Published in Ilsussidiario.net

Jeremy Morris

lunedì 15 giugno 2009


If one were to approach Pope Benedict's 'Regensburg address' (2006) exclusively from the account of it given in the English-speaking media, one might expect to find a one-sided, heavy-handed polemic against Islam. But in fact what one encounters is a subtle and wide-ranging defence of the compatibility of faith and reason. One of the most arresting points in the address comes near the beginning, in which the Pope speaks of the rapprochement of Biblical faith and Greek philosophical enquiry as "an event of decisive importance", for this, as he goes on to say, with the addition of Roman culture, "created Europe" and is – as he has emphasized elsewhere – "the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe".

The notion that Europe, as a historical entity, is constituted by its Christian identity is dear to the heart of the Pope, as is well known. It stands directly against a view gaining ground in some circles that Europe's Christianity has never been much more than a veneer. Residues of Europe's pagan origins remained embedded in medieval and early modern culture, but these were surely piecemeal, and often assimilated to Christian practice. Much more persuasive is the Pope's analysis of the symbiosis of ancient philosophy and Biblical religion as the very core of the intellectual and cultural heritage of Europe. It is hard to imagine European law, philosophy, literature, music, and art, quite apart from theology, without Christian doctrine, Greek philosophy and even Roman jurisprudence. Yet, today, the opposite argument perhaps appears attractive because of the collapse of the notion of Christendom as a political and ecclesiastical reality. Its ecclesiastical unity fractured fundamentally in the Reformation, but hard on the heels came the rise of the modern State, allied with the abiding intransigence of nationalism.


From the sixteenth century, and on into the nineteenth century in particular, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy's loss of its temporal possessions, any pretence that Europe constituted a single political and ecclesiastical imperium became no more than a nostalgic dream – albeit one romantically evoked by some of the architects of the European Union later in the twentieth century. Yet it is also to suggest that Christianity remained central to the culture and values of European people until sometime in the last century or so, when it began to be displaced by other ideologies, including antireligious or materialistic ones. Historians and sociologists like to call this process of displacement 'secularization', which is a somewhat misleading term, because it implies one process, one characteristic and inevitable development intrinsic to modern society.

Sociologists of religion have been battling over what 'secularization' is for a long time. Some have argued that the marginalization of religion is an observable process at work across all social groups, and evident in declining numbers as well as in declining personal belief. Others have argued persuasively for a much more complex picture, with pockets of resistance, much regional variation, and a disparity between practice and belief, so that – in the words of one British sociologist, Grace Davie – it is possible to describe the attitude of European people in general to religion as one of 'believing without belonging'.

Yet whatever the final outcome of these disagreements, Christianity's central, normative role in defining public morality has clearly come under attack, and in that sense even for many Christians the force of religious belief is much less intense than it once was. Nowadays, not only does Christianity have to compete with many other value systems, but it is becoming cast in public discourse as a residue of a more restrictive, unenlightened age, in which reason was led captive to faith. The overthrow of the European 'Christendom of the soul' has thrived on the idea of reason as autonomous and absolute, liberated from the restrictions once imposed on it by religious belief. If the Pope is right, Europeans have been busy 'unmaking' themselves for a hundred years or more. Reason is not antithetical to faith, but an implicate of faith in divine creation.

And yet Christians in Europe now labour under the shadows evoked by autonomous reason. There is an unparalleled pluralism of values, faiths and ideologies, a product partly of successive migrations but also of the conflicts that have riven Christianity over the centuries. It is not that pluralism in itself has been, or should be, regretted by Christians, if it means simply the co-existence of social groups with different belief-systems. It is, after all, simply a fact of life in modern Europe, and it is culturally enriching. Rather, its appearance in history has occurred as a result of divisions that, all too frequently, flowed into violence between Christians, with persecution ensuing. When, in the early modern period, this became almost endemic in Europe, Europe's exhausted rulers eventually called a halt to the wars of religion and began to separate affairs of state from confessional difference. Under the influence of the so-called 'Enlightened despots' of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, religion was tamed – defended, maintained, but reformed in the interests of monarchical control. Later still, the French Revolution carried this process of reform and control further still, even to the experiment of doing without religion altogether.

Yet again, even these various steps in containing religion, in the interests of social stability, often arose from genuine attempts at religious settlement. The notion of religious freedom and toleration, pursued as a practical policy in various states, but commended in many more, was often articulated most forcefully by religious people, not only by atheists and secularists. The project of dismantling the alliance of Church and State in many European countries was itself, often, a religious project, which had as its goal the liberation of Christianity, and its re-energizing, not its suffocation. In truth, however, the reverse happened. The strategies states had adopted to resolve religious conflict brought in their wake political secularization.

Attempting to combine a certain demythologizing of Christianity with defence of Christian values proved inherently unstable and ineffectual as a social strategy. There were, it seemed, no 'core values' that could be salvaged from the wreck of faith. Once Europe's pluralism had gone so far, once economic development and the growth of the global market had triumphed as they did in Western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, once much more emphasis had come to be placed on 'rights' than on 'responsibilities', then it wasn't clear that much at all was left of Europe's Christian heritage. There was, not so much a set of common, core values still in operation, as an inner vacuum.

It is not easy to see how the Christian churches of Europe can repair the tears in the fabric of Europe's Christian heritage. Can they, should they, seek to recover a vision of a 'Christendom of the soul', a commonly-acknowledged, normative set of values for European society? Such a proposal would face significant obstacles. It would be seen as an infringement of personal liberty, and as a throwback to 'old world' values that many people have repudiated – for that reason alone, politicians would probably run scared of it. Only that way, however, through a dialectic of opposition and affirmation, can the churches hope to put Christianity back where it was for centuries – at the very centre of European culture

Abstract from an original article first published in the Italian review Atlantide, 2, 2008


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