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The Synod of European bishops that took place in Rome last year engaged a wide range of topics. Nevertheless both the meetings and the press coverage of them kept returning to a single theme, that is, the re-evangelization of European culture.

While some people find in this idea a fascinating plan of action, there are many others who shudder at the thought. And little wonder, given the account of this effort offered by the journalists. Does the Pope—the suggestion is there—plan a Catholic reconquest of Europe? And will Europe then fall prey to a new Roman conspiracy? Who is pulling the strings? There are indeed rumors of certain recent Catholic movements, looming more powerful and blacker in popular fantasy than the Jesuits used to do. In The Communist Manifesto Marx declared that Communism was a specter haunting Europe. Now that it has become merely ghostly, many Europeans in search of conspiracy might be swapping Communism for a kind of old-new surrogate, i.e. popery. The question is: whether dream or nightmare, will Christianity, particularly in the guise of Roman Catholicism, actually conquer Europe?

Paradoxically, when it comes to this “new evangelization,” those who are sanguine and those who fear it are not neatly divided along lines of membership and non-membership in the Roman Catholic Church. In Eastern Europe, for example, among the victims of Communist rule, including not only non-Catholic Christians but even unbelievers, the values preached in the Gospel—truth, justice, etc.—remained down through the years a vision of possibility to cling to. At least thus far people of all stripes remember with gratitude the important part played by the churches, and especially by the Polish Pope, in the final overthrow of Communism. When Communism was the main enemy, the old rivalry among the various denominations was seen to be largely irrelevant, or at least a kind of side issue. And the Pope himself has never set his idea of a new evangelization in opposition to the Church’s effort at dialogue and reconciliation both among Christian denominations and between Christians and non-Christians.

I myself was privileged to witness some of all this at first hand in late October of 1991, when I was invited by the Pontifical Council for Culture to take part in a symposium of European intellectuals that was meant to offer the bishops of the Synod food for thought. Among the forty people present—almost all of them lay men and women—fewer than ten came from the countries of Western Europe. Most of those present were from the former Soviet Union or from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc. It is interesting for Western Europeans to note that the term “Eastern Europe” was deeply frowned upon by the participants from these latter countries, who insisted instead on “Central Europe.” The very idea of an Eastern Europe, they said, was one more lie of Soviet propaganda, used to justify the Red Army’s artificial division of Europe into East and West. The “Church of silence” could be heard again, and the first thing it had to tell us was that it had never been completely gagged and that we. Western Christians, had too often and for too long been a Church of deafness. And the Pope was clearly eager to see the reintegration of Europe’s Eastern and Central parts.

In addition, we Westerners were reminded of a few basic historic facts. We were reminded, for instance, that Prague is almost as “western” as Berlin, and more so than Vienna or Stockholm. We had to learn once again that it had been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and that it harbored Europe’s first university. We were invited to bear in mind that our intellectuals frequently helped to throw people living under Communist rule into despair by playing footsie with Marxist ideology while they one after another hallowed each new earthly paradise it was giving birth to. As a Frenchman, I experienced a vicarious embarrassment about my country’s role in the post-World War I creation of Czechoslovakia and, even worse, Yugoslavia. These completely artificial states, welding together peoples who had either never lived together or had not done so for centuries—people whose religions, languages, histories, and levels of economic and social development were widely disparate—are the result of the shortsightedness of politicians who were by and large my fellow countrymen.

Beyond this, it appeared that the Church may be the only place that exists at present where all European peoples—including even Serbs and Croats—can speak to one another. The most extraordinary thing about the dialogues that took place both in and out of official sessions was not their content, but who took part in them and how. People were exchanging private reminiscences, but at the same time whole peoples were sharing their respective memories. We too often restrict to the material sphere the commandment to share our goods. We have to share with others not only our wealth or technological know-how; we have to share our pasts as well.

What makes this task difficult is that memories of European peoples are poisoned with the recollections of wrongs done to and suffered by one another. If some way is not found to heal these wounds, everywhere in Europe and in the former USSR, they will fester and keep alive the longing for vengeance. An example of this, of course, is the late Yugoslavia, where allegedly “ex”-Communist leaders are reopening old wounds and flattering Serbian nationalism for their own purposes.

Forgiveness, then, turns out to be more than a theme for sermons. In Europe in any case, and likely even in the world at large, forgiving one another is by far the most real and concrete of all political programs. If we want peace, historic wounds must be healed. Can they be? In order to answer this question, we have to realize that forgiveness is basically a religious idea. It begins with faith: we first have to believe, in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary, that reconciliation is possible, that both we and our enemy can change our hearts.

As a Frenchman, once again, I was deeply surprised and at the same time touched by the way in which, for instance, Croatians and Slovaks considered the current friendship between my country and its eastern neighbor, Germany, as an example of what can be achieved between former “hereditary foes,” and as a ground for hope.

Now, it is a historic fact that the reconciliation among France, Germany, and Italy was the work of three Christian statesmen: Karl Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Alcide de Gasperi. Nor were these men people who simply happened to be Christians. Their policy, at least in the field of European cooperation, was a direct consequence of their Christian ethics. The first seed of the European Economic Community, i.e., the 1954 European Coal and Steel Company, was not sown for economic reasons only, but—and this was very conscious on the mind of its father, another Christian, Jean Monnet—in order to prevent competition about the possession of these basic industrial goods from becoming once again the cause of wars. What prevailed was not the will to economic power, but the desire for peace and its condition.

What the Pope and leaders of the Church like Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Lustiger of Paris have in mind when they speak of a new evangelization are realities of this kind: a common healing of memories, reconciliation, and mutual help among European peoples—and certainly not some dark conspiracy aimed at wielding political power or influence.

On the other hand, just as many non-Christians gladly welcome the idea of giving more weight to the values preached in the Gospels, Roman Catholics strongly object to any interpretation of the idea of a “new evangelization” in terms of “conquest” or “reconquista.” The idea arises, rather, from accepting for oneself the obligation of remembrance and repentance—which in turn requires taking a fresh look at history. If there is to be a “new” evangelization, we first have to ask ourselves questions about the “old” one. Now, this first evangelization, in the early centuries of our era, took place slowly and peacefully. It proceeded against the political power of the Roman Empire. Thus referring to the idea of evangelization amounts from the outset to excluding the dream of seizing power. In calling for a new evangelization, the Pope precisely chose as a model what happened before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, in other words, before it could even be tempted to impose its creed by means of political coercion.

Moreover, evangelization does not mean Christianization. To evangelize, in good English, or, to be exact, in good Greek, amounts to proclaim the Gospel. How people react is another story. As for the past, historians know very well that the Christianization of Europe has never been totally completed. There never was such thing as a “Christendom” that was coextensive with Europe. History has long given the lie to Novalis’ romantic vision. First, Jewish communities resisted and have continued to do so up to the present time; and among the Christians themselves, many areas of life, public and private, were never really Christianized and remained more or less heathen. The “nominal Christian” is not an invention of modern times.

As for the present, is the idea of new evangelization a sign of the totalitarian character of the Roman Church, if not of Christianity as a whole? Historical instances of totalitarian behavior among Christian believers and/or institutions cannot settle the matter, because such instances cannot be proven to reach to the core of the Christian message or necessarily to follow from it. Still, the question remains: is Christianity totalitarian in nature? The question cannot be brushed aside.

Facing it squarely, I think, would lead to the answer that, to some extent, it is true that even in the purest form we can conceive, Christianity is and remains a totalitarianism of sorts. But it is so in a most Pickwickian sense. It does, to be sure, claim to recapitulate the totality of human experience in time and space, and to pervade humankind in the totality of its dimensions. But at the same time Christianity is anything but a totalitarian power. For it does the contrary of what totalitarian rulers commonly do.

As a rule, totalitarianism endeavors to do away with the individual subject: his thought is replaced by ideology, his speech is replaced by some dialectical variety of Newspeak, his actions are replaced by the automatic development of Progress, History, or class struggle, supervised by the State or the Party—which, thanks to its “hundreds of eyes” (Brecht, Die Massnahme), is supposed to be wiser and more farsighted than any one of us. In this way, classical totalitarianism muffles moral conscience and makes the burden of individual responsibility lighter. And this may be pleasant, as Hitler once suggested to Rauschning.

Christianity, on the other hand, to the extent that it is so, is a totalitarianism of the moral subject. In this paradoxical totalitarianism, the responsibility of the subject is enhanced beyond all limits. No dimension of life can escape it. There is a Christian way of behaving, hence of doing everything. No dimension of my life can dodge the ethical claim, because I am always present in what I do or in what happens to me. I am myself totally, that which I have to do should be done by myself and not by anybody else, that which I must undergo will happen to myself and to nobody else.

Yet there is no such thing as a Christian method, or code, or set of rules that would apply to the whole realm of human life in order to tell us at each step what is the proper way to do things. There is a Christian behavior towards oneself, but Christianity will not tell you whether you should sleep on your back or on your stomach, or with which hand you should bathe yourself. There is a Christian way of playing one’s part on the political scene, but there is no Christian politics, let alone a specifically Christian policy applicable to any given case. There is a Christian attitude towards man as a fellow citizen, but no Christian law.

This can be shown historically. Take an example from the law. In late Antiquity, Roman law was influenced by few Christian ideas. As a matter of fact, the only point on which this influence can be assessed with some certainty was the legislation on slavery. Apart from that, Christianity left Roman law where it stood. As long as no basic ethical rule was broken, there was no reason for meddling. The same holds true for the world of today: as long as a system of law abides by the basic human rights that bear no exception, there is no reason for interference by the Church.

Such an attitude finds its roots in the founding texts of the New Testament. Everybody knows the celebrated passage distinguishing those things owed respectively to God and Caesar (Matthew 22:21 and parallels). But there is a proviso: Jesus does not in fact draw a precise line between the spheres of God and of Caesar; indeed, there is no such thing as a realm of Caesar, existing as an independent reality, for Caesar himself has to answer before God for what he does.

A second example is perhaps more significant. In the Gospel according to Luke (12:13-15), we are told that someone has asked Jesus to compel his brother to share with him what their father had bequeathed to them. Jesus refuses to interfere: he was not sent to act as a justice of the peace. Instead of deciding for or against one of the two brothers, he warns people, in a general way, against cupidity. Jesus displaces the whole issue from the juridical to the moral level. Laying down rules, about inheritance or anything at all, is no part of Jesus’ business. This does not mean that rules should be discarded, or replaced by some enthusiastic effusion that would abolish private property. Technical rules must be kept and even improved and refined. This only means that all existing rules have to measure up to a moral standard. Furthermore, this moral standard can help us find better rules. The above little story nips in the bud the very possibility of a Christian religious law, of a Christian Shari’a. This is all the more striking as—what Luke could not foresee—the rules on inheritance were to become one of the trickiest and most developed in Islamic religious law, a nest of case studies for students of legal theory.

Therefore, the modern demand of a separation between the religious realm and the way in which societies organize themselves does scarcely more than remind us of one of the fundamental principles of Christianity. In the course of history, especially in post-Reformation times, Christians sometimes yielded to the temptation to forget this. Modern democratic societies had to refresh their memories by insisting on the separation, and, from time to time, they did so in opposition to the Church. Nevertheless, these societies were proving to be perfectly legitimate and faithful heirs of Christianity.

As for our present problem, a re-evangelization of European culture does not mean retracing one’s steps towards a new union of political and religious powers, for the simple reason that such a union never existed.

It would be well at this point to ask a few fundamental questions about the relationship between Christianity and Europe. Obviously Christianity has played, and may continue to play, an important part in European culture—an observation as much harped upon, for good and ill, as it is self-evident. At the very beginning of European history, Christianity was instrumental in the process of integrating newcomers to what was, and remained, the Roman world. Barbarian tribes were simultaneously baptized and settled: sharing a common faith furthered intermarriage and integration. Yet this bare historical fact says nothing to the issue of whether what happened was or was not legitimate. As Hume taught us centuries ago, no “ought” can be legitimately deduced from an “is.” So it is a matter of plain fact that Christianity molded what came to be called Europe (whose original name, after all, was “Christendom”), but to say so does not by itself tell us whether that shaping of European culture through the medium of Christian ideas was a good thing or a bad thing to begin with, let alone whether those ideas speak to us now.

Let us put the question in a different way. When we speak of Christianity, and of its importance to European cultural history, we commonly assume that Christianity belongs to European culture, that it is a part of that culture, an element among other elements: e.g., Jewish ethics, Greek democracy and philosophy, pagan sacrality, Roman law and organization, not to mention the customs of the Germanic, Slavic, and Hungarian tribes who were invaders. Why, then, we might ask, should the Christian element be given a place of honor? There might, after all, have been other cultural syntheses than the one that did in fact develop.

But this way of framing the issue is misleading. For while Christianity did contribute its mite to the formation of Europe, it did so in quite a peculiar way. The formative elements, or roots, of European thought are commonly referred to as Greek rationality on the one side and the faith of Israel on the other. For the most part, this story is a “tale of two cities”: Athens and Jerusalem. Is Christianity, then, to be thought of as a third root? Should a third city, Rome, be added to the tale? The answer is that we ought not to think of Rome, and of Christianity—which is far more deeply “Roman” than is commonly surmised—as being some third element in European culture. Nor should we think of it as the synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem in an encompassing whole. Christianity is in fact the common structure of our relationship to both sources.

Ponder for a moment the peculiar character of European cultural history. One way of describing it is as a long series of renaissances. The concept of renaissance came into use in connection with what was believed or expected to take place in late medieval Italy. The rediscovery of the classics was supposed by people like Petrarch to bring to a close what was called (by Petrarch himself) the “dark ages.” Now, the historians have destroyed the legend of the “dark ages” and shown that the renaissance—or as I have called it, renaissances—never actually began or ended. They first spoke of a “renaissance of the twelfth century” (C. H. Haskins), then discovered an earlier one in the ninth century. On the other hand, the series of Italian renaissances was furthered by the French and German classicist movement, and by the nostalgic passion for Greece among the German and English romantic poets, not to speak of the more recent attempts by Nietzsche, and into our time, Heidegger, Leo Strauss, and others.

What is a renaissance? Basically, a new way of looking at old texts or works of art, grounded in a sense of inferiority vis-a-vis what the Ancients achieved in science and the arts. Seeing oneself as a barbarian or decadent results in the determination to go back to the original masterpieces that lay buried under dust or rust, to remove what marred their radiance, and to live up to them. In most cases what was covering the original masterpieces were the remnants of former attempts at retrieving their original meaning. For instance, the Italian renaissance tried to recover the genuine Aristotle. And it did so through a criticism of scholasticism—that is, of a previous reading of Aristotle.

A claim to the legacy of Greece could be found in civilizations that did not view themselves as European or even having something in common with Europe, i.e., Islam and Byzantium. A wide-ranging effort at translating Greek texts was made by the Arabic-speaking world in the ninth century. Byzantium, for its part, never completely cast off from its moorings in ancient Greece and always kept, at least in educated circles, the classical form of written language.

Yet there was something unique to Europe, which was that, strictly speaking, renaissances occurred there and nowhere else. In particular, there were no renaissances in the Byzantine or in the Islamicized worlds. Byzantium remained proud of speaking still the language of Homer and Plato. The Arabic-speaking world produced a great number of translations, but did not keep the original texts. Since Arabic, as the language of the Koran, therefore of God himself, was considered as the most perfect language, it superseded and replaced other languages (Greek, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) that were spoken before the Muslim conquest. Consequently, the Arabic-speaking world did not receive what could not be translated and had to be read in the original, namely, poetry, epics, drama. Europe, unlike Byzantium, never thought of itself as the legitimate heir of classical culture. Its educated circles, who spoke Latin, never shed their feeling of estrangement vis-à-vis the Greeks: to them, ancient culture was irretrievably lost. And unlike the Islamicized world, Europe kept the original texts that testified to its inferiority and never tried to do without them.

Now, this corresponds to a structure that exists in the religious sphere as well. Christianity is grounded in the experience that the people of Israel had with God under the Old Covenant. It claims to be a fresh way of looking at this experience and of synthesizing it in the light of the life, teaching, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. The Christian Bible unites in an inseparable whole the New Testament and what becomes the Old Testament. For the Christians, “old” does not mean obsolete. On the contrary, the Old Testament still keeps its permanent value.

Such an attitude is difficult. It would be far easier simply to do away with the old covenant. This is precisely what the heresiarch Marcion, in the second century, proposed to do. The Church Fathers resisted the attempt at parting from the Old Testament and chose the more difficult way: keeping it and interpreting it as more or less clearly pointing to its fulfillment in Jesus. Islam, on the other hand, chose to reject the texts of both the Old and New Testaments. According to the Koran, their texts were tampered with by Jews and Christians who were unwilling to admit that they announced the final coming of Muhammad, as the seal of all prophecy. Their authentic content, fortunately, is to be read in clear Arabic in the Koran itself, so that Islam can dispense with reading the sacred books of former revelations.

Thus, a very peculiar attitude towards the past underlies the way in which European culture relates to the sources from which it springs. The dominant pattern is the same for both Jewish and Greek. European culture always resisted the temptation to absorb in itself what it had inherited from either the Greeks or the Jews—to suck in the content and to throw away the empty husk. It always maintained the lively, even painful, consciousness of its being secondary vis-à-vis classical culture and the old covenant. And it could do so because accepting secondarity stemmed from the deepest layer, or, to change metaphors, the peak of its culture, i.e., its religion.

This is the reason why historic Christianity, in the long run, always granted a place to other cultural traditions: paganism survived in law; its mythology enjoyed a series of rebirths in art. Christianity can’t help doing that, for in its innermost structure it is rooted in something that it is not, i.e., Judaism. Thus, Christianity is not an element among others in European culture, but its very form, the form that enables it to remain open to whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences with the human and the divine.

That is why my own guess for the future is that Christianity will be able to play a positive role on the European stage if, and only if, it gets rid of the temptation to repudiate its Jewish roots. It might be that the deepest issue at stake in the new evangelization has to do with the Church’s attempt at a reconciliation with the Jews.

The idea of a new evangelization, then, should be carefully distinguished from some dream of Christendom, the temptation to seek the conquest of European culture. An unbiased look at what the Catholic Church actually says and does through its official statements—to be distinguished from distorted and/or unauthorized reports—should suffice to dispel fears and resentment on that matter.

Moreover, the idea of such a conquest does not tally with what the Catholic Church has always considered to be its role. At least at the level of principle, principle never eschewed, it has always acknowledged both the freedom for temporal affairs to be self-regulating and the right for itself to keep a critical outlook on them and to assess moral, political, and economic practice from the point of view of ethics.

Finally, endeavoring to make the Christian message more conspicuous is not parochial. We do not have to ask, if we are Christian, what place we can leave to other trends of culture or, if we are not, what place will be left for us. On the contrary, Christianity has enabled the other trends of European culture to remain what they are and to develop themselves. If this culture wants to survive and to keep drawing on its two sources, it should be careful to help Christians towards a better understanding of their own cultural mission.

Rémi Brague, who formerly taught Greek philosophy at the University of Dijon, is at present Professor of Medieval and Arabic Philosophy at the University Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne). He is author of Europe, la voie romaine (Paris: Criterion, 1992).

Photo by Léa V on Unsplash. Image cropped.