Faith in the midst of despair in Bulgaria

I read an extraordinary article about Bulgaria today. It seems that despair has grasped the nation, due to poverty and corruption. There has been a string of suicides by people for whom life has become so hopeless that death seems the only way out. Bulgaria is one of the European Union’s smallest nations with a population of just 7 million, down from 9 million some 20 years ago. It is part of the area of Europe known as The Balkans, bordering on the Black Sea to the east, sandwiched between Romania to the north and Greece and Turkey to the South. Its capital has the beautiful name of Sofia. Despite its rich historical heritage the last 100 years have seen a string of failures. It sided with the Germans, the losers, in both world wars. In 1946 it became a Soviet state, another regime doomed to ultimate failure, and finally emerged as a democratic nation after free elections in 1989. But it seems as if Bulgaria has not achieved any real measure of prosperity, despite its nominal freedom. Put simply, Bulgaria is an unhappy land.

What amazed me about the news article I read was the response of the current president to this string of suicides. Beginning on April 5th, just over a week ago, the president called Bulgarians to three days of prayer for the nation, citing faith and hope as the key to future prosperity, health and well being. Bulgaria has a strong Christian Orthodox tradition despite years of Communism, and also is home to many Jews and Muslims. The president of Bulgaria was encouraging his countrymen to seek answers from God, believing that only there would they find the hope needed to save them from despair.

I thought of Bulgaria when I read Jeff Fountain’s weekly column later today. He spoke of the forces that threaten to destroy the faith of modern Europeans, particularly the present ascendancy of so called secularism. He wrote:

Today secularism threatens to swallow up the church. Yet it is not here for ever and ever, amen. It is not sustainable and tends to produce lifestyles that undermine sustainability. Charles Taylor in his weighty tome, A Secular Age, speaks of the ‘long march’ of secularism as it has developed over centuries. Yet he concludes: ‘we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no-one can foresee.’ No, God hasn’t finished with Europe yet! Who knows what the next 40 years will bring?

Secularism has little to offer the Bulgarians, as dependent as it is on relative material prosperity. The cynics might say that Christianity, indeed faith of any flavor, can only thrive in conditions of poverty and deprivation where people cannot find any other hope. They may say, like Marx, that religion is “the opiate of the masses,” a pain killer administered by the same oppressors who inflict the pain. That the only real path to happiness is economic prosperity and security and freedom form oppressive and corrupt regimes and that religion is just an imaginary solace for those stuck in grinding poverty.

Marx’s solution to world misery, which was communism, has failed. It failed Bulgaria, for a variety of reasons. It has failed many other nations that tried it and lost. The vacuum left by the fall of communism in Europe has sadly been filled by the moral bankruptcy of secularism. But it does not satisfy. Many, it seems, in former Soviet countries, wonder whether things have changed for the better. Some long for the old days of Soviet solidarity and state welfare.

We live in a prosperous western democracy, and unhappiness is rife. Suicide is no stranger to the society in which I live. Prosperous secularism should surely have taken away the need for the opiate that Marx spoke of. But though we may not feel the desperation that some Bulgarians feel, we are not living is some kind of utopian ecstasy. Indeed, the opposite often seems to be the case. Secular prosperity has failed to deliver that for which we long. Even without the oppressors that Marx railed against we still need an opiate, we still look for something to relieve the pain of existence.

As a follower of Jesus I believe that God has the answer. Not that I am always happy. But there is hope in Jesus, there is joy and there is love. And I don’t believe it is imaginary. I believe that Jesus was an historical figure and I believe that what he said about himself is true. I believe in things that are beyond what I can see, feel, touch. I believe in the unbelievable, the supernatural. Simply because Jesus said they were true, and because he proved his credibility by rising from the dead.

Bulgarians can chase after secular materialism. They may well achieve prosperity that way, though with the economy of Europe in its current state it seems unlikely to happen in the immediate future. They can also seek the prosperity that comes from knowing God, which is not dependent on material wealth for its promises. I believe that the keys to addressing both poverty and corruption lie in knowing and following Jesus, not in chasing after riches. I hope the people of Bulgaria find those keys. I hope we in our relative prosperity find them too.

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