Hans Grishauge (l.) "I fear we lose a common language to debate ethics." John Jacobsen (r.) "The Church should be open for dialogue" / Photos: Archives of Grishauge and Jacobsen

Workers liberation versus religious faith

Debate. As director of Workers Adult Education in Denmark, John Meinert Jacobsen had “extremely strong reservations” against “Heavenly Days”, a debate festival organised by churches. Elm brought him together with the festival director.


Heavenly Days is an adult learning festival organised by a number of Christian churches, Christian communities and the Danish Grundtvig Association (Grundtvigsk Forum) –an organization that combines Christian church activities with non-formal adult education. The organizers invited other non-formal adult education organizations take part in their festival. Very few have expressed interest. Why is this?

Elm brought Hans Grishauge, director of Heavenly Days festival, together with John Meinert Jacobsen to discuss religion, society, adult education and workers movement. Meinert Jacobsen is Director of the Workers Adult Education Association (AOF), and initially he himself was reluctant to take part in the festival.

Danish Church Days

Grishauge: The Heavenly Days festival is being arranged for the first time in Copenhagen in May 2016 and for the first time as an event open to a broader public. The event has its roots back in the 1960’s when different Christian societies came together to create an ecumenical forum. It was called Danish Church Days. Since then, a couple of thousand people of the Christian churches have come together every three years to debate issues of Christianity.

While previous versions of Danish Church Days have taken place inside churches and conference halls, we are now making it into a festival and move most of the events into tents and in the open air on the big squares of Copenhagen. This is both symbolic and a way to include another public.

Hans Grishauge wants to expand the Heavenly Days festival beyond the church.


Elm: Why are you inviting organisations of non-formal adult education to this Christian festival?

Grishauge: We want to place ourselves in the intersection between church, culture and society. We want an open dialogue on issues of ethics, spirit, existence and responsibility. I think this is relevant not only for the church communities, and it certainly is in the spirit of non-formal adult education. To accomplish this we have invited 300 Danish associations – in addition to the Christian community.

A tool of the ruling class

Jacobsen: When I hear about Heavenly Days I have extremely strong reservations. My organization, the AOF, has completely different roots than the Grundtvigians. We were established to promote freedom and rights for the working class and to offer them education and enlightenment.

The labour movement was in strong opposition to religion, because religion was seen as a tool of the ruling class and of the authorities to oppress the working class.

After the Nazi occupation of 1940-45, another basic thought evolved in AOF. It was formulated by Hal Koch, who defined democracy as more than voting every fourth year, but rather as a lifestyle of democratic conversation and debate and of critical reflection.

This was not anti-religious, but the ideal of enlightenment and critical reflection prevents us from taking sides. We do not want to place ourselves on a religious platform. We cannot celebrate what is “heavenly”.


Grishauge: The name ”Heavenly Days” is not to be taken that literally. It is more in the spirit of Danish everyday terms like a “heavenly mouthful” for a really good meal. I think we can meet around openness and religious freedom.

One example of our attitude in this regard is a bronze sculpture by Jens Galschiøt called Fundamentalism. It will be placed at one of the squares of Copenhagen during the festival. It is a nine diameter circle with huge letters spelling the word “Fundamentalism”. Each letter is composed of bronze figures of the Bible, the Quran and the Torah – all in all 8.000 books. The books are placed on one meter high plinths of steel. On each plinth are two screens showing quotes of the holy scripts. On the outside are – according to the artist – the “light” quotes about forgiveness, empathy, love and reconciliation. On the insight are the “dark” quotes of intolerance and persecution like “an eye for an eye”. I know for a fact that priests have found it impossible to relate a given quote to the right script and religion.


Model of the “Fundamentalism” sculpture by Jens Galschiøt. / Photo: Banglasse

Fear of talking religion

Jacobsen: As an adult educator of the labour movement, I want to defend freedom, including religious freedom. These principles are even more relevant today than when they were formulated during the age of Enlightenment.

We also have to deal with the fact that Denmark is not a secular society. Lutheranism is state religion, and it influences all parts of our society, ideological and institutional.

Quite recently, AOF organised a Caravane of Debate all around Denmark about the EU and the laws of legal justice, in connection with a national referendum. Almost everywhere the audience ended up discussing religion and their fear of religion – of course mostly their fear of Islam.

So the AOF has to deal with issues of religion. In that way some approaches with religious societies and events like Heavenly Days are possible, but it is not easy. I really cannot see it happen. We don’t want to end up in a straightjacket.

Grishauge: I agree that religious freedom and our openness and our will to be inclusive is threatened. Even though we have a state religion, over decades there has been a clear tendency toward a more secular society.

That may all be very well. But I fear that we lose a common language to debate issues of responsibility, ethics and faith.

Faith: more than religion?

Elm: Is it not possible to discuss responsibility and ethics outside in a secular environment?

Grishauge: Yes, of course. But people seem to be embarrassed to talk about religion and faith, while at the same time lots of people rush into other activities – for example fitness and health – with an almost religious fervour.

To me, faith is much more than religion. Everybody bases their actions on faith: Those scientists at the CERN underground testing site in Switzerland, they believe what they are doing.

When you are not sure about something, but nevertheless base your life on it, it is faith. It may be what you regard as an ethical challenge.

Jacobsen: I agree that faith does not have to be dressed in the “clothing” of classical religion. It may be faith in each other, faith in our ability to make changes, faith in a vision of society.  Even Einstein had a faith.

Somehow, faith is counterposed to rationality. But rationality would not work without some kind of faith. Even to strictly rational individuals, it is a precondition to create meaning in life, to explain existence and to find ways to develop.

That is important to debate. To stage a debate on that would be classical non-formal adult education, for example a debate between some of the icons of rationality and some church leaders.

Grishauge: Of course, there would be room for such a debate at Heavenly Days.

Really receptive – ready to listen

Jacobsen: A hypothetical role for AOF at Heavenly Days would be to confront Christianity and other religions with counter-images and counter-poles. That is our didactic method.

It may be a debate with Muslims about their much more aggressive attitude towards non-believers than towards other religions. It may be the question of faith without religion – or religion contra fear of religion.

In order to make it possible for associations like AOF to be part of Heavenly Days, the churches and the Christian communities must be seriously open for dialogue.

John Meinert Jacobsen thinks true dialogue is possible only if both sides let down their guard

Grishauge: The programme will show that. But it is hard to make a signal of inclusiveness if all event organisers are from the Christian family.

Jacobsen: It is not just a question of letting non-Christian organisations in. The church people must be open for dialogue, receptive and willing to learn – without a defensive, apologetic or missionary attitude.

This must be clear from the topics of the debate and the forms of the debate and in statements from central church organisers.

Grishauge: We really try to do that.

Jacobsen: There must be room for debating the extremely conservative morals of parts of the churches, for example on women’s rights and minority sexualities. Christianity never really distanced itself from its historic support of slavery.

Grishauge: Why don’t the AOF organise a debate about historic and modern slavery as it takes place in the brothels and restaurants of Copenhagen?

Almost everything is possible. I think you should go home and give it another thought.

Jacobsen: I will do that.

Grishauge: The fee for one hour in one of the festival tents on a square in Copenhagen is only 200€!

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