The large numbers of people arriving on Europe’s shores, whether refugees or economic migrants, and the evil advent of ISIS as well as other Islamist extremists, have led the historian Niall Ferguson to compare, in The Sunday Times, the present state of Europe to the arrival of Germanic tribes and the Huns of central Asia at the gates of Rome in the 5th century.
There certainly are points of contact with the state of the western Roman Empire then and of Europe today. We have the same decadent and dilettante popular culture, where anything goes and “bread and circuses” keep the population quiescent with a never-ending round of sports, entertainment and games of chance. There is the same cynicism about faith and the values that spring from it and the same accidie, or weariness, of ageing cultures. But we have to be careful about being anachronistic and imputing to Rome all our alleged virtues and vices. It is quite astonishing that some, instead of seeing Christianity as part of the answer to Europe’s predicament, are taking this opportunity to smear all religion by association, whatever the facts of history.
It is particularly inaccurate to take the violently anti-clerical Edward Gibbon, of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as a reliable guide in comparing the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire then and the arrival of Islamist extremists in our midst now. As Larry Siedentop has well shown in his Inventing the Individual, there were no “secular” cultures in antiquity. All we had were religions of the family, tribe, city or empire, and Rome was no exception. After all Caesar, as with many rulers of antiquity, claimed divinity and, at the time of the rise of Christianity, was styled dominus et deus.
It is this that caused so much trouble for the early Church. It could honour him as emperor but had to refuse him divine honours and worship. It is simply wrong to claim that the strength of “secular” Rome was sapped by the arrival of monotheistic Christianity. It is also highly misleading to compare pacifist early Christianity with the violent extremism of ISIS and other Islamist outfits. Most importantly, Christianity replaced the corporate cults of family, tribe and city with a deeply personal spirituality and the possibility of belonging to a classless and universal community. As Siedentop tells us, it is Christianity that has provided us with the idea of the “person” and of his or her freedom and value. If Christians have not always been faithful to this vision, that is not a reason to make false comparisons with a totalitarian system, such as radical Islamism, where there is little scope for personal freedom and hardly any for the internal forum of conscience. Siedentop shows too that the secular realm has emerged from Christian ideas about respect for conscience and the non-coercive nature of early Christianity, not from the supposed pagan antecedents so beloved of Christianity’s cultured despisers.
The fact of the matter is that Rome was saved from the worst excesses of the Vandals and the Huns by Pope Leo the Great and, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, the candle of learning was kept alight in the Dark Ages by the Benedictines and other religious communities. We certainly need statesmen today like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman, who saw post-war European integration as needing a Christian moral basis. We need also a John Paul II, whose role in liberating the countries of eastern and central Europe from another alien ideology needs no repetition. There certainly is an encroaching and growing darkness but Christianity is the light that can shine in it and, eventually dispel it. By all means, pray for a Benedict or a Wojtyła but who would want another Nero or Domitian?
Ferguson rightly notes the emptiness of the shopping malls and entertainment culture. But he does not mention the chaotic state of family life brought about by confusing liberty with libertarianism. To this we may add the impoverished symbolism of those trying to grieve over an appalling atrocity but with no frame of reference, no system of belief and only a dim apprehension of anything transcendent. As John Henry Newman described it in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world”. Why is it that the secular Fifth Republic has to have the memorial for the victims in the glorious Notre-Dame Cathedral and not (say) the completely secular and featureless Pompidou Centre? Can this be a clue to the role the Christian faith can play in helping Europe to wake from its slumber, to keep its nerve and to assist in its moral and spiritual renewal?
The truth of the matter is that Europe needs to recover its grand narrative by which to live, by which to determine what is true, good and beneficial for its people. The nostrums of Marxism and Fascism have brought frightful suffering for its people. Now another totalitarian ideology threatens. A truly plural space can only be guaranteed by intrinsically Christian ideas of the dignity of the human person, respect for conscience, equality of persons and freedom not only to believe but to manifest our beliefs in the public space, without discrimination against or violence to those who do not share them. Instant self-gratification and endless entertainment will no more contribute to contemporary European survival than they did to ancient Roman. What is needed is an ethic of service, selflessness and sacrifice for the sake of the common good. Many will recognise this as the teaching of the Galilean Master, not of any paganism, ancient or modern, nor of any ideology, secular or religious.
There is no such thing as neutrality or value-free process in these matters. The extremists have decided what their values are and from where they come. Have we anything to counter with? The institutions, culture, achievements and values of Europe can most readily be understood with reference to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, its teaching on the value of the person, the common good and, most crucially, the necessity of self-criticism and renewal. This is the time to reappropriate it, in its broadest sense, as the wellspring of our values, to celebrate it and to offer it to all of goodwill as a basis for working together for an open but cohesive Europe. Has anyone any viable alternatives?
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (20/11/15)
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