CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of The Cube and the Cathedral. By George Weigel.

Jul 11, 2005

Basic Books, 2005.

Why is it that the 70,000 word constitution of the European Union does not once mention the term ‘Christianity’? How is it that the framers of the EU document utterly fail to acknowledge the Christian heritage of Europe? Can European democracy long flourish in a culture that rejects the heritage that gave birth to it? And what future is there for a free Europe which has spiritual and cultural amnesia, forgetting its very foundations?

These questions are explored in an important new book by American social commentator and Catholic theologian, George Weigel. He argues that there are two main competing visions for the future of Europe. One is that of secularism as represented by the La Grande Arche in Paris, a huge glass and metal cube built to commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution.

The other is Christianity, as represented by Notre-Dame Cathedral, which tourists are informed can easily fit into the grand cube.

One vision follows a two-hundred year history of humanism, secularism, and atheism. The other follows the two thousand year history of the Christian church. Which vision, asks Weigel, can better protect democracy, human rights and meaning and purpose for modern Europe? Which vision will hold sway?

Weigel argues that the answers to these questions will also help explain the issue of the “Europe problem”. For example, how does one account for Europe’s weakness in the face of international terrorism, its refusal to recognise the failures – and terror – of communism, its declining fertility rates, its fixation with international organisations such as the International Criminal Court and the UN, and its rampant Christophobia?

Why has Europe repudiated its Judeo-Christian foundations and embraced secular humanism? Can such a Faustian bargain be in its best interests?

Weigel argues that nations survive not just on economic or political strengths, but on cultural, moral and spiritual realities as well. It is culture and religion that ultimately makes for strong nations. What men and women honour, cherish, worship and value will determine a nation’s future.

But as modern Europe has done its best to minimise, ignore or repudiate the moral/cultural/religious factor, it is in the process of digging its own grave.

The roots of the current malaise in Europe are traced back to several sources by Weigel. Philosophically one can turn to the Middle Ages where differing concepts of the nature of freedom were proposed. Aquinas, drawing on both biblical thought and the classic Greek philosophers, saw freedom as freedom for: freedom for excellence, for virtue and character. His emphasis on morality, character and virtue was a recognition of the role they play in not only building healthy and free individuals, but healthy and free societies.

The nominalist philosopher Ockham saw freedom as freedom from: freedom from external constraints and directives. This freedom was defined as complete autonomy; the freedom of indifference. His radical emphasis on will led naturally to Nietzsche’s will to power, which twentieth century European totalitarians were happy to utilise for their own purposes.

The Enlightenment project as exemplified by the French Revolution is another important turning point in Europe’s history. So too the First World War, which “was the product of a crisis of civilizational morality”. These and other developments meant that the old foundations of faith were eroded, with a new, shakier foundation based on human reason alone put in its place.

After traversing the various historical and philosophical cross-currents leading up the current “Europe problem”, Weigel reminds us of what Europe would look like if denuded of its Christian heritage. Gone would be a myriad of famous names, which he takes pains to list. Here are just a few, from the ‘B’ list: Bach, Bacon, Becket, Bede, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonhoeffer, Boniface, and Bosch.

It was out of the Judeo-Christian worldview that such thinkers, writers, artists and scientists emerged. To seek to wish away that background is to commit cultural and social suicide, something Europe is now firmly embarked upon. In truth, “there is no understanding Europe without Christianity”.

Indeed, were it not for the Christian heritage that brought them into existence, we would not be experiencing the many institutions we now enjoy and take for granted (democracy, rule of law, open markets, genuine pluralism, etc.). As Weigel reminds us, the democratic project did not emerge as “a kind of political virgin birth”. It arose out of rich soil: that of Judeo-Christian religion.

Solzhenitsyn long ago warned that it is because we have forgotten God that our current troubles are upon us. Europe is now at a crossroads. It can re-embrace its past, and enjoy again the well-oiled machinery of democracy and freedom. Or it can reject that past, embrace its opposite, and see that machinery break down.

A society cannot hope to hang on the institutions it values if it rejects the preconditions for those institutions. Europe was birthed in a Judeo-Christian environment, and can only flourish if kept there. If post-Christian Europe continues to embrace the cube, the future looks bleak indeed. If it once again embraces the cathedral, then there is hope. And the history of Europe – and the world – hangs in the balance.

[854 words]

One Response to A review of The Cube and the Cathedral. By George Weigel.

  • In politics it is often said that ‘oppositions don’t win elections – governments loose them.’ I think similar sentiments apply to Christianity and secularism. Why has Europe largely rejected Christianity? I think it mostly has to do with compromise within the church.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

Leave a Reply