Door: Manuela Kalsky
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,
I am not a politician. I am a theologian. I’m trained to think about meaning and about what people believe in, how they give shape to their beliefs and which religious traditions and values play a role in the background or at the forefront of their lives. At this moment I am working on a research project at VU University on MRB. MRB means: multiple religious belonging. I admit, it sounds like a scary disease – but actually it is simply the fact that more and more people in the Netherlands and in other secularized countries in Western Europe are using elements from different religious traditions and worldviews to give meaning to their lives in post-Christian societies. The empirical part of this research shows that in the Netherlands in 2014, 3.2 million people were using elements from more than one religious tradition.
So, ladies and gentlemen, a theologian is not always a vicar, as a lot of Dutch people think. I ensure you I never learned how to deliver a sermon. And if you think after my twenty minutes’ talk “but in a way, she was preaching”, then this is not because I’m a theologian, but because I have been working for more than twenty years with the Dominicans, the worldwide order of preachers, which will celebrate next year its eight hundredth anniversary. In Dutch there is a saying: “waar je mee omgaat, word je mee besmet”. I think in English this is something like: “who keeps company with the wolf will learn how to howl”. The Dominicans stood at the marketplaces in the Middle Ages. Doing the ‘circumspectio’ – looking around and listening to people and of course, beside that, preaching the good news of the Christian God. In our days, the Dutch Dominicans wanted to have a theological centre where theologians would be involved in society and reflect on what is going on in the daily lives of people – in a sense, just like their mediaeval counterparts did.
At the Dominican theological centre we are standing now on the digital marketplace – as you will see later. And in the meanwhile the Netherlands have become post-Christian and one of the most secular countries in Europe. More than 60 per cent of Dutch citizens have no affiliation with a church anymore. Compared to the fact that in the beginning of the 20th century only 2 per cent of the Dutch citizens did not belong to a church, this is a major shift in Dutch society within a very short period. Many young people in the Netherlands today have no idea what Christianity is about. Some time ago I saw on TV a journalist, who asked a group of young people: do you know who Jesus Christ is? After a long silence, one of them made an attempt: “I’ve heard of him – isn’t he a player for Manchester United?”
But interesting enough nearly 60 per cent of the Dutch people also claim to be a believer. 40 per cent of the people say that they believe in ‘something’, in Dutch ‘iets’, so they got the name ‘ietsisten’. These people do no longer believe in God as a person. They prefer to speak about an energy or the ground of being. A large number of Dutch citizens do not want to be part of a religious community in the traditional sense anymore; they fall into the category of ‘unaffiliated spirituals’. This trend can be seen all over Europe today.
On the other hand the Dutch observe with trepidation Muslim solidarity and their sense of a religious ‘us’, feared because of the events of 9/11 and the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a young Muslim, born and bred in the Netherlands. But besides fear, it also seems that Dutch people suddenly realize that they themselves no longer have a comparable sense of common identity. What do we actually believe in, and are we still proud of our country and our own culture? These are frequently asked questions. In the demarcation from others – above all from Islam – there has been a resurge of national feeling, a desire for a well-defined identity and pride in the achievements of Dutch history. The latter was laid down in a cultural canon which children have to learn in school.
This ‘proud to be Dutch’ approach resulted in a politically inward-oriented gaze, which disregards the fact that the histories of many Dutch people originated elsewhere. They have their roots in Turkey, Greece, China, North and South America, Asia, Africa and so on. Their cultural and religious legacy will also determine the future of the Netherlands. And this is also the case in other European countries. According to statistics one third of the residents in larger cities in Europe have a migration background.
And last year the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, has joined New York and Toronto by gaining the designation: superdiverse. Superdiverse means that there is no longer a specific group forming a majority. Nowadays 49 per cent of the citizens of Amsterdam are from Dutch origin and 51 per cent of the inhabitants of Amsterdam have a migration background, which is of course too diverse to form a new majority. Amsterdam has become a city of minorities – and so the question arises: how to integrate if there is no majority anymore?
We have entered a new era and are facing very clearly a paradigm shift from a mindset of unity to a mindset of multiplicity. Intercultural en interreligious dialogue – learning how to live together with people of different faiths and worldviews – is no longer a kind of ‘religious hobby’. It has become a necessity. And because it is very important also to reach a younger generation, which is not so much used to reading books but is rather surfing on the world wide web, the Dominican Study Centre started together with the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Planning and Environment (VROM) in 2008 the multimedia website project Nieuwwij.nl, in English: ‘New We’. Six years later this site has become one of the most visited sites in the field of religion, spirituality and interreligious dialogue in the Netherlands, with an average of 45.000 unique visitors a month.
How to find social cohesion in a highly individualised and at the same time multicultural and multireligious society? How can we help to create a peaceful and just society that allows for people to live together in a multi-ethnic Europe? How can prejudice and fear projected towards people with other faiths and cultural backgrounds be dismantled without denying the problems that arise when people from different cultures and religions live together? How can we make cultural and religious differences fruitful in order to find the good life for all? To me this ‘good life for all’ is a secular translation of what we call in Christian terms the kingdom of God. So, as a Christian theologian I am trying to find a wider language, more inviting words for a mixed audience: religious, spiritual and/or humanist, in order to work together on what I think the values of the Christian faith are, but also of other religions: namely ‘doing justice to God’s creation and looking after each other with passion and compassion.’
Enough preaching: let’s have a look at the website project, a communication platform, where we try to find a ‘new we’: http://www.nieuwwij.nl/over-nieuwwij/.
Project We uses the slogan Connect the differences and allows (young) people with different cultural and religious backgrounds to work together. The philosophy behind this slogan is that differences must be faced before something new can be built together. Accepting diversity means learning to think ‘in plural’. This is particularly difficult to the western mindset, which is based on binary and unifying concepts. Unity is not only a unifying concept, but often also a violent one. Unity is always at risk of excluding people: the scapegoats, the heretics. But can a community be based on diversity? Is it possible not to put ‘truths’ in the forefront as a unifying element, but instead embark on a common search? Is a truth thinkable, which arises through or in encounter and provides room for people with multiple or other religious identities?
Project We is not about giving answers in the first place but about asking questions. It aims at picturing the creativity and energy of people in the neighbourhoods of towns and villages and stimulating their ability to find their own solutions, making new common initiatives possible on a small scale. The project wants to stimulate people to take their responsibility and to show their strength instead of taking on the part of the victim. The ‘Generation Y’ video team, for instance, records projects and people who are working on this ‘new we’, making them accessible to a wider Dutch-speaking audience. Besides virtual connections the website also features real-life interfaith encounters. One of the most successful activities is a weekend in which Muslims and Christians are staying together in a monastery. The aim is getting to know each other better, building friendships and understanding the religious values in each other’s lives. Much of the material is also used in schools and other multicultural meetings, as well as in lectures about ‘a new we in your neighbourhood’.
Instead of going into the negative frame of deradicalization, we must show best practices to bring the fears in society back to realistic proportions. Of course people want to feel safe, but that will not happen by creating new oppositions between groups of people. Of course it is important to show that violence will not be accepted in a liberal democracy.
Without denying that living amid all those differences entails problems, project We focuses on the positive developments in an increasingly plural country. By doing this, We wants to motivate people to work on shaping their own lives and society in a constructive and creative way – for words and images are not innocent. They are not only a reflection of reality, but also creating reality themselves.
Instead of fostering fear and cynicism, project We wants to promote the development of a common culture, in which mutual differences are made fruitful through participation. The right to ‘be different’ is an achievement within liberal democracy. The struggle about the question which values should be defining society is part of this democratic process. So the debate on this question, in my view, must not be seen as a problem but as a privilege. In an open society that strives for individual emancipation as a human right, there will always be conflicts of interests. The common ground is that people comply with the law, with the rules that are laid down in the Constitution.
As long as diversity is associated with loss of identity and relativism of values, and the convictions of ‘the other’ are seen as a threat to one’s own identity, there will be no room for a new We. Mutual acceptance and equality, while retaining and respecting the differences, are indispensible ingredients for the development of new sustainable connections. This is why we chose the motto ‘We – connects the differences’. It underlines the necessity not to downplay differences in favour of commonalities in the search for mutual connections. We advocates facing the differences and making them fruitful – moving away from the either/or thinking and searching beyond prejudices with an open mind for an and/and approach.
The important questions are: How can we conquer fear for the other? How can we connect without having to become the same? What is at stake, is not the search for a new big We, but rather the existence of small ‘we’s’, depending on mutual communication and making connections through common values.
Breaking down prejudice by encounters, promoting knowledge about and providing inspiration from the various cultural and religious traditions, stimulating communication about them with the aim of creating a peaceful and just society: this is what project We aims at. It is the longing for new ways of connectedness – new ways of feeling at home.
In order to really feel at home, the former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks underscores the importance of being able to make your own contribution to society. For him, society is like a home we must build together. Only if you have also given shape to it, made your contribution, you can proudly say: this is also my achievement. Only then will you feel at home. And it goes without saying that you are entitled to recognition of your contribution then. Try to find shared interests, is his advice, and decorate the home you are going to build together with beautiful details from the different traditions in which each of you grew up. Celebrate the festivals together – Christmas, Chanukah, Chinese New Year, the Sugar Feast, Diwali– and take the values from the different religious traditions as inspiration for a common ethics – for example compassion or hospitality. If we do this, diversity is wealth. And the more differences are included into the house, the more beauty and wealth it will contain, so he says. But do not forget to reserve your own space as well, a room in which you can withdraw for the sake of balance between togetherness and uniqueness.
To me it is very clear that if I want to take the signs of the times seriously and seek for ‘the good life for all’ in Europe amid the messiness of daily life, I must give room to multiplicity. Multiplicity not only in one’s own secular or religious circle – however important and relevant this may be – but in particular in the sense of giving room to the voices of the religious and cultural stranger in our midst.
The burning question is: Will I allow this? Will I allow that ‘the other’ interrupts my own narrative and disrupts my peace? That he or she exposes the assumptions in my thinking and acting, and questions my complacency? Do I have the courage to have my own limited view on the world expanded, meaning I may have to face things I would rather not see? In short: do I make ‘the other’ into an alter ego, into the projection of my own desires or do I sustain the opaque uniqueness of every human being? Together with the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas I would plead for the latter: no practice of ‘egology’, not determining the other from my own ego and reducing him or her to myself, but letting myself be surprised by the opacity of the other. For the Heidelberg theologian and missiologist Theo Sundermeier, who lived and worked in Africa for many years and who is an expert in the field of intercultural communication, wonder is the beginning of all hermeneutics. He writes:
“In wonder, I am open for the little, the humble, and in this I discover otherness, beauty, multiplicity. He who is surprised, is capable of endure dissonance with resignation and will not look for harmony too easily. For the dissonant, as well, belongs to the fullness of life.” 
Today, doing theology means going to the virtual marketplace, where people meet each other in very different ways, playing with identities, narratives, imagination and desires and where God can be found in many spiritual guises. The game of theology has changed. The (non)religious other becomes a locus theologicus. Which has as its consequence that the slogan ‘unity in diversity’ should be replaced by ‘diversity in search of connections’, searching for a new We. Or, better, searching for small We’s which are able to connect in a network which does not cherish the desire for fusion but can make a difference by building a society in which everyone can feel at home.
Is this naive idealism? Or is it a quality, which Europe needs right know in the midst of its own crisis. The problem is that today’s Europe does not only has a market-based economy but that it has become a ‘market society’, where values of solidarity and the dream of Europe as a value-based community are considered obsolete. Is the neo-liberal market thinking within a nation state – and the related excesses of egocentric wealth accumulation at the expense of both the majority of humankind and the earth’s natural resources – running on empty? We are in the midst of a transformation process and religions can play an important role in this whole process. Of course we need the separation of religion and state, but this does not mean that religious people are forced to become schizophrenic – because they have to leave their personal religious inspiration for living their life behind the front door. I think there must be room in public space for non-religious and religious answers to questions on the meaning of life, because religious traditions have a wealth of narrative and values that can help to give direction to the search for a ‘new we’, for the good life for all.
In spite of the secular prediction that religion will disappear, religion is still an important power in the lives of people all over the world – even in the secularized countries of Europe. We cannot deny that. Religious people can be bridge-builders, they can help promote the positive forces of religion without denying that religion has negative power as well. In the end it is a personal choice which aspect of religion you want to show to the public.
And let’s face it, creating a ‘new we’ movement does not only require a transformation of an ‘we’ that excludes people, it also needs a new ‘I’. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.“ To him the most import battle to be fought was overcoming his own demons, fears and insecurities.
Creating peace in Europe requires new and just connections on a local and global scale. A spirituality of the good life for all is an urgent necessity. Maybe it’s time to look beyond the borders of the Netherlands, under the motto: Looking for a new We in Europe by connecting the differences.
Manuela Kalsky is professor of Theology and Society (Edward Schillbeeckx Chair) at VU University in Amsterdam and director of the theological research centre of the Dutch Dominicans. She is also in charge of the multimedia website Nieuwwij.nl.
 T. Sundermeier, Den Fremden verstehen. Eine praktische Hermeneutik, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen, 184-185 (transl. MK).