3 - 2000
EZW 40 years old
"Discerning the spirits" in the light of the Gospel
This year the Protestant Centre for Religious and Ideological Issues (EZW) is commemorating its foundation 40 years ago. From an historical point of view of the centre is a child of "home mission", born out of the experience and realisation that apologetics, i.e. giving an account of one's faith, is an indispensible dimension of evangelism in the home context. It was "adopted" by the EKD after joint consultations with the "Home Mission and Aid Agency of the EKD", and on 1st April 1960 Church Official Dr. Kurt Hutten (1901-1979) took office in Stuttgart at No. 2 Hoelderlin Square. He had a background in church journalism and had made a name for himself as the author of the book "Seher, Grübler, Enthusiasten" (Seers, Seekers, Enthusiasts), which was reprinted many times and established his reputation as an authority and expert on "traditional sects and unorthodox religious movements". In November 1960 Carl Gunther Schweitzer (70), who had been the first head of the Central Apologetics Office founded in Berlin in 1921, opened the first session of the Board of what was to become the EZW on the basis of a "provisional order" which had been passed by the EKD Council and the Diaconal Council on 7th July.
What began in Berlin as the Central Apologetics Office had been forced to close down by the Nazis in 1937. The work was taken up later in Stuttgart under changed circumstances and under a new name. The old Apologetics Office had been driven by the desire to observe ideological and religious currents of the time and to interpret and judge them in the light of the Gospel. It engaged in a "dialogue with the times", in "encounters with the spiritual powers" and entered into disputes with free-thinkers who were hostile to Christianity, with the first wave of psychological world views and above all with nationalist religiosity and racial ideology. But the work did not confine itself to criticism of ideologies and religions. It included a "response of faith", the description of a Christian identity which took competing religions and ideologies into consideration, as the EZW was to put it later. Particular importance was attached to this latter aspect in the new "order" for the EZW, which was passed by the EKD Council and coincided with the EZW's move from Stuttgart to Berlin in 1996. The EZW was to help "give a clear picture of what constitutes the Christian view of God and the world as opposed to other views of God and the world (Protestant apologetics)".
The starting point for the business of observing the currents of the time, which is a very wide field, has always been a very concrete one in the history of the EZW: answering questions reaching the EZW every day by post, by telephone and nowadays by e-mail as well. These inquiries, which often come from so-called lay people, partly out of concern, partly out of curiosity, caused by private or public interest, have remained the starting point and focus of the EZW's work up to the present day. They are part and parcel of the daily routine for all EZW workers, thus making sure that the EZW has remained "down to earth". They have challenged the EZW to deal with religious counter-worlds in a variety of manifestations and helped ensure that its activities remain close to the life of local churches and relevant for the public.
Nowadays dealing with ideologies is an established field of church work for the regional EKD churches, and incidentally also for the Catholic dioceses. Going beyond parish boundaries, it has to do with information, interpretation and giving people the true facts about religious and ideological groups and currents from the point of view of a trinitarian belief in God and a Christian understanding of the world and humankind. This practical area of church work includes information and advisory services which are made available to the church as a whole, to congregations, individuals, local government institutions and large sections of the public. At EKD level the EZW is the central agency conducting and providing studies, information and advice on these issues. At regional church level this role is fulfilled by commissioners for religious and ideological issues, who in their turn cooperate with regional working groups and local commissioners, educational institutions and churches.
Although both the religious landscape and the subjects tackled by the EZW have changed over the years, there has been an amazing degree of continuity in the way it works and the issues it has dealt with. It tries to combine truth and love, openness for dialogue and willingness to witness to one's faith, to discern, and if need be to protest against a kind of religiosity that leads to illness and psychological harm. Since its foundation the EZW has been guided by a concept of apologetics that shows understanding, seeks and promotes dialogue with people of different beliefs and is prepared to defend religious communities against premature stigmatisation. The EZW's work is aimed at coming up with criteria for distinguishing between different groups in the midst of the great variety of religious and cultural manifestations and strengthening the sound judgment of Christian congregations. Encounter with religious and ideological variety means a repeated challenge to practise what the Bible calls "discerning the spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10) in the form of critical protest against destructive forms of religiosity.
Since moving from Stuttgart to Berlin, to Auguststrasse 80, the EZW has placed more emphasis on secularism and alienation from the Church and Christianity. In a city environment where people tend to keep their distance from everything religious it is evident that it is not only religions that cause people to become ill and dependent. Forms of exaggerated secularism can also have elements of force and violence in them. It is about time the secularised and pluralistic societies of the Western World entered into a debate on this. What consequences does the loss of religious orientation, which can be observed in many places these days, have for the lives of individuals, for the public sense of what is right and wrong and the system of values we should be guided by?
"We are meant to be human beings and not God." This sentence expresses a fundamental criterion of Reformed Theology used to evalute world views which has provided the work of the EZW with a central and permanent point of orientation. Ideologies that show contempt for human beings, processes that turn religious communities into sects and attempts to make light of suffering, dying and death can in their essence be attributed to people overstepping the bounds set by God and thus becoming alienated from the way they were originally meant to be, i.e. living lives responding and relating to their Creator. What is the attitude of religious or seemingly religious guidelines to these limits set on human beings? The way people deal with these God-given bounds is a criterion for discerning the different spirits.
The 40th anniversary of the EZW comes at a time when the successes of genetic research appear to be giving a new lease of life to a scientific religion. Progress in science and technology is once again nurturing optimistic visions of an ideal world and a life unaffected by illness and suffering. People are, however, better advised to remain aware of their limits, resist dreams of a paradise on earth, and make creative use of their own opportunities while making a distinction between what they can achieve and what God alone can do.