CATHEDRAL VS. CUBE:

December 29, 2004

Politics Without God?: Reflections on Europe and America (George Weigel, DEC. 24, 2004, Zenit.org)

At the far western end of the axis that traverses Paris from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe is the Great Arch of La Défense. Designed by a sternly modernist Danish architect, the Great Arch is a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble. Its rooftop terrace offers an unparalleled view of the French capital, past the Tuilleries to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.

The arch’s three-story high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For President François Mitterrand planned the Great Arch as a human rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook, the Great Arch was dubbed “Fraternity Arch.” That same guidebook, like every other one I consulted, emphasized that the entire Cathedral of Notre-Dame would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.

All of which raised some questions, as I walked along that terrace in 1997. Which culture would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this rational, geometrically precise, but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?

Those questions have come back to me, if in different forms, as I’ve tried to understand Europe in recent years. How, for example, should one understand the fierce argument in Europe over whether a new constitutional treaty for the European Union should include a reference to the Christian sources of European civilization? Why did so many European intellectuals and political leaders deem any reference to the Christian sources of contemporary Europe civilization a threat to human rights and democracy?

Was there some connection between this internal European debate over Europe’s constitution-making and the portrait in the European press of Americans (and especially an American president) as religious fanatics intent on shooting up the world? Was there a further connection between this debate and the fate of Rocco Buttiglione’s candidacy for the post of Commissioner of Justice on the European Commission?

Understanding these phenomena requires something more than a conventional political analysis. Nor can political answers explain the reasons behind perhaps the most urgent issue confronting Europe today — the fact that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide, its far-below-replacement-level birthrates creating enormous pressures on the European welfare state and a demographic vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized in the process.

My proposal is that Europe is experiencing a crisis of cultural and civilizational morale whose roots are also taking hold in some parts quarters of American society and culture. Understanding and addressing this crisis means confronting the question posed sharply, if unintentionally, by those guidebooks that boast about the alleged superiority of the Great Arch to Notre-Dame: the question of the cube and the cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom and the future of democracy. […]

Probing to the deeper roots of Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale is important for understanding Europe today and for discerning whatever promising paths of European renewal there may be. Getting at the roots of “Europe’s problem” is also important for understanding a set of problems Americans may face in the not-too-distant future. And that means that both Europeans and Americans must learn to think in new ways about the dynamics of history.

During 13 years of research and teaching in east central Europe, I’ve been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You can find it in a great thinker who lived in the borderland between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Vladimir Soloviev, who challenged the fashionable nihilism and materialism of the late 19th century.

You can find it in 19th-century Polish novelists, poets and playwrights, who, breaking with the Jacobin conviction that “revolution” meant a complete rupture with the past, insisted that genuine “revolution” meant the recovery of lost spiritual and moral values. You can find it in such intellectual leaders of the anti-communist resistance in east central Europe as Karol Wojtyla, Václav Havel and Václav Benda, who all argued that “living in the truth” could change what seemed unchangeable in history.

The common thread among these disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of “history” are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. “History” is not simply the byproduct of the contest for power in the world — although power plays an important role in history. And “history” is certainly not the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production, as the Marxists taught.

Rather, “history” is driven by culture — by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good and noble; by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.

Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe has been vindicated empirically by their own modern history. For 123 years, from 1795 to 1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet during that century and a quarter the Polish nation survived with such vigor that it could give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. And despite the fact that the revived Polish state was then beset for 50 years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish nation proved strong enough to give a new birth of freedom to east central Europe in the Revolution of 1989.

How did this happen? Poland survived — better, Poland prevailed — because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language, by a unique literature, and by an intense Catholic faith (which, an its noblest and deepest expressions, was ecumenical and tolerant, not xenophobic, as so many stereotypes have it). Poles know in their bones that culture is what drives history over the long haul.

This “Slavic view of history” is really a classically Christian way of thinking about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far as St. Augustine and “The City of God.” Yet, it is the Slavs who have been, in our time, the most powerful exponents of this “culture-first” understanding of the dynamics of the world’s story. […]

If democratic institutions and procedures are the expressions of a distinctive way of life based on specific moral commitments, then democratic citizenship must be more than a matter of following the procedures and abiding by the laws and regulations agreed upon by the institutions A democratic citizen is someone who can give an account of his or her commitment to human rights, to the rule of law and equality before the law, to decision-making by the majority and protection of the rights of minorities. Democratic citizenship means being able to tell why one affirms “the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law,” to cite the preamble to the European constitution. Who can give such an account?

Here is one of the richest ironies involved in the question of the cube and the cathedral. The original charge against Christians in the Roman empire was that they were “atheists”: people who were “a-theos,” people who had abandoned the gods of Rome and who were thus a threat to public life and public order. To be a-theos was to stand outside and over-against the political community.

The “Christophobia” of contemporary European high culture turns this indictment inside out and upside down: Christianity cannot be acknowledged as a source of European democracy because the only public space safe for pluralism, tolerance, civility, and democracy is a public space that is thoroughly a-theos.

It is all very strange. For the truth of the matter is that European Christians can likely give a more compelling account of their commitment to democratic values than their fellow Europeans who are a-theos — who believe that “neutrality toward worldviews” must characterize democratic Europe. A postmodern or neo-Kantian “neutrality toward worldviews” cannot be truly tolerant; it can only be indifferent.

Absent convictions, there is no tolerance; there is only indifference. Absent some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the truth, there is only skepticism and relativism. And skepticism and relativism are very weak foundations on which to build and sustain a pluralistic democracy, for neither skepticism nor relativism, by their own logic, can “give an account” of why we should be tolerant and civil.

In contrast to this thin account of tolerance — we should be tolerant because it works better — there is the argument for tolerance given by Pope John Paul II in his 1989 encyclical letter on Christian mission, “Redemptoris Missio” [The Mission of the Redeemer]. There the Pope taught that “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” The Catholic Church respects the “other” as an “other” who is also a seeker of truth and goodness; the Church only asks that the believer and the “other” enter into a dialogue that leads to mutual enrichment rather than to a deeper skepticism about the possibility of grasping the truth of things.

The Catholic Church believes it to be the will of God that Christians be tolerant of those who have a different view of God’s will, or no view of God’s will. Thus Catholics (and other Christians who share this conviction) can “give an account” of their defense of the “other’s” freedom, even if the “other,” skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to “give an account” of the freedom of the Christian.

A great deal of effort has been expended trying to determine why Old Europe and Blue America react with such hysteria to Red America generally and George W. Bush in particular–extending Mr. Weigel’s argument just a bit, the reaction seems more understandable if we consider these cubists to be stuck in the midst of the crisis and looking out, with fear and envy, at the equanimity and confidence of their neighbors in the cathedral.

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