Printer Friendly

Europe and the Christian faith.

ONE of the most colourful figures on the English literary scene between the two world wars was Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). The Oson of a French father and an English mother, he was a confident and aggressive Roman Catholic apologist, a man whose stocky physique and literary style combined to conjure up the image of a prize fighter. His comic verses -- most of them intended, in principle, for children -- have certainly stood the test of time; what was arguably his worst book, Europe and the Faith, published in 1920, is chiefly remembered today for the slogan that punctuates its argument: |The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith'. He argues that those who are not Roman Catholics |look upon the story of Europe externally, as strangers', but that the Catholic |as he reads that story does not grope at it from without; he understands it from within'. He argues too that the church assumed and continued the tradition of Graeco-Roman civilization: |The Faith is that which Rome accepted in her maturity; nor was the Faith the cause of the decline, but rather the conservator of all that could be conserved'.

Most readers of Belloc's book today would be appalled at the prejudices he so belligerently displays; he is at one and the same time antisemitic, antimasonic, anti-Byzantine, anti-Protestant and anti-Prussian. But underneath the prejudices and the tendentious manipulation of history is a claim not lacking in a certain seductive quality; any Western European Christian with a sense of the history and culture of his continent, reading Dante, visiting Chartres Cathedral, listening to a Mozart Mass, could well be beguiled by it. But even for the Christian -- or, rather, especially for the Christian -- the thesis is fallacious and must be resisted for two reasons in particular.

First of all, it has to be admitted that Europe itself has never been totally Christianized (even in the most superficial or nominal sense). No other religion than Christianity can claim to have marked so profoundly the European consciousness or to have had the same European influence. Nevertheless, the history of Judaism from the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to the Return to Palestine is largely (though not exclusively) European and Jews have played a prominent role in its intellectual and cultural history. One has only to think (taking a handful of names at random) of the contribution of such figures as Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Bergson, Buber and Chagall.

In our own time too, Islam is surely on the way to acquiring a European context and therefore a European development which it has not had since the so-called |re-conquest' of the Iberian peninsula. It is often forgotten that in the eighth century the Arabs over-ran Spain and that their further advance into France was only halted by the decisive victory over them of Charles Martel near Poitiers in 732. From that time the Arab and Islamic influence in Spain was strong, and although the |re-conquest' began to get under way in the ninth century, it was only finally completed in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain. The recent proposal to beatify Queen Isabella on the 500th anniversary of that expulsion showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity. In fact Spain can celebrate 700 years of Arab civilization, a civilization which has contributed so much to Europe, both directly and through its preservation and transmission of some of the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature.

It must not be forgotten either that Spain was not the only centre of Arab and Islamic influence in Europe. Another prominent example is Sicily; the Cappella Palatina in Palermo still demonstrates to visitors today the extraordinary and harmonious synthesis of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic and architectural skills which reached its apogee during the reign of Roger I in the 12th century.

At about the time that Islamic culture was being finally extinguished in Europe's farthest south-western corner, another kind of Islamic advance was taking place with the extension of the Turkish Ottoman Empire into the Balkans, a threat which was to menace Christian Europe until the defeat of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571 and the defeat of the Turkish army outside Vienna by John Sobieski in 1683. It has to be admitted however that the Turkish contribution to European civilization has been less fruitful and less positive than that of the Arabs in Spain and in Sicily. Yet the remaining traces of Turkish cultural and political influence in the Balkan states and the continued existence of a small part of Turkey on the European side of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles are a challenge to any too facile an equation between Europe and Christendom,

In the 20th century, however, the culture of Europe is predominantly secular and this is no recent phenomenon. The 18th century, the century of Hume and Voltaire, saw the dominance of the rationalist spirit of the |Enlightenment'; indeed since the 17th century non-religious philosophies have been fighting with Christianity for the soul of Europe. One of the strongest challenges in the last hundred years has come from Marxism and, although at the political and economic level the most recent past has seen the apparent collapse of Communism in Europe, the intellectual influence of Marxist ideas is still strong and likely to endure.

It is only one part -- and not the most important -- of any critique of the identification of Europe and the Christian Faith to demonstrate the considerable influence of non-Christian, pre-Christian and post-Christian culture in European history: the main thrust of the argument must lie elsewhere. The Christian Gospel claims to be universal, to be Catholic, and it must stand or fall by that claim. A dangerous distortion takes place when the Roman Catholic Church is praised and admired by a man like Charles Maurras as the continuing vehicle of Graeco-Roman civilization (he was far less happy about its Hebrew inheritance) and as part of the necessary structure in any attempt to conserve or rebuild a Europe of traditional values (throne and altar), but admired from outside -- for in fact until his trial and imprisonment after the Second World War, Maurras was neither a believing nor practising Christian. The confused history of the alternating changes in the policy of the Papacy towards Action Francaise (the movement led by Charles Maurras) illustrates the ambiguity of such a situation. As the Belgian historian, Roger Aubert, commenting on Pope Pius X's initially enthusiastic assessment of the agnostic Maurras as a |valiant defender of the Holy See and of the Church', put it with gentle and delicate irony, the Pope had apparently failed to notice that what Maurras was praising was |the success of these institutions in having contained within barriers borrowed from the wisdom of ancient Rome the more explosive elements in the message of the "Hebrew Christ".' If the Church's claim to catholicity is serious, then either its message is true and true for the whole of humanity or it is a lie and to be rejected by all. In the last analysis the essential Christian message cannot be more European than it is Asian or African.

Such a universalist approach is crucial to the integrity and credibility of the Gospel, but it does have to take into account a paradox that is also, in its own way, an inescapable element in the historical reality of the Gospel message and of its transmission in the life of the Church. This paradox has been described by the 20th century Swiss Protestant theologian Emil Brunner as |the scandal of particularity'. This phrase is used to underline the essentially historical character of Christianity. Christians believe that what we know about God is the result not of man's unaided intellectual search but of God's own self-revelation and that God has chosen to disclose himself in a privileged and exceptional fashion in a particular history (that of the people of Israel) and supremely in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. This historical revelation has necessarily also its geography, though that geography is better defined in terms of the Mediterranean than in terms of Europe. The |particularity' -- the hic et nunc -- of this revelation has been transmitted to us through three cultures and three languages -- the three languages of the title of the cross -- Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The paradox is that God's self-disclosure, though intended for the whole of humanity without exception, discrimination or favouritism, is conditioned by three historical (and geographical) factors.

The first is the particular and strongly marked culture and history of the messianic people Israel, a people whose tenacious sense of their identity as the |People of God' almost inevitably involved not only a pronounced consciousness of being different and apart from their neighbours but, even more, a fierce hostility towards them.

The second is the notion of |the fullness of time', as St. Paul puts it, in connection with the moment of the irruption of the divine into this world, in the Advent of Christ. The Incarnation of the Word of God necessarily involves the coming of the Eternal into Time and the choice by God for this |coming' of a particular place and a particular time -- Palestine at a period when it was part of the Roman Empire -- must be considered as part of his providence.

The third is the fact that the Christian message -- although not spoken by Jesus in Greek -- was first committed to writing and first articulated (and debated) theologically in the Greek language and in the framework of the Graeco-Latin civilization of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire constituted at the time what was referred to as the oikoumene (the whole inhabited world) and, though the Gospel did at a fairly early stage penetrate beyond this oikoumene, the Graeco Roman world was the matrix not only for the Church's normative period, that of the first Christian community and of the New Testament writings, but also for what has been called its |building period', that of the Fathers, the early Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds and the early Liturgies. For Churches in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions (and for many others too) a real authority attaches to this |building period' as well as to the normative period of the New Testament scriptures.

The vital importance for main stream Christianity of Tradition (primarily, of course, for the more |catholic' Churches but increasingly now for the Churches of the Reformation also) means that this cultural and doctrinal history can never be ignored, denied or undone. The fact that the Creeds and the great conciliar definitions are considered to be |irreformable' does mean that they are held to exclude what is erroneous; it does not mean however that they can never be restated or reformulated subsequently in ways that harmonize better with other linguistic and cultural traditions, provided that these do not contradict, pervert or undermine their original formulation. This point has been made clearly and concisely in the First Agreed Statement on Authority in the Final Report of the First Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission:

All generations and cultures must be helped to understand that the

good news of salvation is also for them. It is not enough for the

Church simply to repeat the original apostolic words. It has also

prophetically to translate them in order that the hearers in their

situation may understand and respond to them. All such restatements

must be consonant with the apostolic witness recorded in

the Scriptures; for in this witness the preaching and teaching of

ministers, and statements of local and universal councils, have to

find their ground and consistency. Although these clarifications are

conditioned by the circumstances which prompted them, some of

their perceptions may be of lasting value. In this process the Church

itself may come to see more clearly the implications of the Gospel.

Yet even here some reservations have immediately to be added. It can be argued that there was a providential presence of the Greek language at the early and most crucial stages of the development of Christian doctrine. That language, with all the depth and subtlety of its philosophical resources was to hand when it was most needed for the vital credal and conciliar definitions of Trinitarian and Christological faith. Yet this language was also a direct cause of misunderstanding to those Christians who did not share a predominantly Graeco-Roman culture and many of whom lived outside the oikoumene in the tragic story of the so-called Nestorian and Monophysite schisms of the 5tb century, resulting from the nonacceptance respectively of the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) and the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). The Churches then formed have never died out and some of them indeed are experiencing considerable growth and renewal in our own time. The dialogue between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches, currently in progress, is gradually resolving many of the differences, largely through the realization that the two theologies had been kept apart not by formal contradiction but by misunderstanding resulting from cultural and linguistic factors. The vigour of the non-Chalcedonian Churches of Syria, Armenia, Egypt, Ethopia and South India is a continuing witness to the importance and vitality of non-European expressions of Christianity. These ancient Churches point too to the challenge of Inculturation, the need to find expressions of the theology, liturgy and spirituality of the Christian Church which can engage meaningfully with the different cultures in which the Church has to live and work.

The debate in the Church over inculturation has to struggle with two imperatives. There is first the call for faithfulness to the universal Christian tradition and to the maintenance of unity and communion within the Universal Church. The Church in one country or in one cultural tradition must be able to recognize in the Church of another country or another culture that it is essentially the same faith that they both confess, the same sacraments that they both celebrate and the same Gospel by which they both try to live. There is, no less necessarily, the call for legitimate diversity (diversity-in-unity) not only for the sake of liberty but, more importantly, for the sake of effective witness; a witness which demands a degree of adaptation to the thought forms, languages and traditions of other cultures. The history of Christian missions in Asia and Africa has shown how difficult the Churches have found it to give due and balanced weight to both these imperatives.

A classic and tragic example of a clash between them is to be found in the so-called |Chinese Rites' controversy -- a long drawn out history which began with the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), and his enlightened policy of identification with Chinese culture. This led to a lengthy debate about adaptation to Chinese costume and way of life, the legitimacy of the traditional honours paid to one's ancestors and to Confucius, the use of Chinese in the liturgy and the choice of Chinese words and phrases for a Christian vocabulary. The Jesuit policy aroused misunderstanding and suspicion, was denounced to Rome, and was finally and unambiguously condemned by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742 to the great and lasting detriment of the Christian cause in China.

The problem if inculturation also raises very sharply the significance of European theological controversies and denominational divisions in a non-European setting. At the first World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910 and attended by delegates from Anglican and Protestant Churches, an unknown delegate from the Far East made a notable intervention. After thanking the European missionaries for bringing them the Gospel, he went on to reproach them for exporting to them also the divisions which had all taken place on European soil and which were a stumbling block and counter witness to the credible and effective proclamation of the Gospel of reconciliation in their culture.

So it is that today both the Christian European, aware of the deeper consciousness of a common cultural heritage and common destiny among so many European peoples and anxious to win back the peoples of Europe to Christian faith, and the non-Christian European, trying to identify and make sense of the same cultural heritage, will need (perhaps together) to engage in a re-reading of European history. The balance sheet will be a complex one, for they will need to make an inventory of both positive and negative factors arising from the Christian contribution to European history and the European contribution to Christian history.

Christians and non-Christians should be able to agree on at least some of the positive and impressive achievements of the Christian Church in Europe.

First of all, there is the crucial role of the Church (and in particular in the West of the monastic tradition) in keeping alive the flame of civilization in the darkest time of the barbarian invasions after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

There was therefore singular appropriateness in Pope Paul VI's proclamation of St. Benedict as Patron of Europe when in 1964 he reconsecrated the Basilica of Monte Cassino after its wartime destruction. It was however no less appropriate for Pope John Paul II, himself a Pole, to proclaim St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the 9th century Apostles of the Slavs, as Co-Patrons of Europe. Since that prophetic declaration, the disappearance of the Berlin Wall and of the Iron Curtain have further reminded us that the concept of Europe must not and cannot be confined to its western half. The European therefore who rejects Christianity is in an uncomfortable position; he is in fact having to reject the most powerful force in the evolution of any kind of European consciousness, powerful not only in its own message and its own life but also in its transmission of the riches of the civilization which preceded it. As we say this, we have, of course, to recognise that the same may seem to apply in reverse to Christians living, for example, in China and Japan; at this point everything depends on the credibility of the Christian claim that Christ is able to affirm and fulfil all that is true and noble in other religions and philosophies.

Secondly, there is the no less crucially important role of the Christian message in feeding and firing the imagination. Without imagination there can be neither art nor poetry, neither literature nor music, and so much of the imagination that has been behind the creation of the masterpieces of European art, music, literature and architecture has been either directly or indirectly fuelled and inspired by the Church and by the Church's faith. In order to enter into this cultural heritage it is absolutely indispensable, if not to share, at least to make the effort to understand with some sympathy that faith. The European who refuses to do this is cutting himself off from the living springs of his own culture.

There are also negative factors in this balance sheet and this no Christian should attempt to deny. Just as every Christian is called to holiness but remains a sinner, so human sin also disfigures the countenance of the Christian Church -- of all the Christian Churches. At least three negative factors need here to be recorded and acknowledged.

First, there is the ambiguous record of the Church in European history. Though it has often championed freedom, compassion and tolerance and inspired those who have fought for these causes, it has also on occasion identified itself -- either openly or with a silent and cowardly complicity -- with the forces of oppression and intolerance; too often by sheer conservatism, of naivete or self interest it has sought to maintain the social, economic and political status quo.

Secondly, there is the fact that although the common profession of Christianity has been a factor of unity binding the peoples together in a common heritage, this has not prevented Europe from being the theatre of some of the most bitter, cruel and bloody wars in human history. This was true even before the visible unity of the Church in Europe was broken, but the issue has been worsened by the schisms which have divided the Church.

The major split between the Greek East and the Latin West is sometimes given the symbolic but misleading date of 1054, since on 16th July of that year the Papal Legate, Cardinal Humbert, and his colleagues entered the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople and dramatically laid a Bull of Excommunication against the Patriarch upon the altar. It is necessary to realise the importance of cultural and political factors in contributing to this schism. In his well known introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia (Timothy Ware) has made this abundantly clear: |Long before there was open and formal schism between East and West, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with this fact of increasing estrangement'. But not only did increasing estrangement lead up to the events of 1054; it was events like the appalling sack of Constantinople by Western soldiers in the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204 that made the mutual anathemas of 1054 a lasting reality and made the Byzantines wonder whether they might not be better treated by Muslim Turks than by their fellow Christians of the Latin West. In the East-West schism we see how political and cultural differences can lead to theological divisions and how theological divisions in their turn can lead to deeper political bitterness. The tragic conflict in our own time between Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs is proof -- if proof is needed -- that the explosive mixture of nationalist and religious divisions is still as potent as ever.

The second great religious split in European history was the 16th century Reformation and here again the same almost inextricable intertwining of political, cultural and theological factors can be observed at work. It was certainly no accident that the Reformation coincided with a growing nationalism among the peoples of Western Europe, and the history of the Reformation in England illustrates perfectly how desperately difficult it is to separate out the theological from the cultural and political factors involved. The 16th and 17th centuries present us with a terrible history of religious persecution and politico-religious wars, and the bloody confrontation of Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists in Northern Ireland is evidence of the continuing destructive potency of unhealed memories from the past.

Legitimate pride on the part of Christians in the contribution of directly Christian influence to the transformation of Eastern Europe at the present time needs to be balanced by a sober and penitent awareness of the divisive powers of nationalism also at work in this transformation and of the part played by religious rivalry and jealousy in such nationalism.

A terrible stain on the collective European Christian conscience is antisemitism, and even today -- even after Auschwitz -- it is clear that antisemitism is not dead and that it has a tendency to be a powerful contributory element in many forms of religiously coloured nationalism.

Thirdly, there is the dark side of Europe's exploitation and colonization of other continents. All Europeans need to be aware of this, and European Christians need to be aware of -- and penitent for -- the complicity of their Churches in that exploitation. As they give thanks for those heroic Christians who championed the rights of, for example, the Indians in Spanish dominated Latin America, they will also need to ask why such witness was not more universal.

The subject of the relationship between Europe and the Christian Faith is so vast in its scope and ramifications that an essay of this kind cannot aspire to do more than identify one or two major themes, which in their turn will call for exploration at greater depth and at greater length. Other themes, perhaps no less important, cannot be dealt with at all here; some of them in any case call for a specialized knowledge of other continents, their cultures and religions. There is for example the whole question of the extent to which the Christian doctrine of creation has facilitated and encouraged scientific and technological advance in Europe as compared with the influence of other religions in other continents and whether the exploitation of the resources of nature is to be attributed to the same Christian doctrine or rather to its neglect. There is also the question of whether Christianity's influence on such questions as the rights of women has been -- when compared with the record of other religions in other continents -- liberating or oppressive.

As they survey the course of human history, believing Christians will hold that God has definitively revealed himself to humanity once and for all in Jesus Christ and also that that revelation will one day be seen to make sense of every human achievement, of every human search and of every human culture. European Christians will be grateful for the additional bonus of having been born into a culture which even today, after some centuries of secularism, enables them to understand more easily the Christian tradition and to commend it more forcefully to their neighbours. They are in fact in the position of saying to them, |Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged' (Isaiah 51, 1). At the same time they will be aware of the danger of oversimplifying this argument. For the theme underlying all those which we have tried to examine is that of the fundamental ambiguity in any relationship of Christianity with any and every culture, language, philosophy and social and political system. Any Christian celebration of Europe must find place both for shame and for glory, both for an act of penitence and for an act of thanksgiving, for Kyrie eleison and for Gloria in excelsis Deo.

[Canon Roger Greenacre is the Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral. This article is a shortened version of the original English text of his contribution (Le credo: L'Europe et la foi) to the second of the three volumes of L'Esprit de l'Europe, edited by A. Compagnon and J. Seebacher and published earlier this year by Flammarion (Paris).]
COPYRIGHT 1993 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Greenacre, Roger
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Previous Article:Picnics on Vesuvius: Steps Towards the Millennium.
Next Article:Selling Scottish universities.

Related Articles
Synod of European bishops (Vatican).
Cardinal warns of coming persecution in Europe.
Children visit Parish Church.
Christian Voodoo.
Church link to culture; Archbishop's message for 08 year.
Music and costume at school faith day.
Bishop hits back over decline row.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters