Europe and the Christian Faith

By Greenacre, Roger | Contemporary Review, August 1993 | Go to article overview

Europe and the Christian Faith

Greenacre, Roger, Contemporary Review

ONE of the most colourful figures on the English literary scene between the two world wars was Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). The Oson of a French father and an English mother, he was a confident and aggressive Roman Catholic apologist, a man whose stocky physique and literary style combined to conjure up the image of a prize fighter. His comic verses -- most of them intended, in principle, for children -- have certainly stood the test of time; what was arguably his worst book, Europe and the Faith, published in 1920, is chiefly remembered today for the slogan that punctuates its argument: |The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith'. He argues that those who are not Roman Catholics |look upon the story of Europe externally, as strangers', but that the Catholic |as he reads that story does not grope at it from without; he understands it from within'. He argues too that the church assumed and continued the tradition of Graeco-Roman civilization: |The Faith is that which Rome accepted in her maturity; nor was the Faith the cause of the decline, but rather the conservator of all that could be conserved'.

Most readers of Belloc's book today would be appalled at the prejudices he so belligerently displays; he is at one and the same time antisemitic, antimasonic, anti-Byzantine, anti-Protestant and anti-Prussian. But underneath the prejudices and the tendentious manipulation of history is a claim not lacking in a certain seductive quality; any Western European Christian with a sense of the history and culture of his continent, reading Dante, visiting Chartres Cathedral, listening to a Mozart Mass, could well be beguiled by it. But even for the Christian -- or, rather, especially for the Christian -- the thesis is fallacious and must be resisted for two reasons in particular.

First of all, it has to be admitted that Europe itself has never been totally Christianized (even in the most superficial or nominal sense). No other religion than Christianity can claim to have marked so profoundly the European consciousness or to have had the same European influence. Nevertheless, the history of Judaism from the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to the Return to Palestine is largely (though not exclusively) European and Jews have played a prominent role in its intellectual and cultural history. One has only to think (taking a handful of names at random) of the contribution of such figures as Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Bergson, Buber and Chagall.

In our own time too, Islam is surely on the way to acquiring a European context and therefore a European development which it has not had since the so-called |re-conquest' of the Iberian peninsula. It is often forgotten that in the eighth century the Arabs over-ran Spain and that their further advance into France was only halted by the decisive victory over them of Charles Martel near Poitiers in 732. From that time the Arab and Islamic influence in Spain was strong, and although the |re-conquest' began to get under way in the ninth century, it was only finally completed in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain. The recent proposal to beatify Queen Isabella on the 500th anniversary of that expulsion showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity. In fact Spain can celebrate 700 years of Arab civilization, a civilization which has contributed so much to Europe, both directly and through its preservation and transmission of some of the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature.

It must not be forgotten either that Spain was not the only centre of Arab and Islamic influence in Europe. Another prominent example is Sicily; the Cappella Palatina in Palermo still demonstrates to visitors today the extraordinary and harmonious synthesis of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic and architectural skills which reached its apogee during the reign of Roger I in the 12th century.

At about the time that Islamic culture was being finally extinguished in Europe's farthest south-western corner, another kind of Islamic advance was taking place with the extension of the Turkish Ottoman Empire into the Balkans, a threat which was to menace Christian Europe until the defeat of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571 and the defeat of the Turkish army outside Vienna by John Sobieski in 1683. …

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