How Necessary Is Christianity to European Identity?

How Necessary Is Christianity to European Identity?

26 January 2011

The question if and how Christianity is necessary to Europe has an official answer. During summer 2010, three million calendars of the new year have been distributed, with all the festivities, except the Christian ones, in it. Meanwhile, the European Commission of Justice had decided that crucifixes should not be hung up in schools. And not long before, the European Convention had famously established that Christianity should not be mentioned as one of the roots of European civilization. 

History repeats itself. In 1793 the French revolutionaries acted the same way: they reformed the calendar and transformed the cathedral of Notre Dame into the Temple of Reason. Contemporary reports tell us that, during the celebrations, a certain madame Thèrèse Maillard, a very attractive actress, was placed in lieu of the statue of the Virgin Mary and worshipped as the Goddess of Reason. A question arises: are we going to relive the same catastrophic consequences of this blasphemous ceremony? My personal answer is: in Europe, some of these consequences can already be seen. 
I will try to make two points, the first of a more political nature and the second more philosophical. I will be deliberately schematic so as to allow for a better discussion. My concerns are about Europe but I have America in mind, because I fear that the European malady might be contagious. In the Old World the influence of Islam on European culture has been debated by scholars for centuries and is increasingly a topic of political discussion, in the New World the contribution of Islam to the American Revolution has just began to be mentioned. Is the God of the “city upon a hill” (God forbid!) fading away? Is He in the train of being joined by another God? This seems to be unconceivable. But in case Americans were to believe that one God, two gods, no god is the same, Europe can teach them that what is unconceivable today turns out to be real tomorrow. Consider just a few examples. 
In Europe, Christian symbols are more and more taken as archaeological troves that paying tourists may view (provided no strikes are underway), but, if they are exhibited as true testimonies of faith, they are considered offensive to other religions and possibly concealed.
In Europe, all blasphemous expressions against Christianity are permitted, and yet satirical cartoons about Islam are not allowed. In the former case, the freedom of expression is invoked and one may be celebrated as an artist or a hero, in the latter, the criminal code is appealed to and one’s life is at stake. 
In Europe, the Pope may be invited to give a speech at a university for the inauguration of an academic year, only to prevent him ultimately from going because so it was asserted by the professors who protested universities are “secular institutions.” 
In Europe, the issue of Basque or Northern Irish terrorism may be brought up and mentioned with its proper name, but the expression “Islamic terrorism” is banned, and fundamentalism may be criticised but only by using the formula “Islamic, Catholic or other”. 
In Europe, a deceitful Newspeak is adopted: when political authorities and cultural elites try to convince the people that Christianity is a parochial religion and the Christian faith an obstacle to progress, the universal language of human rights is used, but, when Islamic communities are addressed, the multicultural language is resorted to. 
As a last example but the list could be much longer in Europe, the principle of dialogue is professed and continuously invoked, but the basis of all dialogue reciprocity is scrupulously unmentioned. The outcome is that, if Muslims request permission to build a mosque alongside a Roman or Medieval basilica, they have their right to be respected, but if Christians are denied the permission to erect even a small chapel in a neighbouring Arab or Islamic country with which we maintain normal relations, then is their culture. The game for Christians amounts to: heads I lose, tails you win. And if by any chance Christians believers are attacked by fanatics in a friendly country, then this event may be deplored, but only once and under one’s breath. 
What exactly is happening? My short answer is that Europe is paying the price of its secularism. 
This is the first point I wish to make. Secularism is no harmless philosophy, it has at least three serious consequences. 
The first consequence is that it deprives Europe of its religious history, its identity and even its boundaries. It transforms Europe into a sort of container which can be filled with any ingredient whatsoever but with no real amalgamation. Not a “melting pot”, because once identity is lost the energy fusion is lacking as well. Will the peoples of Europe ever be able to say “this is our motherland”? No, they may say at the most “this is the shared land in which we happen to live”. A similar land, with no roots or sense of belonging, is like a supermarket, bank, restaurant or: one enters, is served or serves himself, and then leaves as he entered, with no further obligations. In absence of an European identity no political unification is then possible, let alone an European Constitution. 
The second consequence of European secularism is that, depriving Europeans from an essential part of their identity, it does not allow the integration of immigrants, which is one of the major challenges Europe is facing today. The reason is simple. Integration does not mean merely adding up or setting side by side or putting together different people. It means absorbing them within a common and shared framework, transforming them from a collective unity into a moral unity. But if secularism denies the main element for creating a common European framework, i.e. the Europeans’ historical religion, then it hinders integration. It produces, at the most, a rainbow’ society continually at risk of ethnic and religious conflicts. 
There is an objection to this conclusion: the elements for the creation of a common European framework secularists maintain do not stem from religion but are, rather, provided by certain principles and values. My reply is: were these elements possibly born in a vacuum? To what tradition do they belong? And if indeed they are part of a tradition, are they not therefore also attached to the Christian tradition? A second objection is usually raised: not at all secularists say the elements for the creation of an European identity come from the Enlightenment tradition of the Goddess of Reason. Again, my reply is: have the concepts of libertè, egalitè, fraternitè by any chance been invented by madame Maillard? Or is it rather the case that the pretty French actress recited, in her own way, lines read, for example, in the Gospels? Does not this old fashioned booklet teach that men are son of God, created in his image, and therefore free, equal and united by the same destiny? True, it took long time and many troubles and tragedies to understand this message. But that means that Enlightenment was late, not that it was new. Actually, it was just one of the many ways with which the inhabitants of the heavenly city have tried to reach the City of God. 
The third and last consequence of secularism I briefly consider deals with the favourite intellectual and political entertainment of European elites, that is, dialogue. What is dialogue? It is a dispute between people with different views. When does a dialogue take place and why is it resorted to? When disputants are not certain about their views, are prepared to look for a better one and are ready to admit that their original positions might be corrected, amended, even rejected. As Karl Popper wrote, the principle of dialogue is: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, II, p. 238). But if dialogue goes like this, then religious views cannot be the subject of dialogue, because believers cannot correct them. They are true by faith. As a consequence, no inter-religious or inter-faith dialogue in the technical sense can ever be possible. 
Of course, dialogue can take place about principles such as tolerance, equality, parity, personal dignity, etc. But, again, these are our principles, the principles of our Christian tradition. If secularism denies the value of this tradition, how can such principles be discussed and defended? If a person comes to us and says: “I am a Muslim and believe that women have fewer rights than men”, can we really reply: “ok, let us dialogue, I am a secularist, I do not believe in anything or I believe that anything goes”? 
This brings me to my second point. The main philosophical argument for secularism amounts to this: there is no need for Christianity or any other religion, because reason is enough to provide us with those fundamental, universal, non-negotiable values and ideals that are indispensable to give sense to our lives and to arrange our societies. But how? 
Immanuel Kant claimed that, to establish a liberal State, there is no need to believe in God or in man created in His image. He then replaced divine commandments by the categorical imperatives of practical reason and tried to connect them to individual liberty and the liberal state. But, in his later years, when he realized that man is no angel because he is affected by “radical evil” (his translation of original sin), he admitted that a liberal state may be established only as a community of believers, precisely like a Church, as he wrote in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1794). Thus the deepest secular philosopher, the most ingenious champion of the principle of man’s autonomy, ended up with God. About twenty years earlier, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Thomas Jefferson had held the same opinion: “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” (Query XVIII). 
John Rawls (as well as J¼rgen Habermas) tried to take a further step. He distinguished “comprehensive doctrines”, that are private, from public “conceptions of justice”, imposing on the former the duty of being translatable into, or replaced by, the language of the latter. If this is the case, they are welcome because they reinforce public reason with a strong religious feeling; if this is not the case, then comprehensive doctrines are unreasonable and should be set aside. It is apparently like the story of Columbus’s egg: the liberal State is “free-standing”, sustained as it is by the mere force of gravity or attraction of public reason. But things are not this way. Firstly, public reason is not as universal and impersonal and neutral as it seems: the deeper we dig into it, the more we find that it is our reason, holding in our countries, within our tradition. Secondly, just as Columbus’s egg stands up by itself only if we flatten its base, to allow the citizens of Rawls’ liberal state to peacefully coexist it is necessary to compress their religions. In Political Liberalism (1993) Rawls called “overlapping consensus” the tool needed to provide the foundations to the stability of our societies. From the point of view of those who disagree, this looks like imposing a view in a gentle, soft way. Of course, impositions can be done, but, quite apart from the consideration that they appear scarcely democratic, when fundamental principles are at stake they result in the egg leaking on all sides. It is a good recipe for cooking an omelette, not for growing an open society. 
To conclude, you may perhaps be curious to know what finally happened with the Goddess of Reason. Madame Maillard became famous as a Hollywood star, but ended up in prison and her husband was put to death by Robespierre. Mindless as she was, she certainly did not realize that, with her tragicomic play, she had inaugurated that long series of disasters Europeans were doomed to face any time they mocked and fought Christianity in the name now of scientific reason now of race superiority now of class struggle now of other pagan idols. After the guillotine season, Europe has had even gulags and concentration camps. Thanks God, that story is over, but if I were a secularist in Europe (I leave it up to Americans to consider their own situation), I would be concerned.

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