On a warm, sunny Wednesday in summer of 2013, Alice and I took a long country walk through the hills outside of Cologne, Germany in the company of two of our friends, Uta and Reinhardt. Near the village of Blankenberg we sat for a while on a bench under a linden tree opposite a large field of ripening grain. For a while we looked on in silence. Then in a gentle voice as clear and sharp as etched-glass, Uta sang in German Franz Schubert’s classic folksong “Der Lindenbaum.”
The song tells of a wayfarer in a foreign country who inscribed his most secret wishes on a linden tree. Many years later, on a fierce and stormy night, he finds herself once again at this spot, and in the howling wind the tree assured him that he has nothing to fear: his deepest longings will always be safely held within its branches.
The beloved German song epitomizes a culture beset by the question of ultimate meaning. The tree, with its swaying branches, is variously understood to stand for the unfathomable elements of life, the mystery of nature, and some would say — the mystery of God.
Germany still considers religion to be an essential part of its cultural identity. In Cologne, throngs of visitors crowd into the cathedral to view the medieval and baroque artwork. Throughout the year, churches host concerts of classical organ music, and choirs routinely perform sacred music in Latin. Christianity in its traditional Catholic and Lutheran forms also plays a prominent part in politics. In contrast, it is illegal in many states for school teachers to wear Muslim headscarves, and there is little sympathy for evangelizing efforts of American Bible Churches.
We watched the wind make patterns in the wheat field, while overhead a hawk lazily circled. The Germans take nature seriously, and the previous weekend it seemed as if half the population was taking long walks, jogging, or riding bicycles. But the practice of religion is random at best. Nearly half the population still identifies itself as Catholic and pays an annual 9% supplement to their income taxes to maintain Church buildings, hospitals, and social services. Through its Catholic Charities, the German government distributes millions of dollars each year to civic improvement projects in Third World Countries. Yet only 13% of registered Catholics attend Mass regularly.
The question of belief, however, is never far below the surface. “Do you believe in God?” Uta asked me. I replied that I believe that God comes to us in Jesus. This was met with respectful silence.
Recent history has been hard on Christianity in Germany. The movement to the cities occasioned by the industrial revolution in the 1800s saw the falling away from the faith of large numbers of the working classes, while in intellectual circles a stream of philosophers proclaimed the death of God. The Nazi party, with a new purified world vision shorn of the vestiges of the past, raised a generation of young people to celebrate the nation at the expense of the church. As Germany rebuilt after World War II, young people attracted by secular values found institutional Christianity to be irrelevant. Meanwhile in the Communist East German Republic, atheism was favored as the religion of the state. All of this has impacted Germany today. “We attended a church wedding in East Germany recently,” our friends told us. “No one knew any of the hymns.” In Germany today many find it easier to admit to being an atheist than a practicing Christian.
A bird chirped on a branch overhead and such concerns seemed a thousand miles away until Uta asked me: “But do you believe in an afterlife?” There was a certain poignancy to the question. The family has recently lost a beloved relative. In America such a question would be answered by affirmations about the deceased “being in a better place,” and “looking down on us from heaven.” But in Germany such expressions do not come easily. “I believe that after death we live with God,” I answered. Once again the conversation pauses. But they were not reassured. “It is so sad,” Reinhart said, “never to be able to talk with her again.”
Faith in post-Christian Germany is a tenuous thing. During the preceding days we had visited many churches, most of which had been severely damaged during World War II and painstakingly restored. Each was immaculately clean. But a look at Mass listings reveled that the shortage of priests and worshipers has cause parishes to be clustered. A single priest serves as many as five churches. Each morning, noon, and evening, the church bells rang as they had for centuries, but the doors of many churches are locked throughout the week. We attended a Saturday evening Mass at a neighborhood parish in heavily inhabited Dusseldorf. Less then thirty worshippers were present, most of them in their 80’s. When I ask why there seems such indifference to organized religion, no clear reasons are given. It is simply the way things are.
“It would be wrong,” Reinhardt explained, “to think that most Germans are atheists. They are skeptical about belief. Only a minority would actually argue that God does not exist.” If the practice of faith is uneven, the search for meaning is unrelenting. Leading secular newspapers and magazines frequently discuss religious issues. Twenty or thirty years ago, Reinhardt explains, it was widely accepted that a person could live an ethical existence without faith in God. Now one frequently hears that a person cannot be fully human without a religious foundation.
As a people, Germans are deeply desirous of getting things right. They are concerned about protecting the environment, and agricultural districts abound with wind towers, and fields of solar collectors. They pursue perfection. Trains, busses, streetcars run with clockwork precision, and littering is unthinkable. Germans engage in social engineering to a degree unimaginable in America. Home schooling is forbidden on the grounds that it would retard a child’s development. Citizens are forbidden to run power equipment in suburban neighborhoods in the early afternoon so as not to interfere with naptime. But in terms of the deeper mysteries of being they are quick to acknowledge that they do not have the answers. All of this could change. Within societies as within individuals, movements of profound renewal are always possible. For now, however, the vast majority of Germans are seekers not finders.
Americans by contrast take religion for granted. But faith is never quite so simple. Deep down, each of us shares a part of the German soul, and in our darker moments, all of us are wayward travelers. Like the good and kind people of Germany, we too must hope against hope for that eternal refuge in a God epitomized by the strong, caring arms of the linden tree.