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***Politics Without God--Europe's Secular Crisis***
The continent of Europe is now experiencing a civilizational
crisis. Once the cradle of Western civilization, Europe is
transforming itself into a hyper-modern culture of nearly
undiluted secularism. Once constituted by a sense of
Christian identity, Europe is now attempting a vast
experiment in secularism, and this experiment shows
no signs of ending anytime soon.
George Weigel has been watching these developments
closely. Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public
Policy Center [EPPC] in Washington, D.C., and is one
of the nation's most influential public intellectuals. Well
known for his massive biography of Pope John Paul II,
Weigel is a Roman Catholic theologian who knows
secularism when he sees it--and understands what
inevitably follows when a civilization rejects the very
Christian worldview on which it was established.
In The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America,
and Politics Without God, Weigel presents a magisterial
analysis of Europe's current plight. The title of the book
directs attention to the central architectural metaphor of
his thesis--the contrast between La Grande Arche de la
Defense and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The Grand
Arch was built under the direction of the late French
president Francois Mitterand and was designed by
modernist architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen.
The Grand Arch stands far west of the Arc de Triomphe,
and is massive by any comparison, standing almost 40
stories tall and wider than a football field. Constructed
of glass and white Carrara marble, the Grand Arch is
a parable of postmodernism, for its grand scale points
to no particular meaning.
Weigel's interest in the arch was seasoned by an
architectural guidebook that claimed that the entire
Cathedral of Notre-Dame would fit within the space
of the Great Arch--including the cathedral's towers
Considering the two architectural marvels--the cube
and the cathedral--Weigel saw a metaphor for the
contrast between secular and Christian Europe.
"All of which raised some questions in my mind,
as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the
world's great cityscapes," Weigel remembers.
"Which culture, I wondered, would better protect
human rights? Which culture would more firmly
secure the moral foundations of democracy?
The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular,
geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube?
Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses,
the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and
crannies, the asymmetries and holy 'unsaneness'
of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals
Another contrast also framed Weigel's attention--the divergence of America
and Europe in the new century. "In the first years of the twenty-first
century, and in a moment in history when the democratic ideal had energized
much of the world, Americans suddenly seemed to be approaching a parting of
the ways with many of our European friends in understanding the democratic
project--its sources, its possibilities, and the threats to it."
The European project is in trouble, Weigel asserts. The evidence is now
unassailable. For some years, Europe has experienced a fall in births that
now portends a net decrease in population. At the same time, the countries
of Western Europe have become increasingly populated by Islamic immigrants,
who are not only moving into Western Europe in large numbers, but are
reproducing at rates far above the native population. Observers from many
disciplines now project an Islamic future for Europe. Last week's referendum
in France, in which French citizens overwhelmingly rejected the proposed
constitution for the European Union, only serves to complicate the picture.
That very document had been the focus of controversy in recent months as the
drafting committee had chosen to make no reference at all to the Christian
sources of European civilization.
Weigel's diagnosis of the European problem is clear and profound. He argues
that Europe's ambition to build a democratic project on a completely secular
foundation is doomed to fail. In his view, Europe is now suffering a "crisis
of civilizational morale" that can be directly attributed to its
self-imposed decision to sever its future from its past.
In a fascinating analysis, Weigel draws upon legal scholar J. H. H. Weiler,
who accuses leading European intellectuals of being "Christophobic," and
absolutely determined to eliminate or prevent any influence from
For the most part, Europe's intellectual class has adopted this secular
project, apparently without reservation. Weigel argues his case clearly:
"European high culture is largely Christophobic, and Europeans themselves
describe their cultures and societies as post-Christian."
Of course, falling birth rates and a loss of cultural morale do not emerge
from an historical vacuum. Weigel traces many of the historical factors that
convinced a large number of European intellectuals to see Christianity as
the cause rather than the solution to civilizational crisis. Devastated by
two world wars and humiliated by the Holocaust, Europe is reaping a
whirlwind of cultural destruction, the seeds of which were sown early in the
A civilization's historical memory is crucial in the development of its
self-consciousness and its approach to the future. Weigel draws upon Henri
de Lubac's theology of history to suggest that the rise of European
civilization was, at least in part, made possible by the adoption of a
Christian understanding of history. Whereas the ancients understood human
beings to be the toys and playthings of capricious pagan deities, the God of
the Bible revealed Himself as the Lord of history, who is accomplishing his
beneficent purposes in the unfolding of time. Thus, "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."
The process of secularization has affected all advanced societies, but the
ideology of secularism has taken hold of the European mind. In Weigel's
words: "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. Indeed,
that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe's
contemporary crisis of civilizational morale. That crisis of civilizational
morale, in turn, helps explain why European man is deliberately forgetting
Europe is in big trouble precisely because it now insists that democratic
values can be established without the distinctive teachings of Christianity.
As Weigel understands, Christianity establishes a transcendent understanding
of human dignity, a clear affirmation of human responsibility, and the
elaboration of a moral order that makes civilization possible. In committing
itself to the path of radical secularism, Europe is setting the stage for
its own destruction.
When postmodern European intellectuals insist that European culture must be
marked by "neutrality toward worldviews," they set themselves against both
history and experience. In essence, this claim is tantamount to the arrogant
supposition that human beings can establish their own dignity and demand
that other human beings--completely without an account of transcendent
values--will then rationally recognize and respect that dignity. How, after
the hard lessons of the twentieth century, can European intellectuals hold
In denying their past, these secular European intellectuals undercut their
own future. "To deny that Christianity had anything to do with the evolution
of free, law-governed, and prosperous European societies is, as I've argued
above, more than a question of falsifying the past: it is also a matter of
creating a future in which moral truth has no role in governance, in the
determination of public policy, in understandings of justice, and in the
definition of that freedom which democracy is intended to embody," Weigel
Americans have a stake in this, to be sure. As Weigel warns, the European
problem could "metastasize" to the United States. In any event, the close
ties between Europe and the United States should be sufficient to demand the
attention of thoughtful Americans.
In the end, Weigel suggests several alternative futures for European
civilization and its postmodern experiment. Among these, he holds hope that
Europe may reaffirm its Christian heritage and recover a lost patrimony.
Evangelicals would surely insist that this is far more likely to happen at
the level of common citizens, rather than as an organized redirection of the
George Weigel is an insightful historian whose analysis of the European
crisis is largely transferable to our American context. After all, a class
of American intellectuals desires and intends to move American culture
precisely in the European direction--towards a sanitized and secularized
culture that will attempt democracy without God. If these trends are not
reversed, America could be just like Europe, but with a delayed fuse.
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