Hempton traces Europe’s new religious landscape

Joshua Boucher/Staff Photographer  David Hempton, dean of the Harvard Divinity School, spoke about the history of the decline Christendom in Europe and the transition to Pluralism. He gave the example of Vincent Van Gogh's painting "Old Church Tower at Nuenen" for showing the slow decline of the church as the central part of daily life in Europe.

David N. Hempton, dean of Harvard Divinity School, spoke about the decline of Christendom in Europe and the transition to pluralism Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. He gave the example of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Old Church Tower at Nuenen” for showing the slow decline of the church as the central part of daily life in Europe. (Joshua Boucher | Staff Photographer)

To David N. Hempton, Europe has lost touch with the roots of its culture and is at a crossroads. The once- Christian continent is in an identity crisis amid an increasingly secular and interconnected world.

Speaking Friday from the Hall of Philosophy, Hempton, dean at Harvard Divinity School, delivered his lecture, “Secular Europe: The End of Christendom and the Rise of Pluralism.”

During the formation of modern European nations, Christian churches were responsible for building the culture and different aspects of government, Hempton said. These roots are now at odds with decreasing religiousness and a larger non-Christian European presence.

“For much of the 18th century, established churches were not so much required to do things as required to be things,” Hempton said. “[They] were as much bound up with local and national identities as they were agents of religious and spiritual transmission. They were Europe’s institutional and ideological cement.”

Churches were responsible for such public services as education, welfare dispersal, controlling and mandating religion and maintaining a public record, he said.

“Established churches were regarded as simply indispensable to the theory of governing, and they supplied divine sanction to the given order,” Hempton said.

Using the religiously focused paintings of Vincent Van Gogh as a metaphor, Hempton said there are three major trends to understand in Europe. He began by discussing Van Gogh’s life.

“Van Gogh’s tortured personal journey from minister’s son, Methodist lay preacher, theology student, and Evangelical missionary to the Belgian miners — to someone who came to doubt most of the foundational tenets of Christian doctrine — is in many respects representative of significant cultural shifts in 19th-century Europe,” Hampton said.

Using the painter as a vehicle, Hempton described the three trends. For one, European secularization is not as far sweeping or rapidly spreading as some of the discourse would suggest, he said.

Secondly, given the vastness of Europe and the wide variety of beliefs it hosts, some of the numbers could be misleading, as belief is a hard thing to pinpoint.

Lastly, a sharp increase of Muslims in Europe is countering the growing secularism.

This third trend especially is crucial to understanding the religious landscape of the continent, but more difficult for Americans given their different perspective, Hempton said. While Americans take issue with Muslims due to the perception of them being uneducated, stealing jobs and associated with terrorism, Europeans fear them publicly displaying or spreading their religion, he said.

“Hence, the main issue around Islam in Europe is secularism, or the lack of it in Muslim public expressions, while in the U.S. the main issue is national security,” he said.

Looking forward, Hempton said the only way to break down the barriers between religions is honest dialogue, interfaith literacy, empathy and self-criticism.

“Future harmony between different cultures and religion in Europe will depend on politically guaranteed equality of respect, earnest self-reflection and self-criticism among all traditions, and imaginative empathy from all its citizens,” he said.

To close his lecture, Hempton said instead of using religion as a means of division, religious and community leaders should work to find ways to use religion as a means of fostering and working toward world peace. This, he said, is the most important crucible of religion and the world today.

“That is the biggest challenge for Europe in the 21st century,” he said. “It is also, arguably, the biggest challenge for our world. It is a challenge we cannot and must not fail.”