28 January 2004

Is there a European problem?

In "Europe’s Problem—and Ours," author George Weigel reflects on the gap that has developed between Europe and the United States since the end of the Second World War and suggests that it is largely due to what he calls the European problem. Writes Weigel:

My proposal is that, at its most fundamental level, this “European problem” is best understood in moral and cultural terms. My further suggestion is that the “problem” is not just one besetting our European friends and allies; their “European problem” is our [i.e., America's] problem, too.

Weigel cites the by now familiar statistics concerning Europe's coming depopulation, coupled with the emptying of its churches and a burgeoning immigrant muslim population. He argues that a number of "Slavic" thinkers, such as Vladimir Soloviev, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and of course the current pope (whose biography Weigel authored), have understood the crisis of European civilization better than most other observers. Americans furthermore have reason to be concerned about the European problem, in part because the Roman virtue of pietas "teaches us both reverence and gratitude for those on whose shoulders we stand." Americans are, after all, heirs of European civilization.

One could, of course, easily point to flaws in Weigel's analysis. For example, it overlooks the possibility that ill-conceived foreign and defence policies in Washington have exacerbated unnecessarily the gap between Europe and America. If the French and German governments were unwilling to come on-side the Bush administration's agenda in Iraq, then at the very least one would have to judge that the arguments put forth in its favour were simply not persuasive enough. For this failure the US President and his closest advisors must ultimately bear responsibility.

On the other hand, it is difficult to deny the reality of the larger cultural crisis in Europe to which Weigel alerts his readers. Recently I was conversing with two older Dutch-Canadian men who had grown up in the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, a once thriving Reformed denomination in which all were well versed in the Scriptures and, as one of these gentlemen put it, "everyone was an amateur theologian." Sad to say, in the space of a generation or so the GKN, along with the other major churches in the Netherlands, were decimated as the young were largely lost to the church and outright heresies came to be preached from the pulpit with impunity. Indeed the merger of the GKN with two other bodies into the united Protestant Church of the Netherlands is hardly a sign of confessional and spiritual vigour but more resembles the merger of three unprofitable corporations attempting to cut their losses. If Weigel's analysis is correct, then it may be that the prolonged crisis occasioned by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 eventually had its impact on the culture as a whole, including the health of the churches.

And what of Canada? Canada has historically been more conscious than the US of its connections with Europe, and especially Great Britain. However, my experience living in this country for nearly two decades has persuaded me that Canadians are more determined than even Americans to forget their roots in European civilization without having anything coherent with which to replace it. Liberal education in the larger universities appears to have been replaced by highly specialized technical training. Our national media regularly -- and for the most part unfairly -- attack the largest christian church in this country with seeming impunity. Certain parts of the country, especially Québec, are in the grip of an oppressive secularism unwilling to accommodate confessional plurality to any great degree. Ontario itself has recently repealed the groundbreaking law allowing parents of children in independent schools to claim a tax credit for tuition.

Yet there are signs of hope on both sides of the Atlantic. I like to think that my own employer, Redeemer University College, is part of this, along with other similar organizations, including the Christian Labour Association of Canada and the Center for Public Justice. Even in Europe it may be that, by God's grace, much as the Irish re-evangelized the continent after the collapse of the Roman imperium, Africans, Koreans and Filipinos, as well as the faithful remnant among the Dutch, Swiss, &c., will help to reinvigorate the christian churches in the new century.

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