Jesus Forsaken: today's God
In depth
Postmodernity: chance for a new encounter with God

Herbert Lauenroth
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The 4th International Ecumenical Congress “Together for Europe” took place in Munich, from 30 June to 2 July 2016. There were people participating from over 100 Movements and Ecclesial Communities belonging to various Churches. The long applauded reflection that we are offering you here was one of the important talks of the day, dedicated to the commitment of contributing to a renewal of the European Continent.

I begin my reflections on the theme of fear – especially fear in Europe – with two suggestive images, one is biblical and the other secular.
In the book of Genesis, in a dramatic moment, God addresses man with these words, “Adam, where are you?” The question is directed to a person who – full of shame and prisoner of fear – tried to take refuge in the bush in order to avoid the glance of God, aware of his existential nakedness and misery.
The image can be adapted well to describe in rather drastic terms the current European situation: our continent is barricading and entrenching itself in its present, which seems without a way out.
Therefore, Europe pours into this undergrowth. Europe is a slave of her own limits and of the history of her faults. This undergrowth is represented by Idomeni, on the borders of Macedonia, by the barbed wire at the border between Hungary and Serbia, but also by the many situations of marginalisation within our societies. By applying this biblical scene to Europe, that withdraws into herself like a “fortress” to take shelter from the migrants, this image indicates yet another truth: it places us in front of the “European sovereign” like the truth without a roof, without a homeland, that lives the most fatal of all getaways: the escape from herself.
Europe therefore needs to hear God’s calling once more, which questions her about her destiny, her mission and responsibility for herself and the world, “Adam/Europe, where are you?”
This image of an existential anxiety from which only God can free her, has its confirmation in the visions of cosmic confusion of the modern subject in an indifferent and inhospitable universe. This is according to the expression of the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” It’s a sense of horridness and disorientation, which instills terror to the human being abandoned to himself and isolated. It was described in European history as “loss of the centre” or rather like “metaphysical disorientation.”

Fear can open up new spaces
to human experience

The fear of losing oneself and the world can at the same time open up a new space to human experience.
The poet and first president of the then Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, retrospectively looking at the peaceful revolutions of ’89-’90 in the Middle-European countries, at that time he spoke of fear as “fear of freedom”, “We were like prisoners who were used to being in prison and then, all of a sudden the much desired freedom was given back and we didn’t know how to enjoy it. We were desperate because we continuously had to work out our choices and assume responsibility for our own life.”
Havel continues that they had to face this fear, because in this way it “definitely can also create new attitudes in us. It’s precisely fear of freedom that in the end can teach us to honestly interpret our freedom. And it’s precisely fear of the future that can force us to do everything possible so that the future can improve.”
The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich describes fear as an important experience of human existence. He affirms, “The courage to exist has its roots in that God who appears when we have dispelled God in the fear of doubt.”
Namely: only the experience of fear, as the loss of a type of image of God, the human being and the world, which was once in vogue and considered unchangeable, emits what Tillich has named the “courage to exist.” The true, divine God appears so to speak in the heart of fear and only he can free us from fears. Precisely this experience introduces the human person in the deepest horizons of existence. God manifests himself as the countenance of the other in the apparent absence of countenance and history of the world.

Descending into the infernal regions of the world

Therefore, it means descending into these “infrawordly spaces” made up of personal and collective fears and confusions, in order to find in them that God who saves us.
I can never forget my visit last autumn to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Centre near Jerusalem. Stunned, I advanced towards this architectural complex until I reached the “children’s monument,” a location underground where the light of the candles is reflected by mirrors. In this dark setting, there is the resounding of disembodied voices that unceasingly recall the data of the lives of innocent victims. This made me experience a new, deep solidarity even though I was immersed in this elementary fear which is so strongly inscribed in us that it makes us not only physically fear that we will be destroyed but to be also cancelled from the memory of culture. The witness I brought from that place became my personal experience: giving a place to the lost name, guarding the memory of the name of God and his creatures. I wrote a phrase of the prophet Isaiah in the guest book and in this way I expressed my hope in the lasting closeness of a Father God, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (
Is 43:1).
Speaking of the great European narrations on fear, the Czech philosopher and theologian Tomás Hálík describes a similar experience: “We are not building the bold project of European unity on unexplored or unseeded land. We are building it on a land in which forgotten treasures and burnt ruins lie, a land in which gods, heroes and criminals are buried and where rusted thoughts and unexploded bombs rest. From time to time we need to get a move on and look at Europe’s subsoil, its underworld, like Orpheus who went to look for Eurydice, like Christ put to death, descended from Abraham and the patriarchs of the Old Testament.”

It is at point “zero”
where Heaven is surprisingly opened

For me these different “descents in the abysses of fear” find a convergence point in the narration of the baptsim of Jesus as referred to us by Matthew, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (
Mt 3:16-17).
This means to descend with Christ in order to reach that point “zero” on which Heaven is surprisingly burst open. Here is where the intrinsic law of divine life is manifested, “What comes from above must germinate from earth.”
In this way, that supportive communion in which people recognize each other not only as “brothers and sisters” but also as “sons and daughter of God” is established
in, with and for Jesus. Therefore, a communion in which “human dignity” and “likeness to God” form an inseparable unity.

Fear: a place
where we comprehend faith

In his writings from prison,
Resistance and Surrender, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognizes the crux of Christian identity in the answer to the question Jesus addressed to his disciples in the moment of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (cf. Mt 26:40). It’s the invitation to stay awake during the night next to Jesus, in the presence of he who lives turned towards the Father in a secular world, apparently without God; the presence of Jesus that transforms very different places into spaces in which we experience and await the gift of the life of the Trinity. [5]
In this key verse of Matthew’s Gospel, “fear” appears like a privileged place to comprehend faith, where our widespread and “blind” fears are transformed into that authentic “fear of the Lord” that we see in Jesus and gives us real awareness.
In, with and for Jesus occurs the liberation of fear like a transition that through fear it launches us towards God: the apparent handing over (Preisgabe) of the Son is transformed into donation (Hingabe) to the Father.
- In this way, unity grows as an experience of mutual trust based on the perception of the intangible mystery of God and the otherness of the other person. Only the unconditioned “giving in to the distance of the other” opens the way to authentic affinity and communion with God and human beings, affirms the Jewish philosopher Simone Weil.
- Therefore, it’s preferring the unknown, what is foreign and marginal to us, a place to learn faith
in, with and for Jesus.
- This is particularly valid also for the various charisms and the communion among them. In the “Together for Europe” meeting in Paris in November 2013, with Jean Vanier, founder of l’“Arche”, we were able to become aware that fundamentally the task of the charisms is included in this: receiving the “charism of the world” and reflecting it to this very world. Vanier’s experience struck us deeply: living first of all not
with and for the “recipients” of Jesus’ Beatitudes, but starting from these. Those who appear to be needy and those who receive are instead the ones truly gifted with God and donators and carriers of a message, of God’s presence that from the outskirts should reach the heart of our societies. This is a perspective which the already quoted bishop of Aachen and philosopher of religion, Klaus Hemmerle expressed in a concise way with these words: “Let me learn from you the message that I must transmit to you.” [7]

The courage of a new understanding of ourselves and the world

However, a similar attitude requires a “U-turn”, a real
metanoia in self awareness and in the vision of the world of many Christians, a new faith in the love that God has for the world and that He has revealed to us in Christ. At the same time it’s growing into a “culture of trust” which is also trust – founded in Jesus – in the “secular” God, present in this world.
Raising my eyes towards the dome of the Circus Krone
[8] building made me think of trapeze artists as real artists of a “liberation of fear”: always with the risk of trust, detachment and pushing out once more into the space as “plungers into the unknown” (H. Nouwen). An artistic moment between “grace and gravity”, always prophetic and also always precarious, never without risk. This is the “graciousness” of the absence of gravity, in which the person – suspended in the air – knows to be carried and supported, in a certain way “redeemed” from self and freed in order to push out towards the other.
Again Henry Nouwen: “A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him. … Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust!”


[1] V. Havel, Discorso di apertura ai Salzbur ger Festspiele 1990, in: Id., Angst vor der Freiheit, Rowohlt, Reinbek 1991, p. 104.
[2] P. Tillich,
Der Mut zum Sein, Stuttgart 1953, p. 137.
[3] T. Hálik,
Europas Seele, in «Kafka. Zeitschrift für Mitteleuropa» 11-2003, p. 17.
[4] K. Hemmerle,
Leben aus der Einheit, Herder, Frei- burg Basel Wien 1995, p. 159.
[5] D. Bonhoeffer,
Widerstand und Ergebung (Resistenza e resa), Kaiser Verlag, München 1951, p. 180.
[6] S. Weil,
Schwerkraft und Gnade, Kösel Verlag, München 1952, p. 143.
[7] Cf. K. Hemmerle,
Was fängt die Jugend mit der Kirche an? Was fängt die Kirche mit der Jugend an?, in «Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift Communio» XXII (1983), pp. 306-317.
[8] The place where the “Together for Europe” Congress took place.
[9] H. Nouwen,
Our greatest Gift. A Meditation on Dying and Caring, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco 1994, pp. 60-61.