Seeing ourselves as others see us
‘If you want to know why Europeans belong in a single community, visit any one of Britain's great medieval cathedrals.’ The sentence comes not from Catholic leaders insisting on the Christian heritage of Europe, but from Jonathan Jones, art correspondent of the Guardian, a British newspaper which is ‘liberal’ in the mainstream European tradition, no special friend to Catholicism.
Jones evokes ‘Christendom’, the ‘art, architecture and philosophy that transcended the borders of infant states’, that underpins virtually every artistic and literary movement since. Even today, in Eurosceptic Britain, the UK Art Fund is campaigning to keep a painting by Breughel in England. ‘Why? Because it's our heritage. Because we are Europeans.’
In a neat paradox, Jones also argues that the concept of nationalism itself is common to Europe and distinctive of it. Indeed, a foundational European document, The Westphalia Settlement of 1648, almost absolutises national states. Only the governments of states possess ‘sovereignty’; only they are authorised to conduct international affairs; they - and only they - may wage war as a legal means of resolving differences; and so on. This heritage still shapes the inter-governmental trend within the EU.
Recent popes insist that the Christian heritage of Europe lies at the heart of European identity. The Popes do not wish to restore ‘Christendom’ - which had a fearsome shadow side, of internal persecution and external conquest. They commend Christianity not Christendom (even though Christendom is an undeniable element of ‘Christian heritage’). They call Europe not to some restoration of the past but to a new sense of humanity, to a humanism conscious of the transcendent sources of its dignity.
So it is sobering to read, together with Jonathan Jones’s reflection, a powerful critique of the European ethos from beyond the EU, by the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Europe, argues Pamuk, ‘seeks to preserve its great cultural traditions, profit from the riches it covets in the non-western world, and retain the advantages gained over so many centuries of class conflict, colonialism and internecine war’. Clearly, the zenith of the culture celebrated by Jones precedes the empire-building and colonialism that began in the sixteenth century. Yet defending that culture today entails the harsh rejection, by means of ‘higher walls, tougher visa restrictions and ships patrolling borders’ of needy immigrants from lands Europe became wealthy by exploiting. For Pamuk, ‘anti-immigration politics and prejudices are destroying the core values that made Europe what it was’.
It seems that at least two ‘heritages’ are involved here - those of culture (including religion) and of practical politics. Neither is pure. The question is, how can we learn to practice a politics that is rooted in a profound sense of the full dimensions of human life, and how can we shape a culture that is secure enough to be generously open to the rest of the world, and capable of global political responsibility.
Frank Turner SJ