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The Cube and the Cathedral, by George Weigel
A compelling diagnosis of Europe's long-term civilisational crisis
THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL: Europe, America, and Politics without God
(Freedom Publishing, 2005, softcover, 202pp, $24.95. Available from AD Books)
Europe today exhibits few signs of the Christian faith which sustained it for 1,500 years and inspired it to build its once-great civilisation. Instead, Europe suffers from a cultural decline and collapse in morale, whose most telling symptom is the catastrophic decline in its birth rate.
George Weigel - a distinguished Roman Catholic theologian from America and author of the international bestseller, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II - offers a compelling diagnosis of Europe's long-term civilisational crisis which, he argues, first became lethally evident in World War I.
Two rival philosophies are fighting for Europe's soul, says Weigel. These are symbolised in Paris by two contrasting structures. One is La Grande Arche de la Défense - a colossal featureless cube of starkly modernist design, faced in glass and soaring almost 40 storeys, intended by the late Socialist President Fran¨ois Mitterand to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The other is the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame which, as the Paris guidebook reminds visitors, could comfortably fit - towers and spires included - into the Great Arch.
Weigel asks the question: which culture is better equipped to protect human rights and the moral foundations of democracy - the secular humanist culture represented by the "cube", or the 1,500-year-old Christian civilisation represented by the "cathedral"?
Post-Christian Europe today is characterised by a systematic depopulation such as has not been seen since the time of the Black Death of the 14th century.
According to demographers, for a population to replace itself, its birth rate needs to average 2.1 children per woman. A birthrate of 1.4 children - which would be higher than Germany's, Italy's and Spain's - means that a population will decline by one-third as each generation passes.
How can we best understand "Europe's problem"? Weigel, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the late John Paul II, believes that "the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic" (p. 30). He further reminds us that "the heart of culture is cult - what men and women cherish, honor and worship" (p.41).
Weigel draws on the thought of the great French theologian and close confidante of John Paul II, Father (later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac, who, during World War II, was a leading voice of Christian spiritual resistance to the Nazi occupation. In his book, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1944), Fr de Lubac showed how Christianity, in contrast to the fatalistic paganism of the ancient world, offered liberation to mankind. History was not meaningless and humans were not victims of Fate. God created man, gave him dignity and could be approached through prayer and worship.
Modern atheistic humanists, of course, scoff at such beliefs as old wives' tales and see God's rule as bondage rather than liberation.
Fr de Lubac argued that atheistic humanism was derived from many sources: Auguste Comte's notion that empirical science was the sole basis for understanding reality; Feuerbach's subjectivism; Marx's materialism and his dismissal of spiritual values; and Nietzsche's belief that the exercise of the will to power was the true measure of human greatness.
Weigel observes: "European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture. Indeed, that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe's contemporary crisis of civilizational morale" (p.53).
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described as "exclusive humanism" the Western world's current seeming determination to exclude all transcendent reference points from culture and public life. This reveals itself in the educated classes' contempt for tradition and their political agenda of de- Christianisation of society. This militantly secular philosophy was particularly evident recently during the drafting of the EU's proposed first constitutional treaty when its authors wanted to exclude from the preamble any reference to God.
This indifference, not to say outright hostility, towards Christianity is in striking contrast to the values of the founding fathers of today's EU - statesmen such as Adenauer, de Gasperi, Schuman and Monnet - who were all devout Catholics.
Weigel quotes a New York Jewish law professor, Joseph H.H. Weiler, who recently wrote about the historical absurdity of modern Europeans repudiating their Christian heritage and thereby ignoring one of the most important functions of a constitution, which is to embody the values, symbols and ideas that make up the traditions and aspirations of a given political community.
Despite all the rhetoric of tolerance and inclusiveness and togetherness, Europe's reigning ideals today are neither compassionate nor inspiring. The unchecked abortion rate exacerbates the continent's demographic suicide.
With the growing financial burden of supporting an ageing population - a burden that will increase sharply in a few years' time as the baby-boomer generation starts retiring in large numbers - euthanasia has been increasingly looked upon as a palatable solution. As the recent experience of the Netherlands attests, this has not always been "voluntary", despite its supporters' assurances.
So it is that a utilitarian society, based on expediency and moral relativism, is not a more compassionate society but an indifferent and a colder one. With the loss of a sense of the sacredness of human life come selfishness, the weakening of family ties and obligations, and the fragmentation of society.
With a loss of spiritual bearings has come a decline in rational thinking, which is seen these days in the triumph of postmodernist thought in what used to be our centres of learning and the public's increasing gullibility towards the wildest conspiracy theories.
For instance, after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States, one in five Germans (and one-third of those under 30) believed that the US was responsible for it.
Europe's large-scale abandonment, not only of its Christian traditions, but increasingly even of rational thought, marks the beginning of a new Dark Age. It brings irresistibly to mind the imagery used by the German writer Michael Ende in his children's book, The Neverending Story (1979), in which the imaginary land of Fantastica is gradually being devoured by a great dark void, the Nothing.
What is the solution to "Europe's problem" (a problem that is common in varying degrees to much of the Western world)?
Weigel delves into some 13th- century history and discusses a vitally important argument at that time between two friars - St Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.
Aquinas held that freedom was not morally neutral but, rightly understood, should be used for the pursuit of excellence. Law was not merely a restraint on the wicked but had a positive educative role for society. In other words, freedom and law were not necessarily antagonistic, but complementary.
For Ockham, though, freedom had no essential moral character; and law - both divine and human - was always coercive. According to Weigel, Ockham "shattered our concept of the world and thereby created a new, atomised vision of the human person and ultimately of society" (p.83). Ockham seems like an early forerunner of much that is wrong in the modern world.
Weigel nevertheless does not despair for Europe's future. He sees the seeds of a rebirth of Christian civilisation in the heroic way in which some of the former Warsaw Pact countries of central and eastern Europe freed themselves, often unaided, from communist tyranny.
He also rejoices in the success of recent World Youth Days and the evidence that many younger people are turning to Christianity out of despair at the empty atheistic humanism of their parents' generation.
The Cube and the Cathedral deserves the widest possible readership, for George Weigel has the knack of being able to identify important current European trends, to unravel seemingly complex issues and to write in a clear and lively manner.
This is an essential book for our times, and will force people to think.
John Ballantyne is editor of 'News Weekly' and worships at Scots' Presbyterian Church, Melbourne.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 18 No 11 (December 2005 - January 2006), p. 15
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