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Europe Is Losing Its Soul

Metropolitan Kirill Kirill of Smolensk

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Europe is a unique cultural and spiritual phenomenon that was formed over the course of centuries and is currently undergoing fundamental changes. Why does the fate of Europe concern us, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church? Because Russia, while possessing a distinctive culture and self-consciousness, is also an integral part of Europe. It is not by chance that Dostoevsky, who like nobody else was conscious of Russia's uniqueness, nevertheless called Europe his second home. In the Russian soul, Europe occupies a special place, primarily because of its Christian roots. I would like to stress that these roots go back not only to Western Christianity, but also to Eastern Christianity, mainly through Byzantium.

As is known, the very name Byzantium is artificial and came into use only in the sixteenth century in the West. Until then Byzantium was known as the Roman or Romaian empire, and the Byzantines called themselves Romans or Romaians. This empire, whose capital was Constan-tinople, stretched to both the West and the East. This totality that comprised both the Eastern and Western parts decisively influenced the formation of modern European civilization. For example, nobody will contest the assertion that St. Augustine is a father of Western European thought, but it should be remembered that Eastern neo-Platonists exerted decisive influence on him. Western Scholasticism, which became the cradle of modern philosophy, was formed under the influence of the Eastern Cappadocians and the Corpus Areopagiticum. The legal culture of Western Europe grew out of the Code of Canon Law of Emperor Justinian. And even if we look at the era after the tragic division of Western and Eastern Christendom, the Byzantines continued to exert tremendous influence on Western thought and culture. It is not by chance that the mass emigration of educated Greeks to Italy after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in the fifteenth century coincided with the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. Vestiges of Byzantine culture in the West can be seen even today in the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice and in the Spanish paintings of the Cretan iconographer Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco.

What is occurring in modern Europe? We are all observers of how a dramatic weakening of Europe's Christian identity is taking place. Europe is losing the characteristics given to it by Christianity--I would like to stress: both Western and Eastern Europe is losing its soul.

European values are becoming more and more secular, but I would not say that these values have totally lost their ties with Christianity. Many of them could not have appeared if there had been no Christianity in Europe. They represent a watered-down, worldly version of traditional European Christian values, and in this devitalized version are often turned against the Christianity that gave birth to them, casting doubt on the Christian identity of Europe. Breaking with the spiritual foundations of European civilization, these values risk losing the good that was placed in them by Christianity. Our concern is that Europe, having lost its connection to Christianity, may in the end make recourse to such forms of oppression or even violence against the individual that have always been foreign to her. Russia, as no other country, has experienced just how grave the break with one's spiritual roots can be for civilization, something that threatens societies not only with the loss of their countenance, but also with the rise of violence toward the person, egregious violations of personal freedom, and the suppression of spiritual needs. The history of Russia in the twentieth century should serve as a warning to modern Europe, demonstrating that the rejection of the spiritual and cultural foundations on which a civilization is founded can present a serious threat to civilization itself.

Indeed, the forms of social relations that were shaped in the twentieth century were to a significant extent a secularized variant of values characteristic of the Russian spiritual tradition: collectivism became the secularized version of conciliarity ("sobornost") and the community-centered life, a single state ideology replaced the spiritual authority of the church.

Today one might say that the Muslim population is increasing dramatically in Europe. In view of this, can Europe remain Christian while not entering into conflict with Islam? The recent scandal caused by the publication of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed demonstrates that it was not Christianity that caused the collisions, but rather secularism, the secularization of society, which behaved with disdain toward spiritual values and the sacred. In this regard the positive example of Russia is remarkable, where Orthodoxy, Islam, and other traditional religions peacefully coexist to the extent that respect for faith and sacred things is maintained in society. In other words, Islam is ready to coexist peacefully with Christianity. Extremism, rooted in radical sentiments within Islam, is as a rule directed not against Christianity itself but against the lack of spirituality and the secularization of Western societies. Of course, we do not attempt to justify extremism, but are simply speaking of the causes that give rise to it. Thus, the secularization of Europe not only undermines the foundations of European identity, but also provokes conflict with religious groups that do not wish to subject themselves to the general tendency of secularization.

In view of this it seems to me extremely important to return to the Christian meaning of the European values that underwent secularization, central to which are freedom and human rights. In their secularized form these values, as mentioned above, lose their profundity and can even turn against the person and the spiritual foundations of his personality. [In] April 2006, the Jubilee Tenth World Russian People's Council was held in Moscow. One of the highlights of this forum was the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights and Dignity of the Person. Some have already christened this document as a particularly Russian declaration of human rights affirming an understanding of rights opposite to the Western understanding. However, this was not the task of those who prepared this Declaration. Their task was rather to give a Christian interpretation of some fundamental categories that move world politics today--those of human rights and liberties. We have attempted to integrate a theological foundation into this concept of human rights, thereby uniting, or rather re-uniting, this concept with traditional Christian views.

At the foundation of this declaration lie two principal distinctions: between two meanings of human dignity, which we have agreed to call value and dignity, as well as between two meanings of freedom: freedom as the non-determinateness of human actions and freedom as not being subjugated to evil and sin. The fact that man is created in the image of God, as well as the fact of the incarnation, i.e. the assumption by the Son of God of our nature for the salvation of the human race, serve as the basis for the affirmation of the pre-eminent value of human nature. This value cannot be taken away or destroyed. It should be respected by everyone: by other people, society, the state, etc. An integral part of human nature that gives it special value is the freedom of choice. This freedom was placed into human nature by God himself and cannot be violated by anyone: neither other people, nor evil powers, nor even God himself.

By itself this freedom is only an instrument with which the person realizes his moral choices. Freedom of choice should be used for attaining freedom from sin. Only by liberating oneself from the shackles of sin and acquiring the "freedom of the glory of God's children," as St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans (8:21), can one give meaning to his inherent ability to make free choices and acquire that which in the Declaration is called dignity. Human dignity is the highest goal of existence. Expressed in theological terms, it corresponds to the likeness of God in the person. Dignity is acquired when one makes his choices in favor of the good, and is lost when one chooses evil.

We can testify to the fact that the welfare and perhaps the very existence of human civilization in a globalized world will to a great extent depend on the ability to combine rights and freedoms with moral responsibility. For freedom and morality, placed by God himself into human nature and which belong to everyone regardless of their culture or religion, are able to combine the existing civilizational models in a peaceful and viable manner.

This article was adapted from a speech given in Vienna by Met. Kirill. A full transcript of his speech is available in the May, 2006, issue of the Europaica Bulletin. Translated from Russian by Deacon Basil Bush.

Read the entire article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute.

Posted: 16-Nov-06



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