With much praise and fresh impetus, 22 young theologians from 12 countries look back on an eventful meeting of the Young Theology in Vienna in May 2022. The topic sounds rather difficult: “Protestantism between nationalism and cosmopolitanism”. Is there nationalism in the Protestant Church? “Yes,” says Volkmar Ortmann, Privatdozent in church history at the University of Giessen, Germany.
“The Protestants are not everywhere as cosmopolitan as they like to claim.” That has a lot to do with the local historical developments. Ortmann, who organised this conference of the Protestant Federation of Hesse together with European partners, knows that Protestantism in Europe shows many traditions of its own, up to and including nationalistic currents. “But,” adds his colleague Mirijam Sauer, “language, nationality and identity naturally belong closely together.” Thus, Protestant minorities, as in Transylvania, find strength through their cultural imprint with their own identity.
And because identity is far from being nationalism, the conference team developed the term “toxic nationalism” and distinguished it from “national identity”: “We can’t help it, says Anna Lerch from Switzerland, “where we were born, what language we learned first and what costume we wear at festivals”, but she is of the opinion that we are responsible for ensuring that this healthy “national identity” does not become toxic.
On 25 May 22, the third programme of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation reported on the Young Theology Forum, which the Protestant Federation of Hesse hosted with its partners CPCE and ZEO: “Not least because of their national church structure, Protestant churches are usually also closely confronted with the respective political leadership of their country, not only with regard to their positioning in the Ukraine war…” Listen to the whole contribution in this recording in German language
The 22 participants from 12 countries look back on the conference in Vienna with much praise and fresh momentum. The date for a follow-up conference has already been set for 19-22 April 2023 in Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania. with the theme of participation and Protestantism. Further activities are planned until then.
At the Young Theology in Europe Forum conference ending in Vienna on 14 May 2022, participants dictated the idea of a network to continue after the conference. The young people want to deepen the connection between their churches on a practical level. In the end, a book is to be produced. The spokespersons of the 24-member group from twelve European countries are Vittorio Secco from Italy and Frederik Grüneberg from Germany.
Theses about Nationalism, Identities and Christian Churches
Everyone has local and/or regional roots and is living in such a context. A cosmopolitan way of life tends to deny these roots and contexts. Identifying with a „nation“ seems to overcame this tension.
Nationalism can turn toxic, when it becomes exclusive (working with in- and out-groups) and can be used to manipulate a people. Nationalism (inclusive or exclusive) offers an identity, which a free global environment can’t provide.
The positive alternative – we call it bottom-up communitarism – tries to build open and inclusive communities and nations.
Any identity has two sides – it is a social construct, which can be experienced in context, and it may be a strong feeling. Institutions (churches, states) always highlight a certain identity. For a non-beliefing politician, who is using religion in politics, religion will be only a social construct, while for the believer religion has an additional transcendent aspect.
The core of churches‘ identity is Jesus Christ. Belonging to church does not mean to leave behind national, regional, sexual or any other identity. (refer to Gal 3,28 and/or Romans 3,29-31).
As Churches we cannot stay for ourselves, but need to be ready to serve society (diaconia) and to build up relationships with other Christians/churches (mission and ecumenism) – Math. 28, 19-20.
Inspired by Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas we see, that the encounter with Christians from other traditions has a transformative power – this is Gods work in people.
Nobody and no institution is alone an executor of Gods will. God is acting in the world through the hands of different people.
The message is higher than the language. National languages and cultures are a vehicle for the Gospel (inculturation). Experiencing different languages and cultures leads us to the catholicity (one undivided christian) of church. Speaking different languages is often weakening the national identity, in Christianity the opposite is happening.
I am Marie-Luise Großmann, 26 years old and studied theology. I come from the Lutheran Church in Bavaria and would like to become a pastor in this church. Above all, I find the contacts to other churches, within and outside Germany, enriching, in order to become aware of my own tradition and identity. On the other hand, I also want to continue to strive and struggle together with others for good and perhaps even better solutions and the shaping of our faith in this world. Identity is something dynamic and needs several counterparts – Martin Buber puts it this way: “Man becomes I in the Thou”. I am enjoying the process, the encounters, the development and I am curious to see where it will take me – for now I am very happy to have been in Vienna and to help shape the (church) future with other young theologians.
I am interested in the topic of “nationalism and cosmopolitanism” because for me there is the underlying question of how we shape this world: All living beings share the earth and its resources, need some of it and ideally give some back into the cycle. So how do we divide it up? What social, cultural structure helps us do that? And what role does/can religion have? I think we definitely need boundaries in this, to have smaller sub-units that make it easier to keep track of things, keep groups together and combine forces. Borders thus have a purpose and a function; they must not become an end in themselves. Rigid nationalism no longer fulfils the constructive function of borders. Nationalism is not enough, I think, to form an identity – there needs to be an unifying element at the same time. That’s where the Christian faith comes into play for me. It enables us to see the world as creation and integrates us as human beings into it. How we, supported by the Christian faith, can have a say in society and world events, how we can stand up for democracy and diversity and how encounters can happen across borders is what interests me in this topic and I’m very excited to have met young people, share ideas and ultimately give shape to and celebrating our reconciled diversity. I hope to continue doing so by being part of the Forum Young Theology.
My Name is Alexander, i am 24 years old and I am studying Protestant Theology. My Church is the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria. During my studies in Neuendettelsau, Tübingen, Ecumenical Institute of Bossey and Leipzig I raised a lot of different experiences about being a Christian in this world and having different contexts. Currently I am preparing for my final exams in autumn and after them I want to become a pastor in my church. Trough all crisis of society and churches I am convinced that the message of the gospel leads us to live our faith out in a joyful way. In my free time I appreciated to play football, meet friends and helping at my family’s vinery.
What I think about the topic?
The ambiguity of nationalism and cosmopolitanism is an ongoing question in the different countries in our world. Some people and states emphasis (strongly) their national identity connected to language, culture etc., while others shape their identity more open and cosmopolite to everyone. Thinking about this two terms is urgently needed in our times, while the nationalist/national movements increase in the different countries of their and are risking the way to stay in a worldwide community. Personally its important for me to come from Franconia/Bavaria, especially in comparison to the rest of Germany, and I am a Christian with Lutheran confession. But it’s my context and does not prevent me to meet other people from different contexts and to celebrate services and build up Christian community. Being a Christian is more essential for me than other things. My Question’s to the conference are, how different churches, Christians and theologians are acting between the points of nationalism and cosmopolitanism. And also: How we as Christians can contribute to this topic.
What I take home?
As Christians, who are living in different contexts and have different identities more or less shaped by national/cosmopolite ideas, we are challenged every time when we work ecumenical and meet our brothers and sisters. There is our national origin we cannot deny, but when we are together in community with Jesus Christ, our identity, which is also Christian, we have to learn to overcome everything, which is us separating from our community with god. Because our Churches more or less focus on this national identity, young theologians like us have to work on it and try to provide a way of reconciliation towards a Christian identity, where national/cosmopolite contexts play a role, but not are dominating our christian hearts. Essential for this is the experience of community like in this conference, which is dismounting stereotypes and exclusive narratives between us as Europeans and Christians. Through the conference I developed my understanding of the European Protestant Churches and it opened for me another way of having ecumenical relations to my brothers and sister with their specific (national/cosmopolite) contexts/identities.
An identity is not the individual “art project” of the ego. A person’s identity – and thus also my identity – is formed through relations. Being a person is not the dialectical becoming of a thinking substance surrounded by material substance, but rather being is both individual and one as consciousness unfolding in and through relations. Identity is found in mutual love, respect, empowerment and encouragement and is perverted through the lack of these. Apart from truth, goodness, beauty and love one cannot find one’s identity. We learn this through the mirror of trinitarian relations.
National identity is an abstraction of the common features of certain relations individuals appreciate. However, my concern with nationalism is that it is a rigid concept, which extrapolates a Freudian ego-project to a larger scale and neglects a certain fluidity and dynamic plurality of identity. The second issue I have with the concept is that the idea of pure self-determination or self- governance of a nation (and an individual for that matter) is an illusion of the ideal of Kantian autonomy and a problematic concept of freedom as simple freedom of choice. Not only is nationalism in tension with the trinitarian idea of personhood, but when fused with Christianity, it creates a community uncapable of communications, cooperation, mission and true relation of reciprocal love with anyone outside the group. It is the uncertainty of one’s identity and the fear of losing one’s self that fuels nationalism. Any talk of national virtue or a “nations’ sin” distorts the core Christian doctrines of original sin and the efficacy of Christ’s salvation for the whole creation. Through the example of the Lutheran Churches in Myanmar I have seen that these nationalist Churches have no future. I strongly believe this same applies to a community of people as a “nation”.
My name is Vittorio Secco, I am 29 years old and I am a member of the Evangelical Waldensian Church in Italy. I graduated in History, Classical Philology and Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Genoa. Following the vocation to the pastoral ministry I started studying Protestant Theology at the Valdese Faculty of Rome.
I am currently a student for the master’s degree in theology at the same faculty. I like very much ancient languages and translation. I am very grateful to be able to participate in this conference, because I believe that to some extent phenomena such as nationalism and populism do not concern strictly only the political sphere, but involve us as believers and citizens, in Europe and in the world. Meeting and listening to different voices can only be useful for each of us.