Rezension: Heart and Soul for Europe: An Essay on Spiritual Renewal

Edy Korthals Altes, Assen 1999, 189 Seiten

, Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, challenged a group of church leaders to reflect with him on "a heart and soul for Europe". This book by a former Dutch diplomat and president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace is a passionate, analytical and articulate response to this call. While the author clearly recognizes that the call is appropriate to most modern societies and to all religious traditions, he stresses its importance for European nations as the theatres which initiated the wave of rationalism and materialism evident throughout the world, and for Christianity as lying at the base of European perceptions and values.

In an analysis which has been echoed in World Council of Churches assembly reports since the Uppsala assembly in 1968, and in the writings of poets, authors and politicians in this same period--Vaclav Havel in particular comes to mind--Altes identifies three major threats to our contemporary world. The three "time-bombs" of nuclear annihilation, ecological disaster and violent social conflict are analyzed and discerned as arising from what Havel once called "the arrogant anthropocentrism of man". Thus the author calls for a radical reorientation in society and the awareness of the Transcendent. Indeed, one of the most compelling insights of the book is that of the loss of transcendence in European consciousness. While this loss is seen to emanate from the Enlightenment, which also exhibited insights which the author sees as positive, he notes a contemporary yearning for spirituality.


This yearning is described as an invisible but potent force in real life because it addresses the whole person, not just one aspect of human personality. It provides a "magnetic force" for living a full, meaningful life. To develop this theme, Altes recounts his personal journey of Christian faith and demonstrates influences from a wide range of Christian thinkers and activists. From this personal odyssey, he suggests a number of roles which the churches might play in the European project--the provision of a place for contemplation; the defence of human values; the commitment to a human world; and prophetic witness and engagement in reconciliation.

In the final section of the book, Altes discusses the implications of these perspectives for addressing the major threats facing the world and providing a vision of a healthy counter-culture. The questions which the author addresses are crucial for European societies. In his analysis he draws on a wide range of political, social and economic data and reports. In his address to the churches he commands an impressive grasp of contemporary ecumenical and Roman Catholic documents. The perspectives offered to help change society are apposite and worthy of deep reflection. The book would have been enhanced had the author drawn on the analysis being developed throughout the 1990s by Grace Davie, among others, on the different spiritualities and attitudes to the churches emerging in different parts of Europe: see e.g. Religion in Modern Europe (Oxford UP 2000). Altes's analysis of spirituality might also have benefited from attention being paid to an understanding of the Holy Spirit's agency in the thought, worship and discipleship of the Christian.

The volume leaves me with his searing question addressed to the churches and to European societies: "What are you doing with your knowledge, your possibilities, your whole heart, your mind and strength at this crucial period of history?" (p. 129). This valuable book is an invitation to the churches in Europe and beyond--to reconsider their priorities in the light of the threats to humankind. Since the churches failed to join Jacques Delors in his quest to explore a "heart and soul" for Europe, it is to be hoped that this volume will rekindle the question.

Alan D. Falconer

Alan D. Falconer is the director of the WCC's Faith and Order secretariat.

Source & Copyright 2002 World Council of Churches