Words on the Word

Constitution Day

Acts 17:15-18:23: The whole world will be judged in righteousness
John 16:12-15: The Spirit of Truth will lead you into the whole Truth. 

Under the date of 22 February 1815 there is an interesting annotation in the diaries of Pastor Claus Pavels who later became the Lutheran bishop of Bergen. The pastor wrote a year after the Danish prince Christian Fredrik had promised to call a constitutional assembly:

What a remarkable day! What a glorious time we live in. There are many lands whose climate I would happily exchange for our cold, unpleasant one; but I know no country in Europe, nay in the whole world, whose citizen I would rather be just now than Norway’s.

The thought of Norway’s independence electrified Pavels, ecstatic at the thought that he, a few days later, at the prince’s behest, would pronounce an oath ‘in the temple of God’ to give ‘all for Norway’.

Let’s remember that at the time, in 1814, many people in Europe will hardly have been aware of Norway’s existence. They would have thought that Norway naturally belonged as part of a greater, renowned European power. To the extent that one had notions about the country, they would have been stereotypical: images of endless nights, eternal snow, reclusive peasants.

For those who lived in Norway, meanwhile, what was going on was epochal. Norway seemed to them the natural centre of the universe. There are parallel dramas going on these days.

The key elements of the constitutional draft drawn up later in 1814 are striking. They focus on freedom, security, and the right to hold property. All who live in the country should, within the bounds of the common good, be able to live freely, protected by law, with the right to enjoy and govern their goods and earnings, the fruit of their labour and endeavour.

We take this so much for granted now that we’re hard pressed to think of a society working otherwise. Yet at the same time, not far away from us, totalitarian tendencies grow, gobbling up truth claims and elevating subjective notions of reality above objective reality.

This is not time for self-satisfied slumber, even if we readily yield to it. To celebrate 17 May in the year of our Lord 2023 necessitates positioning not just with regard to our nation, but with regard to Europe. What sort of society do we wish to build and preserve? Whither are we bound? Much that we took for granted yesterday totters today. Politics is marked by pragmatism. We talk easily of the art of the possible. But what if we are subjected to powers that take it upon themselves to define what is and is not possible?

Claus Pavels took it for granted that the Temple of the Lord was the arena fit to legitimise a national project. That seems an old-fashioned perspective now. But is a just societal order possible in the long run without a higher, divine standard, unmeasurable in terms of silver and gold, before which we stand accountable? One the Areopagus Paul praised the Athenians’ sophisticated notions. At the same time he emphasised this: Speculation is all very well, but what constitutes a society is worthy action, and upon our action a righteous judgement will one day be pronounced.

For what do we use the freedom we enjoy in this country? This is a question we might ask ourselves today with gratitude, but also with trembling.


Photograph: Margot Krebs Neale.