Christianity, Modernity and Romanian Folklore

  • Abstract:

    The Romanian space underwent the modernization process at a later stage as compared to other regions from Europe, and Romanian elites, eager to catch up with the “civilised” Europe, stimulated the phenomenon known as “stage burning” in Romanian historiography. In fact, this means the simultaneous and concentrated manifestation of certain phenomena which, in the West, occurred somewhat distinctly and over a long period of time. In the West, before the time of secularized modernity, we encounter a long period when the complex historical phenomena, known as the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, shape and “ modernize” the entire society. Religiously speaking, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation insisted on refuting “superstitions” and on establishing a “pure” religion, one of the main tools used to that effect being education. Later on, these mechanisms were taken over and developed by the laicised modernity in the manifestation of its own values. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Romanian society was deeply traditional, religion playing an important part: the Orthodox Church was the dominant church, begin protected by the State and by the relative opacity of the society. The creators of modern Romania were, generally, individuals who had received a laic education, shaped after the ideals of the French Revolution. For them, religious beliefs and the Church were an obstacle to the development of Romania. Therefore, they adopted measures for beginning a fast and forced secularization. In parallel with this phenomenon, the opening of Romania to the world allowed, on the one hand, the establishment and development of several new religious cults, unknown until then and, on the other hand, an internal process, manifested among the common people who had access to education, comparable to the Reformation that happened in Western Europe four centuries ago. This was a “modernisation” of religion, popular beliefs (popular Christianity) being considered a mixture of superstitions and the Orthodox Church a bearer of unchristian beliefs and incapable of a true conversion of the believers. Romanian popular beliefs, included in the modern concept of “folklore” were being studied “scientifically” by the representatives of a new science, ethnography. In contrast with the ethnographers from other European regions, most of the Romanian ethnographers saw folklore as the “living tradition”, attempting to integrate these beliefs in the grammar of modernity. In the inter-war period, when a “spiritualist” cultural trend spread in Romania, the popular tradition became “the full expression of the Romanian soul”, an entire “ethnic ontology” coming to be built from its components (in the words of philosopher Sorin Antohi). Next to theologians, the debate regarding “folklore” and “popular Christianity” attracted theologians of the Orthodox Church who tried to prove the authentic Christianity of the Romanian popular traditions. Through the voice of theologian Dumitru Stăniloaie, they stated that, in fact, there was a perfect identity between Orthodoxy and Romanian “popular Christianity”. This statement led to another: Orthodoxy was the only true religion of the Romanian people. This idea was adopted by the totalitarian governments led by the Legionary Movement and Marshal Antonescu, which promoted modernity in the spirit of the extreme right, but which, unlike other similar ideologies from Romania, granted an essential role to religion and to the Church. More precisely, they talked about the Orthodox Church as the unique church of the Romanian people, integrant part of the unitary and “totalitarian” Romanian State. Paradoxically, some of these ideas were kept during Communism as well, being used for various propaganda purposes, especially during Ceauşescu’s regime, when we speak of a “national communism”. After the revolution of 1989, “tradition” became more and more a museum object or a part of post-modernist experiments. However, the idea of the religious unity of the Romanian people was more enduring and it remained deeply rooted in the minds of many Romanians, leading to countless debates regarding the anti-European and undemocratic spirit of Romanians. The debate only ended in 2006, when a new law of religions, supported by the leaders of the Orthodox Church itself, introduced the European principles with regard to the freedom of conscience and the equality of religions. This is how a problem of tradition, the religious tradition particularly, shaped the attitude of Romanians towards modernity for more than a century.