Economic crisis and religious fundamentalisms are symptoms of the encounter between resignation and despair

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Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:19

Economic crisis and religious fundamentalisms are symptoms of the encounter resignation and despair. Christian Europe taught all those who are now fighting each other (and fighting Europe) how to enjoy a peaceful coexistence. The new Europe of peoples and individuals must resolutely aim at both an alliance within the “infra-urban” habitat and a hybridization of household cultures. Radically opposing will to power.

Europe’s unconscious (if one may put it like that) still preserves the traces of a vocation to mediate the human that we all have in common and to do so through her ability to integrate the differences between peoples. It is a vocation that the West has gradually repressed during the course of the second millennium and one that the events ushering in the third millennium are forcing Europe to rediscover (if she does not wish to bring her history to a close all by herself).

It is Christianity that, despite all history’s inevitable contradictions, has been the inspirational germ of this mediatory vocation, moreover. Christianity weathered the crisis of the Empire that sought to destroy it. It brought to bloom in Europe the seed of a universalism creating closeness (both God’s and men’s) that gave a completely new meaning to the virtual humanism both of the Greek logos and of Roman citizenship.[1] Europe’s moral dismantlement after the fall of the Roman Empire found an opening in the new European rearrangement of peoples occurring through a unification that was centred on Christianity (following a liquefaction of the ancient unity and the fragmentation caused by new waves of migration). And when, during the developments and upheavals of history, the conflictual drive existing in politics and religion (and within Christianity itself) was on the brink of disintegrating the bond between peoples, the Christian faith’s (ethical and universalistic) reserve of humanism always found the strength to re-launch the conditions for a possible re-arrangement.

Under Christianity’s influence, the suffering of populations has gradually become both a fundamental reason for finding political solutions to conflict and a founding dimension of civil culture’s legitimation. It is along this axis that European civilization has grown up and developed its distinguishing features.

The catastrophe of the twentieth century’s (anti-religious and anti-Christian) atheistic and totalitarian messianisms has opened up an apparently irreparable split in our culture’s humanistic ideality. Attempts to bridge the gap and overcome the contradiction have instinctively followed the path of a virtually universal humanistic reason that has developed along the line of a prejudicially agnostic and formally irreligious cultural vision. This has advanced in the direction of a civil integration entrusted to economic rationale and technical knowledge. In actual fact, the first entity to embody the new, contemporary project implementing the idea of Europe (commonly seen as the Christian West) is the EEC.[2] That is to say, both the logic and the framework behind this undertaking were already, at that time in the 1950s and 1960s, recognising the pressure of civil culture’s technical-economic bloc as the most favourable point of application for a re-launch of Europe’s vocation to interpret Western reason’s ideal order for the rest of the planet.[3]

As far as any justification of its possibility and desirability is concerned, the new idealization of the Europe of peoples continues to draw its normative strength from the (humanistic and even religious) past.[4] But right from the beginning of our contemporary post-war period, this ideality was conceived as the possibility of/need for a project having direct reference to economic and scientific development (commercial concessions, trading and bureaucratic efficiency). Nowadays, apart from a certain rhetorical emphasis on democratic values and individual rights (which up until now has been seeking to compensate for the enduring inability to anchor such values and rights to a corresponding cultural framework based on social ties), we do not appear to have moved much further forward. In the meantime, this radical simplification, as it were, of the European democratic ideal has demonstrated both the potential dangers of a drift towards the explosion of a (basically irreligious) self-referential individualism and the pervasiveness of the (culturally nihilistic) disintegration of social ties.[5] The mental malaise that European peoples are suffering under the pressure of this creeping process of deconstruction is now also coming into contact with the effects of populations’ existential impoverishment and their abandonment of ethics. Culture and politics do not appear to be able to work this through proactively. The collision with the devastating effect of the poverty and abandonment of peoples who, up until now, had been (culturally and physically) distanced from the limes of European citizenship is being contaminated by this suffering existing within the humus of our political liquidity. It is generating an intolerance that is embarrassing for European humanism’s purported Enlightenment-secular emancipation and it is once again opening up the Christian perspective of an integration of the human that all peoples have in common: no matter which ethnic group, civilisation or religion they may belong to.[6]


A Culture That Integrates Differences

If it is true that Europe’s original vocation was to develop a culture that integrates differences, rendering religious awareness of the transcendent creative and generating a rational understanding of finiteness, we must be under no illusions: the current challenge is really a question of life or death for Europe herself. It will not be the ‘barbarians’ who kill her: it is her own ‘liquefaction’ that is making her sterile. For its part, Christianity was not born with Europe and will not die with her. Nevertheless, its vocation to inspire the universality of a humanism that embraces the other and a religious critique of the religion that is opposed to it was developed and refined precisely here, in Europe, in terms of the possibility of it taking a civil form. The challenge facing Christianity regarding precisely this point – a challenge that is opening the third millennium and testing it – is calling theology directly to account. Certainly in Europe. But also (if we learn the lesson from history, which must be deciphered in relation to the signs of the times and in the light of the salvific oikonomia) the diakonia that (Western and Eastern) European theology[7] has developed, with various ups and downs, for the Christian mission in the world.

The need for a new – historico-salvific and post-Occidentalist – reflection on European Christianity had been announced right after the European catastrophe in a stimulating essay by Erich Przywara[8] (without receiving much support, so far). Extraordinarily relevant and stimulatingly expressed, Przywara’s thesis hinges on Europe’s special aptitude for letting herself be experienced as a land of mediation.

Asia’s little appendage that imposes a measured life order, so to speak, like the middle ground between the lands of immensity and the waters of excess, has developed a special vocation to work out a shared living that creatively integrates differences in the light of the human that we have in common: without reducing them to the homogeneity of an undifferentiated mass. The fecundity of Przywara’s approach can perhaps be grasped even better today, i.e. in a moment when a certain generous and abstract vision of the re-launching of Europe’s humanistic vocation (as the federative and supra-national merging of bureaucracies) is showing its fragility. Przywara’s approach has been felicitously reinstated (and developed in the right direction) in a passage from the speech that Pope Francis gave at the Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize (6 May 2016):

Erich Przywara, in his splendid work Idee Europa [The Idea of Europe], challenges us to think of the city as a place where various instances and levels coexist. He was familiar with the reductionist tendency inherent in every attempt to rethink the social fabric. Many of our cities are remarkably beautiful precisely because they have managed to preserve over time traces of different ages, nations, styles and visions. We need but look at the inestimable cultural patrimony of Rome to realize that the richness and worth of a people is grounded in its ability to combine all these levels in a healthy coexistence. Forms of reductionism and attempts at uniformity, far from generating value, condemn our peoples to a cruel poverty: the poverty of exclusion. Far from bestowing grandeur, riches and beauty, exclusion leads to vulgarity, narrowness and cruelty. Far from bestowing nobility of spirit, it brings meanness.

Naturally, a “profane” critique of technocratic Occidentalism has also developed in the meantime and it tends to overlap with a denunciation of ideological Eurocentrism. More specifically, it puts the blame for the West’s claims to hegemony on Christianity, which it presents as the seedbed for all the metaphysical, ideological, ethical and political absolutisms that Europe has inherited. (After an initial moment of deconstructionist furore in the 1960s and 1970s, the absolutisms generated by science are now, once again, ignored).

This “secular” criticism is, in its turn, in the awkward situation of having to inoculate itself against the only too easy observation that it is rooted in the “Occidental” ideology of reason and science (which the neo-liberalist philosophy borrows in order to avoid being confused with the anti-Occidental critique advanced by Islamic radicalism and religious fundamentalism in general). Today’s neo-liberalist individualism is certainly not a good principle on which to base a critique of Occidentalism, since it constitutes (and openly, moreover) the element most consistent with it (the current development of which is the hi-jacking of the Enlightenment tradition of human rights in the direction of an individual exalting of the will to power). For its part, the capitalism founded on global financial accumulation, which legitimates itself through exaltation of an individualistic ideology – “enlightenment for the people” – certainly does not constitute a credible testimonial in the face of the global effects of the inequalities that it is fostering. (Indeed, it falls back on the “social Darwinism” justification that, in the long run, legitimates the “natural right” of the strongest).


The Paralysis of Humanism’s Civilization

Induced by a radical secularization of the social bond and the delirium of individual omnipotence, the European paralysis in which humanism’s civilization finds itself risks being reduced to the anguish of the economic crisis and the threat of religious fundamentalism. However fearful these may be, they are both effects of the destructive nature of the ego’s anti-Christian drive that combats love of one’s neighbour and exalts in sacrificing the other (whether in the name of “Mammon” or in the name of “god”; and in the East as in the West).

Christian Europe has taught all those who are now fighting each other (and fighting her) how to enjoy a peaceful coexistence. European man’s narcissism and irreligion have deprived him of the tools needed for achieving the reconciliation required. The challenge of the new religious mediation and the new civil integration that events are harshly imposing must – and can – be accepted with stronger nerves and greater ideological humility. In this context, Christianity will have to apply its extraordinary ability to circumvent the tender madness of its grace, without self-importance or submission but with uninhibited irony towards the worldly powers and indomitable compassion for their victims.

The collective resignation to the inevitable “death of Europe”, both as an entity enjoying a prominence that could be decisive for the new world order (when it emerges) and as the historical matrix of a Christian-civil humanism capable of self-renewal, doubtless has, today, an even greater emotional and symbolic importance than the philosophical announcement of “God’s death”. In this respect and considering the matter from the perspective of the new migrants flow towards Europe, it is as if the despair of men and women, children and young people who are counting on the confidence of a small continent enjoying a consolidated well-being and peaceful co-existence, finds itself destined to collide with a growing resignation to their own humanism’s impotence in the peoples who have jointly lived it. It appears obvious that nothing good can come of this. And it also seems to me that much rhetoric and much demagogy have been expended on imagining how we can physically resist their desperation in the face of the loss of their future, whilst very little effort indeed has been made to fight, at a cultural level, our resignation to the emptying out of our present.

Przywara’s provocation as cited by Pope Francis hits the spot. Re-modelled by the logic of communes, neighbourhoods and parishes – not anonymous megalopolises, total markets and supranational mergers – the European city has created spaces on a human scale and has thus learned how to inhabit them and govern them. The ethos that has grown up there has stubbornly – and in spite of tragedy’s unnameable onslaughts and the insidious contagion of its ideologies – overcome every obstacle to co-existence created by difference: difference of language, ethnic group, religion or tradition (Latin and Greek, Germanic and Slavic, Hebrew and Islamic).

The new Europe of peoples – and not that of a federated or bureaucratized super-nation of individuals – must, if we truly want her, aim resolutely at an alliance within the “infra-urban” habitat and at a hybridization of household cultures. The European experiment in communal faith-building was born of this ecclesia domestica (domestic church). And it has transferred its model to the European humanism of the polis.


The New Ignorance

This Christian-European charism stemming from a humanistic theo-logy of religion must be lavished on the new European context and disentangled from the wearisome theological monoculture that is confronting the superficial, irreligious Western drifts in thinking and politics. It must, rather, remedy the dangerous effects of the new ignorance: ignorance about the sacred, ignorance about religion, ignorance about Christianity and mutual ignorance between religions. This is where the danger lies. And it is precisely here that faith must become bold and creative through reason itself.[9]

Paul of Tarsus inhabited various worlds (Latin and Greek, Hebrew and Eastern) and he taught his followers to live in them according to agape’s logic. A Church “which goes forth,” to cite Pope Francis’s pressing instructions, means this, too, I believe. I imagine that, nowadays, this new dimension must mean that it should become normal for the network of European parishes to shift their focus to the heroic and vulnerable Christian communities in Asia and Africa, above all. This not only for the rightful task of reinforcing ties – in gratitude and active communion – without which Christianity would become unrecognisable. But with the advantage of the European community essentially taking its farewel of the excesses of melancholy, angst, corruption and bourgeois aggressiveness that are threatening to attract the Christian ethos as well (and in the face of which the astonishing inertia demonstrated by European politics offers, unfortunately, more than one subject for treatment). And with a view to a more concrete aptitude for adapting Christianity to cosmopolitan, multi-religious and multi-cultural cities: producing predictably positive results for dialogue and the integration of our home, as well as testimony and pressure on the evil spirits of division and religious hatred coming from more distant regions.

In the perspective of this scenario, it is perhaps easier to understand the other focal point of Francis’s impassioned exhortation: the poor. The illusions and false promises issuing from the worldly powers (capable of simulating religion and even of attracting devotion) whilst they exploit the poor, are increasing the number of wars between those same poor (thereby “deactivating” the critical mass of their desperate reaction). The wars of the powerful lead to nothing, but those of the poor destroy everything.

In the final phase of the European experiment with modernity, Christianity is discovering, with a clarity that had not hitherto appeared on the horizon in all its full doctrinal import, the real reason why Jesus’s message is more radical in relation to Mammon’s atheism than in relation to Caesar’s. If European Christianity does not take the initiative in religiously deconstructing the religion of money, global culture certainly will not take it. “You cannot be the slave both of God and of Mammon” (where Mammon is not the yardstick for evaluating the economy that restores dignity and equality both through access to the benefits of work and through community empowerment but, rather, the adoring accumulation of power within the sphere of one’s own enjoyment, which produces the sacrificial subjugation of whatever falls outside it). The global religion of money is the central theological-political phenomenon for working out whether or not a new Europe is possible.

Christianity is putting witnessing in God’s cause to the test of the possibility that the poor might recognize the gospel faith’s ecclesia as the common home they hold most sacred and most dear.[10] This is the Christian way for faith to stop being self-referential: by coming to meet the exodus created by the migration of uprooted people. Europe, like Noah’s Ark, could herself be reborn into a new life by saving creatures from the waters and cultivating, alongside them, new “middle” lands.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Roger I. Moore, The First European Revolution: 970-1215 (Wiley-Blackwell, London, 2000), pp. 1-2.

[2] Moore points out a correlation that suggests interesting possibilities: “The map of Charlemagne’s Empire anticipates that of the European Economic Community, as it was established in 1957, and the European Union which has now extended far beyond those frontiers honours its most distinguished servants with a prize that bears his name” (Ibid., p. 2).

[3] In relation to these concise qualifications regarding the not necessarily predictable overlap between European roots and Occidental myth, the reader is referred to the excellent summary in John Ottmar, “The Christian West: Farewell to an Epoch-Making Vision,” Concilium 2 (1992), pp. 20-33.

[4] Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, “The Rise of the State as a Process of Secularization,” in Id. State, Society and Liberty: Studies in Political Theory and Constitutional Law (Berg, New York, 1991), pp. 26-46; Idem, Diritto e secolarizzazione. Dallo Stato moderno all’Europa unita, edited by G. Preterossi (Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2007).

[5] Pietro Barcellona, Il declino dello Stato. Riflessioni di fine secolo sul declino del progetto moderno (Dedalo, Bari, 1998); Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Polity Press, London, 2004); William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books, New York, 2014).

[6] Angelo Scola, Buone ragioni per la vita comune. Religione, politica, economia (Mondadori, Milan, 2010).

[7] Christianity will demean all the wealth of its tradition if it does not start to “breathe with both its lungs” again, as the saint Pope John Paul II frequently emphasized, drawing on a felicitous metaphor coined by Vjaceslav Ivanov (1866-1949), the Russian poet and philosopher. John Paul II, Slavorum Apostoli, 2 June 1985, no. 27; cf. Orientale Lumen, 12 May 1995. See, also: Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in medio Oriente, 14 September 2012.

[8] Erich Przywara, L’idea d’Europa. La crisi di ogni politica cristiana, edited by F. Mandreoli and G. F. Narvaja (Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, Trapani, 2013) (German original, 1955).

[9] Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Ragione e fede in dialogo, edited by G. Bosetti, Marsilio, Padua 2005.

[10] This is the perspective that, from my point of view, connects Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato si’ and Amoris laetitia, The theological development of this epoch-making historical background of connection still seems to me to be rather timid, however.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Pierangelo Sequeri, “Christianity and Europe, between Liquid Secularism and Migrations”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp.14-21.

Online version:
Pierangelo Sequeri, “Christianity and Europe, between Liquid Secularism and Migrations”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: