisms.

Saying that the latest events in Finland that have brought the Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the spotlight show the very human side of the church, actually the darkest human side of the church. Everything started with a televised debate programme on national television TV2 last week Tuesday, due to comments by some church representatives on the programme, which dealt with issues such as the right of homosexuals to adopt children and the establishment of gender-neutral marriage. By Friday evening more than 7,400 Finns had cancelled their membership in Finland’s largest denomination through a website set up for the purpose. The trend continued during the weekend, and by Sunday evening the figure had reached 18,000. This according the church sources means a lose of annual church tax revenues worth about EUR 2 million.

And the debate continued not in the issue that started the debate but with the huge exodus of the faithful and the cost this has to the church. Archbishop Kari Mäkinen issued a statement on Friday saying that he did not understand why people are leaving the church because of issues related to homosexuality. “I understand that many are expecting that the church would more clearly show that it accepts homosexuality”, he said that the church is more pluralistic than it is seen to be in various heated discussions. “Now would be precisely the time to hold debate on homosexuality, respecting others and listening to them”, Mäkinen said.

Bottom line, is the Finnish church ready to change fundamental stands under the weight of losing money? Before writing this I thought a lot and despite all the temptation I don’t want to start a philosophical conversation on the church’s believes, how even the bible has been paraphrased from the ones who preach it, occasionally lost in translation – it is odd for me who can read the original Greek text seeing how small, sometimes semantic, translation mistakes in other languages change the whole meaning – and what means modernization in the Christian church or even Muslim church. I suppose it is like asking from the communists to reject the dictatorship of the proletariat and accept democratic procedures from the very beginning. That will mean the collapse of the foundations that hold the whole ideology and we saw it in practice the last three decades. So I presume asking from the church “modernization” as we understand “modernization” today, a church that just a few years ago accepted that the earth is round will be the end of the church as we knew it and probably a devastating earthquake to many people’s faith.

The Bible is the blue print of Christianity but the bible was written 2,000 years ago, probably pretty progressive and modern at the time but looking old today in a totally different world with all the technological advance and scientific knowledge and after a series of social revolutions that have change dramatically life. If you think of it like that then yes Christianity is a long gone by philosophy that has to change and march the times if they want to survive in the modern world. But the same time Christianity is not about long hair, piercing, rock & roll; it is about good and evil and this message is beyond time, space and contemporary semantics and this applies to all religions, Islam, Buddhism or whatever else. So there is not issue for modernization, the message remains the same through time and space.

I think if the church – and here I’m not talking about religion but about the people that constitute the church - manage to accept this simple thing then with the help of time they can be tolerance to everything. I suppose back in 50s it would have been unthinkable to have a punk in the congregation nowadays in Finland you see women priests and vicars with dyed their hair purple and their nails bright red. I don’t think that changed the message these people communicate. But then you have to remember that I am an atheist.

But let’s return to the Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church. From one side I find overwhelmed the reaction of the people and I think that most of them used the event as a good excuse to stop paying the church tax in times of serious economic recession. If they were fully conscious to what they were doing then there are two problems. First of all especially after the invasion of women priests in the Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Finns were spoiled expecting from the church to do anything radical and “modern” forgetting that the church has always been a conservative and very slow moving institution and second that the church in Finland has failed to pass the message and identify itself as an institution to its own congregation. Actually the church is not a club where members decide the rules and can change them all the time.

And here is where the Finnish Evangelical-Lutheran Church does the huge mistake the last few days, instead of making clear everything to return to basics it has gone inside a whole conversation on how much this whole mess will cost! Actually if more people leave the Finnish church the weeks to come it will not surprise me since now the people start feeling that it’s all about money and nothing about faith.

And one last thing, I’ve read in the Finnish news about the church’s reaction that was accompanied with the note that the poor and the needed are the ones who are going to lose. I find the note very cheap and populist and the answer in the same level could be that things would improve if the archbishop would sell his very contemporary and luxurious Mercedes-Benz and use the money to help the poor and needed.

I know that I have put too many things together in this text and in a very small space but I would have never done it if the Finnish church hadn’t gone so secular to defend something so spiritual.

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Emanuel Paparella2010-10-20 09:53:43
Indeed Thanos, Dante places three Popes in hell for confusing the temporal realm with the spiritual realm. Kierkegaard in his Either Or levels a powerful critique of the Danish Lutheran Church on the same grounds and tells his countrymen that they have confused cultural Christianity with Christianity per se, they are Christians merely because they were born such; that the Church is not an institution to which one belongs to merely appear a respectable and decent bourgeois citizen (the Pharesee complex condemned by Christ). Indeed, we could go back to Christ himself in the gospel who is recorded as angrily chasing the money changers from the temple courtyard for the same reason. In other words, the Church is not a business and to reduce it to that is to corrupt it and make it a caricature.

The question therefore arises: what exactly is the Church? Etymologically it means the assembly of the people of God. That assembly is divided in three groups: the Church triumphant of the saints in heaven, the suffering Church of Purgatory, the journeying Church of sinners on earth. Those three groups form “the body of Chist.” It is definitely not the buildings, not the Vatican, not even a specific denominations or its clergy, even less the temporal temporary institution called Church. Those are merely the outer institutional trappings of the Church; its body so to speak, not its mystical soul. There would be much less confusion around if that was properly understood, especially by non-believers. Unfortunately, even believers have very confused notion about the identity of the Church. Also crucial to understand that in the after life there will be no need for an institutional Church which is a temporary means to the end of the final destiny of mankind, albeit Christians also believe that the body will not be discarded as a mere useless instrument but will be spiritualized and glorified at the end times; the Resurrection and the appearance of Christ with a spiritualized body to the early Church being a pre-shadowing of that final event. Indeed, to reduce the Church to a mere business and attempt to explain it in merely historical social terms as an institution like any other, to help the poor and the needy, is to reduce it to a caricature and also to be guilty of the philosophical sin of reductionism, i.e., explaining the higher by the lower.

Emanuel Paparella2010-10-20 10:01:28
P.S. As far as people leaving the Church in droves because they are shocked by its "secularization" that may be a blessing in disguise because Kirkegaard was right: they are mere cultural Christians not true Christians, for if the Church were to apply their ideal high standards for entrance into it, nobody, including themselves, would gain entrance. Here too there is confusion: the outer shell of the Church being a human institution in time and space it is to expected that there will be faults and imperfections, as lamentable as those are. The Church is not the Church of perfect people but the pilgrim Church of sinners searching for its final destiny and salvation, and that included the clergy.

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