Only God can save Europe now

20160702_eu_debateThree thousand years ago Moses came up with a God that was a projection of what he needed his people to be: a union. Europe could do with such a God today.

[Image: A debate on values in the Dutch Church, City of London, with Simon Kuper, columnist for Financial Times and Bas Heijne, columnist for Dutch newspaper NRC, led by Joris Luyendijk, columnist for The Guardian.]

Just over half of the British people have chosen to abandon the European project. It chose to meet the problems Europe is facing with fatalism rather than pragmatism. The threat of a further disintegration of Europe is real, because nobody knows what it really stands for. Every crisis is an identity crisis. EU commissioner Jacques Delors already said it in 1989: Europe is in need of a soul.

Three thousand years ago, Moses dealt with the same problem. When he led his people out of Egyptian slavery and into the desert, water and food were scarce, and the group became subject to discontent and revolt. The threat of disintegration was real. Moses needed to come up with something that would keep his people together, a concept that would embody the spirit of unity.

To this end he set out to create a narrative. He wrote in Hebrew what translates as Naase Adam, or We Created Men. Jewish scholars would later explain this as we being a joint creation of God and ourselves. But when taken literally, Moses actually said that we, the people, create ourselves: we design our own fate. By implication Moses defined a God that was a projection of what he wanted his people to be: a unity.

This premise has eroded in recent times. The concept of God came to be taken literally, as people came to claim God for themselves. This is exposed in the rhetoric of religious fundamentalists, who substitute ‘God’s will’ for what in fact is their own will. God has become a pseudonym for ourselves. It defeats the original idea of unity.

In response, some argue that radical atheism should root out the idea of God altogether. Science, they argue, is the new religion. But radical atheism is no different from the fundamentalism it condemns, and science in itself does not provide absolution. With artificial intelligence and genetic engineering just around the corner, we need a sense of determination that at this moment is absent. We need to know who we want to be. We need a God to believe in.

The premise of God has been revised throughout history. Moses himself revised the idea of a single God from his ancestor Abraham. A thousand years later Jesus added forgiveness to the concept of unity. Paul introduced this God to a European population of non-Jews, and when God became a matter for academics only, Luther recreated God by saying that everyone was entitled to his own relationship with God.

Europe could do with a similar revision today. In the age of individual freedom it is tempting to say that everyone has the right to define his own God, but this would defeat the premise of God as a unity. In any case we know that individuality only leads to loneliness if it is an end in itself. We need others to confirm who we are.

Therefore we need to engage with each other to redefine unity, and redefine God. We need a compassionate debate devoid of judgement or political aims. Such an assembly would carry the highest goal in itself: the pursuit of a union would evoke the representation of God.

Vox Populi Vox Dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. Because only in the pursuit of unity can Europe hope for redemption.

Maurits Ruis (Trustee Dutch Church)