Religion and Nationalism
Late in September, our class took a trip to Transylvania. Transylvania was once part of Hungary, and following the First World War, the territory was given by the victorious powers to Romania. Though now part of Romania for over 80 years (the territory was briefly given back to Hungary by the Nazis during WWII), Transylvania continues to contain a large number of Hungarians.
Hungary, not surprisingly, is composed largely of Hungarians who speak Hungarian; about 97 percent of those living in Hungary today are Hungarian by ethnic background. On the other hand, Romania contains a large number of Romanians who speak Romanian, but it also contains a fair number of other ethnic groups as well (such as the Hungarians in Transylvania). However, prior to First World War, before Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, Hungary also contained a substantial number of different ethnic groups; in 1867, only about 40 percent of those residing in the “historic territories of the Holy Crown of Hungary” were Hungarians.
In terms of religious heritage, Hungarians are predominantly members of either the Roman Catholic Church or the Hungarian Reformed Church, while Romanians are overwhelmingly members of the Romanian Orthodox Church. And, while many Hungarians living in Romania speak Romanian, many also continue to retain their Hungarian language and customs and, when they worship, continue to do so in Roman Catholic or Reformed churches in which services are conducted in the Hungarian language.
When language, nationality, religion, and state are basically the embodiment of different facets of the same underlying sociological entity, it is difficult to discern just where culture, religion, nationalism, and loyalty to the state begin and end. This linkage of national identity, language, and religion has important consequences. Probably two of the most basic, and firmly rooted, identities that can be forged in human beings are one’s religious and national identities.
Sometimes, these identities begin to overlap to such an extent that the two become linked together—making it is difficult to separate them without some serious, and concerted, effort to do so. This is particularly the case when, embedded in one’s particular culture, one seeks to discern just where one’s fundamental loyalties lay—whether to one’s nation or to one’s religious faith. This is difficult enough in the American context, but when culture and language get added to the mix, it becomes even more difficult.
Consider the current state of Hungarian Reformed Churches in Transylvania. On our excursion, we visited a number of Hungarian Reformed Churches in various villages in Transylvania. During the era of communism, Ceausescu, the former communist leader of Romania, sought to industrialize portions of Transylvania, moving those in the region away from their more traditional, agricultural way of life to a more urban, and industrialized, way of life. In addition, Ceausescu forced various non-Hungarian ethnic groups to move into Transylvania, partly to serve as industrial workers for such factories but, more importantly, to diminish the distinctively Hungarian nature of such communities. Finally, as an avowed communist, Ceausescu sought to weaken the hold of religion on the lives of the people.
The net result today is that Hungarian Reformed Churches conduct worship services in Hungarian to a limited number of people in villages who continue to speak Hungarian; other villagers who speak Romanian are hardly potential parishioners in such congregations. Moreover, because of industrialization and the allure of urban life, many younger Hungarians (and Romanians) have moved to the cities for work. Consequently, there are many Hungarian Reformed Churches in Romania today that continue to function (in part, through financial support from the state—more on that in a later blog) in which there may be only 5 or 6 people worshipping on a Sunday morning service.
So, getting back to the issue of the overlap of religion and national identity, the question is this: When members of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Hungary seek to preserve and invigorate congregational life of churches of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania are they doing so to preserve and promote their religious faith, their cultural heritage, or their national group? This was a question that arose in my mind as I heard our Hungarian hosts talk about these churches. Sometime I thought their concern was religious, but at other times I thought their concerns were more cultural and nationalistic in nature. I never was able to discern which was their primary motivation; perhaps even they might not be able to discern for themselves which was their major concern.
Every institutional arrangement has certain advantages and disadvantages. Just how closely should the church and nation be linked together? Clearly, theologically, Christians recognize a broader, universal, church that transcends national boundaries. Yet, ecclesiastically, churches are organized in somewhat different ways. There is the Roman Catholic Church, within which all authority moves hierarchically up to the Pope who resides in the Vatican; as a result, there is, for example, no national Catholic Church of Hungary or no national Catholic Church of Spain—only the Roman Catholic Church located in Hungary or in Spain. Other forms of Christianity have other kinds of ecclesiastical arrangements. The Orthodox Church, for example, is organized on the principle of autocephaly, in which the head bishop of the church does not report to any higher-ranking bishop and where administratively the church is typically organized according to the particular country in which it is located. Thus, there is the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on, with the head bishop of these churches not falling under the authority of any other higher-ranking bishop. Finally, the various denominations that fall within the category of Protestant churches are organized in various ways, but many are organized on the basis of the country in which they are located. For example, while there are Presbyterian churches found in various countries, organizationally there is also the denominational structure of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Such ecclesiastical matters are more than matters of academic interest. When thinking about how the various churches either tended to resist or tended to cooperate with the communist government in their different national settings, one comes away with the impression (this is all that I want to claim presently as to claim more would require me to do greater and deeper research on matter) that the Catholic church was able to resist the communist government in greater measure than the Orthodox or Protestant churches because of two characteristics of the Catholic church: (1) the church not organized as a reflection of the nation itself, and (2) church offices were appointed by those outside the country itself. On the other hand, my current understanding is that the Orthodox Church was of the three the most co-opted by the communist governmnts, in part because of its ecclesiastical arrangement and in part because of its theological emphasis on the doctrine of symphonia, a doctrine of church-state partnership which strives of “a harmonious interaction of the realm of Casear and the realm of God” and in which each bears responsibility for the welfare of the nation. Protestant churches tended to far in between the two, but where there were denominational structures that were more coterminous with some specific language and state (e.g., the Hungarian Reformed Church with the Hungarian language and the Hungarian state), then in such instances it was easier for the church to find reasons to cooperate with the state—even when that state promoted an ideology that was hostile to the church itself.
This is not to suggest that the Hungarian Reformed Church was corrupt during the communist era; rather, what I am seeking to note is that when one’s national and religious identity are so closely tied together, it is much harder as a Christian to discern just what is Caesar’s and just what is God’s. However, even when the organizational structure, language system, and national group are not coterminous, this issue does not necessarily disappear. One only needs to note that it is frequently difficult enough for us as Christians who reside in the United States to maintain a healthy form of national pride—one that does not easily give way and become distorted into a form of idolatry itself. In the end, then, we all, regardless of our institutional expression of the Christian faith, stand in the need of grace.
October 26, 2008