Sunday, February 22, 2004

George Weigel on "Europe's Problem -- And Ours"

In "Europe's Problem -- and Ours" (First Things 140, February 2004), George Weigel quotes a stern warning from historian Christopher Dawson: "a secular society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity—a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself," and again: "the modern dilemma is essentially a spiritual one, and every one of its main aspects, moral, political, and scientific, brings us back to the need of a spiritual solution."

According to Weigel, the problem with modern Europe is the notable lack of what he calls a "Slavic view of history", a perceptiveness found in such diverse figures as Vladimir Soloviev, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), all of whom possessed the common conviction:

. . . that the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. In this way of thinking, history is not simply the by-product of the contest for power in the world -- although power certainly plays an important role in it. And neither is history the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production. Rather, history is driven, over the long haul, by culture -- by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.

Weigel lists a number of symptoms, among them the rapid depopulation of Western European nations, failing to ensure a future for themselves with a replacement-level birthrate ("demographic suicide") -- presumably due to abortion and a "contraceptive mentality" that prioritizes self-gratification above offspring; the proliferation of what Henri De Lubac called "atheistic humanism" -- the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, in the name of authentic human liberation; and the "Christophobia" of European intellectuals and political leaders who, in "deliberate act of historical amnesia" strike from the proposed European Constitution "a millennium and a half of Christianity's contributions to the European understanding of human rights and democracy."

Weigel goes on to explain why Europe's problem is ours as well, and makes a good case why -- making a good case for why Americans should worry:

  • American civilization has long understood itself to be in continuity with the civilization of the West that we associate, in its origins, with Europe -- with the unique civilizational accomplishment that emerged from the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Americans learned about the dignity of the human person, about limited and constitutional government, about the principle of consent, and about the transcendent standards of justice to which the state is accountable."

    Weigel justifiably fears an American loss of pietas, or "reverence and gratitude for those on whose shoulders we stand," severing the ties we have with Europe and to that extent, Western civilization. "A United States indifferent to the fate of Europe is a United States indifferent to its roots."

  • Secondly, as demographic vacuums do not remain, Europe's "self-inflicted depopulation" will most likely be met by a rising tide of Islamic immigration, such that "current demographic trendlines could eventually produce a Europe . . .increasingly influenced, and perhaps even dominated, by radicalized Islamic populations. It goes without saying that a Europe dominated by radical Islam would pose a significant threat to the security of the United States.

  • Third, the historical and cultural amnesia that Europeans currently suffer with respect to their Christian heritage is already reflected to some degree here in the United States. The stability and durability of America's political institutions and "the democratic project" as a whole is contingent upon America's historical memory; the loss of the vision of our founding fathers would have disasterous consequences:
    To deny that Christianity had anything to do with the evolution of free, law-governed, and prosperous European societies is 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 doesn't go so far as to offer a practical answers for the problems he describes (he is "less interested in specific policy options . . . than understanding the problem at its roots"). However, confirming Christopher Dawson's diagnosis, he agrees that the solution can be nothing else than "a rebirth of life-transforming and culture-forming Christian conviction, especially Catholic conviction."

Much worth reading, and reflecting on.


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