Views on Europe

January 15, 2007

A tradition we have developed is to start the year with a Weekly Word on books we are reading. So here are a number of titles on Europe I read over the past year. I invite you to tell me this week about books you have found worth recommending to other readers.

All these books address Europe as a continent apparently in crisis. As Grace Davie puts it in Europe: The Exceptional Case, (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002): Europe is in the process of removing the ‘keystone’ in the arch of its value-system, without being altogether clear about what should be put in its place.’ p46.

Davie, a sociologist at the University of Exeter, is however not pessimistic. She ams to set Europe in a global context, and to examine the widespread assumption that, like Europe, the world will become secularised as it modernises.

Quite simply, she concludes, it hasn’t. She quotes Peter Berger’s claim that the greater part of the world (both ‘developed and developing’) is ‘as furiously religious as ever’. Davie takes her readers on a tour of each continent before returning to look at Europe from the outside. Europe-rather than the United States-is the exception, as her title suggests, not the norm.

Yet Davie, an Anglican, is hesitant about calling Europe secularised. Europe’s uniqueness lies not in being less religious than other continents, but differently so. Europeans may be unchurched, but not necessarily secular.

In an earlier book, Davie coined the phrase ‘believing without belonging’, describing a population which may not fill church pews but may still be open for spiritual experience. While Europeans may not be active church goers, Davie’s research leads her to conclude they still have deep-seated religious aspirations and even a latent sense of belonging.

The following three books all come from Catholic writers, the first two offering wisdom and insight on Europe today from Pope Benedict XVI, prior to his election:
· Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures-Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius, 2006)
· Without Roots: the West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam-Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera (Basic Books, 2006)
· The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics without God-George Weigel (Basic Books, 2005)

The loss of the sense of the sacred in European thought today, in particular the sacred character of human life, is precipitating a crisis of culture. In both his books, the new pope articulates a response to the nihilistic secularism that reduces morality to a relative concept and threatens to destroy the freedoms stemming from the Christian roots and foundations of western civilisation. His choice of his papal name indicates his understanding of the need for a spiritual renewal in Europe as wrought by St Benedict fifteen centuries ago.

The first book is a collection of very readable essays revealing the pope’s passion, concern and righteous indignation that ‘Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner hitherto unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness’. He addresses the failure to mention God and Europe’s Christian roots in the proposed EU constitution, a failure presupposing ‘the idea that only the radical culture born of the Enlightenment … can be constitutive of European identity.’

Without Roots continues the pope’s exploration of the spiritual, cultural and political crisis facing Europe, in dialogue with the president of the Italian senate, a Catholic believer. George Weigel (author of the third book) says in his introduction to this English version that Without Roots offers a window into the mind of a pope who was elected , in part, because of his long experience and profound understanding of the current crisis of European civilisation. And I say thank God for a pope who is confronting the arrogance of fundamentalist secularism with spiritual depth and intellectual acumen!

Weigel’s own book compares secularism and Christianity using contrasting symbols of the Paris skyline: the modernist cube of the Great Arch of La D√©fense, and Notre Dame Cathedral. He asks which worldview can truly sustain the values and moral foundations of democracy: freedom, dignity and human rights. At times aggravating for a European to read (Weigel is American), The Cube, like the other two books, has important things to say to Christians of all traditions.

Which brings me to my last book, or rather category of books.

Claire Berlinski-Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis is America’s, Too (Crown Forum, 2006)-belongs to a growing number of American authors busy churning out books strengthening a common stereotype of Europe. These include Eurabia, While Europe Slept and, most recently, America Alone. But how seriously can you take someone calling herself a secular Jew who is trying to argue for Europe’s spiritual renewal? While Ms Berlinski has some interesting anecdotes to tell, she undermines her case by overstatement: ‘In France the suburbs go up in flames every night’.

The Economist, in a review of several of these books (Tales from Eurabia, 22 June 2006), accused the authors of scaremongering based on myths about the potency of Islam in Europe.

So, what have you been reading? We can share that next week.

Till then,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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