Current reading: “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” by Douglas Murray. (Not quite finished with it yet, but almost there.) The book was given to me by a friend, and I am grateful. For the uninformed Murray is a largely European figure described this way by Wikipedia, “a British author, journalist, and political commentator. He is the founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion and is the associate director of the Henry Jackson Society and associate editor of The Spectator, a British magazine discussing culture and politics.” In other words he is a media figure. The Amazon blurb on the book is reasonably accurate:
The Strange Death of Europe is a highly personal account of a continent and culture caught in the act of suicide. Declining birth-rates, mass immigration and cultivated self-distrust and self-hatred have come together to make Europeans unable to argue for themselves and incapable of resisting their own comprehensive change as a society. This book is not only an analysis of demographic and political realities, but also an eyewitness account of a continent in self-destruct mode. It includes reporting from across the entire continent, from the places where migrants land to the places they end up, from the people who appear to welcome them in to the places which cannot accept them.
The book is a bit frustrating in its “highly personal” nature which translates into a lack of rigor. That can often be the case with media figures where the point of the book is not to be comprehensive but to be accurate and help maintain the figure’s standing in the media. Nonetheless, the book is clear and concise and informative, even if one must always remember is not a comprehensive picture. The book can be read as a polemic regarding Islam. I will be the first to admit that Islam, as understood and practiced in large swathes of the planet, is fundamentally incompatible with western civilization but the book is really about a Europe unable to stand up for itself. As the blurb says, “a continent in self-destruct mode.”
As one reads through the book one sees an overriding and fundamental flaw in the thinking of European leaders that has gotten them into the mess they are in. That flaw is that they seem to think that people are essentially good – that left to their own devices, people will generally choose to do the right thing. It is a Utopian view at best and foolishness at worst. Trying to strip this next statement of “judgmental” language – history has taught us that people, left to their own devices, will always act in their perceived self-interest, typically by the shortest and easiest route possible which often means ignoring, taking from or hurting someone else. That does not sound like “the right thing” to me.
Astute readers will read that proposition, that people cannot be relied upon to do the right thing as the Christian doctrine of “original sin.” Unfortunately, phrasing it that way causes people to gasp as if you have called them the worst possible name. I have never understood why a condition common to all people – every last one of them – is derogatory, but here we are.
Astute readers will also recognize a variation of Adam Smith in that proposition. Smith, you will recall, laid the philosophical underpinnings for capitalism with his contention that “rational self-interest” and competition is what leads to prosperity. I have always felt like Smith was right because his theories are an attempt to harness our typically prevailing tendencies.
So, back to Murray. Murray acknowledges that the loss of Christianity as the “foundational myth” of Europe has created a sort of weariness in Europe that has contributed to its inability to defend itself. He attribute Christianity’s loss of social vitality to two factors, the rise of textual criticism and Darwin. He has a fine point intellectually, but he fails to consider that religion is powerful on many levels other than intellectual. I think Chesterton said it right when he said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” For Christianity to have failed Europe as it has it has to have met more than its intellectual match; people have to have failed to experience and appreciate it on all the other levels.
Murray runs through a list of ideas that Europe has tried to replace Christianity – humanism, the arts, technology, communism and notes how incredibly disappointing each has proven to be. Most fascinating is that Christianity thrived and subsequently Europe thrived for centuries, while the decline has taken decades. One would think that ample evidence for the superiority of Christianity as a societal foundation of some sort, but alas.
Of course, regardless of the reason for Christianity’s decline, one fact remains, as it has declined so has the idea that people are not naturally good – that if we, as a society, want good out of people, we have to work very hard to make good people. As Murray ran through his list of substitutes one could see that each fails precisely because it fails to account for our prevailing inclination away from goodness.
The United States has not seen the decline Europe has – but one can see the markers of it coming. The Great Revolt that has upended American politics in the last few years appears very much to be a political effort to reverse course before such decline reaches a critical stage. But it is purely political. And right now all that politics can do is open a door through which the institutions that actually make good people can come and operate. To avoid the decline here Murray describes for Europe we have to stand up far more than politically.
If the Church Universal fails to take advantage of the opportunity it is currently being presented with we will be facing nothing more than a lessening of the rate of decline, not an actual reversal. We need to learn from Europe and we need to rethink what we have been doing completely – what we have been doing is losing influence; losing our place as a foundational idea.
If we have indeed met our intellectual match, then we have to find a way to compete in all the other areas where we have influence. We have to try in the way the Chesterton thinks we have not. The challenge for the church today is not growth in numbers, but growth in depth. We have to start growing good people, not merely converts.