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9th Comenius Conference

Protestant Traditions and the Soul of Europe

The 9th COMENIUS conference took place from 25-28 June 2014 at the Free University and the Protestant Theollogical University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The topic was 'Protestant Traditions and the Soul of Europe'. 

May 2014 elections for a new European Parliament were held in the 27 countries of the European Community. In the same year,the 450th anniversary of the death of Johannes Calvin was commemorated. The ninth conference of theological faculties from Central and Eastern Europe and the Netherlands, which wanted to bring these two events together, was devoted to how Calvinism and other Protestant traditions have contributed to what is called 'the soul of Europe'.

The identification of the European soul

By this European soul or mind we mean the common mentality in terms of which Europeans identify themselves (or, more often perhaps, are identified by others) as Europeans. In view of the enormous cultural, historical and religious differences between the uniting European countries, what basic assumptions, values and traditions may be seen as—at least to some extent—binding them together?

Even now that many European countries have largely become secular and/or drifted towards post-Christian forms of spirituality, it can be argued that certain aspects of the Protestant ethos continue to be pervasive in many places. A rich diversity of topics comes to mind when we try to assess its lasting impact. For example, German sociologist Hans Joas has discerned no less than six different ‘Thesen’ that posit a decisive impact of Protestantism (including Calvinism) on the rise of modern Western phenomena. Naming them after their most prominent advocates, Joas distinguishes the Jellinek-thesis (according to which the notion of human rights originated in Puritanism), the famous Weber-thesis (which assumed an important contribution of Calvinism to the rise of the spirit of capitalism), the Hintze-thesis (tracing the origins of the modern bureaucratic state to the influence of Calvinism), the Troeltsch-thesis (arguing for a strong influence of the Protestant Reformations on processes of cultural individualization), the Merton-thesis (holding that certain branches of Calvinism highly facilitated the emergence of modern science) and the Dewey-thesis (according to which the modern Western democratic state finds its origins in, again, Puritanism). All of these theses have become heavily criticized, and often rightly so, but the scholarly discussions on them are by no means closed.

The significance of Protestantism

So how might Calvinism’s – and more broadly Protestantism’s – significance for Europe’s economic practices, the constitution of its liberal democracies, its legal systems, the role of religion in its public life, the development of the sciences, the arts and the educational system (Comenius!) be assessed? And, conversely, how have the traditions of the Reformation themselves been affected and colored by their ever-changing cultural conditions in various European contexts? In addressing such questions, the focus should be on ‘the soul of Europe’. If we try to encapsulate these issues in one leading question this might be: How did Calvinism and other branches of Protestantism interact with the cultural shifts that have contributed to the formation of our common European identity?