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Living The Legacy (Part II)

Living the legacy (Part II)

How to live the legacy that Robert Schuman left in Europe. From Jeff Fountain’s book Deeply Rooted (Part I here)

II. Dare we still dream about Europe becoming a ‘community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values’?

Talk about a future Europe being ‘deeply rooted in Christian values’ raises eyebrows in many political and academic circles today. 

But let’s ask ourselves, honestly, what other roots are there? Roots, in the natural sense, are what a tree, a plant, a flower has grown from, a seed that has taken root. From which seeds and roots has Europe grown? 

Roots nourish and stabilise. What happens when a tree, plant or flower is cut off from its roots? Are we living in a ‘cut-flower civilisation’? If so, what is the inevitable?  

In a relativistic, post-modern age, it is politically incorrect to claim priority for any one worldview over another. All are equally valid, we are often told. Nothing is absolutely true. No belief can claim it is true. Yet that statement is logically absurd. Most beliefs hold that they are uniquely true. Islam, Christianity, and the belief of those who hold absolutely that no belief is true. 

The claim that Europe’s roots are primarily Christian is ignored today in the light of the presence of many later competitors. Hence the rejection of the mention of God and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the proposed European Constitution. 

Yet, what was the real source of Europe’s basic values? Is that a matter of conjecture? or of historical fact? 

We have already read Sir Fred Catherwood’s answer to that question in the previous chapter.

Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, was prepared to admit freely that Europe had multiple cultural roots:

“If a new European order is to be adequate for the promotion of the authentic common good, it must recognise and safeguard the values that constitute the most precious heritage of European humanism. Multiple are the cultural roots that have contributed to reinforce these values: from the spirit of Greece to that of Roman law and virtue, from the contributions of the Latin, Celtic, Germanic, Slav and Finno-Ugric peoples, to those of the Jewish culture and the Islamic world. These different factors found in the Judeo-Christian tradition the power that harmonised, consolidated and promoted them.”[1]                                                               

Yet, like Sir Fred, the pope stressed that the diversity of cultures making up Europe’s heritage found their unity in the biblical tradition. 

Of course, we expect a pope to say such things. But even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins candidly admits we cannot understand European history without understanding Christianity and the Bible.

On that point at least, Dawkins is right! Where did Europe gain its cohesive and distinct identity from, as ‘The Continent’? It’s the one continent that is not a continent! It is merely the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. 

The European peoples came largely from the east with the great people movements arriving in waves before the end of the first millennium after Christ. They spoke Indo-European languages. They worshipped many gods, hundreds if not thousands of them across Europe–Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Roman, Greek, Slavic and more. 

A quick google search of the Nordic gods and goddesses alone will reveal: AESIR, principal race of gods in Norse mythology; ANDHRIMNIR, the cook of the Aesir; ANGRBODA, goddess and wife of Loki, ASTRILD, goddess of love; ATLA, water goddess; AUDHUMLA, the primeval cow, formed from the melting ice; BALDER, fairest of the gods; BEYLA, the servant of Freyr; BORGHILD, goddess of the evening mist or moon, she slays the sun each evening; BRAGI, god of poets and the patron of all skaldi (poets) in Norse culture; BRONO, son of Balder, god of daylight; BYLGIA, water goddess;

and so on, alphabetically to: … THOR, thunder-god and the protector of men and gods; TYR, the original god of war in the Germanic culture; ULL, god of justice, duelling and archery; VALI, son of Odin, and the god born to avenge the death of Balder; VALKYRIES, the battle-maidens, who choose the best warriors; VANIR, a group of fertility and nature gods; VAR, goddess of contracts and marriage agreements; VIDAR, son of Odin and the god of silence and vengeance.

The Europeans’ identity was rooted in the east. So at what stage did they develop a distinct western identity? Whatever happened to all these gods and goddesses?

Answer: Story-tellers came with a Book telling the people groups living in the west Eurasian peninsular about Jesus, God’s Son. They came to the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Scots, Picts, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Frisians, Germans, Slavs, Goths, Rus, Balts, Vikings… and more. Converted to Christian monotheism, these peoples of diverse cultures, languages and thought, from Ireland to Armenia, now shared a common basic worldview with values drawn from the teachings of one man: Jesus of Nazareth.  

This phase laid the foundations for what was to emerge as a self-conscious geographical identity calling itself Europe, distinct from its Asian background. The interaction between the ex-Roman and the ex-barbarian worlds, writes Norman Davies, gave birth to the entity called ‘Christendom’, the foundation of European civilisation.[2]

It was the four centuries following Constantine that brought Europe into being, when the majority of the peninsula’s diverse peoples settled in permanent homelands and the rump of the Roman Empire became just one of the many sovereign states in a community of ‘Christendom’, argues Davies. ‘No one yet used the name of Europe to describe this community; but there can be little doubt that it was already in existence.‘[3]   

German sociologist Jürgen Habermas is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential secular philosophers, Marxist in many of his central ideas. In an interview in 1999, Habermas conceded that there was no alternative to Judeo-Christian ethics for grounding freedom, solidarity, emancipation, morality, human rights and democracy:

‘For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. 

‘Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judeo ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. 

‘This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. 

‘And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern chatter.’[4]

In answer to our question ‘what other roots are there to draw on for Europe’s future?’, Habermas surprising implies, none! 

English political scientist John Gray takes us a step even further. His book Straw Dogs is a blistering attack on humanism, which he calls ‘Christianity in disguise’[5]. Once you take God out of the picture, he posits, there is no basis for talking about the dignity of man or human exceptionalism. The book’s title comes from a traditional Chinese festival in which straw dogs are created and worshipped for a day, then burnt. Since there is no Creator God, humans have no special significance in the big order of things, he argues, yet we esteem ourselves irrationally before, like the straw dogs, we meet a final, meaningless extinction. Therefore, humanism, claiming to be a rational response to irrational religion, is itself irrational!   

In other words, talk about freedom, equality, solidarity and peace makes no sense outside a Judeo-Christian framework. 

Dutch philosopher Evert-Jan Ouweneel, in an article entitled Back to the Roots[6], takes a look at the four specific values Schuman identifies as European – freedom, equality, solidarity and peace – and asks what happens to each of these values when cut off from their Judeo-Christian roots. His conclusion is that Europe’s core problems stem from the loss of roots, and that the Christian faith could prove again its vital contribution to European society through the recovery of these values. ‘No-one wants to return to the old days of cultural Christianity in Europe,’ he concludes, ‘but there is no reason for us to be timid about the Christian roots of Europe’s most respected values.’

(The third question will be published next week)

Jeff Fountain

Director Schuman Centre


[1]From his message to the Congress Towards a European Constitution organised by the European Federation of Catholic Universities, 20 June 2002.

[2]Davies, Norman: Europe, Oxford, 1996, p216 

[3]Davies, p284

[4]Habermas, Jürgen, Time of Transitions, Polity Press, 2006, p150-151

[5]Gray, John: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta, 2002.

[6]See following link (text and video)

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