Politics Without God–Europe’s Secular Crisis

The continent of Europe is now experiencing a civilizational crisis. Once the cradle of Western civilization, Europe is transforming itself into a hyper-modern culture of nearly undiluted secularism. Once constituted by a sense of Christian identity, Europe is now attempting a vast experiment in secularism, and this experiment shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

George Weigel has been watching these developments closely. Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center [EPPC] in Washington, D.C., and is one of the nation’s most influential public intellectuals. Well known for his massive biography of Pope John Paul II, Weigel is a Roman Catholic theologian who knows secularism when he sees it–and understands what inevitably follows when a civilization rejects the very Christian worldview on which it was established.

In The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Weigel presents a magisterial analysis of Europe’s current plight. The title of the book directs attention to the central architectural metaphor of his thesis–the contrast between La Grande Arche de la Defense and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The Grand Arch was built under the direction of the late French president Francois Mitterand and was designed by modernist architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen. The Grand Arch stands far west of the Arc de Triomphe, and is massive by any comparison, standing almost 40 stories tall and wider than a football field. Constructed of glass and white Carrara marble, the Grand Arch is a parable of postmodernism, for its grand scale points to no particular meaning.

Weigel’s interest in the arch was seasoned by an architectural guidebook that claimed that the entire Cathedral of Notre-Dame would fit within the space of the Great Arch–including the cathedral’s towers and spire.

Considering the two architectural marvels–the cube and the cathedral–Weigel saw a metaphor for the contrast between secular and Christian Europe. “All of which raised some questions in my mind, as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the world’s great cityscapes,” Weigel remembers. “Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsaneness’ of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?”

Another contrast also framed Weigel’s attention–the divergence of America and Europe in the new century. “In the first years of the twenty-first century, and in a moment in history when the democratic ideal had energized much of the world, Americans suddenly seemed to be approaching a parting of the ways with many of our European friends in understanding the democratic project–its sources, its possibilities, and the threats to it.”

The European project is in trouble, Weigel asserts. The evidence is now unassailable. For some years, Europe has experienced a fall in births that now portends a net decrease in population. At the same time, the countries of Western Europe have become increasingly populated by Islamic immigrants, who are not only moving into Western Europe in large numbers, but are reproducing at rates far above the native population. Observers from many disciplines now project an Islamic future for Europe. Last week’s referendum in France, in which French citizens overwhelmingly rejected the proposed constitution for the European Union, only serves to complicate the picture. That very document had been the focus of controversy in recent months as the drafting committee had chosen to make no reference at all to the Christian sources of European civilization.

Weigel’s diagnosis of the European problem is clear and profound. He argues that Europe’s ambition to build a democratic project on a completely secular foundation is doomed to fail. In his view, Europe is now suffering a “crisis of civilizational morale” that can be directly attributed to its self-imposed decision to sever its future from its past.

In a fascinating analysis, Weigel draws upon legal scholar J. H. H. Weiler, who accuses leading European intellectuals of being “Christophobic,” and absolutely determined to eliminate or prevent any influence from Christianity.

For the most part, Europe’s intellectual class has adopted this secular project, apparently without reservation. Weigel argues his case clearly: “European high culture is largely Christophobic, and Europeans themselves describe their cultures and societies as post-Christian.”

Of course, falling birth rates and a loss of cultural morale do not emerge from an historical vacuum. Weigel traces many of the historical factors that convinced a large number of European intellectuals to see Christianity as the cause rather than the solution to civilizational crisis. Devastated by two world wars and humiliated by the Holocaust, Europe is reaping a whirlwind of cultural destruction, the seeds of which were sown early in the twentieth century.

A civilization’s historical memory is crucial in the development of its self-consciousness and its approach to the future. Weigel draws upon Henri de Lubac’s theology of history to suggest that the rise of European civilization was, at least in part, made possible by the adoption of a Christian understanding of history. Whereas the ancients understood human beings to be the toys and playthings of capricious pagan deities, the God of the Bible revealed Himself as the Lord of history, who is accomplishing his beneficent purposes in the unfolding of time. Thus, “History was an arena of responsibility and purpose because history was the medium through which the one true God made himself known to his people and empowered them to lead lives of dignity, through the intelligence and free will with which he had endowed them in creation.”

The process of secularization has affected all advanced societies, but the ideology of secularism has taken hold of the European mind. In Weigel’s words: “European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture. Indeed, that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale. That crisis of civilizational morale, in turn, helps explain why European man is deliberately forgetting his history.”

Europe is in big trouble precisely because it now insists that democratic values can be established without the distinctive teachings of Christianity. As Weigel understands, Christianity establishes a transcendent understanding of human dignity, a clear affirmation of human responsibility, and the elaboration of a moral order that makes civilization possible. In committing itself to the path of radical secularism, Europe is setting the stage for its own destruction.

When postmodern European intellectuals insist that European culture must be marked by “neutrality toward worldviews,” they set themselves against both history and experience. In essence, this claim is tantamount to the arrogant supposition that human beings can establish their own dignity and demand that other human beings–completely without an account of transcendent values–will then rationally recognize and respect that dignity. How, after the hard lessons of the twentieth century, can European intellectuals hold such beliefs?

In denying their past, these secular European intellectuals undercut their own future. “To deny that Christianity had anything to do with the evolution of free, law-governed, and prosperous European societies is, as I’ve argued above, more than a question of falsifying the past: it is also a matter of creating a future in which moral truth has no role in governance, in the determination of public policy, in understandings of justice, and in the definition of that freedom which democracy is intended to embody,” Weigel asserts.

Americans have a stake in this, to be sure. As Weigel warns, the European problem could “metastasize” to the United States. In any event, the close ties between Europe and the United States should be sufficient to demand the attention of thoughtful Americans.

In the end, Weigel suggests several alternative futures for European civilization and its postmodern experiment. Among these, he holds hope that Europe may reaffirm its Christian heritage and recover a lost patrimony. Evangelicals would surely insist that this is far more likely to happen at the level of common citizens, rather than as an organized redirection of the cultural elites.

George Weigel is an insightful historian whose analysis of the European crisis is largely transferable to our American context. After all, a class of American intellectuals desires and intends to move American culture precisely in the European direction–towards a sanitized and secularized culture that will attempt democracy without God. If these trends are not reversed, America could be just like Europe, but with a delayed fuse.