Having cast off Christianity, Europe now lacks a spiritual identity and united purpose. Absent these essential characteristics, a culture becomes stale and decadent, and turns to political institutions as the sole guarantor of peace, welfare, and security…
The British government’s invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29, formally began the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from a politically unified Europe. While the dissolution of rigid political bonds will forever change the United Kingdom’s relationship with the continent, it is increasingly imperative to ask whether its withdrawal from the European Union is representative of a larger cultural shift? Are Europe’s political troubles deeper than they appear on the surface? Is a united Europe possible, or even desirable, today?
I am far from the first person to ask this question, and I certainly hold no delusions that I can settle the issue once and for all. However, that Europe is undergoing substantial cultural change is an observation that becomes clearer each day. The face of Europe is changing in a multitude of ways: (i) its population is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse; (ii) its churches are emptier than ever; (iii) its political institutions are increasingly centralized and uniform; (iv) its economy is subject to crushing taxation and protectionist policies; and (v) its consciousness of its historical greatness is succumbing to the relativism that every culture is entitled to equal esteem. A once vibrant cultural unity is now defenseless against the demands of extreme multiculturalism, relativism, and bureaucratic centralization. To wit, Europe has become the paradigm of post-modern cultural subjectivism.
By leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom is paradoxically leading the fight for the survival of Europe itself. In taking the initiative to abandon an artificial political unity superimposed by bureaucratic elites, the United Kingdom has reasserted its unique place in the history of both Europe and the world, while France, Germany, and other European powers permit themselves to sink further into cultural disunity. Those powers labor under the delusion that Europe is little more than a political project. But the British electorate rejected this artificial conception of unity, and in voting to leave Europe, Brexit supporters embraced the notion that Europe is a cultural enterprise that cannot be reconstructed according to the whims of civil servants in Brussels.
But if Europe is not merely a political construct, what is it?
Scholars have debated the meaning of Europe since the term was first used in the fifth century B.C. by Herodotus, who understood it as a geographic concept: “The Persians consider something of their property to be Asia and the barbarian peoples who live there, while they maintain that Europe and the Greek world are a separate country.” Yet the area contemplated by Herodotus gradually spread west over the centuries, eventually encompassing modern-day France, Germany, and Britain.
Europe, then, must constitute something more than a mere geographic area. To British historian Christopher Dawson (who coined the phrase “Europe in Eclipse”), Europe is a combination of geographic, spiritual, material, and intellectual factors. To understand Europe in terms of one of these concepts to the exclusion of the others is to misunderstand its nature altogether. Europe is not an ideology, a landmass, or a religious institution, but each of these concepts together combines to form Europe’s essence.
Hilaire Belloc was famous for declaring that “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe,” but this narrow understanding of Europe confuses the necessary with the sufficient. While Europe’s Christian heritage is a necessary element of Europe’s character, and arguably its most important, Europe is more than a spiritual communion or unified theological state.
Since the days of St Augustine of Hippo, Western Christianity strongly embraced the Biblical admonition to render to Caesar those things which belong to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. So while the Eastern Christian Empire centered at Constantinople formed into a single theocratic unit, in the West, by contrast, the Church at Rome exercised spiritual jurisdiction while allowing temporal leaders to retain their civic authority. The beginnings of shared heritage building upon the Hellenic philosophical tradition and the Roman ideal of civic duty began to flower into a synthesis held together by the bonds of a common spiritual enterprise—Christianity. This is what is commonly called the “medieval synthesis,” a historical unity that reached its peak during the thirteenth century.
But when the spirituality of a united Christian Europe began to fade with the Renaissance in the South (a romanticizing of Southern Europe’s classical roots) and the Reformation in the North (a romanticizing of the Teutonic roots of the North’s tribal culture), the medieval synthesis gradually unraveled, and Christianity split into discrete, often opposed sects. Exhausted by religious strife, Europeans turned to secular ideas in the search for a new unity.
With an increasing interest in scientific inquiry and the rising belief that technology could make daily life easier, science began to eclipse Christianity as Europe’s common denominator. Christian morality was preserved, but its spiritual dynamism was diminished. In its place arose an idea of Progress predicated upon Christian morality, but divorced from the spirituality of the Christian faith. Instead of Final Judgment, Europeans sought the perfection of man and the perfection of society. While the idea of Progress still embraced the eschatological, it immanentized the transcendent. Heaven could be realized on earth, or so its apostles reasoned.
Yet, like the former medieval unity, the synthesis of a “progressive” Europe was not to last, and by the end of the First World War, the concept of perpetual progress had been largely discredited.
But what does this have to do with present politics and the future of the European Union? Everything.
This is because Europe now lacks a spiritual identity and united purpose. Absent these essential characteristics, a culture becomes stale and decadent, and turns to political institutions as the sole guarantor of peace, welfare, and security. And while politics is a vital component of a united Europe, it should be the last place Europeans seek to build cultural consensus. This is particularly true in a post-modern, “multi-cultural” Europe that possesses fewer and fewer common elements. Artificial or coerced unity is not unity at all. Why should European nations join in a single political union if they lack any other significant commonalities?
Under these circumstances, it is not hard to see why the European Union is a political failure. Britain’s voters see this reality because they live it every day. By leaving a culturally confused Europe, and by embracing its own traditional heritage, Britain might just be preserving they very concept of traditional Europe itself.
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