Owe Wikström
 

The Centripetal Journey -individualized religion in Sweden as a defence against plurality.

 The Centripetal Journey -individualized religion in Sweden as a defence against plurality.

 As seen from a functionalistic point of view, religion does not disappear from the modern world (Luckman 1967, 1990). The experience of transcendence and of the Holy, the feelings of reverence and gratitude seems to be a universal and transcultural constant. Man´s world is a flow of small, medium and macro experiences of transcendence. Different societies have different ways of being aware of these realities and  a variety of ways to structure and organize the individuals feeling of being in contact with “something higher”.

 

  The private holiness

During the last decades it has become even more evident that the main swedish social structure, which so far has maintained and cultivated a religious interpretation of the “signals of transcendence”, i.e. The Church of Sweden, has eroded. In todays Sweden, the official and societal sanctioned distribution of the religious experiences have got concurrence by privatized worldviews. Many new actors are fighting on the social stage of life philosophies and ideologies. It therefore has evolved a crises of the legitimation of transcendence. The Church of Sweden is today only one out of many structures which maintain the religious world.

                The change is clearly seen in the way people understand the christian service. Private and constructivistic theologies exists together with more traditional theologies (Scanidinavian Values 1994). This is another indication that the base of legitimation is successively moving towards the individual. It moves away from the authority of an organizational base to an internal autenticity, from collective answers to existential questions.

                From a functionalistic perspective, the experience of the Ultimate always continue. However, the social forms and the localization of the Holy has changed. It has become more and more personal. The macro-holy feeling, linked to thoughts and experiences of a transcendence, are still alive inside the religious institution and their “grand narratives”.

But they are few and it is quite obvious that there has been a change of the social forms and localization of the Holy.   Micro-holy feelings, that is the inviolable values and experiences on the private or half private level, have no direct connection with the great theological tales or narratives any more  (Wikström 1993).

                Earlier it was common to ritualize gratitude, for instance when giving praise to God for one´s children during their christening. It was not just a matter of being moved emotionally. The sence of amazement caused by the birth of a child was given a “religious expression”. Since the birth of a child was not interpreted as a consequense of destiny, due to circumstances or the will of the parents but as a gift of “the giver of all good gifts”, the gratitude could be directed towards an object of transcendence and was given a ritual setting.

                Similar needs seems to survivew even for the non-believer. He wants to express joy or manifest a wish to avert anxiety for the childs future through a ceremony of baptism. But a transcendent world is not taken for granted in spite of letting the child be baptized. The experience in relation to baptism is perceived mainly as a vehicle of a beautiful atmosphere and social cohesion rather than as a result of a personal religious conviction. The baptism has more to do with a vague family-tradition. The mening of the baptism as the christian church want to mediate – an intergration into a christian transcendent world-view -  has been detached from the experienced  meaninga feeling of gratitude and an intergration of a child into the family. The baptismal rite has been given a less metaphysical interpretation by those who are present during the ceremony than by the institution which mediates the baptism.

                The individual´s awareness and experience of “something supernatural” used to be interpreted by the church-influenced Sweden according to specific norms. The church wanted to give an unambiguous way to understand the invisible world, although sometimes with a language of power and under threat. In the old rural society of Sweden, where most people used to attend the service and where celebrations of life, (Christmas, Easter and Mid-summer etc), was given a theological frame of interpretation, were even experiences of the Holy predictable and canalized according to strict patterns.

                The question of whether people in the past days did believe more or less, is not the focus of this paper. Experts of folklore have demonstrated that religious traditions with a pagan basis have always existed beside the official tradition. But due to the power of the church, it had the major part of ritual expressions. Or, to say it in a different manner; there were (and was allowed) less choices of spiritual realities.The state church and it´s preachers had not only a cultural and ritual privileage of formulating the problems concerning existensial questions, but also the priority to answer.

                The homogeneus description of reality, in which the other/holy world was included, survived relatively unquestioned as a function of a more or less static society. The Holy was seen as unambiguous due to immobility and  faith in authorities.The control was more obvious. Of course, there has always been exceptions, but when revivalist movements and the so called free congregations emerged this occured under a great resistance from the “true teachers”.

                The escape into the private

 

                While doing a simple comparison with present times, it is quite obvious that the modern Swede must choose his or her spirituality in quite another way than just a few decaded ago. The church´s description of the spiritual reality, inspired by the Bible, is now only one among several different descriptions. Even people from small homogeneus (free-) religious (sub-) societies are now confronted through television and radio with different religious thoughts. They realize that there are a variety of spiritual maps of reality and that some of them are contradictary. Confronting different and partly contradictory religious expressions every day it becomes clear that the christian faith is only one among many. This transcultural situation is not only different, but also relatively new for a society that used to be homogeneus. In contemporary Sweden there are several “word of God”; the Torah, the Koran and the Bible. The claim of the preacher that “It has been written” does not automatically any more refer to the basis of the christian belief. Several young christians are personally acquainted with pious men and women from different religions, which their church-active parents are not. This has happened in just a few decades.

                This change of the religious world view from unity to pluralism, from clarity to defusion, from institutions to vague and unorganized private systems

is provoking in two different directions. It is provoking for the society that is accustomed to religion as a phenomenon with a specific content and structure  and for the church that thought it had a contract on spirituality. The institutions which maintain the faith in “the Holy” is now sometimes regarded as relics from a distant time. Church institutions are accepted as artefacts from a past, uniform society. Because of this, they sometimes are looked upon as some kind of zoo of faith. Others redefine the role of the churches in terms of their social or psychological function: “Religions are good to have since it makes you calm in a crisis, when major accidents occur  it gives a mening to life and creates a community in society. But the idea that God should be ‘alive’ seem to be most unlikely.”. 

                The christian church has become a cognitive minority. It is in a disadvantageous position, but not because people refuse to understand, do not want to believe, are ignorante or intolerante. The problem is more likely that  Homo saeculi  simply does not take the reality of  Homo religosus  seriously. At least not until Homo saeculi  can share the experiences described by religious people and perceive their words as adequate and authentic expressions for their own experiences.

                The mobility, i.e. that people move around a lot more in the modern society, also allows the individual to go back and forth between different religious language games. Some decades ago, this was not possible in the way it is today. The individual is forced with the necessity to listen to people who have settled with another symbolic universe. Perhaps one lives a period in a different social realm and looks back on theprevious obvious system. There is no duobt that this causes more and more cracks in the organized piety.

                The increase of a more privatized perspective does not only relate to the fact that the philosophical claims made by the official faith in God has been questioned. It also relates to the fact that the modern society is segmented and differentiated.  Homo religiosus who live in a transcultural society, have to constantly question the personal perception of the spiritual world. Social movement and the offering of different lifestyles due to masscommunication forces religious people in Sweden to confront  alternative spiritual realities. The unambiguous transcendent reality has been replaced by a religious smorgasbord. Man can choose or ignore ideologies of faith in the very same way as man can choose food or clothes. But what happens when the society offers an evermore confusing supply of religions and worldviews?

 

                The path inwords or “I´ll just believe want I want to believe”

 

                All together, the factors mentioned above creates something we might call the defusion of relativism or the path inwords. The split will become more obvious whenever an individual changes from following convention or authority unto making his own decisions. This has been called everything from “the burden of freedom”, “liberalism” or “alienation” depending on the political and philosophical perspective. The consequences for the psychology of religion is probably what we have seen as constructivistic theologians. The remains are: “Trust nothing but your own experiences – build an arc of your own!” The journey inwords, with it´s individualism and privatized ideas, arouses approval.

                A consequence of the decreasing trust in authorities might be seen as the individual is forced to a centripetal movement; away from what  everybody else says and she will most likely start questioning herself, asking “what am I experiencing. What can I point at that I perceieve as true or important to me.” When the modern secularized Swede, but also many Christians, turn away from the institutionally taught doctrines, perhaps the subjectivity and the privatization provides a protection against the threatening plurality. The “little holiness” will then become central since it is not simply taken over but authentic.

                Let´s simplify! An individual believe in X. This individual is part of a social community as long as the “experts of the spiritual reality” believe in X. But as soon as there is a decrease in the confidence to these experts and other experts of the spiritual reality emerges, the individual himself has to consider wether he really believes in X. “Perhaps X is nothing but an illusion?” The next question arise: “What is my personal experience of X?”. Man is forced to return to subjectivity. The crisis of legitimation becomes obvious.There will be a change from an external and institutional legitimation to an internal and subjective.

                When confidence to the religious tradition is decreasing, individuals are forced to become more oriented towards their own experiences and to ask themselves “What in my belief is based upon experiences and conviction?” or “What do I believe just because someone has told me to believe?” This is a painful self-examination. At the very same time, there is a polarization; the external world gives fixed answers. These are being questioned whereby the world of internal experiences becomes ever more important.  

                The new and “alternative” worldviews are not socially transmitted. They are floating around unorganized and are not confirmed by any specific group. They are not even tied to any social engagement or mass meatings, and they are not as sofisticated and well-reasoned as existentialism, humanism or other “-ism´s”. (Hamberg 1989, Johansson & Olander 1993, Reimers 1995).

                But the problems are not only of a social nature. The churches are facing new challenges also concerning the content of the doctrine. Doubt might arouse in a clergyman or a visitor during a service, because there obviously are (due to immigration and the mobility of man) contradictary revelations, and all of them claim to have the absolute truth. The churches of the future are therefore about to speak less of ecumenics and far more of theology of religion, unless they do not believe that the solution is some kind of religious esperanto or an EC of the pious. But such an interpretation might not make justice neither to christianity, other religions or to the intellectual moral.

                The defusion of relativism.

                There are two quite obvious trends on the swedish arena: towards fundamentalism and relativism. Both of them offer relief, an escape from confusion due to plurality.

                On one hand there are movements who do not care to adapt themselves and follow common trends in the society. They insist upon very strict doctrines, claiming clear moral rules and offer a social safety. Since they have an appeal, they are gaining new members. As an example, in Sweden we have an expanding right wing charismatic pentecostal church – Livets Ord, “Word of Life”. On the other hand, those religious congregations in Sweden who accept uncertainty and weight arguments have a hard time keeping old members and gaining new members at the same time. These trends are so clear they are without any questions. It is likely that the individuals may experience the uncertainty connected with plurality as a heavy burden. In that case it is a great relief to let go of the burden. If someone is devoted to a simple and uncomplicated idea – wheather it is religious or profane - it can provide support  no matter what the ideological content is.

                A different type of escape exists as well, leading to a total relativism or nihilism where nothing is absolutely true or false. The individual distrust every authority and deny  truth in religion. This solution is also somewhat attractive since it offers a relief by denying that there could possibly be any truth “out there”. An example might be seen in some groups within the New Age movement. Man does not wait for Godot any more. “Let people believe whatever they want to believe, nothing is absolutely definite. Let the flowers bloom!” The world becomes deconstructed and a reconstruction is no longer possible.

                Due to the tremendous flow of information there are always several cultures present within the individual.   Man becomes urbanized even if they live on the country side. Some of their most important references are major cities, television and the evening press with it´s vulgarized and theatrical contruction of reality. Pluralism goes deeper and faster as a result of market economy. Democracy institutionalises tolerance and different cultures shame and guilt-limen are constantly confronted and lowered. Something becomes right if several people consider it to be right – not becuase it is an expression of Gods wish;  Jahve, Allah or Christ. All major nations have defused the theological legitimation of morality and prefer to speak in terms of social contracts. Counter trends do exist, for instance fundamentalistic movements who orient themselves toward unambiguous and clear moral rules based upon the holy scriptures. The increase of islamic and evangelical fundamentalism is the most evident religious change that is going on right now in the whole world, including Sweden.

                From a perspective of the individual, it is possible to understand this as an effort to fight  cognitive and moral contamination. The interpretations of life that man has taken for granted during a long period of time, are now constantly being questioned. Today, there are several conceptions of the world to choose between and the individual must decide on her own, using all the material present. There are less common certainties, less common patterns of interpretation and less declared common goals.

                To avoid being cast out into a state of complete confusion, there is a countrary movement which we may call centripetal, a shift towards the small world, the inner life. In observing one´s own emotions man will become less disposed to judge others, “people can believe whatever they want tothere are no objective standards - my faith is still my own”. An expression of this could be fewer discussions about opinions and more about emotions. People seem to “think” less and “feel” more. The language itself shows an uncertainty conserning ideology. Experiences replace conviction, a psychological authenticity replace ideologies. 

                Cognitive contamination

                The culture of the western society is based upon greek logic and hebrew theology. The greek said that somthing can´t be A and non-A at the same time and as a jewish point of view, there is only one God. These two principles of monotheism and the law of contradictions are like a screen over the western society, making a sharp contrast towards China and East Asia. Out of their religious tradition one would describe the principle of monotheism and the law of contradictions as absurd. They say that if you look at reality, different patterns of speaking about “the Holy” emerges. Reducing them to only one perspective is not reasonable. Everyone within these traditions know that something is both A and non -A at the very same time. Indian and chinese religion deals with the plurality of content in a completely different manner than the western society. It simply consumes the plurality. Christianity has perceived the corrosion of values, simply because it speaks about the one and only God and in thus claims the truth. (Berger 1992).

                What is the reaction of the christian churches in Sweden due to this plurality? The most common reaction has probably been to ignore the situation.  It is possible to separate different attitudes to the radical demands found within the christian faith and to claims of truth in the confession.

                The first attitude might be called a cognitive bargain.. The inner dialogue might be something like this: “Well, perhaps it´s difficult to maintain a fath in miracles, but we are definitely not giving up the resurrecton “, or “Well, we can agree that perhaps Jesus did not say everything he is supposed to have said – it seems to be hard to prove historically – but we are sure that he did establish the holy communion.”.

                The second is to raise a white flag and immidiately give up all demands of truth of the doctrine. This attitude caused the once very common philosophy of “God is dead”. Instead of claiming that God exists and is a autonomous being, it is said that the myths in the Bible have an important psychological, social or cultural function, but that there is no objective transcendent source. The claim of a transcendent origin is defused and the religious message is being translated into a modern secular language. It can be political, social or psychological. Basically, one says “This is what religion really (and only) is about”. Expressions as “an existensial interpretation of life”, “social glue” and “mystic self-understanding” are introduced. The christian language is mearly one of many. But even if this gives the preacher some kind of relief, it is still an intellectual and moral resignation. Sooner or later people will know the possibilities of a (better?) meaning, health, community and interpretation of life itself besides the christian language or it´s institutions. This could be a new meaning in life, political motivation or a holistic worldview.

                A third way to relate to modern society could be adopting a more realistic attitude. There is a passive model, where people build small segments of society in order to maintain the christian perception of reality. Examples of this might be some hibernated revivalist movements, communities or monastaries where the members hope their intensive engagement shall attract others. It is also posssible to recognize an offensive model in which the people wants to change the society and the churches by emphasizing a classic christian theme. The first, passive model is the ghetto and the second, offensive model is the crusade.

                But all these models arouse problems, especially in industrialized societies. In a ghetto, man will create a subculture – but the walls around it must be very thick in order to keep out any doubt. An example could be the religious sects where the members for instance speaks a language which is hard to understand for an outsider. The general despise for plurality is another aspect of the sect. Whenever plurality becomes a major feature in a society there will also be an attraction to sectarian absolitism.

                With this somewhat sketchy description of the corrosion of the churches, it is possible to identify a strong tendency to value spirituality and mysticism higher. The christian churches want to create a counter culture, all though not by ignoring the confusion of present time. They want to describe it, relate to it and interpret it from a theological perspective.

                In Sweden there is a group that try to relate to the privatization by reforming spirituality and christian mysticism. They remind of that the Reformation and revivalist movements have created small social communities of people gathered around radical religious goals. The monastaries were communities of enthusiasts who, naive but with endurance practised strong prayers. These movements had, in the long run, a greater impact than anything that was written in theological litterature or done in a bureaucratic church. Spiritual guidance and the theology of asceticism did not just talk about a christian faith, but showed concrete ways to a mature faith – a contrasting picture to the (religious) consumerism.

                The Church of Sweden as an organization is probably wearing a far too big institutional and byrocratic overcoat. Perhaps it might regain it´s trustworthiness if it defused the attempts to teach everyone the art of going to church, and instead started to examine it´s own experience/lack of experience of faith. Far more important than activities are – at least from a psychological perspective – the reality behind the activities, the reality that is supposed to be illuminated and experienced through the activities.

                The liturgy

                The services of the Church of Sweden have changed in a vital manner during the last part of the 20th century. This is partly true also for the free congregations. The liturgy for sunday services and other ceremonies have been redrafted after a massive investigation. Changes concerning the church have been studied from a  historical, organizational and theological perspective. It is important to combine these perspectives with psychological studies.

                The service is one of very few activities in modern Sweden where christian faith is taught and mediated regularly. It is hardly ever being taught at home, and the sunday school does not exist anymore. An ideological change has occured in the church´s childrens activities and preschool. The principle of agnosticism dominates in the public schools and the ceremony of confirmation is decreasing faster than any type of service in the Church of Sweden. Because of this, the holy room and the holy rite are probably very important as mediators of a religious tradition in the secularized society. The church as a room of communication, and the liturgy as a ritual and visual expression of religious conceptions, have a major importance if we want to understand the mediation of religious traditions in a secularized society.

                Sometimes, in discussions within the church of Sweden, there have been an assumption that the desacralisation of the service is really an instrument for secularization - a “secularization from within”. Instead of amazement, a feeling of holiness, an experience of transcendence, perhaps the most important experience of the service is to be bored, sensing a stiffness and strangeness? There have been wishes of a resacralisation, and in trying to accomplish this some people have emphazised mystisicm, symboles and rites. The interest in liturgy and the attempts to renew the service are often far-reaching and genuine.  But, as usual, it is possible to turn this argument around. All the work for a liturgical renewal in Sweden can in some cases be interpreted as an escape from a confusing present, or as a defusion of the social and political radicalism in christianity, or as part of an emotionalization of religiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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