The shape of European civilisation was discussed in two significant speeches this week. Both tried to answer the questions: What is Europe, and Where is Europe going?
Blithely ignoring the undemocratic process by which he became ‘President of Europe’ Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union Council warned of ‘Euro-scepticism.’ By this he meant the forces of nationalism and populism, or as others may describe it, resistance to bureaucratic centralism.
It was Van Rompuy’s attempts to define the ethical sources of Europe’s identity and future which were oddest. He stressed a “shared story” embodying virtues such as courage, respect, responsibility, tolerance or a sense of the common good, shown in an understandable way. Sharing and transmitting these stories is the great challenge of our future.
Seemingly Europe’s future is to be held together by a post-modern glue of disconnected ‘narratives’ telling no coherent tale.
Speaking in a Berlin’s Pergamon museum Van Rompuy, in attempted eloquence, pointed to our civilisation’s source in “the gods of Olympus, before us and behind us, [who take] us to Greek civilisation… with its temples, fountains, libraries and theatres.” No mention was made of that pagan civilisation’s polytheism, slavery, immorality and exposure of surplus children.
To understand the formation of modern western civilisation we must understand ancient Greece. What Van Rompuy conveniently elided is that the ideals of classical civilisation were preserved for us, not by the gods of paganism, but by followers of the God of the Bible. Through the Dark Ages these treasures of antiquity were preserved, like learning itself, by the church of Jesus Christ. It was Christianity, rather than ancient Greece, which gave Europe its intellectual and moral power, this is the one thing our diverse cultures share.
Three days earlier Joseph Ratzinger, speaking at Santiago de Compostela, drew his congregation’s attention to the “God, who is the light of every mind, the power of every will and the magnet of every heart.”
“Europe must open itself to God, must come to meet Him without fear and work with His grace for that human dignity which was discerned in her best traditions,” he argued. “The Europe of science and technology, the Europe of civilisation and culture, must be at the same time be a Europe open to transcendence and fraternity with other continents, and open to the living and true God, starting with the living and true man.”
In 2003–04, the proposed preamble to the failed European constitutional treaty was being debated. The burning question was whether the Christian sources of contemporary European commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law could be acknowledged.
The final answer was “No,” Christianity was to be rejected as a foundation of European civilisation. The preamble instead cited classical civilisation, the Enlightenment, and modern thought as the bases of the civil and tolerant Europe the constitutional treaty was to govern. It seems Van Rompuy still agrees with that.
To continue to deny the culture-forming influence of biblical faith on Europe is to perform a staggering act of cultural self-lobotomisation in the service of falsifying historical memory. Instead we are to follow an arid secularism that has no power to tell Europeans why we should be civil, tolerant, and law-abiding.
It takes more than political institutions to preserve a civilisation. The Europe of the 21st century needs more than the allure of EU grants and bail-outs to sustain itself — especially when it is being crippled by financial crisis.
We can doubt, however, whether the “gods of Olympus” and post-modern historiography will fill contemporary Europe’s transcendence gap.