Thursday, August 05, 2010

god's continent

Yes, that's right - I have digested yet another Philip Jenkins' book. It is becoming a compulsive behavioural disorder (particularly when I see the next one already on my desk). This one is a sane and measured response to the fear that Europe is becoming some sort of Eurabia where Christianity's prospects, currently being dismantled by secularism, is about to suffer an even worse fate in the form of an incoming Islamic tide sweeping through what was once God's Continent.
Philip Jenkins, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007)

A few reflections...

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War Europe is again "a critical theater for rivalry" (25) - this time between competing forms of religious belief: Islam, Christianity, and secularism. While it has the makings of a similar crisis in the way it feels unresolvable, maybe it will resolve itself in time?

There is a "birth dearth" in Europe where falling birth rates are leading to a "slow motion autogenocide" (6) which contrasts markedly with countries from where many immigrants, often Muslim, are coming. Quoting Mark Steyn, "the design flaw of the the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birth-rate to sustain it" (7). In Western Europe "the rule of thumb is that "the closer you get to the Pope, the fewer children one has" (30). This is part of the challenge behind Turkey's application to the EU. If admitted it will be the most populous country in the EU by 2015 and one of the few with a rising birth-rate. The Muslim percentage in Europe would jump from 4.6% to 16% overnight and keep rising sharply - not to mention that the country being admitted is where the word 'genocide' was invented less than 100 years ago with the extermination of its Christian Armenian population in 1915. A difficult debate...

Jenkins constantly asks the question whether religion is the underlying issue with the ongoing tension in Europe. For example, what about generational difference between the white (often older and richer) and the non-white (often younger and poorer)? There is "a disaffected underclass" (178) but how much is it really a religious issue now - and how much might it become a religious issue in the future if tensions are not reduced, thereby "removing the festering grievances that potentially drive people to militancy" (232). With the collapse of Marxism, "Islam is becoming in Europe the religion of the repressed" (132).

Faith is struggling in Europe under secularism. "In a typical year, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, with around one million faithful, ordains one new priest"(33). In time this same secularism may dilute Islam as well. Who knows? And yet there is "faith among the ruins" as Jenkins reaches for all kinds of evidence: "an enduring Polish piety" (57); "the golden age of pilgrimage" (60f) etc. The tendency is to overstate the Muslim "threat": "Europe's evangelicals, charismatics, and pentecostals outnumber Muslims by almost two to one and will continue to do so for the forseeable future" (74) - not the least because alongside the Muslim immigrants from Asia and Africa, there are also Christian ones from the same regions. By 2025 about 8% of Europe is likely to be Muslim - not that overhwelming a statistic.

There is room for dispassionate critique of some prevailing assumptions about Islam. Muslim aggression has marked the history of Europe as much as Christian aggression. For example, consider the high profile which the Crusades still receive from a millenium ago and then the skimming over a few Muslim stories of oppression in the intervening centuries. Furthermore, for some, "Muslims can scarcely demand complete religious freedom throughout Europe if Christians are not allowed limited rights to worship in Islamic lands" (270). That was one of the more compelling statements in the book for me.

"The key political struggles within Europe's contemporay Muslim communities concern intimate issues of home and family" (179). There are still more "revolutions at home" to occur. And the treatment of women is to the fore here, as Jenkins works his way through the issues that do tend to surface like arranged marriages, wearing of burqa/hijab/jilbab, importation of wives, polygamy, suppression of domestic violence, gender roles, "honour killings", and genital mutilation. There is still a long way to go...

There is a chapter on terrorism - but it does not dominate the book. While the voices of the extremist is "shrill, ... the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militants flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the forces working against this extremism" (147). Interestingly, Jenkins predicts that "unless political circumstances change radically, there will soon be a major attack on an iconic symbol of European Christianity" (264) - for example, a cathedral of some kind.

Europe is not ready to enter the discussion because of the way it has minimised, even misunderstood, the role which religion plays in public life. Whereas in the Muslim mindset "politics is a subset of religion" (180), in the Euro-American mind the two are segregated into exclusive domains - with religion tending to be forgotten, in Europe anyway. And because Europe has been so irreligious/secular, they have tended to see the tensions solely as racial issues, eliminating the religious element simply because it has not been a feature of their own lives. As Jenkins concludes, Europe does not face a "Muslim problem" but a "religion problem" - with "the systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation" (259) leaving them ill-equipped to face the great issue of their time. This leaves a space for a genuine presentation of the gospel in word and deed.

One statistic I still can't believe: "A third of the two million people in Britain who originated in the Indian subcontinent came from just one region - Mirpur in the Pakistani part of Kashmir" (110) ...

A slow and absorbing read (mostly as I travelled through Europe) - but ever so worthwhile.

nice chatting



keropok lekor said...

I agree with Jenkin's observation that the Muslim 'threat' is overstatement, and the presence of an increasing Muslim populace in Europe will bring religion back to the public square.

While the changing demographics could be a woe, I now begin to see it as a blessing for the European church play a more dynamic role in engaging European societies as well as Islam.

Paul said...

Yes, this is an area in which I have changed my mind in recent years. The very logic of pluralism creates a space for the gospel that it didn't really have before. It puts Faith into the public square, as you say ... and once there, as John Stott puts it, "we need not be afraid of the truth, nor be afraid for the truth."

But I'd be interested in your reflections on this statement of Jenkins which stopped me in my tracks: "Muslims can scarcely demand complete religious freedom throughout Europe if Christians are not allowed limited rights to worship in Islamic lands" (270).