Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faith Matters: Angst-driven landslide in Germany

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

“Angst is a bad counselor,” a German axiom says. Angst has just caused a landslide in the most prosperous state of Europe’s richest nation. Angst fed by the nuclear disaster 5,900 miles away in Japan has ended the Christian Democrats’ 58-year rule in Baden-Württemberg, home of industrial giants such as Daimler-Benz, the Robert Bosch GmbH and Porsche.

On Sunday, Angst in this most conservative region of Germany swept the environmentalist Green Party to power, a movement agitating for a speedy shutdown of Germany’s nuclear reactors. Winfried Kretschmann, a high school teacher, will be this state’s first Green premier after his party won 24.2 percent of the votes in state elections. He will govern together with the Social Democrats (SPD), who received 23 percent, in Stuttgart, the state capital.

The Christian Democrats dropped from 44.2 percent four years ago to 39 percent, but will still be the largest group in the Landtag, or state assembly. But as their traditional allies, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), only managed to garner 5.1 percent, they could not continue their coalition.

This party, which once gave West Germany Theodor Heuss, its revered first president after World War II, is currently led on the national level by foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, the driving force behind Germany’s troubling decision to break rank with its NATO allies, notably France, the United States and Britain, as their air forces established a no-flying zone over Libya. Even liberal commentators in the German media labeled this policy “shameful,” “disgraceful” and “cowardly.” Thus the FDP’s decline seems richly deserved. In the state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate, this party garnered not a single assembly seat.

It is not this column’s task to speculate on the ramification of these regional ballots for the national government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nor will it attempt to answer the rhetorical question by retired Lt. Gen. Jörg Schönbohm, now a leading CDU politician in the eastern state of Brandenburg: “They will still need electricity in Baden-Württemberg; how will they get it when they close down nuclear reactors?” Indeed, for a state producing some of the world’s most celebrated automobiles and electronic equipment, the popularity of the Greens’ anti-nuclear agitation seems amazingly irrational, given that it manifests an almost hysterical reaction to a disaster that happened 5,900 miles away in Japan, where earth tremors and seismic waves are common, which is not the case in Germany, as Gen. Schönbohm pointed out on television.

The point to be pondered here is a theological one: Whence this crushing angst plaguing rich Germany, and particularly Baden-Württemberg, where Christianity is still stronger than in most other parts of the country? In this state in Germany’s southwest, 70 percent of the people still belong to the Roman Catholic or the Lutheran churches. Baden-Württemberg is home to universities with some of the world’s most renowned divinity schools — Tübingen, Heidelberg and Freiburg. Why then this tremendous angst, which seems so un-Christian? Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined fear as a “symptom of sin,” by which he meant original sin in the sense of man’s innate trust in God (Augsburg Confession article II)? Liberal theologian Paul Tillich, too, described angst as “an absence of trust.”

The Church is still a significant player in Baden-Württemberg (pop. 10.7 million), but the Church, especially its Protestant branch, is stirring nuclear and other fears in its pronouncements instead of championing faith, the very opposite of angst. The fear mongering of Protestant clerics flies in the face of their own Lutheran teachings. “God and the devil take opposite tactics in regard to fear,” Luther said. “The Lord first allows us to become afraid, that he might relieve our fears and comfort us. The devil, on the other hand, first makes us feel secure in our pride and sins, that we might later be overwhelmed with fear and despair.” The point can be made that by stirring up anti-nuclear emotions among Europe’s most comfortable people, as opposed to promoting reasonable discussions of this issue, pastors are actually doing the devil’s work.

Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, one of Germany’s most eminent Lutheran theologians, rightly warned the Church that its irrational behavior is self-defeating because it is ultimately gambling away people’s trust. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Graf quoted philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who termed Christianity a “thinking religion.” “I would like to keep it that way,” Graf said; instead, today’s pastors promote “a form of religiosity that combines a cuddly god with bad taste.”

With a rousing lack of political correctness, Graf blamed this deplorable situation on the increasing “feminization” of the Church. His seminars at Munich University are now dominated “by young women of … petit bourgeois origins,” he added. As a result of the gradual female takeover of parsonages psychological jargon, “constant moralizing” and an “infatilization of communication” have taken the place of the “culture of the word” for which the Lutheran Church was once renowned. “Moralizing is intellectually a rather low-brow operation,” Graf explained

He has just subsumed his observation in a book titled, “Kirchendämmerung – wie die Kirchen unser Vertrauen verspielen” (Twilight of the Churches – How Churches Gamble Away our Trust), an allusion to Richard Wagner’s opera “Götterdämmerung,” or twilight of the gods. (Munich, Verlag H.C. Beck, 2011, €10.95). It should be translated into English quickly because its findings describe not just a German but global phenomenon – Christianity’s decline from a thinking faith to kitsch with frightening consequences for the secular as well as the spiritual realms.

“Cogito ergo sum,” French philosopher Réné Descartes (1596-1650) wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” What Graf is observing in his church, and what contributed to the overpowering fear that seems to consume Europe’s wealthiest nation, is a contemporary mindset that has turned Decartes’ dictum on its head. Call it, “Sensio ergo sum,” I feel therefore I am – a truly frightening perversion.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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