I had a rare spot of leisure time today, and so I decided to drop by the library, have a cup of coffee, and try and catch up with what was going on in the world. I happened to pick up the New York Times Sunday Magazine and found myself totally absorbed in the cover piece about Pope Benedict and his simultaneously deeply religious and utterly secular attempt to position the church to deal with the question of Islam. Pope Benedict has a barbarians-at-the-gate mentality that seems preposterous and alarmist at first, but begins to sound more and more rational, and one wonders if it might be the seemingly decrepit old Church that will once more guide the fate of the West.
He is convinced that the secularization of the West has harmed its prospect for long-term survival, and it must act to save itself. “We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way,” he said, “if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.” He refers to the rejection of religion that has weakened the social fabric of the formerly Catholic nations, which has been further threatened by the addition of a strong and unified community of Muslim immigrants. In Benedict’s forecast, he can see political will in Europe slowly disintegrating, to be replaced by more single-minded Islamic polities. He is the type to talk about a “Muslim invasion”, and to cast the wave of immigration in life-and-death clash-of-civilization terms. It all sounds very melodramatic.
It begins to sound much less melodramatic when one takes into account the long historical perspective. Pope Benedict is, after all, the head and representative of an institution that has seen this all happen before. In the waning years of the Roman Empire, it began to be too much trouble to keep the barbarians beyond the Rhine…they were flooding across the borders to escape the Vandals and Huns that were wreaking havoc across Eastern and Central Europe. So the Romans gave them land and politely asked them to behave, as the Romans turned their attention to bickering amongst themselves. And we all know how that story ended.
The Church survived because it proved to be far more appealing to those barbarians than paganism. I seriously doubt that in an era of waning influence (and with modern respect for other faiths) it entertains hopes of Christianising these new immigrants. The key part of Benedict’s argument is that the culture of rationality and respect for one’s fellow man that inform “good government” is a distinctively Christian legacy. This point is a hornet’s nest that I’m not even going to touch. However, I think most people would agree that the Christian philosophical tradition has informed Western political ideals.
Let us leave aside the question of whether there is a present or approaching “clash of civilizations”. It is eminently debatable. However, Benedict has a point that if one believes a clash of civilization is coming, the West’s rejection of the Church has weakened it. As a liberal, secular Western liberal, I must admit that thinking in these terms makes me somewhat uneasy…after all, it’s very far from PC, and only a skip, hop, and leap away from saying that “They are barbarians, and they ARE at the gates”. No one is saying that (publicly, anyway), but rather they are analytically pointing out that a certain tradition and way of life seems to be fading out, and may be approaching a crisis. Civilizations have died before, one might want to remember. The Maya and Incans did, the Persians did, and (most relevantly) the Romans did. Pope Benedict may be a cantankerous old alarmist, or he may be a prophet in the wilderness.
-Alex Copulsky, Design Editor