Sunday, July 22, 2007

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on Faith and Reason in the U.S. and Europe

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has a wonderful essay in the Times that describes the different views of faith and reason in the united States and Europe--and the different challenges that face both the United States and Europe as a result. He thinks that the united States tend to be more comfortable with faith and reason as compatible, but notes that we too often believe our own rhetoric of being a chosen people:

Today Americans still readily embrace both religious faith and patriotism, a striking paradox in a land where Church and State are deliberately separated. We have much to learn from the people of the United States. Their search for a better life and their optimism are linked with their religious faith. From their first day at school, American children learn to salute the flag and declare their Americanness. They say: “God bless America,” and then happily add: “I’m a Baptist, or a Jew, a Catholic or a Muslim.” To them, it seems, being a good Catholic, a good Jew, a good Baptist or a good Muslim fits in perfectly with being a good American. Americans always look with hopeful eyes to the future. Problems can be solved, people can be saved and God will continue to bless his people. Since the days of the Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people, called to share in God’s work in history.

The contrast with Europe is striking. In the first place, Europeans have misgivings about patriotism because of the extreme nationalism that blighted Europe throughout the past century. The European Union is a conscious attempt to transcend national loyalties and to foster a new “European” identity based on common values. But Europe’s slow and painful birth has involved an attempt to brush under the carpet the continent’s Christian heritage. Whether it is motivated by overt hostility to religion or by a desire to find a lowest common denominator, such denial of the obvious is unhealthy and dishonest.

Europe’s mood is pessimistic. This is surprising, as the institutions that were created postwar to keep the peace in Europe – the EU itself, Nato, and the European Convention on Human Rights under the Council of Europe – have been remarkably successful in this perennially troubled continent. Part of the problem may be that the role of religion is not usually acknowledged. The American example suggests that seeing Christianity as part of the European vision, rather than ignoring it, could only enhance the construction of a common European civilisation.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason were intellectual landmarks as much in Europe as in America, but the two continents have handled them very differently. The Founding Fathers who devised the American Constitution combined the vision that came from faith with the rationality that came from the Enlightenment.

In Europe faith and reason have generally been seen as mutually exclusive. But pure reason will never inspire bold visions and great deeds. It is worth remembering that the founders of postwar Europe were also men of faith (though no doubt entirely rational). If we Europeans now choose to ignore the energy that drove them, it is hardly surprising if the resulting grey edifice fails to fire the imagination of its citizens. Pretending that Christianity played no part in Europe’s history could undo the whole European project.

. . .

Europe and America appear to be at different stages in their journey of faith. And there is a warning to both of them in that. In America’s case, the warning comes from the Old Testament history of another people that believed itself chosen. The warning is that there is a cyclical rhythm, where faithfulness is followed by laxity, even idolatry and unfaithfulness. The things of God become instruments of power, used for selfish or wicked purposes. In this spiritual cycle, the people who lost their way in the wilderness were rescued when a prophet appeared to remind them of their sins and show them the way back. Where Europe is in that cycle, and where America is, I leave to your imagination. But wherever they are, each can learn from the other. The American experience shows that religion and democracy must make room for each other: to banish religion from the public square in the name of freedom and democracy is to threaten freedom and democracy, and the very existence of that public square. The separation of Church and State may indeed guarantee diversity and the exclusion of none; but if it systematically excludes any, problems will follow.

Read it all here.

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