TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Europe’s Secular Exception


Among the many myths that govern academic and public debates about the meaning and future of Europe, none is more persistent than that of secularization. The story goes something like this. After the dark ages and the “wars of religion” in the seventeenth century, Europe embarked on a slow but steady trajectory away from religion and faith and toward science and reason. Aided by the Protestant Reformation, the Treaty of Westphalia established the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio,” thus enthroning the primacy of the state over the Church and politics over religion. As a result, clerical and political absolutism sanctified by Rome was abandoned in favor of popular revolutions and democratic principles. Gradually, hereditary empires and absolute monarchies gave way to constitutional rule and the self-determination of sovereign nations and their enlightened leaders. The Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1848 cemented the independence from God and the priesthood and drew the battle lines between the wave of progress and the forces of reaction that culminated in the French separation of state and church in 1905. The triumph of positivism and the advent of science and technology did much to discredit the anti-modernist stance of Roman Catholicism.

Moreover, the two world wars consecrated the reign of godless ideologies and total warfare, with numerous churches embracing the nationalistic rhetoric of European politics. The advent of the Cold War reinforced ideological and national dividing lines and froze any religious revival that might have taken place in the East. By the time the iron curtain fell in 1989-90, Western Europe had already mutated into a secularized civilization, a process reinforced and reflected by the 1960s ideology of sexual liberation and individual emancipation. Since then, the trend seems to have been toward decreasing church attendance and the gradual demise of Europe’s Christian culture. The resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in the East and the growing presence of Islam over the last two decades, so the argument goes, will not change the long-term decline of religion on the old continent.


However, the secularization thesis, as it has come to be known, has been challenged successively by both sociologists and theologians. Sociologists like Grace Davie have described the European paradox of low levels of religious practice and persistent religious faith in terms of “believing without belonging.” Callum Brown has documented that secularization did not emerge until the mid-1960s and that it does not consist in the exit from religion but, more specifically, in the de-Christianization of popular culture. Theologians like John Milbank have shown that the secular is not an independent reality but is instead the product of a shift within theology and, as such, parasitical upon a perverted faith that privileges will over intellect and mind over world.

More recently, Joseph Ratzinger, the reigning Pope, argued in his seminal lecture on September 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg that the division of reason from faith in the late Middle Ages prefigured the emergence of modern secular rationalism and the rise of late modern religious fundamentalism. This represents a break away from Europe’s true legacy—the historical encounter of biblical revelation and ancient philosophy and the concomitant synthesis of faith and rationality in a way that broadens and deepens the grandeur of reason and makes revelation rationally intelligible. Based on the reintegration of reason and faith, a revivified Christianity can save Europe from the twin forces of secular nihilism and fundamentalist religion.

Other theologians, such as Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, have also defended the importance of Christianity for Europe. In a thoughtful lecture on January 26 in Liverpool—the European capital of culture 2008—Williams said that the most basic things that Europe stands for cannot be understood without religion in general and Christianity in particular. Among these basic things, he listed five: first, that individuals are endowed by nature with inalienable human rights; second, that “freedom as the absolute liberty to choose between alternatives is an unqualified good”; third, that “democracy as the widest possible consultations about people’s preferences” ensures the possibility of changing those who rule when such a change is desired by a majority; fourth, that the distinction between public and private is a invaluable achievement of Europe’s public culture; and finally, fifth, that the distinct character of modern European art and culture is “the complexities of the individual’s awareness and emotion.” According to Williams, the logic that underlies these five features of Europe is “the belief that what is most uniquely human is a capacity for ‘self-creation’,” a task that is individual and independent of any external source.

However, the Archbishop was quick to point out that this sort of account of European identity makes a questionable assumption—that human self-fulfillment rules out self-definition vis-à-vis a sacred order and that it requires nothing but reason to ensure progress and liberation. The trouble is that such and similar readings of the inescapable advance of secularization conceal at least two major problems. First, the European secular model has not been and will not be embraced by four-fifths of the globe and is instead seen as an exception that confirms the rule about the enduring importance of religion. Second, this model collapses under the weight of its own inner contradictions—between its claim to universality and the exclusion of outsiders (imperialism, colonization, and racial supremacism), between the guarantee of ubiquitous prosperity and the reality of exploitation and inequality (slave trade and the forced integration into the global economy and unfettered market competition), between the cosmopolitan promise of a global community and the growing emphasis on territorial conquest and control. As such, European secularism has not worked in Europe or elsewhere, not least because it marks a departure from its own religious history.


Besides history, the other remarkable aspect of Rowan Williams’s lecture is the cultural analysis of Europe’s recent past, especially since the interwar period end of the Second World War. Over the last sixty years or so, two powerful movements of ideas have questioned the certainties of secular Europe: Marxism and Islam. What these two share is a challenge to the pluralism and irony of the classical European model and the belief in an alternative order that differs from the Christian emphasis on inwardness and “the pessimism or even passivity this can—in the eyes of Marxists and Muslims—generate.” Rather than representing a threat, these two movements should be seen as providing an impetus to Europe to reflect on its distinct Christian character, which blends an overarching unity with a plurality of different particular identities. This legacy is crucial because the demise of Marxism has led to the illusion that we have reached the “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama) and that the rise to power of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism is inevitable. As Williams points out, “Here we see two apparently diverse trends coming together—the radical individualism of our culture and the belief that there can be no rational argument about the sovereignty of the global market: consumerism and a kind of ‘soft’ totalitarianism go together.”

This diagnosis leads Williams to make the crucial point that religion is indispensable to a vibrant culture and a functioning democracy. Quoting the twentieth-century Catholic historian and philosopher Christopher Dawson, who wrote that “a society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture,” the Archbishop concluded his lecture by saying that the decline of Christianity in Europe would entail not only the loss of European culture but also the loss of “the idea of culture itself.” For him, only Christianity can uphold culture because the Christian religion maintains a belief or trust that there is always more than that which exists and that “this ‘more’ is always more compelling and wonderful.” What lies behind this is the idea that human self-creativity is not and cannot be purely self-grounded but involves and requires God’s creative grace. In the words of Williams: “The Christian approaches culture, society, art, politics, not with a negation and a demand for a rival culture or society, but with the readiness to question in the name of something more that God alone opens up and makes possible.” The excess that sustains and informs European culture cannot be reduced to man alone but intimates the presence of a creative God—the divine Logos that for the sake of creation “became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).


While there is much to celebrate in this lecture, one can and must go further. First, Williams acknowledges but does not explore the full critical potential of Christianity, especially when faced with a culture that is not merely individualistic and hedonist, but moving toward a “dictatorship of relativism” (Pope Benedict XVI) and the mass celebration of nihilistic ideas and practices—from acts of incivility via celebrity cults and teenage pornography to mindless violence and total warfare. Clearly, Christians must abandon an attitude of ambiguous tolerance and respect and instead denounce such a culture as false, empty, and iconoclastic. Otherwise, the sort of irony and skepticism that Williams seems to privilege risks being complicit with an ideology that is destructive and dangerous.

Second, Christianity in general and Christian social teaching in particular constitute a rich reservoir for an alternative social order that does not merely attempt to correct and supplement the existing arrangements but rather offers a new global universal community around a substantive—though contested—account of the common good in which all can participate equally. Williams’s preference for negative (or apophatic) theology is not (at least not in this lecture) sufficiently balanced by a positive (or cataphatic) vision of a just and peaceful order that the Christian ideal of the ecclesia implies.

This, then, is a challenge not only to society at large but also specifically to the Christian Church, which in its long history has so often failed to live up to its own standards of justice. If the Christian hope for peace is universal, then the age-old divisions among Christians are simply not tolerable. Church unity therefore emerges as one of the key questions for our time, not least in Europe whose motto has been unity-in-difference. Both the wider polity and the ecclesial body fall far short of this promise. Thus the task for Church leaders as well as the laity is to imagine ways of reconciliation and reunification between the Latin West and the Greek East, such that all Europeans can come together on shared grounds, Christians as well as non-Christians, people of all faiths and none. If this were to happen, European secularism would finally be seen for what it is—or was: an interlude in the long history of Christian Europe.

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