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Axel T. Paul

Europe, or what Remains of Christianity


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 5/2011, P. 333-342
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Axel T. Paul, professor at the University of Siegen, examines the future prospects of Christianity in an increasingly secularized Europe and points to the resources of faith for the political, social and cultural shaping of the continent.


The heading of the essay alludes to a Novalis fragment titled "Christendom or Europe". This text is from the year 1799, hence from the time of the French revolutionary wars, with the consequence that not only the political map of Central Europe had to be redrawn, but above all the imperial idea vanished and the feudal caste system inherited from the Middle Ages. Comparatively limited cabinet wars were replaced by ideologically charged, bloody violent mass conflicts between nation-states. In this context Novalis (1772-1801) evokes the European Middle Ages.

"It was a good, splendid time when Europe was a Christian country where Christianity inhabited this humanely shaped continent. A great common interest united the most remote provinces of this vast spiritual realm." {1}

With the Reformation, so Novalis, this unity was ruined. Since then the church is living in never ending disputes and fight. She becomes a party and a plaything of politics instead of uniting in one faith the Christians of Europe - despite their earthly-divergent interests. Novalis is convinced that only a return to the Christian Catholic unity gives peace in Europe a new chance.

"Blood will flow across Europe until the nations become aware of their terrible madness that drives them around in circles, until they - touched and soothed by sacred music - in colorful amalgamation come to the former altars, perform works of peace, and a great agape is celebrated with hot tears as peace festival at the smoking places of pilgrimages. Only religion can reawaken Europe and secure the peoples and install Christianity in new splendor visibly on earth in its old peacemaking task." {2}

In a nutshell, the diagnosis of Novalis reads 'Europe will be Catholic or it will not be'.


From Novalis until Today

Apart from the fact that Novalis idealizes the religious unity of the Middle Ages and Christianity in general and ignores the history of violence of the Crusades (also within Europe), today only very few contemporaries will follow his estimation.



The denominational division of the church is an irreversible fact that will not be changed by any ecumenical efforts.

The dogmatic and institutional differences between the Eastern Church, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics are almost harmless compared to the distance between the traditional Christian denominations and the for decades especially in the global South successful Pentecostalism. But above all it is not very clear, what integral, i.e. indispensable or necessary contribution to reconciliation and political union of the Europeans could (still) be made by the church or any form of "free Christianity".

First, the historical context is quite different today. Since 1945, Europe is a largely pacified continent, even though the Balkan Wars of the 90s put the Europeans' will and ability to resolve national conflicts by consensus and peacefully to a hard test that is not yet passed. In addition, the political unification of initially West Europe and since 1989 also Eastern Europe was (and is) not the work of the churches. It was basically not even the freely undertaken work of the Europeans but the result of a double necessity: after the Second World War a geopolitical one and today a global economic one {3}. (However, it should be mentioned that after the two turning points above all Christian Democrats or Democrats with a Christian background devoted themselves to the European integration.)

Is is also not insignificant that today's as always defective European Union definitely represents such a thing as an updated modernized, de-Germanized and secularized, and apparently for many countries and citizens attractive version of the old empire. It is certainly not the definitive political draft but for the time being the successful overcoming of political nationalism. To quote the Russian-French philosopher and European official Alexandre Kojve, "Avant de s'incarner dans l'Humanite, le Weltgeist hegelien, qui a abandonne les Nations, sejourne dans les Empires." {4} However, even though the EU institutionally has Catholic traits and many Europeans are still at least baptized, Europe is de facto that continent where - apart from the migration milieu and in contrast to all other parts of the world - religion is in retreat, and this politically, organizationally and culturally {5}. That's why today the alternative cannot read, "Christendom or Europe" but, if at all, "Europe, or what remained of Christianity" {6}.


Secularization and its Consequences

It could now be described and to some extent be relativized what secularization means per se, for Europe and for the Christian churches.



Then it would come to light that declining numbers of church members, fewer churchgoers and a growing lack of interest in parish life are not equivalent to irreligiosity and loss of faith. In this context, Grace Davie speaks of a "Believing without Belonging" {7}. It would further become evident that within denominationally stable milieus the importance of the church is not at all dwindling but rather increases, and that - I refer again to the Pentecostal churches - the main focus of Christianity will in future be outside Europe.

But in answer to my question "Europe or what remains of Christianity" I would like to go the different path of cultural theory, which is less verified empirically, and reflect on what Europe, what Europeans - whether Christian or not - can or perhaps even must today still preserve of Christianity, if Europe shall mean more than a reasonably precisely assignable geographic area or a political administration union that is not (not yet or not necessarily) congruent with it.

Geographic boundaries and political organizations are anything but irrelevant for Europe. At this point I would nevertheless like to turn my attention not to the pros and cons of a possible accession of Turkey to the European Union, but - by an equally higher and deeper perspective - ask of whether there is such a thing as a European cultural project or community of values, whether there is such thing as a European identity, what this is, and what of it is - possibly - Christian.


The Question of European Identity as a Question of Values

From what so far has been said, the answer to the first part of my question basically goes without saying. There is a European identity, an in the broadest sense spiritual core of what - beyond borders and institutions - constitutes Europe, or at least could constitutes it. It goes without saying that the bearers of this identity are ultimately individuals. There is no collective entity called Europe, nor is there a German or French nation {8}. It is also important to note that people's affiliation to a collective or a community of values does normally not exclude that they feel affiliated to more than just this one group.

In the case of a conflict such as the recent Balkan wars it is admittedly very well possible that people get compulsorily a collective identity and that they must confess to be a partisan or even to be part of the one or the other side. Anyway, from this diabolical dynamism does not follow that any form of collective identity was the work of the devil and must therefore be avoided or deconstructed - to say it with a postmodern term.



Or rather, even though it might be deconstructed, this does not mean that we thus are able to get rid of it. For it is inevitable that we - for anthropological reasons alone but also for sociological ones - form a group consciousness as well as a personal identity.

For this very reason it is not indifferent, first, what values and ideals we wish to see safeguarded in and by a (one's) group, and secondly, in what manner we profess them. First the question of values. Not one of them is undisputed, immune from being abused or perverted in its meaning, and from being misused in practice. The value of "life" can serve to alleviate sufferings and causing pain as well as to justify them. An example for it is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the policy of those who - not always philologically hermeneutically correct but also not arbitrarily - referred to him.

There are nevertheless values that get their strength or better their attractiveness less from their potential to negate but rather - and seemingly paradoxically - from their either basically absolute or in practice relative claim to validity. "Freedom" e.g. is in principle a universal value whereas "self-realization" in practice is a relative one. This does not mean that freedom was in practice not relative and that not everybody were in principle entitled to self-realization, but it means that those who claim freedom for themselves can hardly withhold it from others. Self-realization on the other hand formulates a demand which nobody is forced to fulfil (or was forced, at least not until the advent of the social imperative to be creative {9}).

In search of Europe's values we soon come - in scientific literature, feuilletons or drafts of the European Constitution - across exactly those values: besides "freedom" and "self-realization" inter alia "tolerance", "solidarity", "respect for human rights", "equality", and "democracy."


European Values - not only for Europe

Of course, these values are not an exclusive possession of the Europeans. And not only that. Europe has regularly betrayed them, and this with a vehemence that is not unparalleled in world history but marks a moral abyss - judged by the normative self-understanding of Europeans (or Christianity). This dialectic of Enlightenment, this shift of the in the broadest sense emancipatory claims into new, stricter dependency and violence has a history that goes back until the classical antiquity, the still pre-European world.



When the values of "tolerance", "freedom" or "equality of all human beings" have nonetheless a special sound for us, when these values bind us and we allow that they bind us even though direct interests are affected by it, when we e.g. accept the idea of law even though it finds us guilty, it is because the common historical experience of transgression, death, suffering, and causing pain are engraved on our collective memory. They admittedly need not be symbolized in the form of a moral obligation or restitution or self-imposed commitment - but they may {10}.

In fact, the experience of the European religious wars of the 16th and 17th century generated the idea of tolerance; the class struggles of the 19th century have put the institutionalization of equality and solidarity on the political agenda; the totalitarianism of the 20th century has proved the value of the rule of law and democracy for the implementation and protection of freedom and self-determination; the Holocaust has reminded of the possible reversal of the direction of development and, finally, the experience of nationalism unleashed by two world wars has brought forth the also political project Europe. It is now not difficult to show the historical and thus also Jewish-Christian roots of this (incomplete and inherently open) catalogue of "European values".

For from Jerusalem comes the idea of equality - initially seen as equality before God, and then - perhaps even more important - the innerworldliness of the Europeans, which Charles Taylor described as "esteem for the ordinary life" {11} and which can ultimately be traced back to the Incarnation of the Christian God. Since the Christian God shared the life of humans, the ordinary human life which is shaped by work and hardship but also by joy of being could at the same time be a life pleasing to God. The ideas of freedom, democracy and self-determination come from Athens - in defiance of the slavery of the ancestors. The ideals of tolerance and human (individual and social) perfectibility come from Paris as the capital of the Enlightenment.

What is still missisng in this list - not of European values but of the regularly mentioned places of Europe's origin - is Rome. But although Rome, in contrast to Jerusalem already geographically and as the capital of Christendom, unlike the ancient and thus pre-European Athens also culturally belongs to Europe - or more precisely, although Europe only in the course of the Middle Ages obtains contour as a Christian territory oriented towards Rome {12} - according to many cultural historians, in terms of its contribution to the "Invention of the Occident" Rome plays only a subordinate role - even if one dutifully mentions it. If ever - so a familiar tenor - one could speak of a specific achievement of Rome then with respect to the codification and formalization of the law, which the Romans greatly promoted, compared with Greece and the Germanic Middle Ages.



What does the Church stand for?

In the wake of Remi Brague, I do not wish to contradict this. But Brague sees in the formalism of the Romans, in their "adoptation of what is regarded as foreign" {13}, in their knowledge of "secondariness" something or better that what constitutes the European identity or at least has constituted it and should (again) constitute it. Especially this form, this "value-form" if you like, is also European - and Christian. Since the same structure of secondariness is also characteristic of Catholicism as a religion that is profoundly convinced of the idea of representing a higher, different Being and is concerned with Its institutional realization.

No less important than that for what the church stands is her shape, the fact that she knows she is destined to make an 'absent' being visible, without ever being this Other Being. Roman and Catholic culture correspond to each other. Both are supported by the awareness of their secondariness. What the Greeks are for the Romans are the Jews for the Christians, writes Brague. As duty and obligation, but also as a motivation for discovery, conquest and colonization it has shaped Europe's relationship with the rest of the world. Brague ignores not at all that Europe's "eccentric identity", its knowledge to be dependent on others and always to owe them something can also change into hatred and find expression in extermination. Indeed, it has often enough found expression in persecution and oppression of dissenters or in the eradication of foreign cultures. But at the same time, Europe has repeatedly expressed remorse and sought an understanding of the foreign reality.

To illustrate this thesis, the Europeans's relation to language may serve as an example. Historically, especially the Latinization of Europe has enabled the development of a variety of national and literary languages. The scope of reflection is necessarily extended, if one does not fetishize the linguistic form of a thought but knows that the same idea can basically be articulated in any language. In fact, a significant part of Greek and Near Eastern literature came to Europe via a previous translation into Arabic. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance are therefore deeply indebted to Islam. However, a comparison of the Arabic practice of translation with the Latin techniques of handing down makes evident an important difference.

For a Muslim, Arab is the language of God and the Koran is the benchmark of all literature. The translation of Greek texts into Arabic therefore means to translate thoughts from an inferior dialect into the original language, whereas the Romans and other Latin speaking people were always aware that they did not speak the language of revelation. First of all, they had to decipher the meaning of the sacred texts, i.e. to make it visible through interpretation.



In my view, here, in this structure or form, in this awareness of (one's) secondariness - and less in the inherent peacefulness of the Christian faith - is the real reason for the controversial dictum of Pope Benedict XVI, "To act not in accordance with reason .... is contrary to the nature of God." {15}

It is therefore no coincidence that the hermeneutics, the question of what someone else might have meant and according to what rules this meaning can be explicated reached its full flowering in Europe {16}. It is the attempt to adopt a reality that seems foreign. Accordingly, the "savages" have incited the Europeans not only to exploitation, subjugation and mission but also spurred them on to self-reflection {17}. Their still during the conquest of America written stories, as e.g. by Diego Durán, OP, and Bernardino de Sahagún, OFM, the "Essais" by Michel de Montaigne and Montesquieu's "Lettres persanes" are early examples of an analysis of the foreign reality, which endeavoured to understand, to elucidate and to exercise self-criticism. Ethnology, says Claude Levi-Strauss, is a sign of atonement {18}. Indeed, the history of this science can be understood as attempt, not, to "leave the others in peace" - because that is impossible - but to treat them with respect. One needn't stylize the confrontation with the foreign reality as the central motivation of the modern European thought, but it is certain that this double relation to the other reality, which one sees not only as inferior but also as superior to oneself, this, as Brague calls it, "potential difference between classical period and barbarism" {19} has shaped Europe's self-image.


Christianity and Enlightenment

Christianity and Enlightenment are therefore not basically contradictory to each other but rather form a complex relation of mutual dependence. In any case, there is on the one hand, in terms of content, also a Jewish-Christian genealogy of European values, and on the other hand a more than merely etymological, namely a formal or structural correspondence between catholicity and cosmopolitanism. Yes, there is a Christian-Catholic core even in the willingness to cultural self-abandonment.

But what does this mean for Christianity? Is thus not Europe's secularism - as extraordinary as it appears in a global comparison - the vanishing point to which Enlightenment leads? Is not the disappearance of religion from public space, or at least its retreat into private inwardness a perhaps not mandatory but consistent consequence of modernization? As much as it got Europe's eccentric identity and the European values generally accepted, has Christianity in Europe become outdated? Has it played its "historic role"?



"Or does", as Ernst Troeltsch 100 years ago asked already, vice versa, "the dissolution of the religious underground perhaps even mean the beginning disintegration of the European culture, which is unable to form a new religious element of life and yet cannot do without it?" {20}

The fact that a high percentage of non-denominational, disbelieving or agnostic Europeans still regard Europe as a "sort of" Christian continent - hence belief without loyalty and "loyalty without belief" correspond each other - is an indication that you needn't dramatize the alternative. In Europe, too, there will also in the future be Christians and Christian churches. Just as to be European and atheist, religiously indifferent or of a different faith is naturally not mutually exclusive. And quite practically, they must not exclude each other, because with Turkey not only 70 million people, the majority are devout Muslims, knock at the gates of Europe, but long since in Western Europe a similarly large number of predominantly devout Muslims is living. Yes, Europe's immigrants are to a large extent Muslims.

The question is therefore not or not in the first place whether the "Christian" Europe is able to cope with the accession of the Islamic Turkey but how Europe wants to accomplish the political and social integration of its Muslims. As the dispute about headscarves in European schools or about the height of minarets in European cities clearly shows, the "indigenous" Europeans face the double challenge to accept migrants not only as ethnic strangers but also as people of a different faith and - that's not all - to accept them as people who actually still believe {21}. On the other hand, the migrants are of course obliged to adhere to the rules and limitations of a secular legal system and for their part seek integration.

However, after all that we know from research on migration, it is rather likely that the by many, especially liberal Europeans cherished hope to be able - in parallel with the fate of Christianity - to privatize and thus neutralize the faith of millions who come today and stay tomorrow will be disappointed. Shared identity markers, as e.g. ethnicity or faith become important in practice, precisely because immigrants - as heterogeneous as their social backgrounds and their reasons for migration may be - are in their host countries exposed to similar integration problems and discrimination experiences.

For the liberal Europe it is difficult to see publicly lived, collectively practised religion other than as a revision of its secular achievements - instead of allowing migrants not only the individual right to practise their religion but - like in the USA - encouraging them to articulate publicly their faith, or at least inviting them to articulate their concerns in the language of their faith. What is more, precisely the publicity of religion would be the best guarantee for avoiding its clandestine reversal in political theology. Moreover, it is conceivable that the Christian churches in dealing with non-Christian beliefs and vage forms of religiosity would gain again in contour and attractiveness.



Europe as a Challenge for Christian Believers

But is this necessarily detrimental to Europe? Could it not be quite on the contrary, that Christianity - i.e. the fact that there are still people who believe in God's Incarnation - does not only no harm to Europe's liberalism but rather enriches it? Even Jürgen Habermas drew recently this conclusion {22}. However, I would like to follow not Habermas but once again Taylor {23}.

On the one hand, so Taylor, Christians should, no, must be grateful to Enlightenment for its criticism of religion, for the fact that only the public accusation of also Christianity's history of violence has changed the church from a coercive institution - "nulla salus extra ecclesiam" (outside the Church there is no salvation) - into a community that leads free people to faith. Not only Europe, as Helmuth Plessner says, also the church "wins", or perhaps we should say, can only exist if she releases people [entbinden - give birth to]{24}. However, the Enlightenment, as we have seen, is definitely a piece of Christian self-enlightenment, because humanism and criticism of religion "simply" continue the Christian program of esteem of ordinary life. The modern, enlightened refusal to give meaning to man's suffering and death, from which the work of Elias Canetti gives an eloquent testimony, and vice versa, the idealistic and practical striving for a life in safety and dignity are in a direct line with the not only reformatory efforts to interlink divine worship and daily life.

On the other hand, just the modern, worldly, social or political commitment, which thus always in a way has its eye on a worldly reward, at least in the form of recognition, gratitude or a visible "change for the better", is at risk to be ruined by the indifference, ingratitude or the incorrigibility of those to whom it is committed and to change into bitterness, hatred and violence.

Besides to the dialectic of Enlightenment, there is then something like a "dialectic of commitment", in accordance to which the desire and the attempt to alleviate the sufferings change into cynicism or even vindictiveness. Needless to say, also faith does not necessarily protect from this. However, if it belongs to the core of the Christian faith - from a lack of knowledge I can say little about others - that the world is God's creation, i.e. that life is an absolute gift, and further, that God is among men and loves them, and that those who believe they are loved by God are thus able to love, even though others turn out to be ungrateful, then faith may well be a reason to resist the dialectic of both Enlightenment and commitment.



This naturally applies to everybody who believes in the Christian God and not only to Europeans, but so far as Europe historically and culturally subsists on Christianity, it would be negligent not to maintain this heritage.



{1} Novalis, Fragmente u. Studien. Die Christenheit oder Europa, edited by C. Paschek (Stuttgart 1996) 67-89, 67.

{2} In the same place 86 f.

{3} See L. Janz, Die Geschichte der europäischen Einigung nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, in: Die Identität Europas, edited by W. Weidenfeld (München 1985) 80-111.

{4} A. Kojeve, L'Empire latin, in: La Regle du jeu (1/1990) 89-123, 94.

{5} Differenciating the secularization thesis: D. Martin, The Future of Christianity. Reflections an Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization (Farnham 2010).

{6} The text was written without knowledge of the special feature issue „Säkularismus neu denken. Religion u. Politik in Zeiten der Globalisierung" of the magazine Transit (No. 39, summer 2010), which is dealing with quite similar questions. The reading of this booklet is recommended to those who want to look further into this matter.

{7} G. Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without Belonging (Oxford 1994).

{8} About it, still worth reading: E. Renan, Was ist eine Nation? Rede am 11. März 1882 an der Sorbonne (Hamburg 1996).

{9} See U. Bröckling im Gespräch mit Th. Assheuer, Kreativ? Das Wort ist vergiftet, in: Die Zeit, 4. 11. 2010.

{10} As regards the following, see H. Joas u. Chr. Mandry: Europa als Werte- u. Kulturgemeinschaft, in: Europawissenschaft, edited by G. F. Schuppert and others (Baden-Baden 2005) 541-572.

{11} Ch. Taylor, Quellen des Selbst. Die Entstehung der neuzeitlichen Identität (Frankfurt 1994).

{12} See J. Fischer, Oriens — Occidens — Europa. Begriff u. Gedanke „Europa" in der späten Antike u. im frühen Mittelalter (Wiesbaden 1957).

{13} R. Brague, Europa. Eine exzentrische Identität (Frankfurt 1993) 86.

{14} About it also W. Reinhard, Sprachbeherrschung u. Weltherrschaft, in: Humanismus u. Neue Welt, edited by the same (Weinheim 1987) 1-36.

{15} Benedikt XVI., Glaube u. Vernunft. Die Regensburger Vorlesung (Freiburg 2006) 11-32, 16 f.

{16} See H.-G. Gadamer, Das Erbe Europas (Frankfurt 1989).

{17} See T. Todorov, Die Eroberung Amerikas. Das Problem des Anderen (Frankfurt 1985).

{18} C. Levi-Strauss, Traurige Tropen (Frankfurt 1978) 384.

{19} Brague (note 13) 149 f.

{20} E. Troeltsch, Die Zukunftsmöglichkeiten des Christentums, in: Logos (1910/11) No. 1, 165-185, 168.

{21} See J. Casanova, Der Ort der Religion im säkularen Europa, in: Transit (Sommer 2004) No. 27, 86-105.

{22} See for instance J. Habermas, Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung, in: Blätter für deutsche u. internationale Politik 53 (2008) No. 4, 33-46.

{23} Ch. Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, in: A Catholic Modernity? Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, ed. by William M. Shea (New York 1999) 13-38.

{24} H. Plessner, Macht u. menschliche Natur. Ein Versuch zur Anthropologie der geschichtlichen Weltansicht, in: the same, Zwischen Philosophie u. Gesellschaft. Ausgewählte Abhandlungen u. Vorträge (Bern 1953) 241-317, 261.


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