Volume 18 Number 6
Crisis of Civilization in Europe
01 December 2005
Philip Boobbyer discusses two books which challenge the secularism of modern Europe
GEORGE WEIGEL's fascinating and contentious book, The Cube and the Cathedral, looks at history from the point of view of theology. Subtitled Europe, America and politics without God, it has much to say to anyone who cares about the future of Europe.
Weigel, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, is a Catholic theologian and leading American commentator on religion and public life. His biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope (1999), attracted international acclaim.
Weigel believes that Europe's troubled 20th century was the fruit of a deeper cultural and spiritual crisis. He sees the First World War as the product of a 'crisis of civilizational morality': the result of 'a failure of moral reasoning in a culture that had given the world the very concept of moral reason'. The totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism were amongst the fruits of this crisis, but their collapse did not bring the crisis to an end. He suggests that Europe's continuing spiritual crisis is the product of atheistic humanism and a deliberate rejection of Biblical tradition.
According to Weigel, Europe's current political uncertainty conceals unresolved philosophical and theological questions. The recent argument about whether to refer to God and Christianity in the European constitution was a 'stalking horse' for a deeper argument about the meaning of freedom.
He traces the origins of this debate to that between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham in the High Middle Ages. In Aquinas's view, freedom meant the ability to act and choose wisely in a universe rooted in moral principles; Ockham, on the other hand, denied the very existence of a universal moral law. For Ockham and other secular thinkers, 'freedom [had] no spiritual character'. The ideas of Ockham, Weigel suggests, paved the way for thinkers like Nietzsche.
Weigel believes that similar issues are at stake today. Unlike the pioneers of the European Union, who were largely Catholic, the present generation of European leaders sees no public role for Christianity. They are committed to neutrality on moral and religious issues and enthralled by what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls 'exclusive humanism'-the tendency to exclude references to the transcendent from cultural, social and political life. Weigel states that the prevailing doctrine holds that a free, humane and civil Europe can only be built in 'a public space from which the God of the Bible has been excluded'. According to this view, democracy and Christianity can no longer co-exist.
To illustrate his point, Weigel refers to Rocco Buttiglione's nomination for the post of European Justice Commissioner in 2004. The European Parliament rejected him because of his traditional Catholic views on homosexuality: this, says Weigel, suggests that Christians are to be excluded from Europe's public offices.
In support of his case, Weigel cites Joseph Weiler, a Professor of Law at New York University. In an essay entitled 'A Christian Europe' (2003), Weiler warned that the proposed European constitution could easily lead to freedom of religion being eroded in the name of freedom from religion. He questions the French model of secularism (laicité) with its radical separation of Church and State, instead endorsing the Polish constitution's more confident affirmation of religious belief. Weiler (himself a Jew) even suggests that Europe has become 'Christophobic'.
The idea that the dominant form of liberalism in the West is hostile to religion can also be found in John Paul II's Memory and Identity. The late Pope suggests that some political parties tend to interpret the separation of Church and State according to the communist model. He asks if permissive tendencies in the West, backed by global economic forces, are not 'another form of totalitarianism, subtly concealed under the appearance of democracy'.
Weigel is clearly much influenced by John Paul II. In his Ecclesia in Europa (2003), John Paul II warned that Europe was losing its Christian memory and heritage: 'Many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history'. The late Pope did not reject the secular humanist contribution to European culture, but called for 'creative fidelity to the humanist and Christian traditions of our continent'.
Like John Paul II, Weigel believes that European humanism cannot survive without Christianity; indeed he believes that the roots of the European democratic project lie not in the Enlightenment but in Christianity's respect for the individual. He states that Christianity can happily sit with modernity: 'Christian humanism is a thoroughly modern alternative to both atheistical humanism and exclusive humanism'. To endure, freedom needs the 'moral structure' that Christianity provides.
Weigel maintains that one of the most obvious symptoms of Europe's spiritual crisis is its demographic crisis. Across Europe, many countries are seeing declining birth rates. It suggests, he says, a profound malaise: what Orthodox theologian David Hart calls a 'boredom with the mystery of life itself'. Weigel also believes that European culture is threatened by militant Islam, and notes that Muslims are often radicalized by their encounter with a secular Europe.
Much of Weigel's diagnosis is persuasive. Although the decline of Europe has often been predicted before, it is hard not to feel that at a spiritual level the continent has lost its way.
'Growing body, withering soul', the title of one of Weigel's chapters, is a good description of it.
He is surely right, too, to warn of growing anti-religious tendencies in Europe. The idea that democracy and religion, far from being enemies, need each other, has much to commend it. In his Truth to Tell: the Gospel as public truth (1991), the late Leslie Newbigin stated that there was a third way between the complete privatization of religion and theocracy (the rule of the clergy). Essentially, Weigel is saying the same thing.
At the same time, Weigel's analysis is sometimes depressing. His diagnosis does not leave the reader with much hope, and has a theoretical feel to it. What is the way forward? Could Europe's spiritual crisis be turned into an opportunity?
Memory and Identity feels more optimistic in tone. Like Weigel, the late Pope sought to read history from a prophetic point of view. However, he also constantly found examples of God's action in history; indeed, he even suggested that the entire 20th century was marked by God's mercy and intervention. He declared that divine Providence always imposes a limit issues
on evil, and that there is no evil from which God cannot draw forth a greater good.
What could be the meaning of 'Europe's civilizational crisis' from this perspective? Could it be, for example, that the challenge of militant Islam could be seen as an opportunity, something that is part of God's divine Providence? Weigel suggests that Islam needs to develop a doctrine of social tolerance. Perhaps through its encounter with Christians in the West, a moderate 'Islamic humanism' could develop. Conversely, Christians might be inspired by examples of Muslim devotion, and find in Islam unexpected allies in their struggle with materialism. Respect for different faiths and cultures need not mean compromising over essential differences.
Could it be, too, that the intellectual elites of Europe are growing disillusioned with a purely secularized conception of freedom? There is an inner freedom that comes from walking with God that is often missed in discussions about political liberty. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Europe's intellectuals to reconsider some of their underlying assumptions. Could European philosophy return to the idea that there is a spiritual reality, from which we depart at our peril?
In 1936, the Oxford theologian, BH Streeter, said that religion would never again be potent in the life of Europe until the belief was revitalized that God had a purpose and plan, not only for the world but for every individual in it. It was an affirmation of God's engagement with the world, and man's capacity to hear God's voice. The books by Weigel and John Paul II have the confidence to affirm a similar message. Christians in Europe today, and people of other faiths, would do well to re-discover this confidence and reflect it in their daily lives.
Dr Philip Boobbyer is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Kent