A Conversation With George Weigel
While at Seattle Pacific, George Weigel sat down to talk with SPU Professor of Geography Kathleen Braden to talk about his views, including his analysis of Europe's loss of faith — and its implications for the United States.
Q: In The Cube and the Cathedral, you describe what is essentially the death of Christianity in Europe. Why did you choose these two particular architectural monuments as the metaphors for the book?
A: The Cube, La Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris, is the embodiment of a kind of rationalist, modernist understanding of the Western civilizational project. And the cathedral — Notre Dame, in this case (although you could have picked any number of gothic cathedrals) — is the embodiment of what I regard as a deeper, richer, more historically truthful understanding of where the contemporary Western commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc., comes from. The Cube screams at you, “It all began in 1789” [with the French Revolution]. Notre Dame quietly says, “No, no. All of this goes back much further, much deeper. Ultimately it goes back to
John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’”
Q: What precisely is the “Europe problem,” as you refer to it in the book?
A: You could define it any number of ways. It’s essentially what I call “a crisis of civilizational morale” — a profound, inarticulate skepticism about the capacity of that project of civilization we call “the West” to go much further, a sense of being culturally out of gas, if you will. And this expresses itself in many ways. It expresses itself in the kind of clotted bureaucratic politics we also see here in the U.S.; it expresses itself in an appeasement mentality in the world; most dramatically it expresses itself in Europe’s unprecedented demographics — the demographics of systematic depopulation. There is not a single country of today’s 27 member states of the European Union that has a replacement-level birthrate. In some countries, that has been the case for multiple generations now.
Q: What do you see as the ultimate source of Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale?
A: I see it at core as a spiritual problem. As I say in the book, when an entire continent, healthy and wealthy and more secure than ever before, consciously decides not to create the human future, you can speculate as to political/economic/sociological/psychological/ideological reasons for that, but ultimately I think you’re dealing with a problem in the human spirit.
Q: How do you know that the demographics of Europe, for instance, are an expression of something spiritual?
A: I don’t know it the way that I know that one plus one equals two in the Base 10 system. But I think you can ask yourself these questions: “Can you explain this financially? Kids are expensive.” “Can you explain this ideologically? Women want their own lives.” “Can you explain this politically? Public policy is not child-friendly; it’s not family-friendly.” You can look at all of those aspects of the problem, which clearly bear on it, but at the bottom of the bottom line you’re still left with this very good question: “What on earth really explains this?” And I think the spiritual dimension of this has to be factored into the analysis. It’s not the only dimension, but if you don’t take some account of that, you’re not looking at the whole picture.
Q: How do we square this, then, with what we’re observing in the rest of the world, in many other places, such as Mexico and India?
A: You might have mentioned Japan as well. Europe is in an advanced state of a problem that the entire world is now facing or will face. When you make fertility optional, people have to have really good reasons to have two, three, four, five children. And the only reasons that I can imagine are going to be ultimately persuasive are, in fact, religious in character. I think what we’re finding is that in addition to splitting the atom and deciphering the genetic code, the third world-shaking development of the 20th century was the development of oral contraceptives, which created the capacity to separate sexual behavior from reproduction in unprecedented ways.
Q: How do you envision this playing out in the sense of an individual European family? Do you think that people are conscious of this as part of the choices related to their religious heritage or values?
A: In concrete personal terms, by 2050, on present trends, 60 percent of Italians will not know from personal experience what a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin is. Those will be purely abstract ideas. Because that’s what you get when, over three or four generations, you have the children of one-child families marrying each other and having one child. I don’t think people are aware of the problem in a reflective way. If they were, they’d do something about it. What will break them out of the pattern? I think a commitment to a more generous gift of self to the future.
Q: One of the results you identify of depopulation in Europe is the stronger role of Muslim society, correct?
A: Well, demographic vacuums don’t remain. They get filled, like all other vacuums in nature, and this is no exception. The collapse of birthrates in Europe has meant that there has been a substantial immigration into Europe from the Arab-Islamic world, from North Africa and the Middle East, Pakistan, and elsewhere. And while many of these immigrants want nothing more than to raise their families, others are becoming radicalized in the process.
Q: Do you believe that the presence of Muslims in Europe is incompatible with Europe’s democratic traditions?
A: Well, certainly the attempt to establish enclaves of Sharia law is incompatible with democracy. Do I think as a theoretical matter that Europe cannot absorb Muslim populations and remain democratic? I would say there’s a tipping point where, at least at the present moment, Islamic societies have shown virtually no capacity to provide the cultural foundations for democratic pluralism.
Q: In the book, you connect the spiritual malaise in Europe with what you call “the depoliticization” of the continent. What do you mean by that?
A: This is a term I borrowed from the French political theorist Pierre Manent, who says, look, all of the serious political decisions in Europe today are made either by bureaucracies — national or European Union [EU] — or by the EU executive. They’re not made in national legislatures; they’re not made at that level of politics which is closest, theoretically, to democracy: the popular will. People have, in a sense, “outsourced” their democratic responsibility to bureaucrats, national and now transnational.
Having said that, when you get an aggressive government that’s trying to fast-forward the secularist project — what Father Richard John Neuhaus calls the “naked public square” — as we have had in Spain for the past two years, you do get pushback from church people and others, and a willingness to re-engage in the public square through demonstrations, through lobbying, ultimately through running for office. So there may be signs of re-politicization in parts of Europe.
Q: What are you calling for, if anything, in The Cube and the Cathedral?
A: The problems created by a spiritual vacuum can only be dealt with over the long haul by the filling of that vacuum with a truer understanding of the human condition and our purpose in the world. Can democracies give an account of what they are and what they aspire to be amidst profound spiritual boredom and deep moral anarchy? … Any resolution of Europe’s current crisis of civilization and morale is not going to come primarily from politics or economics, but from culture. And specifically from spiritual renewal, spiritual rebirth, indeed something not unlike what we call in the history of American Christianity “a great awakening.”
Q: So why, in your opinion, is the “Europe Problem” important to the United States?
A: Because the cube and the cathedral proposition — that culture more securely grounds the things we hold most dear in our public life — is our proposition, too. This should be no surprise, because we are one common Western civilizational project. When we too experience, perhaps in somewhat more subtle forms, the attempt to drive religiously grounded moral conviction out of the public square, or to circumscribe its capacity to change the world, then we’re seeing kinder, gentler, maybe, but nonetheless parallel, forms of this problem in our own society.
What is to be done about all of this is, of course, the 64,000-Euro question. We cannot predict the work of the Holy Spirit in history. We don’t know whether or how God is rising up new evangelists for Europe or America. While we wait for that to happen … if we have been given the gift of faith, then we ought to reach out to those who have not, and engage them in a common moral discourse over the future of our society. That’s what institutions like Seattle Pacific University are in the business of doing, the forming of what Arnold Toynbee called “creative minorities” that can leverage real change from what seems to be, on the surface, a weak position. And that’s a great and noble project indeed.
Q: The secularization of Western society is obviously important to you. Do you see a danger in what I sometimes perceive to be the “privatization” of faith and piety, almost as if faith becomes a one-on-one — “myself and Jesus” — expression only, rather than a community expression?
A: We are told, in The Great Commission, to go out and convert the world. Some people do that through direct Christian missionary activity; others do it by trying to bring Christian values to bear in the workplace, in culture, in political life; still others do it simply by raising good families. There are lots of ways to be an evangelist. But it does seem to me to be an incomplete form of Christianity to define one’s Christianity so exclusively in terms of one’s personal relationship with Christ that one forgets one’s relationship to the Body of Christ in the world and in history — which is the church — and its mandate to be salt and light.
Q: I want to convey my sense of Christian hope to the young people I teach every day. Do you have advice about how we can help students deal with the difficult things happening in our world — whether it’s in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, or elsewhere?
A: Optimism is a matter of optics. You can change it like changing your glasses. Hope is built on a sturdier foundation. It’s built on the foundation of faith and the conviction that, in fact, the worst in human history has already happened, on Good Friday. And the divine answer to that was given on Easter Sunday.
I don’t think it is at all inappropriate — without being apocalyptic about it — to prepare students today for a not-easy future. Whether it is the questions posed by biotechnology, which holds out the prospect on the one hand of great healing and on the other hand of a manufactured humanity; or whether it’s the radical Islamist problem we discussed together on campus, students have a lot of very difficult situations to face in the course of their lives. And we do them no favors by not acknowledging that. I think that that which armors one against simply retreating into a private enclave is the conviction that this kind of engagement in the world is what God wants us to do.
Editor’s note: More of Kathleen Braden’s interview with George Weigel, including their discussion of his views on just war, the conflict in Iraq, and the relationship between Catholic and evangelical social engagement.
— Photo of George Weigel by Daniel Sheehan
— Photo of Kathleen Braden by John Keatley
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