Europe and the Importance of Memory

One leading theme of postmodernism is what is known as the rejection of all metanarratives. PoMo argues that there are no grand stories, no overarching narratives that can give meaning and rootedness to our lives.

Instead we are cast adrift in anonymity and fragmentation, with no larger world or worldview to hang on to. Not only individuals, but nations – even continents – can succumb to this sense of loss and futility. The postmodern mindset, in other words, can have an impact on not just individuals, but whole peoples as well.

In contrast to this despairing worldview stands the Judeo-Christian worldview, with its emphasis on one grand narrative that ties all of human history together. Indeed, history is going somewhere, in this worldview, and confidence in the future is rooted in what has gone before.

One prominent biblical theme that fits in here is the idea that God’s people are not to forget their past. They are to remember all that God has done for them in years gone by, as the basis for securing their present and giving hope for the future.

Israel as a nation, as well as New Testament believers, are routinely admonished to not forget what God has achieved in human history. It is the knowledge of God’s involvement in human events that helps his people to persevere and stay on course.

Even non-believers can do with a bit of stronger memory. Often the future seems bleak and the present appears intolerable when we have lost sight of the past.

Consider as but one example: present-day Europe. By most accounts Europe is in bad shape. Many commentators have dwelt on this theme. Part of the reason why Europe is in such a morass and malaise is because it has forgotten its own past. Many Europeans have lost sight of their own history, and therefore despair about their current condition, let alone their future prospects.

Many things are needed to turn Europe around, not least of which is a recovery of its Christian heritage. The secularisation of a continent has come at a heavy price.

But another part of the road to recovery is for Europe to regain a sense of historical perspective, and to once more allow a grand narrative of sorts to shape its collective psyche.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash has tried to flesh this out in an important article in Prospect magazine that appeared back in February of this year. He argues that Europe must shake loose from its lethargy and waywardness by recalling some of its achievements. He puts it this way:

“Europe has lost the plot. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome on 25th March 2007 – the 50th birthday of the European economic community that became the European Union – Europe no longer knows what story it wants to tell. A shared political narrative sustained the postwar project of (west) European integration for three generations, but it has fallen apart since the end of the cold war. Most Europeans now have little idea where we’re coming from; far less do we share a vision of where we want to go to. We don’t know why we have an EU or what it’s good for. So we urgently need a new narrative.”

He then lists six major achievements which Europeans should be proud of. Consider the issue of freedom: “Europe’s history over the last 65 years is a story of the spread of freedom. In 1942, there were only four perilously free countries in Europe: Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland. . . .  Today, among countries that may definitely be accounted European, there is only one nasty little authoritarian regime left – Belarus. Most Europeans now live in liberal democracies. That has never before been the case; not in 2,500 years. And it’s worth celebrating.”

Also, what about European prosperity?: “Most Europeans are better off than their parents, and much better off than their grandparents. They live in more comfortable, warmer, safer accommodation; eat richer, more varied food; have larger disposable incomes; enjoy more interesting holidays. We have never had it so good. Look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wonderful book of photographs, Europeans, and you will be reminded just how poor many Europeans still were in the 1950s. If you represent the countries of the world on a map according to the size of their gross domestic product, and shade them according to GDP per head, you can see that Europe is one of the richest blocks in the world.”

Ash is not unaware of problems in Europe. Indeed, for each of the six points he discusses he also includes shortcomings. For example, many of the new democracies in Europe are far from perfect, with high levels of corruption affecting many governments.

He concludes, “Woven together, the six strands will add up to an account of where we have come from and a vision of where we want to go. Different strands will, however, appeal more strongly to different people. For me, the most inspiring stories are those of freedom and diversity. I acknowledge the others with my head but those are the two that quicken my heart. They are the reason I can say, without hyperbole, that I love Europe.”

Ash barely mentions religion in this article. But as I noted, a rediscovery of Europe’s Christian past would go a long way toward turning things around. As it says in Proverbs, without a vision, the people perish. Europeans need to be reminded of what has made them great in the past, and how they can again become great in the future.

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One Reply to “Europe and the Importance of Memory”

  1. I think Europe has shortened its memory so as to avoid the horrors of the World Wars. The continent will be forever scarred by the Great War and World War II.

    I was having a group discussion about secularism, values and society-shaping last week, regarding Australia. If translated to Europe’s situation, this is what I had to say: Depsite Europe wanting to be secular, there is no avoiding where their values come from. They are, generally speaking (excluding Bosnia and Albania) Judeo-Christian. Any attempts to write a set of laws that free from religious influence will be impossible. Likewise, continuing to build European society is going to be shaped by it’s history, which is a Christian one. It’s un-avoidable.

    Also; is it possible that the integration that has come about after WWII, with the EEC and the EU, has in fact dampened and diminshed the diversity that Ash speaks highly of? Identifying as Europeans, as opposed to Danes, Slovenes or Poles, perhaps increases the propensity towards vagueness and loss of identity. I can’t ever see Irish people identifying themselves with Ukrainians, for example(no real reason behind those examples, by the way). Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis may be useful here, if softened a little; Slavic populations are very different to Anglos. If Turkey is included in the Union, then there is surely going to be an even bigger problem with identity as ‘Europeans’. Just say, hypothetically, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Israel are included in the picture too. Where does that leave a ‘European’ Europe? It doesn’t really exist then; it’s just an open market, not an identifiable people or culture.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

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