Back in 1948 TS Eliot wrote about “the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is”. In the essay, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the American-British poet and critic argued that if we lose Christianity we lose Europe. He is worth quoting at length:
“It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology.
“If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”
He had it exactly right, and now, some 60 years on, we see the very thing he warned about. Europe has abandoned its Christian roots and it is now paying the price for it. And it is not just the economic collapse which is engulfing so much of Europe.
The continent is in a moral and spiritual freefall, and whether it can ever recover remains to be seen. Of interest, today I came upon three different articles, all looking at the European condition, but from slightly different perspectives. One is rather pessimistic, one is rather optimistic, and a third is somewhere in the middle.
All three pieces offers some insightful and helpful thoughts on the situation in Europe. So let me discuss each one, beginning with a more negative assessment. The Rev Dr Peter Mullen of the UK echoes the thoughts of Eliot in his article, “If Christianity goes, so does Europe”.
He writes, “Whatever the future holds, we need to understand that the economic collapse is not the main crisis which engulfs Europe. More significantly, we see the EU developing into the ever-tighter totalitarianism which was envisaged from its inception. The founding fathers of the EU never foresaw a democratic union. The founders of the project, such as Coundenhove-Kalergi and Jean Monnet, always assumed there would be government not by elected statesmen but by technocrats. This is indeed what we have seen recently in the appointment of such men to supreme power in Greece and Italy.
“But this creeping totalitarianism is not the root of our problem. Our crisis is a spiritual crisis, a crisis of identity. As the philosopher and former President of the Italian Senate, Professor Marcello Pera said, ‘Christianity is so consubstantial with the West, that any surrender on its part would have devastating consequences.’ But all references to Europe’s Christian character have been expunged by the EU bureaucrats. Europe is now officially secular.
“Pope Benedict XVI identified our real crisis with terrifying clarity: ‘The EU is godless. But then it is unthinkable that the EU could build a common European house while ignoring Europe’s identity. Europe is a historical, cultural and moral identity before it is a geographic, economic or political reality. It is an identity built on a set of values which Christianity played a part in moulding’.”
He concludes, “If Christianity goes, the lot goes. As T S Eliot said back in 1934, ‘Such attainments as you can boast in the way of polite society will hardly survive the faith to which they owe their significance’.”
Jeff Fountain of the Schuman Centre for European Studies takes a somewhat less pessimistic look at modern day Europe. He reports on an address recently given by a leading Polish Christian:
“Christians had a special responsibility in moments such as Europe’s current crisis, President Jerzy Buzek of the European Parliament told participants of the European Prayer Breakfast in Brussels last week. Today’s crisis was one of values, not economics, he added. Material development had not been accompanied by spiritual development. Yet competitiveness needed justice. Jobs needed a work ethic. Welfare required values and responsibility.
“Without love, we were just clanging gongs, clashing cymbals, he said, quoting the Apostle Paul. ‘Our special responsibility as Christians is to be salt and light,’ he urged his listeners gathered from the political world across Europe, adding, ‘and we must promote this idea.’
“Buzek came to the breakfast straight from a meeting of EU leaders on the monetary crisis. ‘There is a real difference in the atmosphere here!’ he remarked on arrival. ‘Here you are looking to God!’ Referring to his Lutheran affiliation, the president said he had always been a strong supporter of ecumenical initiatives.
“The year 2013 would mark the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, he reminded his audience. That event had been a turning point bringing freedom of religion to the Roman Empire. Christianity from then on had become the main driving force shaping Europe. While over the centuries Christianity had produced both good and bad experiences, the former Polish prime minister conceded, it had bequeathed to Europe a rich heritage of values and beliefs….
“Fascism and communism had strongly challenged this heritage in the 20th century, he recalled, both of which had tried to change the face of Europe. But their demise had resulted in Europe’s reunification and in unprecedented growth. This must not be forgotten as we faced today’s challenges, said Buzek, a professor of chemical engineering. The question today was if the Christian heritage was still valid–or was it simply a respectable but useless historical culture? The answer in his opinion was that it was this heritage that had produced tolerance and openness for understanding.
“‘If we give it up, it will be replaced by a spiritual emptiness corroded by nationalism and particularism (self-interest),’ he added. Then, addressing the relationship between church and state, he explained that both were autonomous domains. ‘But autonomy is not separation. Cooperation is important for a fair and just society.’
“Yet Europe was being weakened by an aggressive secularism with a negative tolerance, he continued. It wanted to lock faith away into a small box of privacy. If unchecked, it would undo the tolerance won in 313 with the Edict of Milan, he warned.”
Finally, two Spanish academics offer some hope regarding the state of faith in Europe. They argue that it is not quite as secular and godless as many believe:
“Europeans no longer believe in God nor go to church anymore. They don’t even consider themselves to be religious at all. It is clear, therefore, that Europe is a secularized continent. Or is it, really? The European Values Study 2005-2008 presents a much more nuanced picture. In half of the surveyed countries, the majority of the people, sometimes an overwhelming one, found the statement ‘There is a personal God.’ as that which comes closest to their belief, while in the other half, the statement ‘There is some God, spirit or life force.’ was chosen.
“The statement ‘I don’t know if there is a God, spirit or life force.’ was second choice for France and the Russian Federation, and the option ‘There is no God, spirit or life force.’ always came in last, even for France where it was chosen by 15 percent of the population, the highest percentage among the different countries. Believers, therefore, still vastly outnumber non-believers, despite the variance in the object of their belief.
“As for religious practice, the same study affords us an equally varied panorama. Although in most countries, the majority of the population never attends religious services, in ten, the majority of the population attends religious services once a week. On the aggregate, half of all Europeans pray or meditate at least once a week, and even in a country known for its liberal tradition such as the Netherlands, one-fourth of its inhabitants attends church. So despite the decrease in church attendance and religious practice through the years, a considerable number of Europeans still engage in them, albeit with varying frequency.”
Of course religion and spirituality are not identical to biblical Christianity, but the survey results do reveal a Europe which still clings to some faith and some belief, despite such a lengthy period of secularism and anti-Christian agendas at work there.
So we have three somewhat differing takes on the situation in Europe. Whether we should be utterly pessimistic regarding its direction, or quite optimistic, or somewhere in between, depends on various factors. But we can all keep praying for the continent, and hope that Christians there will seek to reclaim Europe for Christ.