In 2003, when drafters of the European Union Constitution were asked to summarize the historical roots of modern Europe’s commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and other hallmarks of western civilization, the “biblical religion” of Judeo-Christian belief didn’t make it into the final write-up.
Instead, “classical heritage,” “the Enlightenment” and “modern thought” received credit for these wonders of the West.
“If that’s your idea of where your roots are, you’re suggesting that nothing of consequence for 21st-century Europe happened between Marcus Aurelius and (René) Descartes, which is about 1,400 years – and that’s an awfully long time for nothing to happen,” said Catholic theologian and author George Weigel, delivering the Martin M. Kelly Memorial Lecture at Tulane University’s Rogers Memorial Chapel Oct. 19.
“This whole exercise struck me as a deliberate exercise in historical amnesia – a kind of wiping of the slate of historical memory, indeed of cultural memory,” Weigel said.
How did we get here?
The omission of Europe’s Judeo-Christian forebears from that 2003 document reminded Weigel of the shell shock felt by French Jesuit priest Henri de Lubac in 1945 while surveilling the rubble of two world wars: How had abundantly blessed Europe become such a dark and godless place?
“How did a century which had begun with such high hopes for the human future, high hopes for maturing humanity tutored by science to create a world of knowledge, a world of civility, a world of human fraternity – how did all of that turn, in four decades, into mountains of corpses and oceans of blood? Three totalitarian systems? Auschwitz? The gulag? The whole horror show?” Weigel asked.
De Lubac blamed the chaos on “atheistic humanism,” a movement he believed was spawned by a quartet of 19th-century European thinkers whose work emptied authentic humanism of its vital Jewish and Christian components: Auguste Comte, whose theory of positivism contended that all that can be “known” can only be known through the scientific method; Ludwig Feuerbach, who claimed God is merely the projection of humanity’s highest aspirations; Karl Marx, the materialist who posited that history is simply the exhaust fumes of the means of production; and Friedrich Neitzsche, who believed in the supremacy of willful power.
“You put that cocktail together, shake it up and you get the volatility, according to de Lubac, that was a primary factor in Europe coming apart at precisely the moment it was expected to take a turn to a greater civilization and future,” Weigel said.
Erroneous depiction of God
Common among these atheistic humanists was their endorsement of a “great inversion of reality” that would profoundly damage western culture: Presenting the God of Jews and Christians as the enemy of human maturation and liberation. This casting of God into the “oppressor” was quite a feat, Weigel said, given that the gods of competing religions truly were terrible: The Phoenician god of ancient Carthage demanded the sacrifice of children; and the gods of ancient Greece toyed mercilessly with human beings.
“The God of the Bible – the God who first reveals himself to Abraham, who enters into covenant with Moses and the people of Israel, the God whom Jesus called ‘Father’ – came as a great liberator,” Weigel said. “He did not demand the sacrifice of children; indeed, the Hebrew prophets railed against the Phoenician practice of child sacrifice as they railed against no other sin.
“(Nor did) this God of the Bible play games with human beings, but rather entered into a covenant relationship with his people and accompanied them through history, drawing out of them what was most noble in their own aspirations,” Weigel added.
The ‘three-legged stool’
Kicking out biblical religion – which Weigel calls “the Jerusalem leg” of western civilization’s three-legged stool – has imperiled the two remaining legs:
• The “Athens leg” – the Judeo-Christian idea that “the truth” exists and is knowable – albeit imperfectly and incompletely – through man’s exercise of reason.
• And the “Rome leg” – the western conviction that the rule of law is morally and practically superior to the rule of coercion in organizing societies.
“If there is only ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’ and nothing that either one of us recognizes as ‘the truth,’ then there is no horizon of judgment against which we can rationally settle our differences,” Weigel notes. “You (then) get the use of coercive state power to impose the relativistic ethic on all of society,” he added, pointing to a recently enacted law in Ontario that forces doctors who refuse a patient’s request for euthanasia to refer him or her to a doctor who is willing to carry out the procedure.
“If that is not the dictatorship of relativism, I’m not sure what that is,” Weigel said.
Quagmire of the West
Other signs of western civilization’s wobbly stool surround us: profound social division; governmental paralysis in addressing real problems; an unwillingness, in parts of the West, to assimilate immigrants; the watering down of debate for fear of legal retaliation; the vulgarization of culture, visible in what Weigel called the “food fight” of the presidential election; and the “demographic winter” of declining birthrates in Europe and North America, which Weigel says is “cutting off the human future in the most elemental sense.”
But fear not, Weigel told his audience at Tulane: Western civilization will never remain in a complete freefall as long as there are critical masses of people who embrace the necessary virtues to keep democratic self-government flourishing. History tells us that small groups of visionary workhorses, whom British historian Arnold Toynbee dubbed “creative minorities,” occasionally step forward to do the work of cultural reconstruction. Weigel cited three examples:
• The Founding Fathers and the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who gave birth to history’s greatest republic.
• The Civil Rights leaders of the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose virtues and language summoned the masses to “something higher and better” years before the passage of reparative legislation.
• And the Polish revolution of 1989, which sparked the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe and showed the world how the determination of a critical mass of people – a creative minority – to claim their God-given human dignity changed history, almost overnight.
“Unfortunately, we (also) have a lot of destructive minorities,” Weigel said. “But perhaps those of us who still believe that faith and reason go together – that reason purifies religious conviction of superstition, and religious conviction keeps reason from getting too full of itself and imagining it is the sole route to genuine knowledge in this world – can call our fellow citizens to a better performance than we have managed to put on in recent years.”
The lecture was sponsored by Tulane University’s department of Judeo-Christian Studies.
Beth Donze can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.