WeiCube 05-9-158


Europe, America, and Politics Without God


George Weigel

Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, 2005, 202 pp., ISBN 0-465-09266-7

Why do Europeans and Americans see the world so differently? Why do Europeans and Americans have such different understandings of democracy and its discontents in the twenty-first century? Contrasting the civilization that produced the starkly modernist “cube” of the Great Arch of La Défense in Paris with the civilization that produced the “cathedral” of Notre-Dame, George Weigel argues that Europe’s embrace of a narrow secularism has led to a crisis of morale that is eroding Europe’s soul and threatening its future—with dire lessons for the rest of the democratic world.  (from the Perseus Books Group web site)


Weigel is a Roman Catholic theologian, a public intellectual, and the author of a dozen books.  He is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and his weekly column, “The Catholic Difference,” is syndicated to newspapers across the U.S.  He also did 13 years of research and teaching in east central Europe.


I found this book an insightful and troubling look at Europe.  It is more intellectual than I am accustomed to reading.  Weigel cites international authors and authorities that I don’t know and his writing is too deep to quote or summarize succinctly.


“ La Grande Arch is a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.” (1)  It is Francois Mitterand’s monument to human rights.  “Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights?”  “The culture that built this ... cube?  Or the culture that produced...Notre Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?” (2)


“Europe’s approach to democracy and to the responsibilities of the democracies in world politics seems so different from many Americans’ understanding of these issues.” (3)


“How....should one understand the fierce argument in Europe over whether a new constitutional treaty for the expanding European Union should include a reference to the Christian sources of European civilization?  Why were so many European intellectuals and political leaders determined...to airbrush fifteen hundred years of European history from their collective memory?”  (4-5)


Western Europe is committing demographic suicide.  Its birthrates are far below replacement level.  This creates enormous pressure on the welfare state and an enormous vacuum being filled by Islamic immigrants, many of whom are becoming radicalized.  (5-6)


Europe rejects “power politics” and it can do so because it depends on the presence of American military forces on European soil.  (11)


Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually or physically, by a world yet to accept the rule of “moral consciousness.”  It is dependent upon America’s military might to deter those who still believe in power politics.  (citing Robert Kagan in Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, 2003) (11)


Why did Europe have a twentieth century with two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War, Auschwitz and the Gulag?  What happened?  (23)


“While the U.S. may eventually be headed for a crisis of civilizational morale, Europe is in such a crisis today.  And that crisis may have something to do with the further great difference between the United States and Europe, which touches the problem Joseph Weiler calls ‘Christophobia.’”  (27)


European high culture is largely Christophobic.  Their society is “post-Christian.  (27)  If we wish to avoid their fate, we must learn from their experience.  (28)


According to a number of disparate thinkers, a Slavic view of history emerges that maintains, “the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic.”  History is driven, over the long haul, “by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good and noble; ...by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.” (30)  This is a classically Christian way of thinking about history. (32)


“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.” (33, quoting Solzhenitsyn)


The tragedies of the 20th century in Europe are “the expression of a profound, long-standing crisis of civilizational morale.” (34)


World War I, the Great War, set the 20th century on its distinctive course.  It was “the product of a crisis of civilizational morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the very concept of moral reason.  That crisis of moral reason led to a crisis of civilizational morale that is much with us today.” (40) (36)


Henri de Lubac argued that it is the product of atheistic humanism, the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible, in the name of authentic human liberation. (45)


According to Lubac, “history was an arena of responsibility and purpose because history was the medium through which the one true God made himself known to his people and empowered them to lead lives of dignity, through the intelligence and free will with which he had endowed them in creation.” (46)


“At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-twentieth century tyrannies—communism, fascism, Nazism—Father de Lubac discerned the lethal effects of the marriage between modern technology and the culture-shaping ideas borne by atheistic humanism.”  (47)


“European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular.  That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture.”  The resulting crisis of civilizational morale “helps explain why European man is deliberately forgetting his history.” (53)


“A secular society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity—a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself.” (54, quoting Christopher Dawson)


Why was the argument about acknowledging Europe’s Christian history so strident?  Christianity is considered an obstacle to the evolution of a peaceful Europe.   The mention of Christianity elicits 16th century intolerance, obscurantism, and perhaps even fratricide.  “Crushing the ‘infamy’ of Europe’s Christian heritage seems, to many contemporary European politicians and intellectuals, a necessary precondition to securing the democratic foundations....” (61)


Re: the constitution of the European Union.  “Constitutions are the repository, the safe-deposit box, of the values, symbols, and ideas that make a society what it is:... the cultural foundations and aspirations, of a given political community.” (65)


Historical memory is essential for moral community.  And there can be no free political community without the foundation of a moral community.  (69, referring to Joseph Weiler)


“The founding fathers of today’s European Union were all serious Catholics who saw European integration as a project of Christian civilization.  The secularist story of the origins of today’s Europe is at best incomplete and misleading, and at worst false and disorienting.  And false stories, Weiler suggested, make for defective constitutions.” (70) [False stories formed the basis for totalitarian governments which kept so many in bondage in the 20th century! dlm]


The E.U. constitution has 70,000 words, but it could not accommodate the word “Christianity”. (71)


The Aquinas understanding of freedom is the capacity to choose the good, human excellence and happiness.  This is based on an understanding that we are made for excellence, that the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—is the way we develop according to our noblest instincts.  This is the kind of people who can build free and democratic societies characterized by tolerance, civility, and respect for others.  (79-82)


William of Ockham, a friar and philosopher of the 14th century, taught that universal concepts only exist in our minds, not in reality.  For him freedom was a neutral capacity of choice.  Choice is a matter of self-assertion, of power.  This freedom led to self-affirmation, then to self-interest, and then to simply willfulness.  Freedom is the assertion of my ‘self.’  So it is very difficult to give an account of why freedom has any value beyond its being an expression of my will.  And how does that defend a democratic civilization?  (82-86) [Then came Nietschke’s “will to power,” which laid the foundations for the First World War.]


“There is no understanding “Europe” without taking the full measure of what Christianity taught European man about himself, his dignity, his destiny, and his communities—including his political communities.”  (107)  See Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. 


“A post-modern or neo-Kantian neutrality toward worldviews cannot be truly tolerant...; it can only be indifferent.  Absent convictions, there is no tolerance; there is only indifference.  Absent some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the truth of things, there is only skepticism and relativism.  And skepticism and relativism would seem to be weak foundations on which to build and sustain a pluralistic democracy....” (110)


“The Catholic Church respects the Other as an Other who is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church asks that the believer and the Other enter into a conversation, a dialogue that leads to mutual enrichment rather than to a deeper skepticism about the very possibility of grasping the truth of things.”  “The Catholic Church believes it to be the will of God that Christians be tolerant of those who have a different view of God’s will, or no view of God’s will; the Church only asks that it be permitted to enter into conversation with those Others.” (111)


“The Church’s account of its commitment to tolerance, dialogue, and the method of persuasion is based on the weightiest of reasons: God requires this of Christians.” (112)


“The most urgent matter Europe faces, in both East and West, is a growing need for hope, a hope which will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue on our way together.” (118, quoting Pope John Paul, 1999)


“A vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ.... Forgetfulness of God [has]led to the abandonment of man.” (119, quoting Father de Lubac)


“One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is .... their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness.” (119, quoting de Lubac).


The Church proposes a challenge to the moral quality of its civilization. (123)


The “Europe problem” is also ours. 

1.      We cannot be indifferent to our roots. 

2.      If Europe melts down, it will be a great threat to us.  Political vacuums do not remain unfilled.  Islamic migration has increased.  Political religious radicals savor the space afforded them by Western societies. “A Muslim has no nationality except his belief.” (Egyptian Sayyid Qutb).  Could Europe become heavily influenced or even dominated by Islam?  “Is a European future dominated by an appeasement mentality toward radical Islamism in the best interests of the United States?” 

3.      If European societies create a future without moral truth in justice and freedom, what would that mean for the global democratic project?  The “Europe problem” will metastasize beyond the European Union’s current membership.  (127-137)


“Islam, by contrast, is radically voluntaristic and will-centered, a theological optic on reality that tends to underwrite a politics of coercion.  That no Islamic society save Turkey, which (forcefully) took Islam out of public life, has developed into a pluralistic democracy is not simply an accident of history; it reflects the deep theological and doctrinal structure of Islam.”  (141)


“Europe’s most urgent problem: the population meltdown in Western Europe and the filling of the consequent demographic vacuum by Islamic immigration.”  “A youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonize—the term is not too strong—a senescent Europe.” (144, quoting European historian Niall Ferguson)


“Modern European history can be read from one angle as a history of apostasy—a deliberate, self-conscious detachment of the present and future from Europe’s Christian roots.  But modern European history can also be read from another angle, as a history of missionaries, saints, statesmen, men and women of genius, and martyrs—a history of great spiritual dynamism amid rapidly advancing secularization.” (148)


“But the failure to create a human future in the most elemental sense—by creating a successor generation—is surely an expression of a broader failure: a failure of self-confidence.  That broader failure is no less surely tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible.  For when God goes—and the death of the biblical God in the European public square is what today’s European actors in the ongoing drama of atheistic humanism seek and have to a significant measure accomplished—so does God’s first command: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28)” (164)


“A culture—a civilization—is only as great as the religious ideas that animate it; the magnitude of a people’s cultural achievement is determined by the height of its spiritual aspirations.” (166, quoting David Hart)


“God’s search for man and the human response to that divine quest is the central reality of history.” (173)


“Europe’s dwindling numbers of Christians do know...why they need to engage the convictions of others with respect and why they must defend the Other’s freedom: because it is their Christian obligation to do so; because this is what God requires of them.  But who, or what, teaches a similar sense of obligation to the people of the cube...?” (176)


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