Christianity Or Europe
This comment is from Alexander Goerlach, editor of German online magazine The European.
«When Novalis chose these words as the title for his speech, the Old World was on the cusp of a new age. The discursive link to medieval Christianity was supposed to propel the European continent into the 19th century. The past was idealized to predict a glorious future. Now, the Right is trying the same everywhere in Europe. They are abusing the idea of a "Christian heritage".
The Renaissance traced its origins to ancient Greek culture. It was thus only suitable to give the term "Middle Ages" to the centuries that separated the two. The Reformation movement likewise looked to the early church for guidance and saw the Roman papacy as a time of decline. The Romantics, on the other hand, glorified the Middle Ages and regarded the Reformation and the French Revolution as ruptures in the path of cultural progress. The Nazis turned back the clock all the way to early Germanic history. To them, the whole of European history was a dark period: Christianization has softened man and made him weak. There's Nietzsche in a nutshell.
The cyclical return of a transfigured past and its projection into the future are part of the canon of European intellectual and cultural history. Between two idealized periods, we can usually find a time of degeneration and decline when men allegedly stray from their proper course.
That logic is making a comeback today. Everywhere in Europe, right-wing parties are ascending to the halls of power or are at least supporting the current government. What unites them is the insistence on a European and Christian heritage. Their enemy is Islam. To them, the time of multiculturalism is an epoch of decline.
Why do we seek these projections into past and future? The backward gaze can infuse the present with a sense of identity. We want to live as our forefathers did, that is the aspiration. It reaffirms the notion that we are indeed part of a longer tradition. In the 1980s, theology often sought to uncover the "historical Jesus." But he does not exist. The Jesus that scientists can analyze through the history of the Bible is a Jesus whose life has been written backwards into history and has been inscribed with meaning by those who told and retold his stories. The same holds true for our image of the Middle Ages. Much of what we think we know is rooted in the imagination of Romanticism. What did the people in the 14th century really think? We don't know.
Myths are the product of such idealized views of history. They, too, can inspire identity. One contemporary example is the discourse about our common Christian heritage. It remains unclear what exactly this term is supposed to mean. But right-wing parties can fish for votes with the slogan, and conservative parties can stimulate their constituents into action. During the wars of religion, almost everyone was a Christian. And during the French Revolution. And during the reign of the Nazis in Germany. When the Third Reich disintegrated, the majority of Germans were Christians. Does that tell us anything about Christianity - or about Christendom? No.
Today's right-wing parties recognize that the rhetoric of nationalism has lost much of its force. A border-free Europe is too tempting, it is much to real to most of us. That is true even when one criticizes the EU or some of its institutions and initiatives. Neither the Danish Right, nor the Italian, the French, or the Dutch Right want to declare war on each other and categorize each other as inferior or inhuman. That doesn't have anything to do with the Christian heritage but with the fact that the ideology of traditional nationalism is dead, and that 60 years of European integration have left a little mark after all. Sure, a majority of Europeans are Christians. 580 million, over 80 percent, just as many as in the previous fifteen centuries. If this is our standard, we might just as well list the weather as part of our European heritage. Its daily labor carves up the stones from which our Christian churches are built.
What we are witnessing is the return of nativism on the right. Nativism describes the idea that a majority wants to re-vitalize and perpetuate certain aspects of its culture vis-à-vis a minority. Christianity is such a cultural aspect, the most visible difference between East and West. We can compress and combine everything we want to highlight about our culture under the umbrella of that terminology. Christianity in that context is not revealing anything about us; it is separating "us" from "the other".
Everything we discuss about Islam is such a myth as well. Just as the Romantics re-created their image of the Middle Ages, we are re-creating an image of Islam from history. Parties on the right are now utilizing that myth for their own purposes. They are pitting myth against myth. That is problematic, and it should concern all the Christians of Europe. They should be the first to rise against it.»
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