In search of Europe's soul

October 11, 2004

THE SEARCH FOR EUROPE’S SOUL has been championed these days from various quarters: the Vatican, Brussels, and most recently in an email this week, from Nicky Gumble. Nicky is inviting leaders to London in late November to seek how to “work together in the battle for the soul of Europe”. This is not the first gathering of this sort, as you will know if you have been reading ww’s regularly. Next week, in fact, the Hope for Europe Round Table gathers again in Greece along with evangelical leaders from most European countries at the European Evangelical Alliance General Assembly, to advance the pan-European networking that has been underway over the past decade.

But the more movements and organisations catching the vision, the better! And the Alpha movement is playing a most significant role in laying a groundwork of unity across denominational boundaries, essential for further partnership. ‘If you want to travel far, travel together.’

Twelve years ago, Jacques Delors challenged religious leaders in Europe to help recover the soul of Europe. This was his very last official task as president of the European Commission. His actual words were: “if in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.” (Brussels, 14 April 1992). A devout Catholic, Delors believed the EU would not succeed solely on the basis of legal systems and economics.

In the same week as Nicky’s gathering in London, a conference will be held in Berlin called, ‘A Soul for Europe’, to evaluate what progress may have been made in response to Delor’s challenge. Delors is one of the trustees of this event along with other well-known Europeans like Timothy Garton Ash and Javier Solana. In the conference blurb, the organisers explain that the “conference is therefore asking for nothing less than a complete rethink of European politics. What is needed is not unlike what took place in the early days of d√©tente 30 years ago: Europe has to develop a new self-understanding, a new vision and, above all, a political concept based on culture. The Berlin Conference is therefore seeking to go beyond discussion and actually initiate changes. It is not primarily addressed to politicians working in the field of culture but to everyone who is working for Europe.”

This last weekend I was asked to address the Fellowship of European Broadcasters on the topic of ‘the soul of Europe’ in their conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. So while these thoughts are fresh in my mind, let me share them with you.

What do we mean by this enigmatic phrase, ‘the soul of Europe’? Can a continent have a soul? Humans have souls. Animals don’t. So how can continents have souls? I don’t remember hearing the phrase ‘the soul of Asia’; or the ‘soul of Africa’ ; or the ‘soul of America’. (Funny thing that – it’s always the ‘spirit of America’. Never the ‘soul of America’, or the ‘spirit of Europe’). For some reason, the only soul we’re searching for is Europe’s.

Of course, a biblical analogy is being used here. In Genesis 2 we read how God fashioned man from the dust of the ground and then breathed life into this form, creating a living soul. A physical body existed before man received his soul and became a distinct spiritual entity. The physical geography of Europe existed long before the continent was populated, and before any self-conscious awareness of ‘Europe’ emerged. So then, at what stage did Europe receive her ‘soul’, her distinct spiritual identity? And who gave it to her?

Was it the Phoenicians? I read recently in some scholastic, highbrow publication – actually, it was an airline magazine – that the name Europe derives from the Phoenician ‘ereb’ meaning ‘sunset’. (I’ve since confirmed that with a google search). From the Middle East, the sun sets over Europe. It was a Phoenician princess named Europa who was abducted and raped by Zeus disguised as a bull, and taken to Crete. This mythology is depicted on the Greek €2 coin, and a large bronze statue outside the European Commission building in Brussels.

The Greeks of course claim they invented the word (remember the father in My big fat Greek wedding?). According to Homer, the name Europe (?????? – meaning broad, eurys and face, ops) was originally given to Central Greece and by 500 BC was extended to include the lands to the north. Greece is often called the cradle of European civilisation. So was it the Greeks who gave Europe her soul? Is it a Greek soul we are looking to recover?

Well, in my view, neither the Phoenicians nor the Greeks gave Europe her special spiritual and cultural identity, her soul.

So who did? and when?

Let’s look first at the strange paradox about this continent we call Europe. When the English talk of the Continent-as in a continental breakfast, meaning a few flakes of meusli on a dish dampened with yoghurt instead of a full plate of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and toast-they refer of course to mainland Europe. But Europe is actually the only continent that is not a continent! It is simply the western peninsular of the Eurasian landmass. (Forgive me if you’ve heard me say this before but it is a point worth labouring.)

So why is Europe seen as a continent, distinct from Asia? The European peoples-Caucasians-migrated westwards from the east. They spoke Indo-European languages. Like many of their Asian cousins, they were polytheists and animists. At what stage did Europe become distinct from her eastern roots? What made Europe ‘Europe’? What made Europeans ‘Europeans’? Whence did they derive their separate spiritual identity? From the Phoenicians? or from the Greeks?

The answer is very straightforward. When story-tellers-like Paul, Patrick, Columbanus and Boniface-began traversing Europe with a Book and telling the Story of Jesus, they transformed the worldview and the social life of the Greeks and the Romans, the Gauls and the Celts, the Scots and the Picts, the Angles and the Saxons, the Franks and the Friesians, the Suevi and the Slavs, the Bavarians and the Balts, the Rus and eventually the Vikings! This story of Jesus brought them new hope, a new way of living, new norms and values based on the character of God who was living, merciful, compassionate, and forgiving. Contrast that with the rapist, murderer and pedophile, Zeus!

This was the Story-and none other-that made Europe ‘Europe’, that laid common foundations of European civilisation, that gave birth to a common consciousness of identity, spirituality and meaning, that produced a certain unity with diversity throughout the European peoples in the first millennium. This transformation occurred long before old pagan Greek values and beliefs were revived through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment!

Here is a perspective we protestants often miss. We tend to think God was on vacation from the time of Paul until Luther turned up in Wittenburg. But I would argue that the coming of this story to the European peoples is when we can say that new life was breathed into Europe and she received her ‘soul’!

Now, I hear all the objections about how political and corrupt this so-called Christendom often was – and I agree. I don’t for a moment believe everyone was born again or that the Kingdom of God had fully arrived in Europe. Yet I do contend that the Story of Jesus has been the greatest influence shaping Europe’s past.

If we are being urged to search for Europe’s soul, then when was it lost? What can we expect will happen if Europe rejects the Story, ignores the Book and loses the Hope that came with the revelation of a loving, merciful Creator and of a risen Saviour? This rejection is the root cause of the rise of humanism, rationalism, atheism, secularism, materialism, communism, fascism, nihilism and existentialism. In short, w

e can expect Europe to go back to her eastern roots, and become re-Or

and more we see those old pagan values emerging. Ancient Greek culture celebrated homosexuality and also pedophile relationships. The word ‘seminar’ originally meant an after-dinner sex party when boys were passed around. A ‘mentor’ was expected to initiate his pupil sexually. The further we move from biblical values, the more we will revert to our pagan roots. Notice the Halloween revival all across Europe this month, with its celebration of witchcraft as cool fun.

So how can we recover Europe’s lost ‘soul’? In the quote above, Delors hinted at his own definition of what this task would mean: to restore spirituality and meaning. But not just any spirituality. Europe had spirituality before the messengers of Jesus arrived: pagan spirituality.

The task calls for a new generation of messengers of hope to spread the Book and tell the Story. Through Alpha courses, for example.

Why shouldn’t the Story that gave Europe her soul in the first millennium restore her soul in the third millennium?

Nothing else can.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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