17 November 2017

Poland in a Christian Europe – Religiousness in the Shadow of Pop Culture

When we talk about the foundations of European identity, we usually refer to values like those of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, Greek culture, Roman law and Christianity. Certainly many of us remember that in the recent discussions surrounding the European Constitution it was suggested that the notion of Christian values should be substituted with values connected to the age of Enlightenment, which are in contradiction with the former ones. In countries where the spirit of the Enlightenment prevailed Christianity never resumed its former role again. The secularisation of life moved to the forefront instead, especially in the West. The separation of the Church and the State, and the secularity of public institutions became fundamental conditions of democratic regimes. Since then, values promoted by different principles of Christian doctrine, such as the protection of human life from conception till natural death, the sanctity of marriage, the family as the fundamental institution of society, etc., are reflected less and less in legislation.

Thus the Enlightenment has left us with the consequences of the “demystification of the world”, and the legacy of libertinism and free-thinking in general still influences our lives. In this part of Europe, the de-Christianisation of life was further enhanced by the totalitarian Communist regime, which was anti-religious by nature. And although Communism has left its mark on the different societies around the region, paradoxically it contributed to increasing the prestige of the Church, traditional Catholic liturgy and Christian values. Before 1989 the Church became a shelter for all those seeking protection against the persecutions of the state and, in the last period of Soviet control, for those in pursuit of a national consciousness.

Following the change of regime the situation began to slowly change in this respect too. Processes and trends that were undermining the position of Christianity in Western states for decades have intensified: first and foremost, the process of globalisation with its whole ideological and cultural background. The growing importance of mass culture has played a key role in this.

Perhaps we might say that in Poland, which by tradition is a very religious country, changes in the wake of the spread of pop culture are almost as important as in the West. The situation is similar in several other European countries that are nominally Christian, like Spain and Italy. Here in Poland the situation is special in that these transformations took place even though Pope John Paul II, who enjoyed the deepest respect and affection in his country, fought against them for years. We must note however that although the Polish pope was immovably conservative in many important questions, he sought cooperation with the media, especially with television and the internet – the makers of the stars of today’s pop culture. The invasion of profanity, which has taken unprecedented proportions, is first and foremost due to their influence. But this oscillation between sacrum and profanum has been an integral part of religiosity throughout the whole history of modern Christianity. Indeed, it can be stated that this was one of the corollaries of the Christian ethos. Suffice to mention the examples cited by Karol Górski from the medieval history of the Church or the different aspects of carnival culture that Bakhtin depicted and interpreted in such a fascinating way. We must stress however that this carnival laughter was spreading with the sanction of the Church at the height of its power in those times, and was meant, so to speak, to serve as an antidote against official life models and values to whose existence it was not really a threat. Today – in the wake of long-term cultural and civilisational changes rationalism and pragmatism, despite occasional reactions and disruptions, are constantly gaining ground and the status of religion and religiousness and Christianity in the western hemisphere is now completely different. The Church lost its dominant role; it does not set the standard, and it no longer lays down everyday codes of conduct.

The role of the Church has perhaps proved to be the most persistent in ceremonies related to traditional human existence: in baptisms, wedding vows and funeral ceremonies. But a weakening of its influence is increasingly felt even in these domains. Even these ceremonies are slowly losing their sacred (sacramentalis!) and universal character, attributed to them especially in the moral context. This phenomenon may be interpreted as a consequence of processes rooted in the age of Enlightenment. It is connected to secularisation, libertinism and Enlightenment rationalism. It was also on these grounds that a specific definition of tolerance developed (not just in the sense of religious tolerance), coupled with the fetishising of an overly tolerant attitude, the unconditional extolment, nay encouragement, of tolerance. The combined effects of the said factors, which can be felt in a wide variety of areas of contemporary life, have led to the watering down and secularisation of religious faith and especially its traditionally sanctioned form, as well as the relativisation of its traditional institutions and values (see for instance the institution of marriage).

The peculiar development of Western religiousness is also influenced by the forceful return of irrational, esoteric movements, against which Enlightenment took up the fight as detrimental superstitions despising rational arguments. In this fight it actually took the same stand as Christianity. Today the inclusion of these elements goes on at a much larger scale – aspects of various Eastern religions are openly adopted but downright heterodox streams can also be identified. Modern Western people’s outlook on life – although it may seem paradoxical to some extent – is still largely determined by the already mentioned post-Enlightenment ideas. Libertinism, liberalism and tolerance are the signboards that show the way to uninhibited self-realisation, in the spirit of Enlightenment. Anti-cultural slogans, New Age values and postmodern ideas were embedded in this soil.

The next factor decisively determining our modern religiousness is the “golden calf” of capitalism – money. We have been caught within the cogwheels of the great profit-making machinery. In this system, nearly everything is subservient to mercantilism. Any battle for power over the soul actually becomes a battle for the economy, for power itself. On the market of values hierarchised to such a degree the tendency is for all offers (or at least for one aspect of them) to become de facto commercial offers, a fact that inevitably leads to the dominance of values desired most by the masses. As we know, in mass societies tastes and needs are generated, formed and enhanced by the mass media. But these dominant media under the pressure of the same mechanism – tend to feed on existing habits and leanings.

And here we have to return to our thesis stated before. Namely that there is a lot to suggest that the Church is no longer in control of the soul and can no longer prescribe codes and patterns of conduct. Moreover, trying to retrieve the irretrievable, it more and more frequently adopts the language, style and conditions dictated by the dominant models of pop culture. It does not realise that by crossing a certain limit the values it initially wanted to rescue are no longer the same.

It is true that the history of Christianity and the evolution of Christian doctrine is full of examples of the annexation and Christianisation of non-orthodox elements, that were not possible (or useful) to eradicate and which could not be circumvented or ignored either. As we know from Max Weber’s famous essay, Protestantism was able to take over and internalise even essential elements of capitalism.

However, today the situation has fundamentally changed, in a way that affects the whole of Western culture, including Poland. Evidently, conservatives and Orthodox Christians also make their voices heard, but in the context of the whole of the phenomena within which Catholicism functions today these voices are easily connected to fundamentalism, totalitarianism, or archaic and obsolete contents rejected by modern culture.

It seems the only way of preserving the sacred for the sake of culture and humanity, and indeed the only way that leads through the sacred, is touching on the most essential as well as the most sensitive points of our modern world. If the Church wants to fulfil its mission, it has to identify these sensitive points. It has to be pure and purifying, at the same time open to all kinds of human misery and distress, all the while remaining faithful to its fundamental ethical principles. The way ahead obviously presents itself as a crossroads rather than a spacious avenue crowded by the masses lured by glamour and ease, tempted by the illusion of belonging.




When Valéry Giscard d’Estaing insisted that in the preamble of the Constitution for Europe Christian values should be replaced by Enlightenment traditions, he certainly did not consider the fact that Voltaire himself the leader of the Enlightenment’s anti-Christian revolt under the banner of écraser l’infâme [crush the loathsome thing] –, used Christianity as his main reference when reflecting on Europe, its identity and the particularity of its culture. By the way, Giscard d’Estaing, akin in spirit to all the other great champions of the Enlightenment, probably did not take the words of Robert Schuman, founding father of the European Union, too seriously, according to whom Europe would either remain Christian or would cease to exist. Today these words (whose message was espoused also by Heidegger and Malraux) seem a prophecy fulfilled, which is quite frightful. A Europe devoid of its strong roots will evanish in the European consciousness and become an abstraction, a historical notion. Stripped of our European identity, with no attachment to European values, we will not know what we should defend, against whom and why. And the prophecy of the early 20th century foretelling the end of Europe, the decline of the West”, might come true in the end.

In today’s political climate, both Poland and Hungary want to be advocates of Christianity in the European forum. They defend it, just as they did when they were the bulwarks of Christianity and Europe against the Mongol–Tatar and Turkish invasions.

Translation by Orsolya Németh

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