(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, January 22.)
On a trip to Europe last year, my wife and I visited lots of churches – not to worship in them, but to absorb their history and marvel at their grandeur.
In Hamburg, I rode an elevator – a relatively recent addition – that rises through the skeletal remains of St Nicholas’ Church, once reputedly the tallest building in the world. Most of the church remains in ruins after being pulverised by air raids in World War Two, but the spire was spared because it served as a useful navigation aid for Allied bomber pilots.
In the 17th century Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen, I climbed a famous external staircase that winds around the towering spire, eventually tapering to the point where there’s barely enough room to turn around.
In Warsaw, we lingered in the foyer of St Hyacinth’s Church, beneath which 500 Polish civilians – the victims of German bombing raids – remain entombed.
We were not alone in these churches, or in the many others we wandered into. Streams of tourists flowed in and out, testifying to the fact that these magnificent buildings now function principally as tourist attractions. Their doorways are prime spots for beggars, who presumably hope visitors will be infused with the spirit of Christian charity.
We saw very few people praying. There was one notable exception in Frankfurt, where we wandered into a big Catholic church in the heart of the city on a Sunday morning to find it packed with worshippers who spilled out into the foyer.
Camera-toting visitors kept drifting in, clearly not expecting to find a genuine working church, and were taken aback to be confronted by a man holding up a sign written in several languages and asking for silence.
It came as no surprise when we realised the mass was being said in Polish for members of Frankfurt’s expatriate Polish community. Catholicism is central to the Polish sense of identity and is likely to survive wherever there are Poles, long after the lights have gone out in Catholic churches elsewhere.
In the Danish town of Fredericia we visited a far less grand church, but one that was significant to me. The French Reformed Church in Fredericia was built in the early 18th century by the local community of Huguenots – Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in Catholic France and been granted sanctuary by the Danish king. They included my own forebears.
We were unable to see inside the church but wandered around outside, admiring its austere but elegant lines. In the impeccably groomed churchyard, we found headstones bearing my own surname and those of families to whom I’m related.
You can’t visit such places without being forcefully struck by the central importance of the Christian faith in the lives of our ancestors. Not only did it impel them to build magnificent churches that command our admiration centuries later, but it inspired great music and works of art that are appreciated as much today by atheists as by believers.
It also resulted in wars, massacres and atrocities carried out in the name of God, some of which my ancestors experienced personally. Nonetheless, Christianity was a crucial building block – some would say the crucial building block – of Western civilisation.
Today, of course, it’s in rapid retreat across much of the developed world. In the 2018 census, 48 per cent of New Zealanders professed no religious belief – up from 42 percent in 2013 and 29 per cent in 2001. In many churches, the congregations consist mostly of grey heads.
It’s a similar picture in Britain, where Christian belief has halved in the past 35 years and only one in three people now identify with the faith that profoundly shaped their history. Britons of all religious faiths are now outnumbered by non-believers.
These figures suggest that Western democracies have entered a post-religious phase, but some scholars argue that people are simply pursuing alternative forms of spirituality. The English Christian theologian Peter Jones thinks we are seeing the rise of a new form of paganism that conveniently fudges the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong.
The paradox is that while an increasing number of people reject the idea of the Christian God in favour of a range of secular belief systems (including, bizarrely, a resurgence of thoroughly discredited Marxism), Christian values still underpin Western concepts of justice, freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It’s no coincidence that the world’s freest, fairest and most prosperous countries all have Christian roots.
Granted, Christian teaching has been twisted and corrupted for reasons that have little to do with God and a lot to do with human vanity, greed and the desire to exercise power and control. But although no longer a Christian myself, I don’t think we should discount the possibility that our God-fearing forebears recognised transcendental truths that we, the best-educated generations in human history, are too myopic or conceited to see.