3 - 2003
Tango in search of meaning
Ecumenical life spaces at the Kirchentag in Berlin
by Otto Kallscheuer
The author shows how many Kirchentag presentations had the character of media events; he noted a longing, shared by all generations, for "spiritual experiences" and feeling at home in religion. The stars of the mysticism and meditation scene, including the Dalai Lama, were very popular. Church people were in a mood to celebrate. Political involvement is low on the agenda. Personal ties to existing church structures have loosened.
After the closing worship service with 200,000 people in front of the Reichstag (parliament) building in Berlin, I asked my Aunt Elisabeth what she had liked best at this highly successful first Ecumenical Kirchentag. She didn't hesitate for a second: "It was the tango."
The tango was at the "Forum of the Christian Life", a mass workshop which had meditated, danced and sung through almost a whole day, led by a clown and a choir from Switzerland with a team of German theologians, pastors, exercise coaches and religious education experts, in careful ecumenical and of course gender balance. My aunt described enthusiastically how a wonderful tango troupe had portrayed "Nearness and Distance", "Resistance and Obedience", "Starting Out and Stopping", "Remembering and Dreaming".
On to the next hall
The stars of the mysticism and meditation scene drew much bigger audiences at the Kirchentag than any politician. Of course you "looked in" on them, but as soon as Schröder and Scherf and Schäuble (German politicians - the editors) appeared no different there than they do on TV, you clapped politely and moved on to the next hall in the fairgrounds - perhaps to see Anselm Grün, OSB.
Administrator of the Benedictine Abbey of Münsterschwarzach and best-selling author of "The Spiritual Midlife Passage", "Fifty Angels a Year", "Mysticism and Eros", he was one of the most sought-after bearers of the Word. Only Berlin's Protestant Bishop Wolfgang Huber, on his home turf, had more entries in the 700-page programme of the ÖKT, Ecumenical Kirchentag
With TV talk-show host Jürgen Fliege, Father Grün "talked" about the longing to feel at home in religion; he practised "gestures of blessing for every day" with the audience; he gave them "images of Jesus" with Protestant songwriter Bittlinger, a Spanish "master mime" and an accompanying band. Now that was worth seeing, amazing - laughs too, when the Saviour's words "I am" - the Bread, the Way, the Vine, the Door - were first mimed without words, then celebrated, then set to music, you could sing along.
The Kirchentag is also an exhibition (ecumenically doubled in size this time) for the good Scouts of the church, deaconesses and associations, professionals and groups of both official and grass-roots churches. Grass-roots movement Christians gave Hans Küng a standing ovation for the hardly original remark that Jesus didn't intend a church of fossilised structures.
But the real ecumenical community, intergenerational as well, was found in the market where spiritual life help and meaning were on offer. Here an authentic "third sector" of quasi-church services has long been established, loosely connected with church structures, in contact or in competition with the church's adult education and counselling institutions. The consumer traipses from this weekend to that event, but keeps his or her membership in the local church; you still need that, for other professional services: confirmation, communion, weddings, funerals etc.
Theologically all this may not seem very fertile, but the halls were crowded, for example that in which Zen master Willigis Jäger, also an ordained Benedictine, was the oracle of "beyond the personal God", of the Almighty as "wave and ocean", of God as "dancer and dance". Not that the entire core of theology was forgotten: Sister Aurelia, a resolute Dominican, recalled some of it: God as the absolute Thou, as personal relationship (the holy Three in One), as compassionate God and human in one. But again at the end, to help you let go, came an emotional fog of sound ("available on CD at the exit").
The Holy Father of this ecumenical community of feeling is the Dalai Lama, who drew audiences as big as the Rolling Stones once did to Berlin's Forest Theatre. The other Pope, the one in Rome, is out of the running as the universal voice of the world's conscience. The sharing of the Eucharist among Reformed, Catholic and Lutheran Christians, point of contention for centuries and explicitly ruled against for this occasion by John Paul II, was being demanded in Berlin especially by the media. It was put on in Gethsemane Church in Berlin, more defiantly than confidently, as a test of courage for Catholic dissidents. Many are those who stumble during the opposing movement of the two-step "Resistance and Obedience".
But theological debate did not have its due. Nor did debate itself - only godless old Wolf Biermann, who can still celebrate the fall of the dictator Saddam Hussein, shouted and sang and strummed his guitar against the "naïve peaceniks" and "church kids", who redoubled their applause out of pure astonishment. There were excellent stock-takings of the state of ecumenical diplomacy and its way forward, by the leading figures Cardinal Kasper from Rome and Konrad Raiser of the World Council in Geneva, but the differences were not explored, coram publico. And political debate was out in any case.
The peace movement of recent months in the churches has also dissipated; there was no reflection on it, only retrospective applause. Peace ethics, social ethics, bioethics and more were of course all represented amongst the various forum and podium presentations. Interreligious dialogue was also taken for granted as a feature of this support programme. But there was little impetus, nor were many people looking for it. The political scientist Leggewie from Gießen warned against a politically correct "dialogue machine" which no longer has the courage for a clarifying "No".
Will this first Ecumenical Kirchentag have a lasting effect? The organisers hope so - but how will it carry on? Perhaps the Kirchentag constituency is satiated with its own spirituality, which is presented in Christian terms but often seems more like an equilibrium manufactured from ethical rules of thumb and handy metaphors. Love of neighbour near and far becomes a festival, encounter becomes a media event: "You shall be a blessing unto yourselves". Holy Spirit without ministry, charisma without institutions, inner enlightenment without conversion?
This article appeared on 3 June 2003 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ - leading daily newspaper of Zürich, Switzerland), international edition. Dr. Otto Kallscheuer is a philosopher and political scientist living in Sardinia.