Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Cube and the Cathedral -- A Review

"The Cube and the Cathedral" by George Weigel (New York: Basic Books, 2005, 202 pages) US$23.00 ($15:64 at

Review by Richard Kew

Mona Charen is hardly one of my favorite columnists, but when I saw a reference to George Weigel's just-published book, "The Cube and the Cathedral," in one of her pieces the other day I decided that it was a must-buy. I was intrigued by what she said about it, and have much respected the writing of Weigel since reading his biography of John Paul II some years ago.

A short book, really little more than an extended essay, what Weigel is doing is to write one of the first credible attempts at addressing the problem of European decline and decay. For the last dozen years he has been teaching each summer in Krakow, Poland, and this has given him an outsider's inside view of life in Europe, and from a distinctly different perspective -- that of Central Europe looking westward. As a European, I have found that most writing by Americans about Europe has been far from adequate, but Weigel is much more observant and perceptive than most.

He starts by suggesting that recent assessments of Europe have been one- or two-dimensional, rather than having a three-dimensional depth because they have either not noticed or ignored the religious and spiritual dimension of the challenges facing Europe. This is hardly surprising, given the precipitative decline of faith on the old continent in the last several generations. So, starting as a conservative Catholic we find him wondering aloud.

Why is it, he asks, that European politics have become so irrational? What is the reason for dwindling productivity? Is Europe retreating from democracy into a stultifying bureaucracy? Why are populations plummeting? I could go on with the questions he puzzles over, but at their root is a much more significant question, why is it that "so many of Europe's public intellectuals are so Christophobic? (Page 19).

That, is the crux of the issue and was symbolized in the passionate and highly successful efforts to exclude from the new constitution of the European Union any reference whatsoever to Christianity's contribution to democracy and human rights. This 70,000 word document that has been drawn up, fiercely contested, and is now being put to referenda in EU countries, jumps straight from the Classical era's contribution to Europe's political base to the Enlightenment. It would appear that in a radically secular age the Christian contribution is being deliberately downplayed, ignored, axed.

(As an ironic aside, it looks very likely that a major country is about to reject the Constitution and therfore declare it moot. I had expected that the 'No' vote that sent it down the toilet would come from the United Kingdom, but unless things change in the next week or two it is likely to be the French citizenry who are shouting "Non, Non, Non!")

This denial of Christian history could be, Weigel muses, the reason why Europeans are developing an increasingly bizarre approach to, and denial of, death, and the seeming determination of folks all across Europe to commit demographic suicide. The massive drop in birthrates that has taken place in the last couple of decades augers the beginnings of a depopulation that Niall Ferguson describes as the greatest "sustained reduction of European population since the Black Death in the Fourteenth Century" (Page 21).

Weigel is concerned to look at these realities not only because what happens in Europe profoundly effects North America, but also because the USA is rapidly approaching the same crisis of civilizational morale that Europe is already tumbling into. If Europe totters in this way, then America is in an awful lot of trouble.

What Weigel does with great brilliance is to set Europe's crisis (one that Europe seems hardly willing to face up to) within the perspective of history. This has been coming for a while, and this continent seems unwilling to recover from what it did to itself in the Twentieth Century. The starting point of the downward spiral was prior to World War I, but it was that "rage of self-mutilation" that set hellish circumstances into motion that did not fully run their course until 1989 and the collapse of Communism, symbolized by the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

Once all this had worked its way through the European system it was then necessary to pick up on where it might have been going after the best part of a century of bloody detours. Yet intolerable damaged had been done. The "European problem" which had been on hold through the battles with totalitarianism cut far more deeply than the political and the psychological.

Yet ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have lethal consequences. It seems to have been the wrong lessons that Europe learned from its 20th Century writhings, so that it now believes human greatness requires the rejection of the self-revealing God in favor of atheistic humanism. Given this propensity, we can expect things to go badly wrong. After having spent the 20th Century in a blender, Europeans have convinced themselves that to be modern and free they must be radically secular. It is this 'gospel' that is enshrined in the European Constitution, a document that by its exclusion of the Christian contribution is shaped by half-truth at best and outright lies at the worst.

"The Christophobia of contemporary European high culture" turns things upside down. "Christianity cannot be acknowledged as one of the primary sources of European democracy because the only public space safe for pluralism, tolerance, civility, and democracy is, on this telling, a public space that is thoroughly a-theos. It is very strange" (Pages 109-11). When truth rooted in God is denied there is only relativism and skepticism left, and no compelling notion of truth that by its very nature requires us to be tolerant, civilized, and democratic.

Weigel goes on to say, "The Church only asks to be permitted to enter into the conversation with those Others... Christians can 'give an account' of their defense of the Other's freedom, even if the Other, skeptical and relativist, finds it hard to give an account of the freedom of the Christian" (Pages 111-112). Even if it took a while to learn the lesson, the Church recognizes publicly that acts of coercion are offensive to its own identity and doctrine. Relativists and skeptics have not reached that point, and have no tools to get them there.

Weigel was very close to JPII and quotes him liberally. The late Pope recognized that there is a growing need for hope, but the radical secularism within which western Europe has imprisoned itself offers no way out. There is a fear of the future, inner emptiness, existential fragmentation, weakening of the very concept of family, diminishing births, and "a growing lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests" (page 118). The outcome of radical secularism is hopelessness, and Europe is dying because it has bought into and given credence to a false story.

Weigel concludes his pondering with a series of scenarios of what might happen in Europe, from a renewal of confidence in its Christian heritage to muddling through to an alternative religious future that would be considerably shaped by Islam. Each scenario is plausible and should be read with care. It is a long shot in Weigel's opinion that Europe's present configuration will either produce "paradise," or whether it will work in the medium and long term. In 1914, as World War I was cranking up, Sir Edward Grey said that the lights were going out all over Europe -- and this is so if it continues on its present trajectory.

This is important to America, Weigel asserts, because North American culture stands on the shoulders of European. It is from this root that the American experiment grew, and if it is in trouble then it will have a profound influence on what happens on the western side of the Atlantic. Added to that, Europe's security is America's security, and if things go badly wrong there the implications are pretty nasty for here. "We sever ourselves from our civilizational roots if we ignore Europe in a fit of aggravation or pique" (Page 137). Besides, America is not without its own Achilles' heels.

I read this book as a European living in exile, because as I get older I realize that roots are stronger than the paper of citizenship that I happen to carry. If the Lord spares us and our plans work out, we will return to this Europe that Weigel describes to live out the residue of our days. Our elder daughter and son-in-law are well settled in the English Midlands, and it looks as if our soon-to-be-born granddaughter will grow up as a little English girl. Thus, like generations of Kews before us we have a passionate commitment to what happens in the land that has nurtured us since 1066.

This means that for me Weigel's observations are more than just interesting theories, they have to do with the warp and woof of the latter years of my earthly existence, and with the future of my children, grandchildren, and beyond. While I might want to tweak some of his observations, and question some of his insights, I cannot in principle deny the veracity of the bulk of what he says, and it both disturbs and challenges me. I wish that he had written this book as a Christian who happens to be a Catholic, rather than as a Catholic - period.

I hear Benedict XVI saying something similar to Weigel, which is hardly surprising given Weigel and Ratzinger's common friendship and association with JPII. Liberal voices are howling in rage at BXVI and are straining his ideas through their own grid of presuppositions. I hear BXVI speaking in a different way than many of them. I hear him as a European Christian deeply concerned about the rejection of absolutes rooted in the self-revealing God in favor of the thin gruel of radical secularity that provides no lasting sustenance. He has put his finger right on the pulse of reality, and the secularists don't like it, and neither to their fellow-travellers on the left within the churches.

The clash of cultures will continue, and it remains to be seen whether that rooted in the true truth of God will reassert itself and change the course of history. This, I believe, is the essence of our mission in the years ahead on both sides of the Pond.

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