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Tomorrow’s Paganism - Michael Fuss

The Role and Mission of the Churches in the European House, Part I

A look ahead down the European road: What challenges are the Christian churches likely to meet in Europe after the collapse of Communism, after the failure of organized atheism?



Europe, at the present moment, is without doubt marked by a basic change in its cultural and spiritual consciousness. Rather than giving some concrete advice to overcome this actual crisis, I am going to draw a few coordinates which might prove decisive at the threshold of a “Europe after 92”.

I am tempted to see, with a Biblical analogy, Europe in the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15, 11ff) annoyed by the wealth in his father’s house, he goes, like Odysseus, to discover and to conquer the world beyond the columns of Hercules at his return, like a “pirate from foreign shores” (C.G. Jung), simultaneously poor and matured, he is finally to gain a new identity under the merciful eyes of God. Let me explain this along three meaningful moments of our history:

1992: Europe’s forgotten wealth


Is “Europe after 1992” already a term for our epoch, like, for instance, “post-modernism”, or “post-socialism”? Definitely, it marks a decisive moment in the European history, which at the same time calls for a return to the origins of the European idea. The vitality of this European idea cannot overlook its historical implications and Christian roots.

In 1952, at the beginning of the Catholic Congress (Katholikentag) at Berlin, R. Guardini declared: “He only knows man, who knows God”, and maintained that one of the most influential and genuine European characteristics, namely the idea of the person (the “citizen” vs. collectivism), could not be conceived without its vital link with the mystery of God:

“Man cannot be determined just by the common things of ordinary life; Europe, if it wants to survive, has to take seriously the unconditioned value of each individual life”. In the ora et labora (“pray and work”) – the golden rule of St. Benedict, who besides St. Cyril and Methodius is one of the patron saints of Europe – we find the harmonious balance of the individual’s relationship with the source of all life against the material claims of society.

The powerful slogan “we are the people” which revealed the driving force behind the recent political convulsions, is a serious signal to the responsible leaders in society and church to give room to the responsibility of the individual against all forms of modern slavery by a merely consumptive culture of the mass media, gigantic computer networks, or outdated structures.

It also reveals, on the other hand, that Europe is now beginning to realize ideals which had already been expressed in the Renaissance. For those who live in Europe, as well as for the millions who believe in it, the return to European ideals becomes thus a stimulus of self-realisation in the community of truly free citizens. This culture is never a ready-made article just for consumption, but has to be carefully shaped in a democratic balance out of an inner core. Are not the architects of “Europe after 92”, like the son of our analogy, going to overlook the precious value of the human person (the individual’s genuine relation to God and his neighbour) in a faceless mass society?

The Church is called to find new ways to value the voice of the people, and to discover, in the context of a changed situation, her guiding role in pointing to this spiritual core. On the other hand, the prophetic role of the Church in the development of the European idea may not be underestimated, because in her there are no strangers, and this may keep Europe off from becoming a well defended castle on the mountain.

1492: Europe on the way to India

When Columbus set out to find access to the treasures of India, he was driven by a religious motivation to find the earthly paradise. His new discovery was interpreted in an eschatological perspective:

“God has made me a messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which He has spoken in the Revelation according to St. John, after having spoken already by the mouth of the prophet Jesaiah, and he has indicated to me where they could be found”.1

The numerous celebrations on the occasion of the fifth centenary of the discovery of the Americas will have to be questionedin the context of “after 1992”. Beyond their critique of the past, it raises questions concerning the future. Two aspects may be meaningful:

(1) After the European invasion in the field of economy, mass media, and tourism, today a more subtle way of encounter is taking place with the world’s cultures, which has to lead to an ecological concern about the value of human relations. If one wants to safeguard the resorts of traditional cultures in remote corners of the world not only as a background for romantic holiday pictures, this would as well imply the respect and safeguarding of traditional socio-cultural structures at home. Wherever these vulnerable values of cultural or religious tradition are going to be sacrificed to a monotonous common market, these very sensitive elements will disappear into a kind of subculture, from where they return again in the shape of fanatic nationalism or crisis cults.

Basic Christian Communities

(2) A test case for the arguments of many of the onesided critiques of the missionary methods of Christianity in Latin America is in our days again the discovery of a lost continent: Eastern, Southeastern and Central Europe. Here the engagement for a new evangelisation is needed.

A common Christian witness of ecumenical unity against any proselytising hunt for souls, an engaged service in the mediation of religious values in the public life of these societies as well as in the lives of so many searching individuals against the beginning commercial and spiritual exploitation   all this may show the vitality of the Christian faith.

Christian proclamation here encounters local basic Christian communities, and the enticing appeal to some theologians of the small basic communites in Latin America has to admit the fact that such communities have existed in Eastern Europe since long ago. Recently I found an icon of St. Boniface, the apostle of the Germanic tribes, in an Orthodox Church somewhere far in Siberia; this told me more about the new responsibility of the Western Church than humanistic and economic considerations.

A report in the magazine Newsweek speaks of a “ethical passivity” which has developed under communism, and of the need of religious values (“family, good work, children, education, church”) to fill the moral vacuum. Therefore pastoral concern of the universal Church is challenged here in formerly unknown dimensions.

Similar to Latin America, the Church in this part of Europe has to face the problem of a new shaping of culture. The forum for the proclamation of the gospel is not simply the spiritual vacuum in the wake of the collapse of the public ideology, but widespread occultism and all kinds of superstition, as well. Many people who now are showing some interest in Christianity already have a good knowledge (and practice) of various oriental and Western spiritualities. The amazing boom of sectarian groups in Latin America seems to be just a test market for the religious diversification which is going to become manifest in Eastern Europe in the near future.

1893: Asia on its way to Europe


The circle of the biblical analogy comes to it close with the return of the seeking Odysseus who carries home the spiritual treasures of the Orient. In 1993 the centenary of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the first interreligious conference of modern times, will be celebrated. Its particular importance for Europe can be seen in the beginning of the regular mission activity of Asian religions in the West.

The encounter with religious pluralism is still a new phenomenon for Europe; because of its historic burden, the world expects from Europe the presentation of a “world ethic” (H. Küng) as well as a thelogical response to the historical uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth in the concert of different religious claims of the world’s major religions.

Obviously, the Church has to increase the comparative study of religions within the theological curriculum and is faced with the necessity to elaborate a dogmatic theology of religions which in the daily contact with followers of non-Biblical religions can offer a positive response from the heart of Christian theology.

Where do we have educational programs to prepare the millions of tourists to Asian countries to see the visits to Buddhist monasteries or the beautiful temple festivals not just as exotic folklore but rather to appreciate them as expressions of a deep religiousness? Which ministers, on the other hand, would be able to respond, from their own living experience of non-Biblical spiritualities, to the growing interest in these forms of spirituality and to make the Christian tradition meaningful in this changed context?

In its spiritual perspective, “Europe after 1992” may not be described better than in the analysis of K. Rahner:

“There is no more a closed Occident; no Occident which might regard itself the center of the world’s history and culture, and whose religion just by this fact, namely by a moment which is not provoked by a decision of faith, but just by profane evidence, could appear to the Europeans as the evident and only possible way of worship — (The religions) have become a moment of one’s own existential situation, not just in theory but in practice, and they are being experienced as a challenge of the absoluteness of one’s own Christianity”.

How can we further describe in this context the role and mission of the Church?

A new moment in the critique of religion


The arrival of Christianity in Europe is recorded in Acts 16,9 with a remarkable vision which in today’s religious context still retains its meaning: “Come over and help us!”

A twofold idea is manifest in this invitation: on one hand that Christianity has reached Europe from its origin in Asia and is therefore in need of inculturation, and on the other hand that this new message responds to a receptivity, a religious disposition of the people. Ever since European Christianity has stood in the dialectic of proclamation and fulfilment of a vital religious desire. I regard this cry of the Macedonian people a constant factor of the European2 continent up to the emerging planetary culture of the present day.

This constant factor of the European “cry” for help has found a contemporary expression in the emergence of a new religiousness, a “consciousness revolution” (R. Bellah) which is a revival of cosmic religiousness, searching for its expression under a variety of conceptual forms.

The promising religious re-enchantment of the world and the discovery of the homo religiosus at the end of a century which began with a systematic denial of God, constitutes an ambiguous challenge for theologians especially since today’s critique of religion is not only raised from outside, but in the name of a “perennial religiousness” from within the core of religion itself. I speak here of “critique of religion”, because the contemporary phenomenon of a freely straying spirituality outside the churches cannot simply be exhausted by listing a confusing number of newly founded “sects”, “new religious movements” or other para-religious organizations. Rather it aims at the core of the religious experience and hence calls for a clear discernment of spirits.

Christianity is dialogic


Social change in the external organization of religion is the outcome of creativity in the inner disposition of the religious subject. Towards the end of systematic atheism a new phase of ideological confrontation is going to become manifest, and it deals with the entire dimension of religious experience. Here there appears the seriousness of the present threat to the Church, the advocate of religious freedom and custodian of a genuine relation with the God of revelation.

Speaking from a sociological point of view, Christianity itself appears as an offspring, a “sect” or “new religious movement” of traditional Judaism, as also the religion of Mohammed has been called a “new religious movement” of both Jewish and Christian roots, and indeed the origins of Mormonism have been compared to the rise of Islam, too. But this is not the point of our deliberations.

There is a historical growth and unfolding of various aspects within the rich heritage of one religion and cultural tradition, as is documented by the ecumenical diversity within the Christian Church. The uniqueness of Christianity cannot be exhausted primarily by the social aspects of being a new foundation or expression of a new set of doctrines; it rather consists in the “new advent”3 of the Son of God and thus in a new theological qualification of human striving and longing.

He “who came into his property” (John 1.11), has opened a new relation with the divine: the salvific, personal dialogue with God   that ultimate mystery which now faithfully can be approached as merciful father. If somebody would attempt to define Christianity just by one term, one might call it ‘dialogic’: in its Trinitarian mystery, in its salvation history, in its witness to the world.

It is just this quality of personal relation in the experience of the divine which is threatened by the present moment of critique of religion. Two types of religious experience appears, complementary yet strongly opposed to each other, which I identify as ‘autonomous’ and ‘dialogic’, or self-affirming and self-transcending religiousness.

Pre-religious experience


Looking at the wide spectrum of the contemporary religious scenery, it is obvious that the divergent fringe groups have only a few points in common regarding their history or doctrines, and yet a common denominator may be discovered: sects and new religious movements are not generally to be disqualified as heretical or pathological on the level of organization or teaching; this is the matter of serious study and argument. Yet, as a whole and as a world-wide phenomenon, they reflect pre-religious experiences which constitute an inherent polarity of every religious act. Hence results their ambivalence: they express on one hand a serious response to the religious quest of individuals, and reveal on the other hand new aspects of a free-thinking critique of religion which initiates from the inner structure of the religious act itself.

In the present historical moment, this reflection may contribute some elements for a contextual theology in the European “common house”. Given the concern that extra-ecclesial sectarian and new religiousness is not primarily to be considered a breaking off, but a background for the Church’s pastoral activity, there follows the theological response to elaborate a contextual theology for Europe, which I, tentatively, would call “European theology of liberation with the preferential option for dialogue”, and which shall be outlined in the following.

The cry for liberation


The Latin-American method of reading the Exodus of Israel in the context of the actual socio-cultural situation may prove helpful in the European house, too, in order to illustrate the background of the “drama of our time”, “the break between Gospel and culture”4.

In a treefold methodological step, the centuries of the political and social life of Israel are regarded from the retrospective of the New Covenant5 as “preparation for the gospel” since they reflect the historical experience of the people with their God. Along this pilgrimage through dark valleys and spiritual elevations, at certain focal points of social or spiritual alienation, the desperate “cry” of the people arises, manifesting an elementary desire for liberation. More and more, such “signs of the times”, which at first are interpreted by spiritual or social leaders (like Moses), express the longing for a Messiah, a saviour, who would bring relief. This progressive “natural revelation”6 is finally answered by the definitive revelation and liberation7 of the incarnated Word who came into his property.

If one considers the present history of Europe in the light of this biblical pattern of Jahwe’s loving concern for his people, one cannot fail to discover the “cry” of the people, not so much in material poverty   the starting point of liberation theologies in the Third World   but rather in an elementary spiritual poverty and alienation.

The heretic shade of our tradition


Even clearer than in the West where material consumerism leads men into spiritual poverty and the intellectual slavery of the mass media, this spiritual vacuum appears today in Eastern Europe where people literally hunger for spiritual and religious values8. People in Eastern Europe are actually disposed to accept, like a dry sponge, any spiritual offer from the West, without a required discernment. The new religious movements take advantage of exactly this spiritual vacuum9. As a critical admonition to the West, one may ask whether the glittering facade of consumerism is not turning towards a similar collapse and is going to reveal an arid desert, as well.

In this context of cultural alienation and general crisis, unexpectedly a new element comes to the fore: the “vital religion”. Like a “shade” (to borrow a concept of modern psychoanalysis) this fundamental current of any universal religion has accompanied the official, institutionalized religious bodies of the Jewish-Christian tradition from its beginning – sometimes secretly, sometimes openly visible – in various movements10. Similar to the hidden part of our self within the the polarity of human personality, it embraces all the invisible vital forces of the ‘anima’ which are often eliminated as ‘heretic’, ‘magic’, etc. because of their dark and elemental power.

Its main characteristic is the experience of the awe-inspiring, dark profundity of the cosmos whence higher forces originate and exercise their influence on humanity. Although it refers to the invisible, complementary side of the world, it remains within the depth of the cosmos which is conceived as the “immanent-beyond”, a “transcendence within immanence”.

Cosmic religiousness


E. Dammann 11 describes a close correspondence of cosmic-magical elements in the new religious movements and in traditional, primal religions, and he describes the progressive substitution of formerly Christian ideas by these elementary forms of popular piety.

Cosmic religiousness is not just found as a primitive relic in some remote tribal cultures, but it always regenerates and builds its nests in the religious landscape as cells of a religious sub-culture.

In 1964 J. Danielou had already foreseen this development when he stated:

“Not atheism is the problem of tomorrow; this is rather a new paganism, which is seeking itself — Atheism is only a transition between yesterday’s paganism of a rural culture and tomorrow’s paganism of an industrialized civilization. Paganism of tomorrow, these are the religious problems of modern man. The Church has to find an answer to these problems of modern man”.12

Indeed, new and sectarian religiousness greatly resembles the classical notion of paganism, if one takes into consideration the religious surroundings of the New Testament. Its characeristic is the ambiguity of celebrating the vital religiousness of man without educating him to a personal, ‘dialogic’ relation with the divine mystery.

Ch. Spretnak, activist of the New Age spirituality, demands by her interpretation of “pagan” as “inhabitant of the countryside” a desired return to an original paganism with ecological concern for nature, against the traditional “religion of the city” which includes the churches, financial and business corporations13.


This article was first given as a lecture at the conference on The Religious Encounter in the European House, September 1992, at Aarhus University, Denmark.


The second part of the article will be printed in the next issue of Update & Dialog.




1 Quoted in M. Eliade, The Quest; here quoted from Die Sehnsucht nach dem Ursprung, Frankfurt 1989, p. 129.

2 Obviously intended as including the entire North Atlantic civilization.

3 Encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, 53

4 Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi 20.

5 Cf. Rom 1.1-3.

6 Cf. Is 40.3-5.

7 Cf. Lk 4.19-21.

8 Cf. Centesimus Annus 24: “The true reason of the actual development is the vacuum, produced by atheism”. (from the German version)

9 The buddhist lama Samayev, head of the buddhist community in St. Petersburg which from 1990 could return to its temple constructed in 1907, sees exactly this ideological and spiritual vacuum as reason for the strong diffusion of Buddhism in the C.I.S. (Interview in Middle Way. Journal of the Buddhist Society, London, 66 (1991) 125f).

10 A fascinating stone carving (ca. 1488) on the floor of the cathedral of Siena depicts Hermes Trismegistos, the precursor of esoteric New Age, equal in importance and “contemporary of Moses” as bearer of all natual wisdom.

11 “Primitive” Religionen der Gegenwart, in: U. Mann (ed.), Theologie und Religi­onswissenschaft, Darmstadt, 1973, 189f.

12 Christianisme et religions non chretiennes, in: Etudes 321 (1964) 333.

13 Die spirituelle Dimension grüner Politik, in: Die Grünen, München, 1985, 311ff.

Michael Fuss

was born 1949 in Bad Godesberg, Germany. He is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church since 1975. After general theological studies he specialized in history of religions and inter-religious dialogue. A comparative study on scriptural inspiration in Buddhism and Christianity resulted in a doctoral thesis entitled Buddhavacana and Dei Verbum (Leiden: Brill 1991). In 1983, after 5 years in parish work, he became assistant professor of Buddhism and New Religious Movements at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Since 1991 he is also professor of History of Religions at the university of Freiburg, Germany. At present he functions as coordinator of an international research project on New Religious Movements by the International Federation of Catholic Universities (FIUC), Paris - Rome. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Update & Dialog.