Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org
For about two millennia, Europe was engaged in a struggle for global supremacy. From the unprecedented spread of Christianity via the discovery of the New World to modern colonial conquests, Europe’s empires rivalled and surpassed other ancient dynasties in Persia, India and China.
But since the end of World War One and the demise of imperial Europe, the continent’s influence in international affairs has dramatically declined. This, coupled with tectonic shifts such as the changing US vision of its global role and the resurgence of Asia, seems to seal the passage to a post-European phase of history.
Moreover, Europe itself is in disarray. The European Union has promised peace, prosperity and unity-in-diversity. But in its current configuration the single market is arguably an engine of top-down homogenisation, privileging the interests of both ‘big government’ and ‘big business’ at the expense of civil society and the civil economy that is composed of intermediary institutions and small-and medium-size enterprise.
The euro has benefitted the core countries but it has also inflicted conflict and misery on its peripheral members. Integration has retrieved and extended the ancient Carolingian unity of France and Germany in the west. But one can also suggest that enlargement has failed to restore the Constantinian vision of a pan-European polity that includes Russia, Ukraine and Turkey – former Byzantine powers that are not willing to pool their national sovereignty and that feel excluded from the West.
What happened to the post-1989 dreams of a united Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok as expressed in the 1990 Paris Charter of the OSCE or Gorbachev’s famous notion of a ‘Common European House’? Is the EU a new kind of civilian power that promotes democracy and human rights by syndicating its values and legislation across the world? Or is the Union synonymous with double standards, hypocrisy and a central diktat by an elite that is unelected and unaccountable?
Yet at the same time, the EU is perhaps one of the most ambitious attempts in history to overcome both nationalism and colonialism in the direction of a new type of polity that has variously been described as a political system sui generis, a neo-medieval empire or a new cosmopolitan body.
Linked to this is the long-standing debate about whether Europe is a universal civilisation that embodies the cosmopolitan vision of Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’ or whether Europe is a set of particular cultures that reflect the realist vision of Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all’ and a central sovereign power (which has fuelled both nationalism and colonialism).
All this points to a series of antagonistic binary opposites that Europe appears to be associated with and that it has bequeathed to the rest of the world: ‘religious wars’ vs. ‘perpetual peace’; the secular vs. the religious; the left vs. the right; the state vs. the market; capitalism vs. communism; Hobbesian realism vs. Kantian idealism.
Such and similar dualism suggest one of two things. Either that the very assumption of a singular idea of Europe is misguided and that it makes more sense of speak of Europe in the plural. Or else that there are other traditions that transcend the false divide between monism and dualism in the direction of a genuine pluralism – just as singularity and multitude fail to capture a more relational, reciprocal outlook that may capture much more accurately both European particularity and universality. All of this raises fundamental questions about Europe’s civilisational space.
1. The Myth of Europe’s Exceptionalist Example
Perhaps the predominant reason for Europe’s lack of identity and its tendency towards self-loathing has to do with the secular account of European and world history that has dominated academic and public discourse in the last few decades or so. Indeed, secularism equates Christendom with the oppressive, reactionary settlement of Late Antiquity and the Dark Ages which the progressive forces of secular modernity and the Enlightenment purportedly swept away.
So the secularist argument is that European civilisation could only flourish once the constricting shackles of God, Church and Empire had been thrown off.
Since the nineteenth century, social theorists of religion such as Durkheim, Comte or Weber claimed that the rise of modernity is synonymous with the decline of religion and the spread of secularism. From the 1960s onwards sociologists claimed that secular Europe would set the trend for the rest of the world – a pioneer of progress in the forward march of modernisation.
Yet throughout the second half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first century the globe has witnessed a religious resurgence, which is really about a greater visibility and prominence of faith in politics rather than a return – for religion had never gone away. [I] Since then, sociologists writing about religion in Europe have opted to talk about the ‘European exception’, with the old continent sliding towards ever greater secularisation while faith is proving to be far more enduring elsewhere around the world.
Despite the relative resilience of religion, many still look to Europe as a beacon of tolerance to the nations – a shining example of democracy and human rights in the global fight against reactionary forces. Indeed, the European Union is often portrayed as new kind of normative, ‘soft power’ empire that represents the best of Europe’s civilisation. [II]
Today Europe may be in many ways the most secularised continent in the world in terms of religious practice, personal observance, and public political discourse. But this is neither a necessary nor a normative nor even a long-standing process. To take these points in reverse order, the secularisation of European politics and culture is far more recent than commonly supposed and can be traced to the second half of the twentieth century (except for state-sponsored atheism in a number of regimes following the First World War).
For example, in Western Europe – despite violent clashes between state and church in France up to separation in 1905 – the population remained predominantly Catholic until the late 1950s, when “French Christendom” (chrétienté) began to disappear from the regions and countryside, as depicted in the writings of George Bernanos. In Britain, the ‘de-christianisation’ of the public sphere and social life did not take off until the late 1960s. Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries only became markedly more secular from the mid-1970s onward.
After decades of atheist rule, the historic Byzantine lands of central/eastern Europe and Eurasia are now characterised by profound contrasts between a strong and sustained religious revival in countries such as Poland and Russia, on the one hand, and a growing tendency toward agnosticism and atheism in countries such as the Czech Republic, on the other hand.
By contrast with popular practices, secular ideas promoted by certain elites have a much longer history but even so the rise to power of secularism (over against Christendom in both the Byzantine ‘Greek East’ and the Roman ‘Latin West’) was not inevitable or progressive. Indeed, there is no historical determinism according to which secularism will remain always hegemonic in Europe or that other parts of the world will necessarily follow the European ‘exceptional example’.
Rather, the logic of secularism is linked to a certain kind of historicism that views the peculiar history of religion and politics in Western Europe as an exemplification of a fated and all-determining evolution – an idea that is closely correlated with Auguste Comte’s positivist trajectory from revelation to metaphysics to science. Seen through such a prism, European civilisation takes on a meaning that brackets 1,500 years of shared history out of the picture.
2. On the contingency of Secular Europe
In reality, the emergence of secularism as the dominant modern mode was the gradual outcome of historical contingency, linked to the fourteenth-century passage to modernity, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant Reformation and ‘wars of religion’ as well as the triumph of liberalism that started in the eighteenth century.
The theological and philosophical shifts, which helped bring about these modern conceptions of the secular and the sacred, coincided with profound political changes particularly linked to the history of Byzantium. Following the final demise of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the nascent Protestant Reformation in the West accelerated the slow disintegration of pan-European political Christendom and the rise to power of sovereign nation-states.
However, this did not inaugurate a linear process of secularisation that has supposedly culminated in European ‘exceptionalism’. On the contrary, certain strands of Renaissance Humanism provided a religious corrective to secular ideas and practices such as the early modern doctrine of the ‘divine right of kings’ – rejecting absolutism in favour of constitutional monarchy, as in England.
Likewise, much of the Enlightenment was not a secular attack on religion (except for Voltaire’s diatribe) but rather a religious critique of feudalism and the search for alternatives to capitalist exploitation and mercantilism – as in the Scottish and the Neapolitan Enlightenment. [III] Once again, it is simply not the case that European civilisation was limited to the secular settlement of the Enlightenment West.
3. Re-telling European history
For now, a few more points need to be made about the peculiar, non-normative nature of secularisation. The end of Christendom in both East and West coincided with the split of the Mediterranean by Islam and the emergence of new political powers. Broadly speaking, the ancient and medieval idea of real, embodied relations between persons and groups that compose the polity was progressively supplanted by the nominalist poles of the individual and the collective that have structured modern international relations since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the rise of the secular West: the dialectic between the sovereign ruler and the sovereign people is inextricably intertwined with the subsumption of virtually all mediating institutions of ‘civil society’ to the power of the national state and the transnational market.
The primacy of the modern central state and the modern ‘global’ market coincided with the marginalisation of the three institutions that structured late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: the city, the empire and the Church – as first embodied by Rome and later exemplified by the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.
Indeed, statehood and the market mechanism increasingly undermined the autonomy of ‘free cities’, the complex imperial links and the transnational ties of the Church – including the Byzantine commonwealth, the supranational papacy in Rome, and all kinds of cross-border Christian networks that were variously more monastic or more lay (e.g. corporations, guilds or universities).
Moreover, both the late medieval doctrine of the ‘divine right of kings’ (linked to monarchic absolutism) and the modern notion of state sovereignty (associated with revolutionary republics such as the USA or France) are predicated not only on the supremacy of political over religious authority but also on the power of the sovereign to redefine the sacred.
Indeed, European secularism is not limited to the functional differentiation of religious and political authority and/or the public settlement of the relationship between church and state that write faith out of international relations. By subordinating religion to secular categories, the secularist logic does not merely de-sacralise the public square. It reinvests it with quasi-sacred meaning by sacralising secularity – the king, the nation, the state, the market, the individual or the collective. As such, secularism does not so much mark the demise of faith or the exit from religion as it represents an alternative sacrality – a secular capture of the sacred.
The modern ‘revolution in sovereignty’ has had far-reaching implications for religion in international relations. Instead of binding together believers in a universal community of shared beliefs and practices within and across national borders such as Byzantium, faith is increasingly tied either to individuals or to nations (or both at once).
Apparently universal ideas and structures such as the global system of national states and transnational markets, which underpins modern international relations, can thus be traced genealogically to particular periods such as the Protestant Reformation or the religious wars in the ‘long sixteenth century’ (ca. 1450-1650).
Far from being isolated events or absolute breaks in history, they were part of an era spanning the early fourteenth to the late seventeenth century during which both ideas and practices already nascent during the Middle Ages achieved fuller maturity and developed into the modern model of international affairs.
That is why, in the words of the English political and IR theorist Martin Wight, “[a]t Westphalia the states system does not come into existence, it comes of age”. [IV] Certain new ideas such as national sovereignty came to shape the way that international relations were conceived and instituted.
Likewise, new institutions and practices like the national state or inter-state warfare led to changes in conceptions of international affairs that still shape contemporary theory of global affairs. Both the Christian faith and different associations of nations like Byzantium have either been reduced to historical anomalies or else been bracketed altogether out of the picture.
4. Fusing Jerusalem with Athens, Rome and Constantinople
Ultimately it is the case that European civilisation grew out of the Axial Age, as I have argued previously. So in its universal, meta-historical sense (rather its narrow, modern meaning), Europe is not self-foundational but instead marks the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem with Athens, Rome and Constantinople.
In the ‘long Middle Ages’ (c500-1300), Hellenised Christianity integrated and transformed other European traditions such as Germanic law, Celtic, Slavic, and other languages as well as cultural-social ties into the wider Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia. It integrated pre-Christian traditions such as the Saxons and made them an integral part of the new emerging Christian civilisation.
But already after the fall of imperial Rome in the late fifth century, three different forces vied for the Greco-Roman legacy and shaped Europe’s emerging civilization: first, pagan tribes from Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic territories; second, Christendom and its ecclesial ‘body’ of local parishes and transnational monasteries; third, Islam’s creation of a caliphate from Arabia to the Iberian peninsula.
Of these, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes, “the Christian Church is quite simply the most extensive and enduring, whether in the form of the Western Papacy or of the 'Byzantine Commonwealth', the network of cultural and spiritual connections in Eastern Europe linked to the new Roman Empire centred on Constantinople”. [V]
Nor was this limited to the remnants of the imperial legacy in East and West. In the face of a sustained onslaught from pagan Viking tribes and Islamic armies, Christendom resisted and even expanded to new areas such as the British Isles. For example, in the 10th century King Alfred and especially his grandson King Athelstan created the first pan-British Christian kingdom that united the pagan Vikings from Scandinavia with the Anglo-Saxons. Athelstan established the first assemblies or proto-parliaments and rendered laws more humane, e.g. by ending the execution of minors. All this was hugely significant for the survival and later flourishing of Christendom in East and West.
Nor are Christian principles and practices somehow Eurocentric. On the contrary, they have always reflected universal principles and embodied them in particular practices – charity, the dignity of the person, constitutional rule, the free and complex space of intermediary institutions such as guilds or universities, as well as limits on both state and market power.
In this essay on the European civilisational space, I have rejected a purely formalistic and procedural approach in favour of a substantive vision in which all parts of Europe share. For purely legal and contractual arrangements end up producing its own opposite – namely the domination of the powerful and the wealthy. By contrast, a form of virtuous guardianship upholds the notion of a shared, substantive humanity that is compatible with different degrees of development in different areas of society. Secular, liberal countries have often become atomised, impersonal, anonymous and uncaring, whereas more traditional countries in Europe and beyond retain a much stronger sense of dignity, celebration, popular culture, public generosity and hospitality. It is those virtues that European civilisation should learn from in other cultures.
[I] See Adrian Pabst, ‘The Paradox of Faith: Religion beyond secularization and de-secularization’, in Craig Calhoun and Georgi Derlugian (eds.), The Deepening Crisis. Governance Challenges after Neoliberalism (New York: New York University Press, 2011), pp. 157-182.
[II] Jan Zielonka, Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); and ‘Europe as a global actor: empire by example?’, International Affairs, Vol. 84, no. 3 (2008): 471-484.
[III] John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[IV] Martin Wight, Systems of States (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977), p. 152; cf. Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance. Four Centuries of the European Power Struggle, tr. C. Fulman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), esp. p. 23.
[V] Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘Religion culture diversity and tolerance – shaping the new Europe,’ address given in Brussels, 7 November 2005, at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1179/religion-culture-diversity-and-tolerance-shaping-the-new-europe-address-at-the-european-policy-centr; see also Dmitry Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (London: Sphere Books, 1974).