A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Decline of Europe-- and the United States?

In the January issue of First Things, Pope Benedict XVI, in an article entitled, "Europe and Its Discontents," asks the question "What is the true definition of Europe?" It is his contention that Europe is only a geographical term in a secondary way. First and foremost, "Europe is rather a cultural and historical concept" (16), though many modern Europeans deny this.

In a brief and well written manner, Benedict traces the significant points of European history in order to draw the significant conclusion that Europe's current denial of its religious and moral foundations has led to its general lack of optimism, its lack of hope. Nowhere is this seen more clearly in the European view of children. He writes,

"Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives (19)."

Benedict compares this similar view of children with the declining days of the Roman Empire, when the great structures of the empire still functioned, but its vital and renewing enery had been depleted. The thesis of Oswald Spengler seems to be prophetic for Europe: every culture moves through a progression from birth, to gradual rise, and then flourishing, to slow decline, aging, and death. Europe's life cycle nears the end.

Benedict wonders, however, whether the diagnosis of Europe's demise is correct. "We must ask whether it is in our power to reintroduce the religious dimension through a synthesis of what remains of Christianity and the religious heritage of humankind" (19). He makes several observations that are germane not only to Europe, but to the United States as well.

First, the state churches of Europe are chracterized by fatigue. The church is not providing the moral foundation necessary on which to build a revitalized Europe.

Second, the Christian heritage in the United States is decaying at a rapid pace, although the huge influx of Latino immigrants, with their significant religious traditions, may somewhat ameliorate the situation.

Third, although Europe has long recognized that a Communist economy does not work, the moral and religious fallacies of Marxism have yet to be addressed, and still have strong influence.

Thus Benedict concludes, "Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe, we will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future" (21-22).

What strikes me about Benedict's argument is how germane it is to the American context. The sacred and the secular wage war in our midst; we may be twenty years or so behind Europe, but nonetheless we are heading in that direction. I do not pretend to have all the answers as we move our way through the thorns of Constantinianism and what it means for the church to be a light to the nations and an alternative to the world, but is it not the case that if a society denies its religious roots and thus its moral foundations, will it not result in hopelessness and the lack of interest in the future? Will not our children then be viewed as a liability rather than an asset, a statement that there is hope? Is not the fact that abortion is legal in this country a sign that such a decline is taking place?

My former teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, would say in class that abortion is a no-confidence vote in the future. It is not a coincidence, I think, that the legalization of abortion, the increasing acceptance of euthanasia (yes, Terri Schiavo was euthanized), and the slow but growing support for human cloning, is the result of an ever increasing secularism that undercuts the moral foundations that once were so familiar and so cherished.

Are we in our culture in the last stages of our aged existence, or is there hope for the future? Like Pope Benedict XVI, I err on the side of hope.


Brennan said...

This is sad, but interesting for me. Because, as someone studying in Europe right now, and seeing the differences between Canada (where I live) and Europe, I notice the malaise, not just religiously, but culturally as well. Part of that, I think has to do with the religious dispassion here; and I think that Europe still has traces of war in its history that people have yet to shake free of. You can sort of feel it. I'm studying in Belgium, so it's more true here than almost anywhere else--Belgium was basically totally destroyed through the World Wars...you can see evidence of it everywhere, even though it was, what? Fourty or fifty years ago? That's only about one lifetime worth, true, but people here don't even think about the impact or the fact that such things happened here. They don't even celebrate Armstice Day (Remembrance Day) in the Nederlands, can you believe that? I find that APPALING. I mean, how can you not recognize the importance of the end of the World Wars?????

A true theology of peace requires joy, and there is a lack of non-substance and alcoholic induced joy here and elsewhere, for sure. Some people say that because the pace in Europe is slower, that means that it's a better place for human activity, but between the choices of being burnt out (N.America), and not having enough to do and sort of free-floating through a socialist way of living (Europe), I will choose having too much every time. So, yes, I suppose I do fall on the side of North American ideals more, then, but it's because where there is activity there is still hope for a better future. You don't really feel a sense of hope for people here. Of course, I am an international student, so I don't really have a feel for the people quite yet, but it is certainly telling of the cultural feeling you recieve by being here. And I would say that the feeling is one that is fairly stagnant in its own way. On the other hand, people work themselves to death in North America, and what good is that? I Between the two, there must be some sort of positive ideal, but I'm not sure it's possible while large companies are in control of large portions of the government.

OK, whew. Said too much. Thanks for the thinking thought. I will look up the article, and tell you what I think.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your insightful comment!