Monday, February 12, 2007

Book log: The Cube And the Cathedral: Europe, America, And Politics Without God by George Weigel

In this meditation on the state of Europe, George Weigel looks at certain puzzling aspects of European culture and tries to understand how it got this way and where it might be going.

What are the puzzles posed by Europe? Are few:
  • "Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity?"
  • "What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics?"
  • "Why is European productivity dwindling? Why does German, rightly renowned as the economic engine of the European Union, have a per capita gross domestic product equivalent to Arkansas and only slightly higher than West Virginia and Mississippi? ... Why does Sweden have a considerably higher level of its population living below the poverty line ... than the United States?"
  • "Why, in the process of enlarging the European Union, is Europe retreating from democracy and binding itself ever more tightly in the cords of bureaucracy, with Brussels bureaucrats calculating the appropriate circumference of tomatoes and prescribing the proper feeding procedures for Sardinian hogs?"
  • "Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the greatest 'sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century'?"
Weigel investigates many aspects these issues, but he focuses on the cultural trend to erase the influence and even the memory of anything Christian from European public life. He sees this as the fruit of intellectual currents from before 1900 that then gave fruit to the horribly grizzly traumas that Europe went through in the 20th century.

The books is very readable, much more so than I expected. I found it riveting and insightful. One chapter entitled "Two Ideas of Freedom" is the clearest exposition I've found of the distinction between freedom as understood in Catholic moral teaching ("...a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection, with excellence."), versus the notion of freedom as nothing more than the ability to do whatever one has a whim to do. Weigel very clearly shows how the first understanding of freedom has the potential to elevate human beings and draw them into real happiness. It connects people with each other and with every idea of human excellence. In contrast, the idea of freedom simply as the exercise of willfulness severs people from one another, leaving them adrift, without direction, and prey to every whim, passion, and emotion.

It is this second idea of freedom that dominates modern European thought, driving many of its pathologies and partially explaining the intense hostility in European intellectual circles towards Christianity.

Weigel sees this hostility towards Christianity as a great threat to democracy itself, for the democratic models of government in Europe and America owe a great deal to the development of Christian theology of the centuries, especially its emphasis on the value and dignity of every person.
A thoroughly secularized culture from which transcendent reference points for human thought and action have disappeared is bad for the cause of human freedom and democracy because democracy, in the final analysis, rests on the conviction that the human person possesses an inalienable dignity and value and that freedom is not mere willfulness. [pg. 172, emphasis added]
Ultimately, Christians have a firm, deep, and strong reason to defend the value of liberty for all. Secularists, who see freedom only as license and have no "higher" values to point to, have no such basis to defend the idea of democracy.
Christians do know...why they need to engage the convictions of others with respect and why they must defend the Other's freedom: because it is their Christian obligation to do so; because this is what God requires of them. But who, or what, teaches a similar sense of obligation to the people of the cube [the secular modernists]... Who, or what, will teach the Europeans of the future that the democratic values this cube claims to represent are worth promoting---and defending?[pp. 176-177]