Is Europe Christian?
Considering an intellectual genealogy of European secularization.
François, the anti-hero of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, is a man “smoked dry by dissipation.” Each passing day serves to accentuate his stagnate academic career. Sexual liaisons deprived of real meaning and a depressing parade of microwavable ready-meals offer decreasingly effective self-medication. The wider ambitions and near allegorical dimensions of the novel are hardly disguised. In the first pages, François laments the fate of Western democracies hypnotized by consumerism, greed, and professional ambition. His own person represents, in vivid colours, the novel’s central claim: The moral energy of Europe is spent. Her best days are behind her.
In the midst of this malaise, an Islamic political party called the Muslim Brotherhood manages, through an unlikely series of events, to gain ascendency in French Parliament. Whatever one makes of Houellebecq’s own political and social prejudices, the moral seriousness and sense of purpose invigorating Submission’s Islamists suggests that the Brotherhood is not intended to engender alarmist fears over encroaching sharia law. Rather than a warning concerning a possible dystopian future, the Muslim characters are a mirror held up against Francois’s and France’s decadence and meaningless hedonism.
The anti-climax is a failed conversion. An Armagnac-fuelled late-night altercation convinces François that the remedy for European lethargy must be more than political, requiring connection “with something stronger, to a higher mystery.” François departs for Rocamadour, a shrine suggested to be the spiritual heart of Europe, hoping an encounter with its black Madonna and the sounds and smells of religious adoration will effect a spiritual transformation. For a moment, gazing on the Virgin with child, François ascends to a near-visionary state. He contemplates the babe and the Virgin Mary as a force capable of reclaiming Europe’s soul. Yet “little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt [the Virgin] moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shrivelled and puny.” Much as he might wish to find in Christianity a moral bulwark to resist personal and national malaise, it is not to be. Christianity’s power and force are things of the past not the present. It is a beautiful but rusted relic, a beguiling mythology that cannot be embraced by modern folk with “electric lights and radios.” As another character, named Rediger, remarks, “Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls—zombies. The question was, could Christianity be revived?” Now Rediger is a Muslim convert, and François soon resignedly follows.
A Christ-Haunted Europe
There are a number of resonances between this story Houellebecq tells in stark, poetic lines and the intellectual genealogy Olivier Roy outlines in more empirical terms. Roy’s Is Europe Christian? is a wide-ranging, somewhat novel take on European secularization. Roy distinguishes between two types of secularization. The first refers to the autonomy of the political sphere from undue religious influence. The second “denotes the decline of religious observance and the disappearance of religion as the focus of social and cultural life.” Roy contends that this latter form of secularization, his main focus, coincides in a European context with de-Christianization. A—perhaps the—central contention of the book is that in seeking to combat secularization through “culture war,” Christians have secularized their own faith and sapped away its capacity to cure European decadence. Similar to Submission, in Roy’s story Islam plays a central role. Yet Roy offers no fevered predictions of coming Islamic dominance. Rather he is more concerned with what the European response to Islam reveals about Europe itself, and more particularly, about European Christianity.
A Christianity attentive to the way human persons are shaped by culture will continue to articulate and even inculcate a Christian vision of goodness, justice, truth, and beauty.
Flannery O’Connor wrote of the Christ-haunted South. Roy offers an unflinching examination of a very different sort of Christ-haunted Europe. The central question of the book concerns the nature of contemporary European Christianity. His genealogy of secularization centres on values. According to Roy, for the first half of the twentieth century, European values, liberal values, and Christian values were one and the same. The 1960s shattered this consensus. Christian claims regarding human sexuality, contraception, and the family were suddenly sharply at odds with mainstream Europe. The developments of the ’60s exposed the already precarious public role Christianity largely maintained in European public life. The very reason Christianity was thought to be suited for this civic role—namely, its ability to serve as a guarantor for an agreed-on set of values—had been subverted.
One way Christians have responded to this subversion is what Roy terms the “self-secularising” of Protestant state churches on the Continent. (The Church of England, with its still-robust—though declining—attendance, its continued public role in British political life, and its largely orthodox and traditional theology and moral vision, represents—for the present at least—somewhat of an exception to this trend.) Roy rejects the view that the acceptance of gay marriage, abortion, and no-fault divorce by European state churches represents an internal theological evolution within the Christian tradition. For Roy, acceptance of these developments represents a straightforward capitulation to something external to Christianity. This “self-secularising” seeks to retain the public role of Christianity in European society only at the cost of accepting a secularization of the values of Christianity itself.
Similarly, Roy suggests that those European countries which for a time seemed to have bucked the secularization trend, such as Poland and Ireland, often did so when Roman Catholicism fused with nationalism. In both cases, Christianity was embraced not as a spirituality but as one part of a mix of social and nationalistic identity markers for the sake of combatting a political opponent. Once this nationalistic threat was diminished—for example, after the fall of communism or the cooling of tensions between the Republic and Northern Ireland—secularization began to take hold and, in the case of Ireland, has done so with a speed and force that outstrips secularization in other European countries. Once again, Roy suggests that in allowing the sort of public or social role of Christianity to take centre stage, unintentional secularization occurs.
Finally, in what feels like the beating heart of the book, Roy outlines multiple examples of right-wing nationalist leaders and parties who embrace Christian symbols and rhetoric as a means of countering the rise of Islam or the increase of foreign immigration. Yet in each case, these right-wing parties advocate not for a revival of those Christian values that sit at odds with contemporary European values, but for a vague Christian identity that can be employed to demarcate Europeans from foreigners. For example, Roy discusses Christine Boutin, the only MP in France from the “Christian Democratic Party,” who advocated, alongside Christian values, for a revival of the “cheeky” and transgressive elements of French sexuality. Similarly, he discusses populist leaders like Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who appeal to the conservative Christians of their respective nations while supporting abortion and gay marriage. Furthermore, some right-wing leaders who appeal to Europe’s “Christian” identity brazenly and straightforwardly repudiate Christian values that contradict their nationalist agenda. For example, Roy cites Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who sees Jesus’s imperative to “love thy neighbour” as a form of self-flagellation. Other far-right groups enlist the language and imagery of Christianity to their own cause by transforming and at times even contradicting the traditional meaning of Christian symbols. As an example, Roy describes an Austrian nationalist party who affixed a cross to an anti-immigrant propaganda poster. What does the cross of Jesus Christ, traditionally a symbol of sacrificial self-giving for people of all nations, have to do with the rejection of immigration? This very question was asked by Cardinal Schönborn Archbishop of Vienna, who suggested in response that if the cross has implications for immigration debates it would be to remind us of the obligation to love one’s enemies and the foreigner. Yet for this far-right party, the cross’s symbolic meaning could be extracted from its role in traditional Christian theology and employed as a mere cultural symbol that distinguishes Europeans from the foreign other. In sum, when deployed by populist nationalism, European “Christianity” is in danger of becoming merely a function of a larger nexus of nationalistic and cultural identity markers.
In concluding his book, Roy offers a direct, rather simple prescription for believers: “If Europe is to become Christian again, it is in need of prophets, not legislators.” In other words, drop the culture war and preach the gospel.
A Partial Story
Roy’s argument and his prescription will be attractive to Christians disillusioned with culture wars. For European Christians or Christians in an increasingly secular North America, the call to be evangelists and to aver the fusion of the gospel with parochial political and social agendas is a critical warning, particularly when not only far-right nationalists but also mainstream parties attempt to appropriate Christianity for their own ends. (Recall David Cameron’s vague appeals to Britain as a Christian society or Mike Pence’s ham-fisted replacement of Jesus Christ with “Old Glory” in a strange pseudo-citation of Hebrews 12:2.)
Any genealogy of secularization is inevitably a partial story. While Roy’s account is no exception, it is a compelling narrative, worth being set alongside other well-known accounts like those of Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, Brad Gregory, Radical Orthodoxy, and Michael Buckley. Yet any story attempting to narrate events of such complexity inevitably employs framing devices that determine which matters appear as central plot points and which as peripheral. Roy sees values and moral norms as central. From this sharp focus he derives his most interesting contentions and controversial claims. This focus influences his own rather value-laden account of what “unsecularized” Christianity amounts to. It is hard not to think that Roy implicitly and unintentionally defines unsecularized Christianity as a church whose ethical teaching is identical to the Roman Catholic magisterium. The potential degeneration of various European denominations into secularism is evaluated according to this implicit norm. There is something somewhat arbitrary in this approach. Roy never tells us, for example, why ethical matters have such a priority in his account of unsecularized religion over against, say, theological beliefs or religious rituals. Nor does he tell us why we must assume that only a conservative Roman Catholic moral vision is the only authentically “unsecularized” one. Is a European Christian who regularly attends church, prays, shares their faith, and affirms the Nicene Creed really “secularized” merely because they are in gay marriage or use contraception? Regardless of one’s theological stance on those particular issues, Roy’s analysis depends on his tacit presupposition that a particular set of moral values constitutes the normative markers of unsecularized religion.
Despite the timeliness of Roy’s warning, there is something reductive about both his genealogy and his prescription. One might think that Roy’s call to abandon the culture war requires a strategic retreat from politics or social engagement. Perhaps one who is attentive to Roy’s worries will think Christians should merely focus on conversion, or individual discipleship, or church planting, and stop worrying about public institutions, cultural transformation, and politics. I worry that such an approach, which tends to think that re-Christianization can occur merely by focusing on individual conversion and discipleship, ignores the ways in which individuals themselves are shaped by politics and by social, cultural, and intellectual institutions.
Missiologist Stefan Paas contends that many Christians, but evangelicals in particular, are in danger of missing the importance of culture for the task of evangelization in post-Christian contexts. This worrisome view, he points out, is summarized “in the words of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES): ‘Change the world, one student at a time.’” This illusory vision of societal change accomplished merely through personal conversion and discipleship has been comprehensively challenged by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World. Although Hunter’s work directly concerns North America, the same issues arise in a European context as well, particularly given that, as Roy himself argues, European evangelicalism has been deeply influenced by North American evangelicalism (often against the wishes of European evangelicalism’s intellectual leadership). Instead, without succumbing to the culture warrior’s delusions of reclaimed political power, Paas suggests that Christians nevertheless need to recapture a vision of the capacity of Christianity to reshape not only individuals but also societies and cultures. While I heartily agree with Roy’s timely criticisms of “culture war,” humans creatures are inevitably formed and shaped by their culture. A Christianity that, from a justifiable fear of the excesses of culture war, retreats from public engagement and surrenders the social and political realm to other actors, clings to a false hope that individual conversion and discipleship will be effective apart from wider societal transformation. While we must heed Roy’s warning and accept the pluralism of Western societies, a Christianity attentive to the way human persons are shaped by culture will continue to articulate and even inculcate a Christian vision of goodness, justice, truth, and beauty through every means possible, including politics, the arts, the media, and the university. To do otherwise is to accept not only political secularization but ultimately de-Christianization. This is a particular challenge for European Christians, as it requires the difficult task of distinguishing between vague appeals to a cultural Christianity devoid of spiritual dynamism and the genuine ways in which Western society itself has been and might be reshaped by the gospel. The former should be denounced and the latter celebrated and championed.
The Patient Wisdom of Augustine
What might such a vision look like for Christian mission in a secular context that is wary of the ways faith can be co-opted by social and political forces but is nonetheless convinced that social, intellectual, and political transformation is an essential part of the church’s missional task?
If one is, like Roy, attentive to the danger of faith’s assimilation to the social or cultural values of the surrounding society, there is no stiffer antidote than Augustine’s City of God. The text is structured around a ramified contrast between two cities, divided by two loves, resulting in two ends. One city, the city of man, is overpowered by love of self, resulting in a lust to dominate others, while the other is fuelled by a love of God, which in turn fuels a desire to serve others and direct them to their superlative, eternal end in the enjoyment of God. Augustine’s critique of the city of man is so all-encompassing that he insists that earthly societies are bereft of true justice. On Augustine’s terms, such a conclusion is unavoidable. If justice involves giving to each their due, then surely our most basic and comprehensive duty as creatures is to our creator. Thus, Augustine—in a claim that would have scandalized his contemporaries—concludes that if one defines a republic, as Cicero does, as the common good of a people who are justly governed, then not only is Rome deeply flawed but it has never even arisen to being a republic. For Augustine, without the love of God ordering all other loves, there simply can be no justice.
This denial of secular justice and critique of the pretentions of secular society might be thought to lead to a quietist or separatist vision. Yet in book 19 of City of God, Augustine offers his own definition of a republic: a people united “by common agreement on the objects of its love.” In this sense, Rome and every other human society might be called a republic. Further, these republics might even be evaluated as better or worse on the basis of the sorts of things a society values and loves. This then allows that while there is no ultimate justice or peace in earthly societies, there might be a sort of earthly peace “based on the good and advantages of this temporal life.” Upon this shared, imperfect peace both the city of man and the city of God depend in this life. Augustine thereby elegantly relegates the goods of social, cultural, and political life to a derivative status, while nonetheless insisting that Christians and secular persons have a shared stake in public life.
Augustine’s account of the two cities joins with Roy in encouraging Christians to be significantly reserved in what they expect politics to accomplish and to refuse the association of particular cultural or national movements with Christianity per se. Yet on the other hand, Augustine’s account exposes the dichotomous thinking that rigidly divorces the proclamation of the gospel from cultural transformation as an overly spiritualistic, naïve understanding of the pilgrim status of Christians. The city of God depends on the same cultural and social goods as the city of man, not only for its temporal existence but even for its eternal one insofar as these temporal goods are meant to be used for the sake of the city of God’s eternal end. Christians should be invested in creating the sorts of societies conducive to supporting the temporal and eternal good of human creatures. Furthermore, the evangelistic task is not otherworldly or merely spiritual, but involves instructing the nations in the right use of temporal, including social and political, goods. Social and political activism may thus even be seen as a component of evangelism.
So long as Christian pilgrims remain in the secular West, their missionary calling compels them to pursue the good and peace of the city of man in every dimension of life.
Augustine’s vision of the two cities suggests that those who reject culture war are not forced to choose merely between Benedict option retreat or Hauerwasian anabaptist separatism. Both of these options, Augustine might suggest, underplay the extent to which the city of man and the city of God depend on a shared set of cultural goods in this life. They are in danger of buying in to a false, utopian delusion which thinks that the values and norms of the city of God can be hermetically sealed off from the city of man.
Perhaps what is needed is something that leaves us with fewer clear lines but more public audacity. Augustine notes that citizens of the city of God bear a variety of political and cultural affiliations and allegiances. Membership in the heavenly city “does not rescind or abolish any of these; rather it preserves them . . . [for] they all aim at one and the same thing—earthly peace.” Thus the heavenly city defends these cultural goods but “directs this earthly peace toward the heavenly peace, which is so truly peace that, strictly speaking, it alone is to be considered and called peace.” Can Christianity save Europe? Whether it will effect the sort of societal revitalization for which François yearns remains to be seen, but so long as Christian pilgrims remain in the secular West, their missionary calling compels them to pursue the good and peace of the city of man in every dimension of life, but most of all, to offer the only peace that can finally be called peace.