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Europe and the Faith: a talk by Prof Richard Rex

Professor Richard Rex of Queens’ College, Cambridge, addressed The Iona Institute and the Notre Dame Newman Centre for Faith and Reason in University Church last Wednesday night (March 22). His topic was ‘Europe and the Faith’, borrowing the title from Hilaire Belloc’s book of the same name.

Professor Rex discussed the past, present and future of the Christian faith in Europe. (The video of his talk can be found here [1] on our YouTube channel).

What follows is a summary of his main points.

How Christianity shaped us

  1. It taught us to value the poor and the weak. “Blessed are the poor … he has filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty”, says the Bible. “The heritage of almsgiving and charity still with us that is derived from that, it still resonates in socialism, and in the welfare state, this is a big part of our culture”, Professor Rex pointed out.
  2. It gave us the idea of “linear time”, that is, the notion that history is going somewhere rather than “just circling endlessly round, as Plato thought”.
  3. It gave us martyrdom, that is, people who are willing to die for what they believe. Professor Rex comments: “The idea that a cause gains credibility from the willingness of its adherents, not to kill for it but to suffer for it, even to die for it, remains a potent idea we see all around us”.
  4. It gave us the idea of marital consent. He says this was “essentially the creation of medieval theologians and canon lawyers”. Prior to that, people had to marry whoever their families told them to, and even though arranged marriages remained the norm for centuries, “the need for consent is the fruit of a long tradition of canonical, theological and ethical reflection in the Christian tradition.”
  5. It gave us the idea of conscience. Professor Rex says this was developed in particular “in the centuries of the High and Late Middle Ages”, and “by the time of Martin Luther and Thomas More the doctrine was well fixed”. Thanks to this tradition, today we see conscience as “the inner sanctity of the person”.
  6. It gave rise to individualism. Professor Rex sees this in particular as a development of Protestantism which often leaves the individual alone with the Bible and his or her own private interpretation. Modern individualism, say Professor Rex, is the “notion that it is for each individual to chart their own path in life, to construct their own pattern of meaning, maybe to find their own truth”. He suggests this might be a mixed blessing.
  7. It gave rise to self-criticism. By this, Professor Rex means not only individual self-criticism (leading hopefully to repentance and renewal), but also to societal and cultural self-criticism, with society also being invited to repent and renew. We can see this in the way modern society focusses so strongly on the sins of its past. But he notes that while the Christian idea of self-criticism remains, the Christian concept of forgiveness may not be so present anymore.
  8. It separated Church and State. Professor Rex says that historically the Catholic Church had to fight hard for its independence from the State, what he calls “ecclesiastical liberty”. In time this gave rise to “freedom of religion”, something it was harder for the Church to accept because eventually it meant the freedom not to belong to a particular Church, or any Church at all.

Professor Rex also mentions the negative side of the ledger, in particular Christian anti-Semitism and its pervasiveness on both sides of the Christian divide. He says, “Nazi genocide, an entirely racist ideology, could not have gained traction had not the cultural ground been very well prepared by notions of collective guilt and the blood libel [against Jews] and by the marginalisation of Jews or their expulsion from it”.

The situation today: de-Christianisation and the rise of political religions

Professor Rex says that, contrary to popular belief, Europe is no longer secularising, it is de-Christianising. He describes this as “the mass desertion of European peoples from the ecclesiastical loyalties and practices of their ancestors and from the moral consensus that bound most Christian Churches together until the last two or three generations.”

He believes that “the abandonment of the moral consensus of Christianity has in turn first meant the marginalisation [of the Churches], and now threatens the exclusion of Christian belief and commitment from politics and the public square.”

But he argues that the space left behind by the retreat of Christianity is not being filled by nothing (echoing something GK Chesterton is supposed to have said), but by what amount to new political ideologies that often resemble religions. In the 20th century, these were Communism and Fascism, and today by ideas that come under the heading “woke”, and are found “in discourse relating to race and sex”.

The future: a new intolerance and the idea of ‘human rights’ under threat?

Professor Rex wonders whether this new ‘religion’ will “demand a measure of allegiance from all who inhabit its territory?” What will be demanded of Christians, and members of other religions?

He believes the truly secular idea of the State not determining “ethical and philosophical questions” might be abandoned altogether.

He sees this in moves by some countries to exclude from working in health services anyone who is unwilling to “perform or assist in abortions”.

Professor Rex argues that “the non-theological candidates for the role of Europe’s new religion all revolve around human rights”, but the whole idea of who is a human is now under threat.

He points out, for example, that we no longer accept the unborn child as being a human being in any practical sense, and are uncertain about what gender means.

He wonders if we can hold on to even ‘woke’ concepts of human rights which owe more than they know to Christian concepts, as historian Tom Holland outlines in ‘Dominion’, not least that we are all morally equal and of infinite worth.

Looking further ahead, he says we cannot really know what Europe in the future will look like as its Christian roots continue to wither.

Professor Rex finishes: “As Tom Holland has emphasised rightly in his recent book, crucial elements in contemporary religious commitments, even those which people call ‘woke’, remain evidently rooted in that Christian history, that Christian past, that Christian worldview. But if these commitments are detached from that Christian past and that Christian literature and that Christian culture as they are increasingly being, will they in fact remain tenable, will they be credible, will they be sustainable? Can the branches still blossom flower and fruit when they are cut off the tree?”