Almost exactly 499 years ago, when he fastened his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther set in motion the cascade of argument, then formal schism, war and revolution that we know as the Reformation. Latin Christianity had been the language in which Europe talked to itself for the preceding 1,000 years. Now it was to become the language in which Europe fought with itself. The consequence was the modern world. The savage religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries gave birth to the nation state. The vernacular bibles of the Reformation shaped and fixed the languages in which they were printed. The struggles of European nations became global and their empires spread Christianity around the world.
And now, the European centuries are over. An Argentinian Jesuit pope is visiting a female archbishop who heads the Lutheran Church of Sweden, one of the most secularised countries in the most secularised continent in the world. This would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago. The Reformation is finally over in Europe, not because either side has won, but because both sides have been overcome with exhaustion and brushed to the margins of history by their apparent irrelevance.
Churchgoing is collapsing; the proposed EU constitution of 2005 chose not to acknowledge that Europe had Christian roots, let alone suggest that it might have a Christian present or future. For 500 years, Christians, when they wished to be frightened by the thought of a truly dangerous and contagiously misleading religion, would think of the churches on the other side of the Reformation divide. Now they are more likely to be frightened and repelled by Islam.
Nevertheless, Christianity remains a global force. There are more than two billion Christians. In large parts of Africa and Latin America, where the state has failed or is failing, organised Christianity remains as important as it was in Europe 500 years ago. Pope Francis is the head of the largest healthcare organisation in the world, and possibly the largest educational organisation too. Even in the western world there are still many places where traditional Christianity is morally and politically important. Poland is governed by a strongly Catholic, populist and nationalist party. Orthodox Christianity lends a heroic cast to the squalid crimes of Vladimir Putin. The votes of white evangelicals may yet give Donald Trump the presidency. All over Europe, the word Christianity is once more waved as a crusading banner.
Yet the revulsion that we feel against those forms of Christianity itself derives from Christian thought and practice. The welfare states, which seem to have replaced the social functions of Christianity, had deep and often explicit Christian roots, as do the ideals of secular democracy. You need only look at Greek or Roman attitudes to slavery, genocide, or even infanticide to realise what a revolution Christianity brought into the world, and how this change has shaped modern, secular Europe.
The great question confronting Europe now is whether the values of liberal democracy can sustain themselves. Through the fat years when religion faded it seemed that an appeal to reason and self-interest was enough. In the age of Trump, of Brexit, and the Polish Law and Justice party it is obvious that it is not. Emotion and imagination are needed too, and these are the qualities that make up spirituality. Without a belief that human rights are a way of talking about objective reality and that morality – however disputed – is a matter of fact and not of preference, the web of trust and decency that holds our societies together could be ripped to shreds.
We can’t go back. The old model of state churches is dead or dying everywhere today. But something must replace it soon, or we may find that the French novelist André Malraux (who fought against the Catholic side in the Spanish civil war) was right when he predicted that this century would be religious – or it would not be at all.