Why Denmark Sounds Like A Nice Place to Live

Alyce Mckenzie, a professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University), shares with us (at the Faith Forward blog) the story of her son’s return to suburban Dallas after spending a semester in Copenhagen.

McKenzie wonders how the people of Denmark can live in a relatively secular society and still be so content and stress-free. Here is a taste:

My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago from a semester spent in Copenhagen, on a study abroad program sponsored by Southern Methodist University…Back in our suburban Dallas home, his American father grilled steaks on the patio and I wondered how long it would take him to get bored with suburban Texas life after life in Copenhagen.

Our convenience oriented, car-driven culture in suburban Texas is a far cry from life in Denmark — which, according to my recently returned raconteur, features some of the following: riding a bike or walking just about everywhere. having lights that go on and off automatically, recycling all glass bottles, drinking tap water, being able to let your baby in the best baby strollers bask in the sun a bit while you go in and pick up a few groceries for tonight’s meal, beautiful public spaces, green parks where people enjoy leisure time, high-speed and clean trains, not being obsessed with work to the point that family and leisure are devalued, and, by all accounts, a happiness factor that exceeds ours…

…In his 2008 book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Tell us about Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman (who lived in Denmark from 2005-2006) seeks to account for the fact that Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal. His book is, in part, an attempt to counter conservative Christian pundits (Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, William Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Weyrich) who swear that a society without God is hell on earth. No, says Zuckerman, based on his experience in Scandinavia. Life in an irreligious democracy can actually be quite pleasant and civil. Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies.

…Zuckerman seeks to discover the “unique contours of the world views of secular men and women who live their lives without a strong religious orientation.” Many are “cultural Lutherans,” who have their children baptized and confirmed and who marry in the church because it is the traditional “thing to do.” But they tend to operate out of a rational, scientific worldview, not invested in questions of the holiness of the Bible, the reality of the resurrection, or the existence of heaven or hell.

How, wonders Zuckerman, do they deal with questions about the meaning of life and the approach of death? His basic findings are that Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world. They are more interested in their family, home, bikes, careers, weather, and favorite British or Brazilian soccer players than questions of the meaning of life and the existence of heaven and hell. Many of the people he interviewed did not seem fearful about the fact of physical death or particularly curious about whether it was the end of life or if there was an afterlife…

It is interesting to see one’ own life (in the context of one’s culture) through the lens of someone with recent, firsthand experience of another cultural context. I know that I am driven by the Protestant work ethic in my vocation as a Professor of Preaching, always striving to learn more and speak more effectively and teach others to do the same. I spend just about all my time thinking about the meaning of life and the significance of the Bible and better ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I derive meaning, joy and purpose from my faith. But it’s hard for me to look up from my list of things to do long enough to live in the moment or bask in relationships. It’s hard for me to shift my focus from goals to gratitude for the gift of life in the here and now….

Living in Denmark has had an impact on my son. I predict that he will seek a life that is more communal and relational than the life of individual-achievement-at-all-costs that is a popular version (or perversion) of the American Dream…