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Christianity in Europe: A part of or apart from culture?

The Swiss minaret ban and the crucifix decision in Europe illustrate the disconnect between religion and culture there.

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In its defense the Italian government held that "the crucifix is, in fact, exposed in classrooms, but in no way is it demanded that teachers or students show it any sign of salutation or reverence. It is even less demanded to recite prayers in class. In fact, they are not even asked to pay any attention to the crucifix."

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Having lived, studied, and worshiped in several European countries, I'm worried that this defense may be less a theoretical argument than an increasingly accurate empirical description of the state of Christianity in large parts of Europe, including parts of Italy.

What I find scandalous is not the absence of crucifixes in classrooms, but the way secular practices devoid and empty the crucifix of its deeper theopolitical meaning by relegating it to the status of a cultural symbol that can be safely ignored.

Above all, the crucifix represents a belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his message of self-sacrifice and love of enemy. It's not a cozy cultural symbol but should provide an unsettling challenge for our egoism, our self-love, and global socioeconomic injustices.

Reducing the crucifix to culture also does not do justice to the secular character of European culture. Christianity plays little, if any role, in the lives of most Europeans. It's either ignored or only in demand for special occasions like baptism, marriage, or funeral.

The gradual evaporation of Christian values in Europe also helps explain why the extreme political right increasingly instrumentalizes Christian and Muslim religious symbols for their own narrow interests, as happened in Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.

Europe no longer has a dominant Christian culture. It's a secularized mission territory. To move forward, Christians first need to accept this reality rather than nostalgically reminisce about the Christian roots of Europe. Christianity's presence and future matter more than its past.

There is an emerging consensus that the future of Christianity in Europe may resemble more the life of the early Christian communities in the first centuries. More compact, vibrant, and dynamic movements, groups, and parishes may indeed be in a better position to act as Christian salt of the earth in a secular environment.

Yet Christian leaders are stuck in a difficult and painful paradigm shift. On the one hand, they want to move forward to reevangelize Europe and shore up the Christian identity. On the other hand, they seem scared to let go of the past.

I question the value of having crucifixes in classrooms, if a large portion of society feels no religious connection to the cross and its message. The removal of the crucifix should be interpreted as a prophetic wake-up call for self-satisfied European Christians.

This does not mean to limit Christianity to an elite project of a committed few. But cultural Christians need to realize that it is faith and religious practice that sustains Christian culture, not the other way around. And committed Christians should not trick themselves by the complacent belief that our culture is so Christian. What matters is that we become better Christian witnesses, missionaries, and critical shapers of sociopolitical culture according to our values, traditions and beliefs.

The future of European Christianity and Islam won't be decided in courtrooms, by voting polls, or within classroom walls. The real struggle will be fought in the hearts and minds of European citizens, in our political and theological conversations, and in deeper reflections of what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim in contemporary Europe.

A. Alexander Stummvoll is a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

© Global Viewpoint/Tribune Media Services. Hosted Online by The Christian Science Monitor.