Europe: Two Souls, Three Reasons for Hope

“The second reason for my hope lies in the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faith in Jesus Christ is quite simply true and the truth never ages.” — Pope Benedict XVI, Interview, October 15, 2012.

In this short interview, Benedict XVI was asked two questions. The first one is concerned with his hope for Europe. Europe, as we know, is reluctant to acknowledge where it came from, to admit its classical and Christian roots. Benedict gives as his first reason for hope that, in the very being of each person, “the desire for God, the search for God, is profoundly inscribed into each human soul and cannot disappear.” We will not be surprised that, in such a position, we hear overtones of Augustine’s “restless heart,” that is inscribed in our very souls. Benedict, of course, recalls Augustine, as we all must, if we are to know ourselves. This “restlessness also exists today and is an expression of the hope that man may, ever and anew, even today, start to journey toward this God.” We live in cultures in which our unsettled souls strive mightily not to know who they are and why they exist lest it involve acknowledging the truths of God.

The second reason for hope that Benedict gives is the one that is found at the heart of his Jesus of Nazareth, namely, “that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faith in Jesus Christ, is quite simply true; and the truth never ages.” No historicism is found here, the belief that what was true in one time is not true in another. We may choose to focus our minds on other things, “but the truth as such does not disappear.” Various systems of philosophy, science, and religion have formed their own superstructures of explanations about how things are. We often call them “ideologies,” ideas then imposed on the world, usually by force. Benedict bluntly says: “Ideologies have their days numbered. They appear powerful and irresistible but, after a certain period, they wear out and lose their energy because they lack profound truth.”

 Every ideology or religion will have glimmers of truth, no doubt. We find, however, that the Gospel does not wear out, for it is true. The Gospel is alive in each period of history. It is the “good news” that we seek. It is the truth in the Gospel that gives Benedict grounds for hope. In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, the pope sketched out the philosophical premises of a modernity that thought it could explain human nature and being apart from God. But all it could do, quite literally, was to produce a new heaven, hell, and purgatory on this earth in which all humanity and hope disappeared.

 Benedict gives yet a third reason for his hope. It is that the Augustinian restlessness exists in the hearts of the young. Having seen the ideologies and explanations, they are aware of their “emptiness.” In a marvelous sentence, Benedict adds: “Man was created for the infinite, the finite is too little.” The young do not want a watered down version of faith and truth. They seek Christianity in all its “radicalism and profundity.” We live in an age and educational world in which every effort is made to keep the truth unknown, especially to the youth. “Christianity is true and the truth always has a future.”

The second main question that Benedict is asked concerns Europe. Europe from almost any aspect is important; it has great responsibilities. But “Europe has to find its true identity in order to be able to speak and act in keeping with her responsibility.” The implication is, no doubt, that Europe has lost or given up its true identity. The main problem today is not nationalism, which has been the cause of so many wars and unsettlements in modern European history. Yet nations are generally good. And in Europe they manifest a “shared culture,” so that their differences are a part of their unity, of their strength and interest. We do not want them all absorbed into each other.

The problem with Europe today, as Benedict sees it, is that it has “two souls.” The first soul is “abstract, anti-historical reason.” What is this “abstract, anti-historical reason?” It is the abstract reasoning that seeks “to dominate all else because it considers itself above all cultures; it is like a reason which has finally discovered itself and intends to liberate itself from all traditions and cultural values in favor of an abstract rationality.” This entrenched rationality then cleanses the continent of all other ideas and tradition that would question. As an example of this trend, Benedict cites a recent first decision from the Council of Europe in Strasburg which decided against having crucifixes in public. The Council seeks to free Europe from “history itself.” History has no standing in this mentality. The crucifix happened in history. Reason did not see it coming or know what to do with it when it came.

The other soul of Europe is Christian. It will not disappear. “I believe that anthropology, as such, is showing us that there will always be a new reawakening of Christianity.” The Christian soul is open to “all that is reasonable, a soul that itself created the audaciousness of reason and the freedom of critical reasoning, but which remains anchored in the roots form which Europe was born, the roots which created the continent’s fundamental values and great institution, in the vision of the Christian faith.” We cannot live by abstract reason. Reason itself needs to know what history is, including its own history. Reason must be free enough to notice things that actually happened and which did not originate in its abstractions. Reason needs to discover what happened at Bethlehem. It did not invent it.

Excluding history only narrows the scope of reason. The good and the values that Christianity gave to Europe are simply there to be recognized, even if they did not result from some purely human reason. “Only when reason has a historical and moral identity can it speak to others, search for an ‘interculturality’ in which everyone can enter and find a fundamental unity in the values that open the way to the future, to a new humanity.”

As the pope said in the “Regensburg Lecture,” Christianity itself is formed in the Logos, in the mind of God, the second person made flesh. Christianity is itself addressed to reason. The notion that reason is capable of understanding the world and itself by deliberately abstracting itself from the actual experience of mankind is really absurd. But for Christians, the basic point is that the presence of this Logos, this Word, in the world makes all the difference. Modern abstract reason proposes to recreate the world and man in its own image, an image that includes little or nothing of what has actually happened in mankind’s stormy—yet in another way, because of the Nativity and Crucifix—glorious history.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).