Opinion: Value-less values

Head of the EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma.
Head of the EELK Archbishop Urmas Viilma. Source: ERR

Head of the Lutheran Church in Estonia Archbishop Urmas Viilma asks how we can navigate between different manifestations of values in a way that we won't sooner or later find ourselves at a point where, taking at face value certain public messages, we suddenly notice our conscience sounding alarm bells, particularly if these conflict with the 'values compass'.

In the first decades of the current century, various values in Estonia​​ have been juggled with great skill. At first glance, it can seem as if European, western, Christian and democratic values ​​are all different facets of the same whole.

The source of all these values ​​is the democratic organization of society, which developed as a synthesis of ancient philosophy and Christianity, and which places Christian and democratic values ​​and ideals in the same package. 

These are supplemented by specific national cultural constitutional values, ​​as the mechanism of the Estonian state, and the shaper of social relations.

Defining values ​​has become increasingly difficult

Over the last few decades, however, defining values ​​has become increasingly difficult. People with more moderate attitudes are convinced that values ​​represent absolute criteria of good and bad which are permanently unchanged, and limited by a specific framework, such as Christianity as a doctrinal-moral worldview, a European cultural-geographical area or community of states, a constitution, with its preamble and paragraphs, and so on.

In fact, the picture is much more complicated than this. There are, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, proponents of socially sustainable development who get in office by changing values ​​in the direction they require (those of the party, interest group, etc.).

This situation is confused by the fact that the existing indicators of these values ​​are used to define the now-manipulated values. Whereas Christian values ​​were once synonymous with biblical values, this is no longer the case in many parts of the world.

"Christian values" ​​can thus be very different from what the Bible says about certain things. Whereas European, Western and democratic values ​​once referred to the same western social order and social relations, today, the extent of the overlap between these values ​​depends on which "western" country the terms are being deployed in.

In Europe, the real meanings of these values ​​change depending on which direction we look - north or south, east or west. Thus, within Europe, we can see different national attitudes to migration, labor movements between or from "third" (non-EU - ed.) countries, differences in national interests between countries, the way in which the lives of different minorities (linguistic, ethnic, sexual, religious, etc.) are legally organized, and much more.

I can recall one of the most interesting debates on the meaning of European values, which took place ​​in Brussels in 2017. 

Muslim leaders attending a high-level meeting of European religious leaders, chaired by Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, and Mairead McGuinness, then First Vice-President of the European Parliament, expressed their conviction that European values ​​inherently include, alongside Christianity, an Islamist worldview and components of social understanding, given the centuries-old influence of Islam on shaping traditions and culture in southern Europe, especially in certain parts of Spain.

In this way, European values ​​throughout Europe are no longer, for the time being, unequivocally Judeo-Christian.

It seems to me that the transformation of European values ​​via various nuances will deepen over and at a time when I think that both Russia and Turkey have their own interests at stake here. 

The economic and political involvement of the various European countries in those states, or the influence of people with the right to vote in those countries on future decisions, cannot go unnoticed. Brexit, too, has brought a new situation to rethinking certain European values.

A mutated notion of neighborly love

I have noticed that in Estonia, as well, for a large number of politicians, European values equate by no means to marked, underlying Christian values, as they could presumably do, but rather to secular-humanistic values.

This is expressed, among other things, in standing up for the well-being of the human individual and in talking about the rights (but not necessarily the responsibilities and obligations) of the individual. The presupposition is that the state, and society as a whole, must support the individual.

In the last couple of years, the environment has been added to the individual, but also in the interests of the human individual: So that I, and my children and grandchildren, can have a clean living environment.

But not that the world could be clean for anyone else, or for the sake of the world as a creation.

Respect and love of one's neighbor have also often been interpreted more in the sense that "the other" (society, law) must do to me what I will it to. 

It is not I who have to make the sacrifice, and take a step back in the interests of the other, but someone else.

The distorted notion of charity resulting from a skewed interpretation of Christ's command to love, that is, what you want to have done to you (i.e. personal interest) rather than what the needs and desires of another (in general and societal interest) are, has contributed to the division of society, and many confrontations. 

Everyone strives to ensure that their personal interests are safeguarded, but that the general interest and society prevail too.

The survival of one's own culture, the Estonian language and the nation-state are no longer values ​​in and of themselves, and which should be spoken of as cross-party values. If you speak of a nation-state or Estonian, you will get labeled as a supporter of one specific party. The nation-state is no longer a value in itself.

The state then has value only insofar as it can, by bending and twisting its own laws, become a necessary tool for the full realization of the interest and will of each individual. 

The state, by its laws, must be somewhat like a mobile app which responds to the citizen's swiping on a smartphone screen, and immediately fulfills all their wishes.

The sole question then becomes: Which party, or coalition, can make the state work the most, and better to meet the thumbswipes of the individual?

All of this threatens us when values ​​get devalued, and become just meaningless or words with a changing meaning, however.

When European values ​​are no longer based on the Christian society that created and shaped the Europe we are familiar with to date ... When Christian values ​​are no longer based on the Bible itself ... When a humanity that looks towards one's neighbor becomes a self-love ...

Via the hands of the people, citizens, voters and politicians who let this happen, the Estonian state becomes a Kratt (a figure from Estonian folklore – ed.), which even takes the neighbor's winter supplies home to his master. The neighbor thus loves their neighbor! The neighbor does the same to thier neighbor, because they do to the other as is done to them. Besides, everyone has the same e-government search app installed on their smartphone.

Christian values ​​and western values

Recently, we started hearing about the new "Right-wing union" (Parempoolsed) which has emerged within the Isamaa party, and whose goals include stand up for western values ​​in Estonian politics. 

How, though, should the fact that Isamaa has cited on its website Christian values ​​as the basic principles of its worldview, rather than western values?

This new union has done the opposite of that, omitting Christian values ​​and adopting western values instead.

But this is not a game of chance, with two synonyms interchangeably representing the same values. The voter will get a message that values ​​are understood differently within Isamaa, depending on the situation or the individual talking about said values ​​(in other words by manipulating the voter).

For people who value tradition and perseverance, the Christian association (Kristlik Ühendus) which is within the Isamaa party presents Christian values ​​as one of the foundations of the party's worldview.

To the "progressive" voter, for whom Christian democracy and national conservatism seem an anachronism, the Right-wingers union of the self-same party presents secular-humanistic values ​​as a new way of understanding the conservative worldview enshrined in Isamaa's statutes. And they call these values ​​western.

Are Christian values ​​western values? Surely they are! But could one also expect the same answer when posing the question the other way around: Are western values ​​Christian values? I do not know how the founders of the Right-wingers association will answer this question. It seems to me that the founders of the group themselves may answer this question differently.

So why use such a floating definition when talking about values? This is a sign that we are living in a time when values ​​are becoming increasingly worthless.


Archbishop Urmas Viilma is head of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK).

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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