Politics Without God?

Author: George Weigel


Politics Without God?

George Weigel on Europe's Malaise

ROME, 24 DEC. 2004 (ZENIT)

Here are excerpts from an address given by George Weigel at the Gregorian University this month. Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

* * *

Politics Without God?
Reflections on Europe and America

By George Weigel

At the far western end of the axis that traverses Paris from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe is the Great Arch of La Défense. Designed by a sternly modernist Danish architect, the Great Arch is a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble. Its rooftop terrace offers an unparalleled view of the French capital, past the Tuilleries to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch's three-story high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For President François Mitterrand planned the Great Arch as a human rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook, the Great Arch was dubbed "Fraternity Arch." That same guidebook, like every other one I consulted, emphasized that the entire Cathedral of Notre-Dame would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.

All of which raised some questions, as I walked along that terrace in 1997. Which culture would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this rational, geometrically precise, but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the asymmetries and holy "unsameness" of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?

Those questions have come back to me, if in different forms, as I've tried to understand Europe in recent years. How, for example, should one understand the fierce argument in Europe over whether a new constitutional treaty for the European Union should include a reference to the Christian sources of European civilization? Why did so many European intellectuals and political leaders deem any reference to the Christian sources of contemporary Europe civilization a threat to human rights and democracy?

Was there some connection between this internal European debate over Europe's constitution-making and the portrait in the European press of Americans (and especially an American president) as religious fanatics intent on shooting up the world? Was there a further connection between this debate and the fate of Rocco Buttiglione's candidacy for the post of Commissioner of Justice on the European Commission?

Understanding these phenomena requires something more than a conventional political analysis. Nor can political answers explain the reasons behind perhaps the most urgent issue confronting Europe today — the fact that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, its far-below-replacement-level birthrates creating enormous pressures on the European welfare state and a demographic vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized in the process.

My proposal is that Europe is experiencing a crisis of cultural and civilizational morale whose roots are also taking hold in some parts quarters of American society and culture. Understanding and addressing this crisis means confronting the question posed sharply, if unintentionally, by those guidebooks that boast about the alleged superiority of the Great Arch to Notre-Dame: the question of the cube and the cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom and the future of democracy.

To suggest that Europe is living through a "crisis of civilizational morale" is a very broad description. Let me raise some specific issues that point toward that conclusion — and to the necessity of a cultural, indeed theological, analysis of Europe's situation today.

— Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity? Why was the only politically acceptable judgment on communism the rather banal observation that it "didn't work"?

— Why, as historian John Keegan puts it, do Europeans often espouse "a philosophy of international action that actually rejected action and took refuge in the belief that all conflicts of interest were to be settled by consultation, conciliation, and the intervention of international agencies"?

— What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics? Why did one of every five Germans (and one-third of those under 30) believe that the United States was responsible for 9/11, while some 300,000 French men and women made a best seller out of "L'Effroyable Imposture" [The Appalling Fraud], in which the author, Thierry Meyssan, argued that the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by the U.S. military, using remote-controlled airliners?

— Why did the voters of Spain give a de facto victory to appeasement in their March 2004 elections, held days after Al-Qaeda operatives killed hundreds and wounded thousands by bombing a Madrid train station?

— Why is Europe retreating from democracy and binding itself ever tighter in the cords of bureaucracy? Why do European states find it virtually impossible to make hard domestic political decisions — as on the length of the workweek or the funding of pensions? Why is Europe on the way to what French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls "depoliticization?" Why does Manent have "the impression today that the greatest ambition of Europeans is to become the inspectors of American prisons"?

— Why are so many European public intellectuals "Christophobic," as international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler (himself an observant Jew) puts it? Why is European high culture so contemptuous of both religious and secular tradition, as French philosopher Rémi Brague has pointed out?

— Why do certain parts of Europe exhibit a curious, even bizarre, approach to death? Why did so many of the French prefer to continue their summer vacations during the European heat wave of 2003, leaving their parents unburied and warehoused in refrigerated lockers? Why is death increasingly anonymous in Germany, with no death notice in the newspapers, no church funeral ceremony, no secular memorial service — "as though," as Richard John Neuhaus observed, "the deceased did not exist"?

— Above all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest "sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century"?

— Why do 18 European countries report "negative natural increase" (i.e., more deaths than births)?

— Why does no Western European country have a replacement-level birthrate?

— Why is Germany likely to lose the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany in the first half of the 21st century?

— Why will Spain's population decline from 40 million to 31 million by 2050?

— Why will 42% of Italians be over 60 by 2050 — at which point, on present trends, almost 60% of the Italian people will have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, or uncles?

— What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation? ...

Probing to the deeper roots of Europe's crisis of civilizational morale is important for understanding Europe today and for discerning whatever promising paths of European renewal there may be. Getting at the roots of "Europe's problem" is also important for understanding a set of problems Americans may face in the not-too-distant future. And that means that both Europeans and Americans must learn to think in new ways about the dynamics of history.

During 13 years of research and teaching in east central Europe, I've been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You can find it in a great thinker who lived in the borderland between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Vladimir Soloviev, who challenged the fashionable nihilism and materialism of the late 19th century.

You can find it in 19th-century Polish novelists, poets and playwrights, who, breaking with the Jacobin conviction that "revolution" meant a complete rupture with the past, insisted that genuine "revolution" meant the recovery of lost spiritual and moral values. You can find it in such intellectual leaders of the anti-communist resistance in east central Europe as Karol Wojtyla, Václav Havel and Václav Benda, who all argued that "living in the truth" could change what seemed unchangeable in history.

The common thread among these disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of "history" are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. "History" is not simply the byproduct of the contest for power in the world — although power plays an important role in history. And "history" is certainly not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production, as the Marxists taught.

Rather, "history" is driven by culture — by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.

Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe has been vindicated empirically by their own modern history. For 123 years, from 1795 to 1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet during that century and a quarter the Polish nation survived with such vigor that it could give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. And despite the fact that the revived Polish state was then beset for 50 years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish nation proved strong enough to give a new birth of freedom to east central Europe in the Revolution of 1989.

How did this happen? Poland survived — better, Poland prevailed — because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language, by a unique literature, and by an intense Catholic faith (which, an its noblest and deepest expressions, was ecumenical and tolerant, not xenophobic, as so many stereotypes have it). Poles know in their bones that culture is what drives history over the long haul.

This "Slavic view of history" is really a classically Christian way of thinking about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far as St. Augustine and "The City of God." Yet, it is the Slavs who have been, in our time, the most powerful exponents of this "culture-first" understanding of the dynamics of the world's story. ...

World War I, the Great War, 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.

This latter crisis has only become visible since the end of the Cold War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace between World War I and World War II; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the Great Depression; then by World War II itself; and then by the Cold War. It was only after 1991, when the 77-year-long political-military crisis that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of Europe's "rage of self-mutilation" could come to the surface of history and be seen for what they were — and for what they are.

The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization in the Great War could only been seen clearly when the Great War's political effects had been cleared from the board in 1991. Recognizing that damage for what it is brings into sharper focus the contemporary European cultural and political situation and its lessons for the United States.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's insight into the meaning of the Great War reinforces the intuition that we should look to the realm of culture for a deeper explanation of the currents of history. So let us take a first step in reading history the old-fashioned way — St. Augustine's way — through lenses ground by the tools of theology. And that brings us to another Christian analyst of modern European history.

Henri de Lubac was one of 20th-century Catholicism's most distinguished theologians. Like other Europeans who had witnessed the Continent's travail during the first four and a half decades of the century, Father de Lubac was haunted by the question, "What happened?" Or, perhaps more to the point, "Why had what happened, happened?"

Father de Lubac was fascinated by the history of ideas, which he knew to be fraught with "real world" consequences. Thus, during the early 1940s, he turned his attention to some of the most influential intellectual figures in pre-20th century European culture. The result was a book, "The Drama of Atheistic Humanism" ["Le Drame de l'humanisme athée"], which argued that the civilizational crisis in which Europe found itself during World War II was the product of a deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible in the name of authentic human liberation.

This, de Lubac suggested, was a great reversal. In the classical world, the gods, or Fate, played games with men and women, often with lethal consequences. In the face of these experiences, the revelation of the God of the Bible — the self-disclosure in history of the one God who was neither a willful tyrant (to be avoided) nor a carnivorous predator (to be appeased) nor a remote abstraction (to be safely ignored) — was perceived as a great liberation. Human beings were neither the playthings of the gods nor the passive victims of Fate. Because they could have access to the one true God through prayer and worship, those who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus could bend history in a humane direction. History was thus an arena of responsibility and purpose.

Yet what biblical man had perceived as liberation, the proponents of atheistic humanism perceived as bondage. Human freedom could not co-exist with the God of Jews and Christians. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God, according to atheistic humanism.

This, Father de Lubac argued, was something new. This was not the atheism of skeptical individuals. This was atheistic humanism — atheism with a developed ideology and a program for remaking the world. As a historian of ideas, de Lubac knew that bad ideas can have lethal consequences. At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-20th century tyrannies [of] communism, fascism, Nazism, Father de Lubac discerned the lethal effects of the marriage between modern technology and the ideas borne by atheistic humanism.

He summed up the results of this misbegotten union in these terms: "It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man." That is what the tyrannies of the mid-20th century had proven — ultramundane humanism is inevitably inhuman humanism. And inhuman humanism cannot neither sustain nor defend the democratic project. It can only undermine it or attack it. ...

The argument over acknowledging any Christian contribution to the democratic civilization of the 21st century may have clarified the understandings of "democracy" and "human rights" that shape contemporary European high culture and the political elite in the Brussels-Paris-Berlin axis, but it also raised serious questions about Europe's capacity to defend its democracy, morally and philosophically.

If democratic institutions and procedures are the expressions of a distinctive way of life based on specific moral commitments, then democratic citizenship must be more than a matter of following the procedures and abiding by the laws and regulations agreed upon by the institutions A democratic citizen is someone who can give an account of his or her commitment to human rights, to the rule of law and equality before the law, to decision-making by the majority and protection of the rights of minorities. Democratic citizenship means being able to tell why one affirms "the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law," to cite the preamble to the European constitution. Who can give such an account?

Here is one of the richest ironies involved in the question of the cube and the cathedral. The original charge against Christians in the Roman empire was that they were "atheists": people who were "a-theos," people who had abandoned the gods of Rome and who were thus a threat to public life and public order. To be a-theos was to stand outside and over-against the political community.

The "Christophobia" of contemporary European high culture turns this indictment inside out and upside down: Christianity cannot be acknowledged as a source of European democracy because the only public space safe for pluralism, tolerance, civility, and democracy is a public space that is thoroughly a-theos.

It is all very strange. For the truth of the matter is that European Christians can likely give a more compelling account of their commitment to democratic values than their fellow Europeans who are a-theos — who believe that "neutrality toward worldviews" must characterize democratic Europe. A postmodern 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, there is only skepticism and relativism. And skepticism and relativism are very weak foundations on which to build and sustain a pluralistic democracy, for neither skepticism nor relativism, by their own logic, can "give an account" of why we should be tolerant and civil.

In contrast to this thin account of tolerance — we should be tolerant because it works better — there is the argument for tolerance given by Pope John Paul II in his 1989 encyclical letter on Christian mission, "Redemptoris Missio" [The Mission of the Redeemer]. There the Pope taught that "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing." The Catholic Church respects the "other" as an "other" who is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church only asks that the believer and the "other" enter into a dialogue that leads to mutual enrichment rather than to a deeper skepticism about the 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. Thus Catholics (and other Christians who share this conviction) can "give an account" of their defense of the "other's" freedom, even if the "other," skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to "give an account" of the freedom of the Christian. That the Church did not always behave according to these convictions is obvious from history.

The point today is that the Church recognizes, publicly, that acts of coercion undertaken in its name were offenses against its own true doctrine. That is why, on March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II led a "Day of Pardon" at St. Peter's Basilica. This was not an exercise in Catholic political correctness, nor was this pandering to approved victim groups. This was confession: an acknowledgment of sin and a plea for divine mercy that recommitted the Church to live the truth it professed about the freedom of the human person.

A community capable of such acts — the community of the cathedral, if you will — is a community capable of learning from the past, capable of a reformed life. A community capable of such acts of public repentance is a community that can give a compelling account of its commitments to freedom.

Can others? Can those who are a-theos — can the people of the cube — grapple with the dark passages on European history caused by radically secularist understandings of the human person, human community, and human destiny: the Reign of Terror, Nazism, and communism?

These concerns are not, let me repeat, the products of American Euro-phobia, nor are they the result of the sharp division between much of Europe and the United States over the Iraq War. Indeed, there is nothing very original in my reading of Europe's current condition: You can find the same points of concern in John Paul II's 2003 apostolic exhortation, "Ecclesia in Europa." There, the Pope suggests that, within Europe itself, there is an intuition that a "Europe" of political, legal and economic structures alone is insufficient. Like John Paul II, thoughtful Europeans are asking whether a "Europe" that represents the continentwide triumph of bureaucratic regulation is all that might be hoped for.

The debate over the "invocatio Dei" in the new European constitution was also the present and the future, not just the past. Those who insisted that there be no overt recognition that Christianity played a decisive role in the formation of European civilization did not do so in the name of "tolerance," despite their claims to the contrary. They did so because they are committed to the proposition that there can be politics-without-God: that a Europe free, tolerant, civil, and pluralistic can only be built as a public space from which the God of the Bible has been excluded.

That this position is shared by more than a few American political, judicial, intellectual, and cultural leaders is obvious, and suggests that what has been unfolding in Europe in recent decades — indeed, over the past two centuries — could well be replicated in the United States (as it is already being replicated in Canada). To repeat, that is why "Europe's problem" is, from an American point of view, "our" problem, too.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field