June 6, 2011
Who Lost Europe?
— Martin E. Marty
“Who lost China?” was a taunting and accusatory question aimed at United States leaders by their political critics in the 1950s. We’ll leave that question unaddressed and unanswered. Now: “Who lost Europe?” Those who ask it claim to have answers, whether they be mournful and thoughtful like Pope Benedict XVI, or Christianity-minded cultural pessimists, or secular anti-multiculturalists. Not all of their mutually contradictory answers can be right, and it is not likely that all of them are completely wrong. A text to study is in the Wall Street Journal. There, Frits Bolkestein, a “retired center-right Dutch politician,” tells of “How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization.”
He is forthright about bringing up classic Christian theology and its waning as part of his response to the question he refined: How did it become “controversial for a Western leader to affirm a preference for his own culture? In short, how did Europe lose confidence in its own civilization?” He sees that Western leaders “displayed the effects of Christian guilt and European self-hatred.” The “current masochism” of the West derives first from Jesus and the Bible. He cites Matthew 23:12: “Whoeover shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” He sees there two bad ideas which lead to a loss of pride plus gain in self-hatred. Muslim culture, which is on the rise in Europe, “is a shame culture,” but Christianity, alas, is a “guilt culture.”
From the Bible Bolkestein turns to culture. Blame the “Passion According to Saint Matthew,” and Bach’s voice of the believer: “I shall be punished for what you [Christ] have suffered.” Soon the West saw that the “mote in our eye was heavier than the beam abroad.” In Bolkestein’s good old days, at least “Catholicism and Lutheranism provided for the atonement of guilt,” but these faiths are not credible today. “This also goes for Calvinism, which in its purest form knows no remission of guilt in this life.”
So western guilt culture invented the United Nations, “in part to weaken its own hegemony.” Soon the U.N. majority was “bent on castigating the West and Israel.” The columnist then does appropriately adduce some egregiously virulent anti-western expressions by some U.N. agencies and persons. Grant him a point there. But he lauds the Europeans who want to teach people to reverse the bad cultural strands by “taking pride” in their own classical values. For him, they target Muslims, Hindus, and other peoples and their cultures who mess up Christian values.
Still, in times of cultural crisis, one may learn from some ugly expressions and phenomena, so it will pay to listen. But what Bolkestein fails to deal with is this: the answer to “Who lost Europe?” could be, simply, Europe, whose citizens nowadays tend to desert the chapels and cathedrals and abandon the beliefs long associated with these. Many an honest analyst would say in contentions which can be tested: masses in Europe stopped believing in God, in the stories which animated European life, in the symbols that made them vivid, in the community that embodied them.
There are some counter-signs, signals of new Christian vitalities. But before accusing the U.N., the Muslims, the agents who produce masochism, it might make more sense to analyze the losses in Europe’s faith. Muslims, Hindus, and others in the Netherlands and the British Isles crowd their sanctuaries and are zealous in prayer. The majority of Christians attend to something similar, no matter what that hated United Nations people think. But, please, leave the Passion and the Sermon on the Mount alone. They might still awaken faith.
Frits Bolkestein, “The Roots of Europe's Cultural Masochism: How did we come to lose confidence in our own civilization?” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.