Europe: A matter of perspective

Over the next few days we will be posting four perspectives on Europe, in response to the ‘outside’ view given in Vista 13.

The first is from Jeff Fountain, who calls us to remember the values which shaped European culture;


Europe suffers from amnesia. She has forgotten the source of her identity and of the values that shaped her culture. She has lost sight of the underlying unity expressed in the word “European” and which enabled the unique project we call the European Union to happen in Europe and not in Asia or in Africa.

Europe, however, is not simply something ‘out there’: we are Europe. We are the Europeans. We are suffering from amnesia. We are living today under what Charles Taylor calls ‘exclusive humanism’, which insists in the name of civility, human rights, democracy and tolerance, that transcendent religion and moral values be banned from the public square. Education, under the influence of this ‘exclusive humanism’, has become a tool for raising young Europeans with a deep scepticism about the role of religion, Christianity and the church in Europe yesterday, today and certainly tomorrow.

Against this background then, let me make three preposterous propositions.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island built on the ruins of earlier monastery established by St Aidan in 635AD and one of the hubs of Celtic mission in Europe.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island built on the ruins of earlier monastery established by St Aidan in 635AD and one of the hubs of Celtic mission in Europe.

One, the story of Jesus has been the single greatest factor in shaping Europe’s past. This is not usually what we learn at school, of course. But let’s ask what made Europe ‘Europe’. This western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass was populated by pagan peoples from the east. We still speak Indo-European languages, a fact which reminds us of these roots. So why not call ourselves western Eurasians? What happened that gave Europe it’s own distinct identity from Asia? Paul, Patrick, Boniface and many other messengers came to the peoples of Europe telling the story of Jesus. They introduced the God of the Bible to Greeks and Romans, Gauls and Celts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons, Friesians and Franken, Suevi and Slavs, Goths and Vandals, Rus and Balts, and eventually the Vikings. They were all exposed to a common story, summarised in the Apostles’ Creed. Kings were tamed, enemies were reconciled, communities were transformed. A common foundation for the European way of life was laid, albeit with regional distinctions.

In a long and imperfect process, culture emerged shaped by the teachings of Jesus to love one’s neighbour, and even one’s enemy. Values of trust, forgiveness, faithfulness, honesty, generosity and respect, based on the Christian concept of agape, became the glue of the new societies that developed. Communities based on covenantal relationships, called monasteries, became the building blocks of this new culture, as centres of education, commerce, art and agriculture. Eventually cities emerged, still based on such covenantal promises, so that by the time of the Reformation, when a significant proportion of most cities was made up of monasteries, Erasmus could ask, ‘What is a city other than a big monastery?’

After the Reformation, the rise of the nation state obscured the Christian unity of European identity. As historian Christopher Dawson says, modern nationalism has led every European people to insist on what distinguished it from the rest, instead of what united it with them. While Europe is essentially a community of peoples originally rooted and nurtured in Christian beliefs and values, few modern Europeans see this big picture. We can’t see the wood for the trees.

Two, the Bible has been the single greatest source of inspiration for Europe’s culture and society, including her values. Many monasteries had scriptoria where Bible manuscripts were painstakingly copied for use in prayer and study. Until recent centuries, the Bible was by far the primary inspiration of Europe’s art and music, literature and language, law and politics, healthcare and hospitality, ethics and education, even gardening and agriculture! Concepts we take for granted, embedded in western thought for centuries, had their origin in the Bible; such as the dignity of human life, rooted in man being viewed as created in the image of God; or linear time in terms of past, present and future, unknown to cultures outside of Biblical influence. Even science emerged from the monasteries: the father of experimental science, Roger Bacon, was a 13th century Franciscan friar.

If the Bible has had so much influence on the shaping of the European mind, why is it ignored in our education today? Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins admits we cannot understand European history without understanding Christianity and the Bible.
Three, minorities faithful to Jesus’ teachings have played a totally disproportionate role in Europe’s welfare. Despite many dark chapters of church history, when believers were faithful to Christ’s character, movements began that liberated slaves, emancipated women, alleviated suffering, championed justice, cared for the sick and sheltered refugees. Creative Christian minorities in modern times initiated the Red Cross, the SPCA, Alcoholics Anonymous, Amnesty International, cooperative banks and countless NGO’s. Even the story of the European Union begins with devout believers like Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer who set out to obey Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour in international politics, believing that Europe’s only hope was to be rebuilt on Christian foundations.

Which all lead to a fourth proposition: post-christian Europeans today are squatters, living in a house without paying the rent. Our European society is a house built on a Christian legacy of values and concepts with a post-modern concoction of superstructures. Yet generally we give little credit to these foundations. The refusal to mention God in the proposed EU constitution is one example. In short, we’ve become squatters.

European values include brotherhood, equality, solidarity, freedom and peace. Yet can we have brotherhood without fatherhood? or equality resulting from a process in which only the fittest survive? or solidarity when we believe we are nothing but ‘slime plus time’?

Europe’s amnesia has robbed her of vision, direction and destiny. Short memories breed short-sightedness. Dawson warned: “A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”
Our task as the church includes jogging Europe’s memory of how the story of Jesus and the Bible itself have so profoundly shaped our culture. We need roots that will produce sustainable fruit and a sustainable future. But we don’t choose or invent roots. We discover them… by digging deeply.

Taylor, C., A Secular Age, Harvard, 2007
Dawson, C.. Understanding Europe, The Catholic University of America Press) p8, 1952, republished 2009 quoted in Williams, Rowan, Faith in the public square, Bloomsbury, p72, 2012

Jeff Fountain
Schuman Centre for European Studies and Hope for Europe

Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: