During a conversation in Cracow last July, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, O.P., the archbishop of Vienna, proposed that he and I organize a conference to discuss the growing gap between America and Europe, the roots of that gap as analyzed in my book The Cube and the Cathedral, and the possibilities of strengthening the trans-Atlantic Catholic dialogue and the new evangelization on both continents. I readily agreed, and the conference, which included some fifty public intellectuals from “Old Europe,” “New Europe,” and the United States, met in April in the archbishop’s palace in Vienna.
Picking up on a phrase I had used in The Cube and the Cathedral, that Europe is “dying from a false story,” Brague suggested a fascinating way of looking at the last two centuries of western history. The 19th century, he proposed, was focused on the question of good-and-evil: the “social question,” posed by the industrial revolution, the emergence of an urban working class, and the demise of traditional society, dominated the landscape. The 20th century, he argued, had been the century of the question of true-and-false: totalitarian ideologies, built on perverse misunderstandings of the human person, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I until the Soviet crack-up in 1991.
And the 21st century? Ours, Professor Brague said, is the century of the question of being-and-nothingness — the century of the metaphysical question.
Which may sound extremely abstract, but is, in fact, very concrete. For if nothing is “given” in the human condition, then everything is up-for-grabs. If, to take a salient example on both sides of the Atlantic, maleness and femaleness are mere “social constructs,” then “marriage” can mean anything someone wants it to mean, including not only “gay marriage” but polygamy and polyandry — and to deny that is an act of irrational bigotry.
Brague, who knows a great deal about Islamic philosophy, knows all about the threat to the West from jihadist Islam. In Vienna, however, he insisted that nihilism – a soured cynicism about the mystery and wonder of being — is the prior enemy-within-the-gates. For nihilism leads to deep skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything; skepticism leads to what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described on April 18, 2005, as the “dictatorship of relativism;” and relativism is a solvent eating away the foundations of western self-understanding, western civilizational morale — and the western capacity for intelligent self-defense.
An Enlightenment intellectual, cited by Professor Brague, once said that he didn’t have children because begetting children was a criminal act — a matter of condemning another human being to death, to oblivion. That is the kind of nihilism that lies beneath Europe’s demographic suicide of recent decades. That is the kind of nihilism that occupies some of the commanding heights of American culture. That is the kind of nihilism that makes the defense of western civilization difficult today — and would make it impossible tomorrow, were it to triumph culturally.
The very goodness of life, the goodness of being — that is The Issue beneath all the other issues of the 21st century. So suggested Rémi Brague. I’m afraid he’s right.
It remains to be seen whether initiatives similar to Marcello Pera’s, or analyses similar to those he has advanced in intellectual tandem with Pope Benedict, can begin to get a purchase on the cultural high ground in Europe. Some would argue that it is already too late, that the demographic tipping point has been reached and that, as Mark Steyn puts it, with “the successor population [i.e., Islam] already in place, . . . the only question is how bloody the transfer of real estate will be.” But if Europe’s two culture wars are not to result in the accelerated emergence of “Eurabia” (in Bat Ye’or’s coinage), something resembling Pera’s initiative will have to lead the way, and soon.
The alternative approach to Europe’s future was graphically on display last August upon the death of Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary (and critic of the Iraq war). The funeral service was held in the historic “High Kirk” of Edinburgh, St. Giles, and led by Bishop Richard Holloway, the erstwhile Anglican primate of Scotland, who some years ago wrote a book attempting to reconcile his readers to what he termed the “massive indifference of the universe.” Holloway later described the funeral in these words: “Here was I, an agnostic Anglican, taking the service in a Presbyterian church, for a dead atheist politician. And I thought that was just marvelous.”
Nihilism rooted in skepticism, issuing in the bad faith of moral relativism and Western self-loathing, comforting itself with a vacuous humanitarianism: not only is this not marvelous, it has contributed to killing Europe demographically, and to paralyzing Europe in the face of an aggressive ideology aimed at the eradication of Western humanism in the name of a lethally distorted understanding of God’s will. Those who love Europe and what it has meant and still could mean for the world had better hope that Marcello Pera and his allies among believers, and not Bishop Holloway and his fellow debonair nihilists, are the ones who will prevail in the contest to resolve Europe’s two culture wars.