|The movement of progressive christians in Flanders 1960-1990|
|The secularisation theory, stating that religion and modernity are fundamentally opposed, has recently been opposed. Historians like Callum Brown and Peter van Rooden agree that the social position of christianity in West-European countries has weakened. But they don’t consider this as one more step in an age-old process of secularisation, but as the result of a sudden cultural shock in the 1960s. Before, the social influence of christianity consisted in a discourse (Brown) or practices (Van Rooden) determining social identity and daily life. This influence was broken by the cultural revolution of the sixties.
There are nevertheless signs of vitality within the religious sphere itself. These religious transformations and the drastically changed position of religion in society mutually influence each other. The purpose of this paper is to analyse one example of this interaction. The movement of progressive christians in Flanders clearly adapts to the changed position of christianity in society, by formulating alternatives for the social position of religion, and by developing new visions on the shape christian identity should take and on the internal organisation of the church. They also develop an alternative christian religiosity and spirituality, and are enthousiastic about changed (dechristianised) cultural and behavioural patterns in daily life.
Progressive christians resisted the system of ‘pillarisation’, characterised by the formation of a religiously inspired social identity and by exercising direct political influence. Instead, they proposed pluralistic actions based on a common political ideology (‘progressive left’), for which christian religion at best could be an inspiration. They believed in a different social role for the church as ‘critical consciousness’. Traditional practices inherent in the catholic subculture, were also rejected. This ‘mass catholicism from sheer habit’ should be replaced by christian faith out of deliberate choice, a ‘conscious’ shape of christianity. Small groups were considered to be the ideal environment for such a form of christianity to flourish.
Progressive christians also formulated alternatives for the internal organisation of the church. The loss of social influence of christianity had strongly undermined the ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, progressive christians didn’t hesitate to criticise their own church and to promote a democratic structure. Because of the undermined social position of christianity, more room was created for alternative, more immanent spiritualities. In the movement of progressive christians, this took the shape of an ‘ethic christianity’ and a ‘spirituality of daily life’. The loss of social significance of christianity was also expressed in the contestation of the religiously based ideal of the heterosexual, patriarchal family and of the strict sexual rules. Progressive christians joined this contestation. Self expression and the individual consciousness were the core elements of the alternatives they formulated.
We may conclude that ‘self expression’, a central notion of the cultural revolution and of the new phase of modernity beginning since the 1960s, was a key element in the alternatives progressive christians formulated. Considering this, we can speak about the movement of progressive christians as a case of ‘religious modernisation’.