Pandaemonium

RETHINKING THE IDEA OF ‘CHRISTIAN EUROPE’

UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.


In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:

Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian

Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife.

At the heart of the argument lie two claims. First, that the political ideals and ethical values of ‘Western civilization’ are underpinned by Christianity (or the Judeo-Christian tradition). And, second, that this vital and unique tradition is under threat, from Islam on the one side and Marxists and the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ on the other. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and the end of modern, liberal democracy.

Many writers (myself included) have challenged the argument about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of Europe and about the growth of ‘Eurabia’. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident. Europe, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague argued recently, ‘has denied its Christian roots from which it has risen and which could give it the strength to fend off the danger that it will be conquered by Muslims, which is actually happening gradually’:

At the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern age, Islam failed to conquer Europe with arms. The Christians beat them then. Today, when the fighting is done with spiritual weapons which Europe lacks while Muslims are perfectly armed, the fall of Europe is looming.

It is not just believers who are worried that Europe is ‘denying its Christian roots’. It is an argument being increasingly heard from non-believers and non-Christians too. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of ‘Eurabia’, described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’, cautions against ‘any idealisation of Christendom’ and is critical of the ‘clash of civilizations thesis’. Yet he is alarmed by the decline of Christianity in Europe because it is leading to a world in which  ‘there isn’t… any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. The erosion of Christianity makes more difficult ‘the transmission… of ethical values between generations’. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’

Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of Western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the ‘bedrock values of Western civilisation’, and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values, is a Janet and John reading of history and ethics. It greatly simplifies both the history of Christianity and the roots of modern democratic values – not to mention underplaying the tensions that often exist between ‘Christian’ and ‘liberal’ values. Here are some initial thoughts on some of the myths and misconceptions about the history of ‘Christian Europe’ and of the Christian tradition, thoughts which hopefully I will eventually work into a fully-fleshed thesis.

1

Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was effectively a marriage of Athens and Jerusalem, a fusion of the Ancient Greek tradition and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so.

Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The extensions of the Mosaic law upon which Jesus insisted were already part of the Jewish tradition. The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently already appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to look inwards, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition.

Similarly, the concept of universalism, often seen as a key Christian ideal, was also drawn from Stoicism. In his famous Elements of Ethics the Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines very individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the community of neighbouring towns, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. Or, as another Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it,

Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian but that you are a citizen of the world.

It is a cosmopolitan vision that would be startling today, let alone two thousand years ago. Hierocles and Epictetus lived at a time when Christianity was tearing itself apart in doctrinal conflict, when heretics were put to death and non-Christians often treated with contempt. In time Christianity helped develop some of the Stoic ideas about a universal humanity, as did the other monotheistic faiths. The origins of these ideas, however, lay in pagan philosophy. And their full development had to await the Enlightenment and more secular philosophies.

2

Perhaps the most original and profound contribution of Christianity to the ‘Western’ tradition is also its most pernicious: the doctrine of Original Sin, the belief that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It was a doctrine that led to a bleak view of human nature; in the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower.

The story of Adam and Eve, and of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve’s transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole, nor does it fundamentally transform either human nature or human beings’ relationship to God.

In the Christian tradition, God created humanity to be immortal. In eating the apple, Adam and Eve brought mortality upon themselves. Jews have always seen humans as mortal beings. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were as children. Having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. This is seen not as a ’fall’ but as a ‘gift’ – the gift of free will. As the Hertz Chumash, the classic Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, observes, ‘Instead of the Fall of man (in the sense of humanity as a whole), Judaism preaches the Rise of man: and instead of Original Sin, it stresses Original Virtue, the beneficent hereditary influence of righteous ancestors upon their descendants’.

The story of Adam and Eve was initially, then, a fable about the attainment of free will and the embrace of moral responsibility. It became a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on moral responsibility. It was in this transformation in the meaning of the Adam and Eve’s transgression that Christianity has perhaps secured its greatest influence, a bleak description of human nature that came to dominate Western ethical thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place. Not till the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.

3

What we now think of as the Judeo-Christian tradition has been created as much despite the efforts of the Christian Church as because of them. Western Europe endured the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ between the extinguishing of the final sparks of Hellenism in the fifth century and the re-ignition of cultural life in the Renaissance almost a millennium later. This is often seen as a period ushered in by the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries that brought down the Roman Empire. In fact the intellectual darkness was ushered in also by the policies of the Church itself.

The collapse of the Roman imperial institutions under the weight of the myriad invasions left the Church as almost the only body capable of maintaining some semblance of social order in Western Europe. It also left the clergy as the sole literate class in the Western world and the Church as the lone patron of knowledge and the arts. But if the Church kept alive elements of a learned culture, Church leaders, particularly in Western Europe, were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge. ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?’, asked Tertullian, the first significant theologian to write in Latin. So preoccupied were devout Christians with the demands of the next world that to study nature or history or philosophy for its own sake seemed to them almost perverse. ‘Let Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason’, insisted Basil of Caesarea, an influential fourth century theologian and monastic. ‘For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church.’ Augustine, who with Thomas Aquinas is the greatest of all Christian philosophers, came to see uninhibited curiosity as an evil, in his Confessions condemning as a ‘disease’ the yearning to discover ‘the hidden powers of nature… which to know profits not’.

The most significant casualty of the Christianising of learning was Aristotle whose empirical, this-worldly approach to knowledge was most at odds with the dictates of faith. Aristotle, in historian Charles Freeman’s words, ‘vanishes from the western world; his work only reappears in the thirteenth century thanks to its preservation by Arab interpreters.’

4

Christian Western Europe rediscovered the Greek heritage, and in particular Aristotle, in the thirteenth century, a rediscovery that helped transform European intellectual culture. It inspired the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Christian theologians, and allowed reason to take centre stage again in European philosophy.

But how did theologians and scholars in Western Europe find their way back to Greek thought? Primarily through the Muslim Empire. As Christian Europe endured its ‘Dark Ages’, an intellectual tradition flowered in the Islamic world as lustrous as that of Ancient Athens before or Renaissance Florence after. Centred first in Baghdad and then in Cordoba, in Muslim Iberia, Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just in preserving the gains of the Greeks but in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge, both in philosophy and in science.

Arab scholars revolutionsed astronomy, invented algebra, helped develop the modern decimal number system, established the basis of optics, and set the ground rules of cryptography. But perhaps more important than the science was the philosophy. The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate. Ibn Rushd especially, the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam, his commentaries shaping the thinking of a galaxy of thinkers from Maimonides to Aquinas himself.

Christians of the time recognized the importance of Muslim philosophers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Ibn Rushd with the great pagan philosophers whose spirits dwell not in Hell but in Limbo ‘the place that favor owes to fame’. One of Raphael’s most famous paintings, The School of Athens, is a fresco on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicting the world’s great philosophers. Among the pantheon of celebrated Greek philosophers including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes stands Ibn Rushd.

Today, however, that debt has been almost entirely forgotten. There is a tendency to think of Islam as walled-in, insular, hostile to reason and freethinking. Much of the Islamic world came to be that way. But the fact remains that the scholarship of the golden age of Islamic thinking helped lay the foundations for the European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Neither happened in the Muslim world. But without the Muslim world, it is possible that neither may have happened.

5

What are now often called ‘Western values’ – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech, etc – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. Such values are, of course, not ‘Western’ in any essential sense but are universal; they are ‘Western’ only through an accident of geography and history.

A complex debate has arisen about the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Christian tradition.  As the notion of the Christian tradition and of ‘Western civilization’ have become fused, and as the Enlightenment has come to be seen as embodying Western values, so some have tried to co-opt the Enlightenment into the Christian tradition. The Enlightenment ideas of tolerance, equality and universalism, they argue, derive from the reworking of notions already established within the Christian tradition. Others, more ambiguous about the legacy of the Enlightenment, argue that true liberal, democratic values are Christian and that the radicalism and secularism of the Enlightenment has only helped undermine such values.

Both views are wrong. For a start, the historic origins of many of these ideas lie, as we have seen, outside the Christian tradition. It is as apt to describe a concept such as equality or universalism as Greek as it is to be describe it as Christian. In truth, though, contemporary ideas of equality or universality are neither Greek nor Christian. Whatever their historical origins, they have become peculiarly modern concepts, the product of the specific social, political and intellectual currents of the modern world.

Moreover, the great figures of the Christian tradition would have been appalled at what we now call ‘Western’ values. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Christopher Caldwell argues that Muslim migration to Europe has been akin to a form of colonization, threatening the very foundations of European civilization. Islam, Caldwell argues, ‘has broken… a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures’, not ‘enhancing or validating European culture’ but ‘supplanting it.’

Yet Caldwell also acknowledges that ‘What secular Europeans call “Islam” is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognize as theirs’. On the other hand, the modern, secular rights that now constitute ‘core European values’ would ‘leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.’ There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history and binds together ‘the Christian tradition’ in opposition to a single corpus of timeless set-in-stone Islamic values. Those who decry Enlightenment secularism as being in some sense anti-Christian are right – but only because they hold on to a very particular notion of what constitutes Christian ideals.

Not only are ‘Christian values’ and ‘Islamic values’ more complex, and with a more convoluted history than contemporary narratives suggest, so is the relationship between Enlightenment ideas and religious belief. There were, in fact, as historian Jonathan Israel pointed out in his wonderful three-part history of the period, Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested and Democratic Enlightenment, two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

This distinction was to shape the attitudes of the two sides to a whole host of social and political issues such as equality, democracy and colonialism. The attempt of the mainstream to marry traditional theology to the new philosophy, Israel suggests, constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. The Radicals, on the other hand, were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was no ‘meaningful alternative to grounding morality, political and social order on a systematic radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’

The moderate mainstream was overwhelmingly dominant in terms of support, official approval and prestige. But in a deeper sense, and in the long run, it proved less important than the radical strand. As Israel shows the ‘package of basic values’ that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derive principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment and has been profoundly shaped by radicals’ challenge to the Christian tradition.

To argue all this is not to deny the distinctive character of the Christian tradition (or traditions), nor the important role that Christianity has played in incubating what we now call ‘Western’ thought, nor yet the significant philosophical advances made within that tradition. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast.  The history of Christianity, its relationship to other ethical traditions, and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular societies  is far more complex than the trite ‘Western civilization is collapsing’ arguments allow. The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other ‘ists’ that such defenders so loathe.

The reason to challenge the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition. It also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values.   The crass defence of Christendom against the barbarian hordes may well do.

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30 comments

  1. Pete Baldwin

    To me the idea of “Christian or Islamic” either in religion or culture is a false dichotomy, since for 1400 years, they have been developing in parallel and interconnectedly. The best way forward is to accept the interconnectedness and build a reconcilation, such as is depicted in “3001: The Final Odyssey” by Arthur C Clarke, in which the “state religion of the whole world” is “Chrislamic Fundamentalism”, a new way of thinking originating and made popular by a woman. The threat is not perhaps that Islam could impinge on Christianity’s monopoly in Europe, but that the two world faiths could actually become reconciled.

  2. This is still an important theme for many – and once again an excellent piece. I would just say that your use of the fake and meaningless term “psychopathic” in the first paragraph shows the equal fallibility of post-religious European thought.

    • Thanks. But I’m not sure why you object to the word ‘psychopathic’ or what it has to do with the ‘fallibility of post-religious European thought’.

  3. One positive thing about all this is that perhaps people who are concerned about the encroachment of “the other” whoever that may be – may come to ask themselves but “what am I?” One may hope it will involve a rediscovery of a Christian tradition of compassion for all.

  4. Hi. The word “psycopath” is entirely meaningless and entirely fake. As you will realise if you consider this. Not just partly – entirely. This is only a part of the fallibility of European thought – as exemplified by “thinkers” like Sigmund Fraud.

  5. As David Bohm said –

    “It is proposed…that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession etc., etc.) which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.”

    Europe exists as a part of whole that is the entire planet (and beyond) – it does have distinctive features but these features have developed – and will continue to develop – within the context of, and influenced by, the entire planet. Just like my index finger is distinctly an index finger and yet it is still part of my hand, arm and body.

    Interestingly we can be quite selective in choosing the things we feel compromise our identity. For example, we never seem to object to silk or gunpowder or cocoa beans – or maybe someone somewhere does object and I just haven’t heard it – either way inventions, discoveries and innovations never seem to bother us as much as religious or cultural issues.

    We seem to think ideas and beliefs change our culture more radically than human inventions. And maybe they do – though I’d have to say I believe that gunpowder certainly influenced our ‘European’ development in a much more negative way than any philosophical ideas from anywhere, ever. I know we were already impaling each other on sarissas and the like but we do seem to have welcomed gunpowder with open arms. Is it because things like gunpowder can be used to shore up existing power structures I wonder? I don’t know.

    Maybe we all need to look at what bothers us about the encroachment of any other culture (this would have to include American culture for Europeans) on our own culture – and be open to the possibility of change for the better, as well as putting a value on our heritage. No tradition – including European/Western tradition – is good simply because it is ancient. If that was true we should reintroduce slavery and blood-letting.

    Anyway, excellent essay – I enjoyed it very much.

  6. Alejo Hausner

    I found it interesting tha you point to the radical roots of the Enlightment in people like Diderot and Spinoza. It reminds me of Nietzsche’s famous story of the madman: “God is dead, and WE have killed Him.”. Nietszche is saying that faith has been destroyed by Western thought.

    But what he also is saying, from what I can see, is that the core principle of seeking after truth, ie rationalism, is the real culprit in the murder, and that that rationalism has its source in Christian thought, which asks the believer to seek the True Way. In other words the seeds of the death of Christianity lie within the Christian tradition itself.

    • Martin H.

      Maybe I got it wrong, but from my point of view and the way for example how catholic church is running I have the impression that one is not encouraged to critically and for that matter rationally seek truth but rather to obey what u are told to, practice blind faith so to speak….which is view as a good thing since it is not undermining the hierarchy (wasnt it for this reason that Spinoza was persecuted?)

  7. As a citizen of Norway I would observe that “Christian” is very commonly meant as a synonym for “white”, as I believe is also the case in parts of the USA. Here, the alarmism about Eurabia is merely a proxy for the old-fashioned racism of skin colour that is heavily reprobated otherwise; it is a way for people to enjoy the pleasures of stigmatisation without being called on their racism.

    In Norway we have almost no Jews to complicate the binary picture of good-white-Christians versus evil-brown-Muslims. In addition, nobody wants to know that many Arabs are Christians — and even if you can convince someone of that, he won’t care, because as Catholics or Orthodox they are barely Christians anyway. The same goes for Africans. It doesn’t matter what they believe in, it wouldn’t matter if every immigrant in Norway were to be a Lutheran — they are not “white” (that is, they don’t look like Breivik), and that is the real unforgivable sin.

    If it were about religion and culture, then people adopted at birth from Korea or Africa and brought up as Norwegians would not face discrimination and racial abuse, which they do. Ergo it is not about religion and culture.

  8. unimpressed

    I think your essay is a load of crud.

    Specifically, it hinges on three core fallacies:

    1. straw man
    2. missing the point
    3. genetic fallacy

    The first in the sense that you create a false position and then demolish that, leaving the more substantial arguments of your imagined opponents undented. Nobody’s lamenting the disappearance of Christian Europe for its own sake, only relative to what Islam would bring: inequality of faiths, inequality of gender, and an erosion of the hard-won demarcation between church and state, among other things.

    The second in the sense that you get on your high horse about the phrase “Christian Europe,” when in fact people simply mean the Europe that was shaped by Judaeo-Roman culture, the Renaissance, and, above all, the Enlightenment. The phrase isn’t literally meant to mean “Christian” Europe. If you were to substitute “modern Europe” for this phrase, your arguments would completely fall apart.

    And the third because it makes no difference what Islam was in the beginning or was Christianity was, whether one was benighted and other enlightened, and so on. All that’s relevant now is which has come to mean tolerance, peace, rationalism, etc. NOW. In other words, the insanities of the past might make for interesting reading but have little bearing on what each faith means these days.

    • It is true that much of the debate about ‘Christian Europe’ takes place in the context of a debate about Islam. But the idea that this is simply a defence of ‘modernity’ is absurd. First, because the ‘Christian Europe’ argument rests on the belief that the political ideals and ethical values of ‘Western civilization’ are underpinned by Christianity and that the erosion of Christianity will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and the end of modern, liberal democracy. Second, because many proponents of this thesis, and not just believers, link the defence of ‘Christian Europe’ to a critique, not just of Islam, but of secular humanism too. As the blurb to Melanie Phillips’ The World Turned Upside Down puts it, ‘The loss of religious belief has meant the West has replaced reason and truth with ideology and prejudice, which it enforces in the manner of a secular inquisition… The basic cause of all this unreason is the erosion of the building blocks of western civilisation… It was Christianity and the Hebrew Bible that gave us our concepts of reason, progress and an orderly world—the foundations of science and modernity.
’
Or, as David Mamet writes in the foreword, ‘The new religion… is “secular humanism” which, although it lacks logically consistent precepts, does contain innumerable sanctions and taboos. Of these latter, the most observed is loud and clear: do not tell the truth.’

      You write ‘it makes no difference what Islam was in the beginning or was Christianity was, whether one was benighted and other enlightened, and so on. All that’s relevant now is which has come to mean tolerance, peace, rationalism, etc. NOW.’ That suggests that you simply have not understood what the essay is about. It is a critique, not of Christianity, but of the claim that modern Western values rest primarily upon the Christian tradition. I have not yet worked out how to critique a historical account by ignoring the history. Perhaps you can help me out there.

      Finally, a word of advice: If you are going to accuse someone of producing ‘a load of crud’, it helps not to be producing a load of crud yourself.

  9. Cecile Beaton

    The problem with this essay begins with its reference to a Christian or a “Judeo-Christian” Europe, with no mention of a specifically Jewish Europe. Whether or not that elision is strategic -not malign but tactful- it’s still a fact that the author is arguing first with European Christians and secondly with defenders of a Jewish state modeled on a European Christian nativism, albeit concerning land expropriated from previous inhabitants.

    Muslims are the new Jews of Europe. Call it the return of the repressed. European Christians have no right to moralize, and neither do their defenders among the followers of Avraham Stern.

    Quibble: Toleration originated in the Renaissance with Erasmus, and the Enlightenment ushered in an age of extremes.

  10. I have for long held that what we call our most cherished values (such as reason, democracy, equality, freedom, critical thought, science, human dignity, independent opinion or nonviolence) are not in the least Christian. Furthermore, I have argued (with much less academic background and philosophical clarity, I hasten to add) that Christianity as such has made it a mission to oppose those values and all of its belief system, its basic tenets both theologically and as a worldly power, are radically opposed to those values.

    It is not only the iconic images of Giordano Bruno, or Darwin or the Index Librorum Prohibitorum that bear witness to this which can be found in the Bible and, especially, in the writings or Paul/Saul of Tarsus, but in the daily actions of Christianity especially in the Third World where these values have been largely stifled with the necessary aid of the Christian system, except where the mission to suppress them is in the hands of the Islamic system.

  11. “Perhaps the most original and profound contribution of Christianity to the ‘Western’ tradition is also its most pernicious: the doctrine of Original Sin….”

    I would like to supplement this with the observation that there is a fundamental narcissism in Christianity, also stemming from Paul: the idea that if we cannot obey all of the ethical law, then we might as well not have obeyed any of it. This makes it “all about us”, ignoring the impact of our actions on our neighbour, whose interest is indubitably in our obeying as much of the law as we can.

  12. A Few Concerns

    While there are worthwhile points here, there are also a number of ill-researched or outright false historical conceptions at work. I would preliminarily say that Charles Freeman’s book, which you quote here, has received poor reviews for its lack of historical rigor. “The New York Times” wrote of it: “each part of (his) argument is highly questionable,” and that the book “does not make its case, and indeed barely tries to.” There are many, many more reputable historians to draw on for this kind of research.

    There is also much that stands to question on what your sources are for the intellectual history of early Christianity. You quote from Tertullian to highlight a Christian ambiguity about pagan knowledge without noting that he consciously used Stoic rhetoric and metaphysics in his teachings, which doesn’t exactly imply ambiguity.

    This quote:
    “So preoccupied were devout Christians with the demands of the next world that to study nature or history or philosophy for its own sake seemed to them almost perverse. ‘Let Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason’, insisted Basil of Caesarea, an influential fourth century theologian and monastic,”

    seems disingenuous. That studying history or natural science “for their own sake” seemed perverse does not imply that no such study took place, rather, it says something about their worldview best encapsulated by Augustine: understanding (in the epistemological sense) follows belief, it doesn’t precede it. This is not a startling or out-of-fashion philosophy; depending on how one defines “knowledge,” there is reason to believe that philosophers like Kierkegaard would have agreed.

    In other words, it would be blatantly false to imply that faith precluded early Christians from making sizable contributions to all of the categories mentioned above; they thought their faith increased the warrant of their knowledge. A contextual analysis of the relationship between “human reason,” learning, and faith at the time of Basil of Caesarea may stand to illuminate something other than the fideistic ignorance you are implying.

    Aside from this, what’s most concerning is this remark:

    “Western Europe endured the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ between the extinguishing of the final sparks of Hellenism in the fifth century and the re-ignition of cultural life in the Renaissance almost a millennium later.”

    This thesis has been in steady retreat since the 1920’s and Homer Haskins’ “The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century,” and is almost nowhere to be found in serious historical accounts of the Middle Ages today; which isn’t to say that it doesn’t find a hearing in books like “A World Lit Only By Fire,” but that such accounts have been lambasted by critics and medievalists as “infuriating” and “anachronistic” (review in “Speculum,” 1995). This is to say nothing of the even earlier outburst of learned writing, art, and thinking in the 9th-century “Carolingian Renaissance.”

    Briefly put, there is no reason to think of the Middle Ages as bereft of knowledge and culture (Hellenistic or otherwise) expressed through Christian institutions, or as entirely beholden to outside influences for their revival. On this last point, you quite rightly draw attention to the unfortunately under-recognized Muslim influence on European thinking, but this is not the entire story. Byzantium remained both Christian and the source of a steady flow of Greek scholarship into Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The fall of Byzantium is credited as one of the chief forces in bringing Platonic scholars to Italy in the 15th-century.

    • Many thanks for this. However, in part at least, you seem to have misread (or at least misinterpreted) what I’ve written. You write of my argument about early Christian theologians that ‘that studying history or natural science “for their own sake” seemed perverse does not imply that no such study took place’. I never suggested that no study took place. I acknowledged the Church ‘as the lone patron of knowledge and the arts’ and accepted that it ‘kept alive elements of a learned culture’, but also insisted that ‘Church leaders, particularly in Western Europe, were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge’. And even you seem to acknowledge that ambiguity.

      You write that ‘there is no reason to think of the Middle Ages as bereft of knowledge and culture.’ Again, I never suggested that it was. I am aware of the debate about knowledge and culture in the early Middle Ages and about the use of the term ‘the Dark Ages’. That is why in the one place where I used that phrase, I referred to ‘the so-called “Dark Ages”’. I was making two points. First that, while the accretion of knowledge and learning did not disappear in Western Europe, scholarship was of an entirely different quality, and was inferior to, that which had flourished previously in Greek and Helenistic cultures, on the one side, and would again in the European cultures of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is undeniable that there was an intellectual lacuna, and it is undeniable, too, that the Church itself played avpart in creating that lacuna, though clearly there were many other factors involved too. That is one reason that in the near-millennium between Augustine and Aquinas there are no truly great European theologians or philosophers. What there are relatively minor figures such as Boethius, Philoponus, Alcuin, Eriugena, Anselm, Abelard, Grosseteste, Bonaventure, etc. Christian theologians were, of course, not ignorant of the Greek tradition. But it was a distorted understanding. They were highly knowledgeable about the Stoics and about Plato (though it was mostly a Plato filtered through the Neoplatonism of Plotinus). They were far less cognizant of Aristotle’s work. This was why the rediscovery of Aristotle through Arab sources was so invigorating for European culture and for Christian theologians such as Aquinas.

      On the other hand, and this is my second point, in this same period, there was a real flourishing of scholarship, that stood comparison with Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, within the Muslim Empire. Unlike Boethius and Alcuin and Bonaventure, the great figures of Muslim learning – not just Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd but also al-Kindi, al-Farabi, al-Ma’arri, Miskawayh and al-Ghazzali, etc – bear comparison with the giants of philosophy, though they are little known in the West. And while it is true that there was a ‘steady flow of Greek scholarship into Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages’, there were two major transformative moments – first the influx of translations from the Muslim Empire, and in particular the commentaries of Ibn Rushd, and second, the influx after the fall of Constantinople which, as you say, helped, among other things, to fuel the Platonism of the early Renaissance.

      Finally, a word on Charles Freeman. I don’t wish to get into a debate here about Freeman’s scholarship or reputation (though I have more regard for him than you seem to). There is, however, in a 4000-word essay, a single quote from Freeman. It is, therefore, disingenuous of you to open your critique with a tirade against Freeman and to imply that he is my primary source. I am happy to have a debate, but don’t begin by throwing mud.

      • There was undeniably a decline in scientific knowledge in the Western Roman Empire as it declined and collapsed but the roots of this can be traced to the pagan Romans. After 200 BC there was a fruitful cultural contact between Greeks and the bilingual Roman upper classes. This introduced a version of the classical tradition into the Roman Empire but it was a thin popularised version which was translated into Latin. Bilingualism and the conditions which favoured scholarship then declined rapidly after AD180 as the empire entered the 3rd century crisis. Roman citizens who were gradually becoming Christian were therefore limited to pieces of the classical tradition which had been explained and summarised by Latin authors.

        Meanwhile the richer, more complete version of the classical tradition fell into the hands of the Muslims as they rapidly expanded across Asia and the Mediterranean. It was then translated into Arabic, further developed and moved across north Africa to Spain. As soon as Western Europe had recovered sufficiently its intellectuals traveled to Spain to translate the materials and bring them into medieval culture.

        There was an anti-intellectual streak in early Christianity but ultimately this counter-cultural point of view lost out to those like Justin Martyr who sought common ground between classical philosophy and Christianity, and (more importantly) Augustine of Hippo who, while being ambivalent toward Greek learning applied it vigorously to scripture in his writings and came up with the vastly influential ‘handmaiden formula’ whereby natural philosophy could be put to use in the interpretation of the bible. Of course we now all think that – in principle – science should be studied for it’s own sake, but this would have been alien to the classical world in which it was always subordinated to ethics and the wider philosophical enterprise.

        On Charles F’s arguments on the decline of ancient learning I’ll only point to the discussion here on Tim O’Neil’s medieval history blog for an introduction to the issues:

        http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/06/closing-of-western-mind-by-charles.html

  13. A Few Concerns

    Fair enough, and thank you for the reply.

    On this point: “in the near-millennium between Augustine and Aquinas there are no truly great European theologians or philosophers,” I doubt we are going to be able to come to any sort of accord. You may think them minor, but others deem them worthy of a lifetime of study. We would have to define terms like “great” to begin with.

    I don’t, in any case, think this a valid assessment of the contributions these men made to the advancement of knowledge and formation of a worldview we are, in many ways, still beholden to. The intellectual and historical debts owed to Anselm alone, in my mind, belie this point; because Scholasticism has fallen out of favor does nothing to diminish its historical importance. On Boethius, the influence of “Consolations” and his various translations were massive in shaping subsequent medieval intellectual history. There is also an argument to be made that men like Grosseteste and Ockham paved the way for later Copernican and Galilean refutations of traditional Aristotelian notions of astronomy; notions which were not only decidedly wrong, but actively hindered what we would consider the modern, observational, “scientific” notion of astronomy (we shouldn’t forget that Aristotle disdained the manual work and craft necessary to experimental science.) This, I think, at least calls into question your assumption that the knowledge of medievals in this period was “inferior” to that of Hellenic Greece; the rapid creation of new technologies in the Middle Ages is another avenue for critique. That much of this research was fostered in Church-backed universities is pertinent to your assertion that the Church played a part in creating an intellectual “lacuna.”

    I would also be curious as to the grounds for calling the medieval understanding of the Greek tradition “distorted.” Distorted as compared to what? It might also be useful to suggest that the nomenclature of “Greek tradition” and “Hellenism,” which I have been using as well, does a grave injustice to the intricacies of the period(s) indicated, and imposes an unwarranted synthesis and coherence to them not unlike “Dark Ages.” Are we really saying anything meaningful with the designation “pagan philosophy”?

    This brings up a related point. It seems you are taking for granted the primacy and superiority of Hellenic philosophy, whatever that might be, without really proffering, aside from mention of Stoicism, why it is superior, or why its unabated continuation would have somehow made life “better,” or advanced modern causes sooner. To paraphrase Nietzsche: the Greek world was not all Apollo and syllogism, but Dionysus, unreason, magic, violence, slavery, and intoxication.

    Lastly, it might also be worth mentioning that many of the translators of Greek texts into Arabic were Nestorian Christians. This is not to diminish Muslim accomplishments in this regard, but merely to say that underlying them was another species of cross-pollination borne of the conquest of areas with large Christian populations and an attendant cultural synthesis.

    • I am glad that many scholars deem philosophers such as Boethius and Anselm and Grosseteste worthy of a lifetime of study. The fact that they do, however, does not give their subjects greater historical significance. You are right, of course, about the important role that Anselm and Ockham and Grosseteste and many others played in the development of philosophy and of science. But even you would probably agree that compared to, say, Aristotle and Plato, Augustine and Aquinas, Descartes and Spinoza, Locke and Hume, etc, their work is of a different order, less important and less influential.

      I am not sure why you are trying to turn this into a black and white issue: that either there was no intellectual lacuna, or that the Church must have played no role in the development of knowledge. Why can’t you accept, as I do, that Church both helped maintain an intellectual tradition, and yet its ambivalence about intellectual endeavour helped distort and diminish learning? Incidentally, I assume that when you talk of ‘Church-backed universities’ you are referring to the latter part of the Middle Ages. The emergence of the universities in the twelfth century went hand-in-hand with the rediscovery of Greek texts, and most especially of Aristotle. At the beginning of the twelfth century the only works of Aristotle known in Latin were the Categories and De Interpretatione. By the second half of the century virtually all his work preserved within Islamic and Byzantine scholarship had been translated into Latin, together with much of the learned Arabic commentary upon them. This played an important part in the development of early universities.

      Why do I say that the understanding of the Greek tradition in the early Middle Ages was distorted? Because so little of Aristotle’s works were known. Because Plato was understood primarily through the Neoplatonism of Poltinus. Because of the elevated place that a work like Timaeus, one of Plato’s more obscure texts, in which the down-to-earth dialectical investigation characteristic of most of his dialogues gives way to grandiose cosmic theorizing, had in the Christian understanding of his work. And so on.

      I am not sure the point you are making about Hellenism, or the Greek world more broadly. Yes, it was world of ‘unreason, magic, violence, slavery, and intoxication’ – it was after all the Ancient World. But ‘unreason, magic, violence, slavery, and intoxication’ were also a central part of the Christian world, too.

      I agree that many of the translators of Greek texts into Arabic were Christians. All I was suggesting was that they were working in the Muslim Empire. The point I was making in the original essay was simply about the complexity of the roots of what many now see as ‘Christian Europe’.

  14. Dave Mann

    Thanks for the erudite and scholarly article.

    I think, though, that the whole problem that Europe finds itself with can be summed up thus: after shrugging off one claustrophobic superstition-based madness and establishing the values of enlightenment and reason, how much do Europeans want to be regressed into another Dark Age by Islam’s rise?

  15. The Greeks and Romans made their own contributions (greatly different from each other) to Western Civilization. But it was the Church that found itself the only authority in the West after the Fall of the Roman Empire. And it was in the centuries following that Fall that Western Civilization as we know it was actually formed, using the materials from Greek and Roman civilization but then adding and (in the case of Aquinas especially) synthesizing those insights with the specific contributions of the Judeo and Christian heritages.

    So the Church not only preserved in the monastic libraries much of the extant writings of the Greeks and Romans but also then (again especially through Aquinas) made use of the rediscovery of Aristotle through interactions (fractious as they were) with Islamic civilization where those works had survived the Fall and assorted barbarian sackings in the West that destroyed so much of the tangible and written heritage of the Greeks and Romans.

    But its philosophy provided a broad and comprehensive Vision that added tremendously to the Greek and Roman heritage (which had little use for the ‘supernatural’ or for any dimension or Plane of Existence except this earthly one).

    A short list of concepts would include a) the dignity of the individual based not on participation in the city-state (Greek) nor mere Citizenship in the Empire (Roman) but rather in the dignity of the individual as made in the Image of God; b) the Higher Law to which all earthly governments are answerable (grounding the Framing Vision of the US); c) the synthesis that saw the value of the civil, societal realm as being of equal or greater standing as the governmental realm; d) and the grounding of all human activity under the guidance (‘judgment’ if you want to use the term carefully) of the Purpose that was automatically included in the fact of humans being created in the Image of God … these are all insights that came to the West only through the Church.

    And for that reason Enlightenment ‘secularism’ or the fragmented assortment of illuminations that the various Reformation thinkers considered as sufficient substitutes (or improvements upon) the Great Vision have proved themselves over recent centuries to be precisely just that: partial and fragmented illuminations incapable of either grounding human culture and society or of satisfying constructively and comprehensively the abiding human need for greater Meaning than anything on this Plane of Existence is able to provide.

    Any sort of fundamentalism skews the human in one way or another, and radically so – this includes both religious fundamentalism and the secular fundamentalism of Communism; and secularism – meaning the insistence that this-dimensional existence can provide sufficient Meaning and Ground for human beings as individuals or societies or communities or polities – is utterly insufficient to the task.

    Indeed, my thought is that while the Framers were able to declare a separation of Church and State, they could do so only because they presumed the benefits – I would call it the Afterglow – of Christendom’s contributions: they could reliably presume that all Citizens were somehow already grounded in the Great Vision of human-being even before they came to the role of Citizenship in the Great American Experiment in democracy. (A ‘democracy’ which to the Greeks merely meant a this-dimensional participation in the politics of this or that city-state.)

    It was the Church that synthesized the barbarian tribes’ insistence on freedom, the Roman genius for order, and the Greek insistence on reason and political participation.

    I can’t see how any of that can be ignored.

    Food for serious thought, I submit, during the season of Christmas and New Year, especially when the Framing Vision is in such dire straits due to the combined assaults of fundamentalisms and secularism (especially as it was skewed so monstrously by the French and Soviet Revolutions).

  16. Let me add that while I do not support Mr. Brevik’s violence, I do think he’s on to something with this matter of ‘culture war’. Much of what passes for cutting-edge Correctness in the past Biblical 40 years in the West – especially in the US and UK – is derived ultimately from Antonio Gramsci’s Marxist-Leninist-inspired theories on how to undermine a “hegemonic culture” and replace it with a “counter-hegemony” and a New Order-Culture.

    This stunning reality has been largely invisible to mainstream commentary in the West. Clearly it is ‘not Correct’, can be dismissed as mere ‘backlash’, and it is in the interests of neither the putative creative thinkers of radical-feminism nor the US politicians who embraced them without thought or reservation to have Citizens of that Constitutional Republic realize that their own government had for all practical purposes adopted Marxism-Leninism in the Gramscian mode as the way forward, effectively taking offline their Framing Vision and Constitutional machinery.

    Surely this development, traceable back to the early 1970s, is of world-historical significance, especially since it makes the US now not so much the victor over Marxism-Leninism but in some frightfully real sense the heir to it. And through the collusion of its own sworn Constitutional protectors, the elected representatives.

    In Gramsci’s theory, the Church and Christianity are merely major instruments of the ‘bourgeois dominance’ and ‘hegemony’ of the so-called Dead, White, European Males. And as such must be de-legitimized and swept away before the New Order (with Gramsci’s Party elites being the priesthood, and his vision of a humane Marxist-Leninist future the gospel, and the Party the church, of the thoroughly this-worldly secular sunlit uplands Gramsci presumes will follow).

    I discuss this at length in my Post “Antonio Gramsci” at the Chez Odysseus site on Blogspot.

  17. Publion are you a Jesuit or a Domincan? Recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court hardly have an allegiance to Gramsci, but the court has a nefarious affinity, with some of the half baked theories of the Austrian School of Economics.

  18. The Gramscian Insight is that the Marxist-Leninist revolution cannot be achieved in the developed democratic polities (whether parliamentary, constitutional monarchy, or outright democracy) of the West the way it was effected in the ‘East’ (Russia). Rather than overt coup d’etat, the Western polities – with their far more politically competent Citizenries – must be subverted like besieged castles whose outer walls are their governments but whose ‘keep’s are their Western-shaped Cultures themselves.

    To subvert those Cultures and polities, one must lay siege to them and undermine their walls (this medieval military imagery is Gramsci’s own).

    Only thus can the “dominating”, “oppressive” and “hegemonic” Western democratic Culture be subverted. (These are Gramsci’s terms, though they should be very familiar to modern observers, having been taken over (often without attribution) by recent movements such as Eurocommunism (such as Chantal Mouffe) and Radical Feminism (such as Catharine MacKinnon, although MacKinnon substitutes ‘women’ for ‘proletariat’ and ‘sex’ for ‘capitalist labor’ and proceeds with her own agenda).

    While no legislation or court findings quote Gramsci as a source, yet a great deal of policy and legislation is now built around the idea of deconstructing or diversifying the ‘white, male, hegemonic, dominant, oppressive’ Culture.

    Further, neither Mouffe or MacKinnon has any use for a ‘deliberative democratic politics’ since – but of course – since the dominant Culture is so dominant and so many of the Citizens ‘just don’t get it’, then no desired change can be effected by appealing to such Citizens to support the various demands and agendas. Rather, the Democrats in 1972 (joined by the Republicans for their own purposes a few years later) opened up the gates of the castle by embracing the Gramscian-derived political deconstruction (the concept migrated widely from its original site in literary theory), and this ‘trahison’ to the nation’s Framing Vision has accelerated the process immeasurably.

    At this point, all the Branches have embraced this Gramscian-inspired gambit, and the bureacracies that administer policies and regulations and laws ditto.

    Gramsci’s ideas are from a thoroughly Alien Universe politcally, and are incompatible in Content and Method with the American and Western Universe of democracy and Culture. Thus so much of post-1972 ‘liberalism’ is pursuing a course fundamentally antithetical to the country’s own Framing Vision (although many of the objectives are, ostensibly at least, so ‘well intentioned’).

    This, in my view, constitutes the reason that American and much Western democracy and even Culture no longer seems robust, vital, and efficacious.

    I discuss all this at length in assorted Posts on my site (Chez Odysseus), especially a recent one on Antonio Gramsci himself.

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