Serving God in secular Czech Republic:
The Comenius Institute of Prague
Why should we, as Canadians, care about Christian academics in the Czech Republic? Or, to put it differently, how might we encourage a tiny handful of evangelical Christian leaders trying to make headway in one of the most secularized countries of modern Europe? This was the question addressed by Tom Johnson when he arrived in the Czech Republic more than 17 years ago. Tom was sent to Prague to represent and implement the vision of the organization now called Global Scholars (formerly the International Institute for Christian Studies) of which Christian Studies International (CSI) is the Canadian affiliate.
As such, Tom affirmed as a basic principle:
To change a nation, teach its leaders;
To teach its leaders, influence its universities;
To influence its universities, teach in its classrooms.
He started by teaching at Czech universities, including the prestigious and well-established Charles University. But together with colleague Richard Smith, Johnson went further, and founded the Comenius Institute as a venue to encourage and help Czech scholars. This Institute is named after the well-known Jan Amos Komensky, or Comenius (1592-1670), a Czech educator and pastor who is considered the father of modern education in the Czech Republic and beyond, especially in Europe.
The Comenius Institute has as its primary focus to develop godly Christian leaders in the tradition of Jan Comenius. Johnson explains that the Institute seeks to foster scholars “who are convinced of the truth and importance of the biblical message, who attempt to live honestly before God, who are theologically balanced and well-developed, who can appropriate the best of historic Christian thought to thoughtfully evaluate modern and postmodern trends, [and] who are active in church, society and education for the glory of God.”
No older generation of Christians
We learned of the critical importance of the Comenius Institute on a visit to Prague at the end of March, when we met Tom Johnson and several leading Czech Christian scholars whose work has been nurtured through this Institute. Although few in number, their influence is growing, and is certainly out of proportion to the community they represent.
To begin with, the evangelical Christian community in the Czech Republic, consisting mainly of Lutheran, Czech Brethren and Baptist congregations, is very small, representing less than one percent of the population. Leadership for these groups is correspondingly small, provided for by about 40 pastors and teachers in all. Moreover, most of them are young, in their 30s or 40s. The older generation of Christian leaders is almost entirely absent. This is largely due to the impact of Communist ideology during the decades when Czechoslovakia was absorbed by the USSR.
The legacy of Communism helps to explain why the Czech Republic is so highly secularized. Its small Protestant Christian community suffers from a pervasive negative attitude to Christianity. Czechs are often skeptical, if not downright suspicious and cynical about the Christian faith. But such an attitude can be traced back further to the post-Reformation era and the Thirty Years War (1618-48), when the predominantly Protestant population of Czechoslovakia was almost completely exterminated. The Czech Protestant religious hegemony was replaced by Roman Catholicism under the Austro-Hungarian regime.
The rise of Czech nationalism in the late 19th century did contribute to a revival of the Protestant churches. And in the 1990s, after the fall of Communism, those struggling communities which survived were encouraged by the work of (American) missionaries. Thus the 90s witnessed a blossoming of churches, certainly at first. Although most evangelical churches have maintained their membership, and are growing slightly, membership for the more “mainline” Christian groups has declined since that time. So the proportion of the population which professes adherence to Christianity remains very small.
Heidelberg in Czech
In Prague, the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic, Tom Johnson introduced us first to Peter Cimala, who has recently taken on the challenges of directing the Comenius Institute. Peter is a gifted professor and expositor of the New Testament, and as such he teaches at the Evangelical Theological Seminary. But to be able to make ends meet, he is also a pastor. Like many evangelical leaders he needs several jobs in order to survive.
Not long ago Peter celebrated the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism in translation from the original medieval German into the Czech language.
Cimala’s role at the Comenius Institute brings him in contact with many students who are struggling to find a connection between their faith and the studies pursued at the university. Drawing on his own university experience, Peter has discovered a special talent for encouraging and mentoring university students in various fields.
Johnson introduced us next to Jan Habl, a professor of education at the university in Usti, a few hours by train from Prague. Like Cimala, Habl holds a second half-time position as pastor. But as an academic Habl is becoming well-known throughout the republic for his work on the 17th century Czech educator after whom the Institute is named, Jan Comenius; indeed, Habl has published widely on the life and work of Comenius. Although the Czech people take a certain pride in the international reputation of Comenius, as an early proponent of universal education and the education of women, most do not realize that Comenius was also Christian. So Habl has taken it upon himself to publicize the work of this outstanding Christian educator and scholar for the Czech academic world, and retrieve the Christian basis of his thought.
As we have mentioned above, Czech professors typically work in two or three positions. For Czech students, university tuition is free or nominal, and the professors receive very low salaries. Perhaps this goes back to the monastic model for education, where the monks were supported by the work of the monastery, or by rich patrons. Perhaps the Czechs think that for scholars the work becomes its own reward, and they do not need much in the way of salary. But most professors find that they cannot make ends meet, and turn to a second job to support their families. This in turn makes it almost impossible to find the necessary time for research and writing.
In a highly secularized context our Lord has raised up a handful of dynamic talented scholars and leaders for the Christian community. They are people of vision for their time and social needs. There is at present also a window of spiritual openness, an opportunity on which they can make good, given time and resources. With our help, we pray they can make a difference for God’s kingdom in Europe, and especially in the Czech Republic.