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Leftie German Philosopher Endorses God. Sort Of.

Via Meadia blog-sibling Religion and Other Curiosities by Peter Berger (one of the world’s greatest living sociologists) has a terrific post on German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ recently discovered respect for Judeo-Christian religion.  The intellectual leader of the modern European center-left has come to acknowledge late in his life that Biblical, Judeo-Christian religion is a vital underpinning of individualism, democracy and social justice.

It’s not clear whether Habermas believes in the existence of any being greater than himself, but the acknowledgment of the social utility of religion by Germany’s most eminent living thinker suggests that the Continent’s long drift away from the faith that once made it the center of world culture may be coming to a halt.

When Europe was Christian, it was a volcano of great culture and civilization.  On abandoning Christianity, Europe fell for radical nationalism, fascism and communism — with horrendous results. Ever since 1945 it seems to have shunned big ideas and high thoughts, becoming the home of Nietzsche’s “last man” and having no ambition higher than converting itself into the world’s largest, most placid, and best stocked mall.

Habermas’ new openness to the importance of religion for a just and dynamic human culture may or may not portend a European re-engagement with its largely Christian heritage — but it testifies to what Via Meadia holds as an enduring truth: that no human life is complete until like Jacob we have wrestled with the Creator.  Nothing is more private and personal than those wrestling matches, and no other human being is in a position to judge the results — but unless in one form or another you are engaging with God you are missing out on the most challenging, rewarding and defining experience that life has to offer.

Read Peter’s post here.

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  • Marcus V

    Professor Mead, I enjoy your columns quite a bit, but your thesis here is simplistic to the point of absurdity.

    Has Europe been Christian in the past? Yes. Has Europe produced great cultural achievements in the past? Yes. Have those statements, at some times, been connected? Yes.

    But let’s also remember those centuries when Christian Europe was a stagnant cultural and economic backwater on the world stage. And let’s also remember when Christian Europe was producing such great cultural achievements as the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, and the Albigensian Crusade.

    I could make a much longer list should I so desire, but those are episodes off the top of my head that not only happened in Christian Europe, but in the name of Christianity itself.

    In short, let’s not blame all Europe’s woes on a lapse of Christianity, and let’s not paper over all the abominations Christian Europe hath wrought in its own time.

  • JLK

    DR Mead

    As usual agree and disgree with your conclusions.

    The upheavals of the 20th Century were caused primarily by the break up of institutions related to the fall of the ancient “Three Eagle” monarchies after WW1.

    That said… nature (and human nature) abhors a vacuum and the slow decline of organized religion in Europe created a situation where people were in a constant search for a philosophical replacement. Periodically, weak-kneed philosophies such as Existentialism became all the rage but die out under the weight of their own intellectual dissonance.

    Religion in Europe has been on the decline since the monopolistic power of the Catholic Church corrupted its leadership. When Luther and Gutenberg helped break up the monopoly the church held on science, philosophy, metaphysics or any other advance learning (most books including the bible were only written in Latin a language exclusive to a very small precentage) there was an explosion of change starting with the 30 Years War and the Enlightenment.

    The result we see today is a philosphical hodge podge leading to moral solipsism which in turn leads to a world of grays. No blacks, no whites, no Universal Truths to anchor a society in right and wrong.The “Church of AGW” or “Political Correctness” are poor substitutes for universal ethics that hold a society together.

    Another tragedy is that the organized religions of the world have more similarities than differences. But hard core supporters insist on only seeing the differences over which wars are still fought around the world.

    Einstein said once that “very few have the courage to accept the unknowable” and it is this core truth that allows violence to supplant cooperation among the world’s religions be they traditional or secular.

  • WigWag

    “When Europe was Christian it was a volcano of great culture and civilization. On abandoning Christianity, Europe fell for radical nationalism, fascism and communism-with horrendous results…” (Walter Russell Mead)

    As usual Professor Berger has treated his readers to a post that is erudite, enlightening and entertaining. How lucky we are to read his fascinating musings without even having to pay.

    But Professor Mead gets carried away. When Europe was Christian it was far more than a “volcano” of culture. Christian Europe was also a “volcano” of hatred, bigotry and mass murder. Has Professor Mead forgotten about the Crusades? What about the expulsion of the Jews from Britain, France, Portugal and Spain? Has Professor Mead forgotten about the Spanish Inquisition or the numerous pogroms committed in the name of Christianity by devout Europeans?

    Were “radical nationalism, fascism and communism” the result of Europe abandoning it’s Christian heritage or were those horrors the logical culmination of almost two millennia of hatred and bigotry inculcated into Europeans mostly by the Roman Catholic Church but also by many of the Protestant denominations emanating from Martin Luther.

    Communism and fascism resulted in untold human suffering. So did Christianity as practiced by Europeans.

  • WigWag

    For an interesting rebuttal of the virtues of Christianity in Europe, an engrossing book is “Constantine’s Sword” by James Carroll. It is available on the Kindle for only $3.79. The book makes the provocative case (that personally I don’t find all that compelling) that Nazism has it roots in some of the teachings advocated by the Roman Catholic Church in Europe down through the ages.

    While Professor Mead says that fascism resulted from Europe forgetting its Christian heritage; this seems dubious to me. Francisco Franco and most of his followers were devout Roman Catholics who always believed that they were fighting for the primacy of the Church against leftist heathens.

    More information can be found here,

  • Luke Lea

    As I used to argue with my labor-leader, organized-religion-hating father (whom I loved): all those enlightenment ideals of freedom, justice, equality, and fraternity that you have dedicated your life to —
    why they all came from the Bible! Only the rabid anti-clericalism of Voltaire and his philisophical cronies can explain the preposterous idea that these values were a product of pure reason, let alone that we inherited them from some obscure Roman philosopher.

  • Luke Lea

    Ok, WigWag, you asked for it.

    Have you forgotten that Jerusalem and indeed the entire Middle East was Christian before the Muslim conquest? Did you know that the number of innocent Jewish victims of the Crusades was like a drop in the bucket of human criminality in any and all pre-industrial civilizations?

    Did you know that the Jews were expelled from Britain and France for economic, not religious reasons (the kings and nobility did not want to repay their debts) and that stirring up the populace with lies was little more than a pretense?

    Did you know that the Sephardi in Spain allied themselves with the Muslim invaders and then assisted them in the administration of the conquered provinces for reasons of expediency?

    Or that in that other “Golden Age” Polish Jewry flourished as overseers and tax-farmers of the peasant farming populations, employed for their “usefulness ” by the absentee owners?

    Did you know the Cossack hordes who swept down on your forebears and their Polish employers were acting in rebellion against their political and economic exploitation — or that, in the case of the Ukraine, the land had been “settled” for that express purpose (look up “arenda system”)?

    Did you know that the Roman Catholic Church was the primary protector of Jews and the Jewish religion in Europe, tolerating them in a way it never tolerated any other religious sect it viewed as heretical (they all got wiped out).

    Did you know that the overwhelming number of Protestant churches descended from Calvin, not Luther, for whom the Jews were a model and inspiration?

    And did you know that “radical nationalism, fascism and communism” were indeed a result of Europe abandoning its Christian heritage in favor of the ideas of Darwin and Marx?

    Now, the Holocaust, that was unique. It was unique in its scale and intensity. But it was also in its way emblematic: there was not a single outrage committed by the Nazis against the Jews of Europe that had not been committed a hundred times over to countless innocent men, women, and children, not only in Europe, but in China, India, Peru, Mexico, you name it. The only difference is that the Holocaust was committed in the full light of history and its victims, so far from being anonymous and living in obscurity, were the most literate people on earth with the longest historical memory. So, yes, we should never forget what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1944, and I am glad there is a Holocaust Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C.. And not just for your sake but for the sake of us all.

    May I get off my soapbox now?

  • WigWag

    “On abandoning Christianity, Europe fell for radical nationalism, fascism and communism — with horrendous results.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    When it comes to European fascist movements in particular, I think a relatively compelling case can be made that these movements were rooted, at least in part, in Europe’s tradition of Roman Catholicism.

    There is simply no question that the Catholic Church was hostile to the Spanish Republic and that it deeply resented the loss of its prerogatives during the Republican era. The Church provided spiritual and probably economic sustenance to the fascists seeking to destroy Spanish democracy and the devout leaders of the Spanish fascist movement made no secret of their goal to restore the Church to its former place in Spanish society.

    Of course, Spain was not the only country where a symbiotic relationship existed between fascism and Christianity; there was also the case of Portugal.

    The self-avowed fascist dictator of Portugal, Antonio Salazar, ruled the country with an iron fist for 36 years (1932 to 1968). Salazar was a devout fascist who longed to make the Roman Catholic Church preeminent in Portuguese affairs. At the Churches behest, he outlawed Freemasonry, he put priests and other Catholic ecclesiastical authorities on the government payroll and he mandated the incorporation of Catholic teaching in all public schools. He outlawed civil marriage and he made divorce very difficult.

    While some segments of the Catholic community, especially those who believed in social justice, criticized Salazar, for most of his tenure in office he had the tacit approval of the Catholic Church.

    Perhaps in a future post Professor Mead will share with his loyal readers just why he thinks it is that European fascism had its genesis in the abandonment of Christianity by the European masses. It seems to me that the evidence points in the other direction; the rise of fascism was not only supported by the Roman Catholic Church, but the growing strength of fascism and the reactionary inclinations of Church were inextricably linked.

  • J R Yankovic

    May I be crass for a moment?

    Never mind what religion did to Europe 400 years ago. Its depredations, its persecutions – why, even its anti-Semitism – were in the little leagues compared to those of its post-Christian successors, whether fascist, radical nationalist or Communist (or all three – which I think is a not unfair description of Maoism). In the main I believe Mr Lea is right on most counts. Certainly the most systematically violent, revolutionary and totalitarian forms of “fascism” – the Italian and the German – were implicitly post-Christian and neopagan in the case of Mussolini’s regime, explicitly anti-Christian and neopagan in the case of Hitler’s. But right now I don’t much care either way. Right now my main concern is with our newly confident early-21st-century Religion-with-Teeth. And with all the foul germs it may – wittingly or unwittingly – have contracted from the messianic political movements of the 20th century.

    Of course religion is a salutary thing in the hands of a crucified God. It’s what happens when the “reins” slip into the hands of crucifying men that leaves some (or even most?) of us more than a little squeamish. “God is Back,” proclaim the editors of the ever-prescient “Economist.” Wonderful. Now if we can only keep Organized Religion from getting violently drunk on its “newfound” prestige – i.e., its 30-some-year-old rediscovery of its immense political (and military) appeal to folks who are either terminally miserable or insatiably power-hungry. Folks who’ve gotten it into their heads that “Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory” somehow also means “Mine is,” etc. But imagine for a moment that such a thing were possible. Imagine somebody SO close to God, that for her that was literally true. That God’s kingdom was for practical purposes hers also; that her meekness was such as to place her among the (presumably) chosen few inheritors of the earth. Would she necessarily know it? (Did St Francis know it?) Would her closeness to God necessarily make her even CARE whether she gets that kingdom and power? Or – conversely – would she work ever harder to threaten, intimidate, terrorize and kill, in order to enforce and make known her rights of inheritance? And why do you suppose it is that, in the past couple of decades, the LATTER form of religious resurgence has been so visible and popular? Why in general is Today’s Religious Revival, at the very least, so conspicuously lacking in meekness?

    Really. You would think this seemingly hyper-rational Age (c. post-1995 to present), with its voracious appetite for business, technical and military solutions to just about every human problem, would have neither place nor stomach for ANY kind of aggressively politicized – much less militarized – religion. Or would it?

  • Luke Lea

    [to the editors: ok, I goofed, this befuddled old man got mixed up about threads. so thanks!]

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