Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe – Part I

With the roller coaster experiences of Greece and the G20 Summit, these are opportune times to speak about the crisis of Europe. The media is full of it. But for many other thinkers this crisis has been seen coming in its very foundations. Among these thinkers are Habermas and Ratzinger, whom I have mentioned before together, and the theme of the crisis of Europe unites them once again. This time not as explicitly as before, when the Pope explicitly referenced the philosopher, but the affinity, especially in diagnosis is there.

A fine diagnosis was given by Habermas fairly recently, and can be seen in a Eurozine publication, which includes other authors. Below a key extract of how Habermas sees the crisis:

Europe: A continent of pluralism

I don’t want to say much about the political self−assertion of Europe in a changing world. Compared to the USA and the BRIC countries, our nation states have shrunk to the status of minor principalities. Even Germany’s economic power is going to be of less and less account. As can be seen from every international conflict of the last twenty years, it’s simply foolish to assume that Europe’s voice will still count for anything if we don’t learn to speak with one voice. Joschka Fischer continues to provide us with many cogent arguments for Europe’s self−assertion in global politics. I can understand that this approach isn’t to everyone’s taste; but even those of us averse to power politics would be ill−advised to ignore it.

Secondly, the issue is also one of normative ideas about how to solve the problems that the international community cannot escape: How should we handle the need to regulate market−driven capitalism, climate change and the global risks of nuclear technology, or develop a non−selective human rights policy? Should Europe have no interest in influencing the institutions of a future world order so that they achieve democratic legitimacy and meet standards of social justice?

And, if you will excuse the sentimentality, the third point is ultimately a historical view, arising out of a very different kind of self−assertion. This Europe is a collection of former empires and ultimately of nation states that not only bear responsibility for the dark and criminal flipside of social modernization, but that have also undergone a decline in their own political significance and have had to digest the loss of their imperial power. This Europe, fortunately now domesticated and more civil, has inherited, thanks to its difficult history, an incomparably pluralistic culture. That may sound Eurocentric and indeed it is. But if one knows that among the plurality of voices one only has one, then one can speak from the first−person perspective. What Brecht said about his own country −− “Let our land seem dearest to us just as others’ seem dearest to them” −− we can say about “our” countries as a whole. 

Every journey through Europe −− be it geographical or historical −− leaves the impression, not only on us Europeans, that we have here an incredible diversity stemming from the historical origins of this single continent. This, it seems to me, is worth preserving at all costs. But the irony of history is that we won’t succeed in preserving this diversity, developed over the course of the centuries, if Europe doesn’t stick together, and instead carves itself up into its small, self−contemplating nations. 

In another section, among the threats and challenges Europe must stand up to, Habermas mentions climate change much like the Pope does in other occasions. More interestingly, is the recognition that Europe must find this one voice amidst its pluralism, face and recognize its historical past and keep its diversity by “sticking together”. How can Europe find this voice? Which is it?

This has been one of Ratzinger’s recurrent questions, and the name he chose for Pope partly reflects his care for the European question. Among Ratzinger’s 3 foundational speeches as Pope, one has explicitly dealt with the roots of European culture, and the latest one in Germany delivered at the Bundestag has dealt more broadly with the foundations of Law but clearly faced Germany’s historical question as well. But the day before the death of Pope John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger delivered perhaps his clearest speech on the future of Europe, at Subiaco monastery where St. Benedict of Nursia took to asceticism and the place that is the symbolic cradle of the monastic movement in Europe.

The speech highlighted the suppression of the Christian legacy in the EU’s historical memory, the intellectual dishonesty this involves, and how ultimately this European voice can only be found if we allow God to be part of the equation. This doesn’t mean all Europeans need to be believers, nor that the ‘also truth’ of the enlightenment be rejected, but that room must be made to think “as if God existed”.

In the second speech delivered in the Colleges des Barnardines, Pope Benedict is more explicit about what he sees as an answer to the problem, and dwells less on diagnostics. Once again, he returns to European roots in the monastic movement and the “culture of the word” that formed Europe. Below his response to the European problem at its roots:

We set out from the premise that the basic attitude of monks in the face of the collapse of the old order and its certainties was quaerere Deum – setting out in search of God.  We could describe this as the truly philosophical attitude: looking beyond the penultimate, and setting out in search of the ultimate and the true.  By becoming a monk, a man set out on a broad and noble path, but he had already found the direction he needed:  the word of the Bible, in which he heard God himself speaking… 

The universality of God, and of reason open towards him, is what gave them the motivation—indeed, the obligation—to proclaim the message.  They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.

The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation “outwards” – towards searching and questioning mankind – is seen in Saint Paul’s address at the Areopagus.  We should remember that the Areopagus was not a form of academy at which the most illustrious minds would meet for discussion of lofty matters, but a court of justice, which was competent in matters of religion and ought to have opposed the import of foreign religions.  This is exactly what Paul is reproached for:  “he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18).  To this, Paul responds:  I have found an altar of yours with this inscription:  ‘to an unknown god’.  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (17:23).  Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods.  He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know – the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and unrecognizable.  The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that he must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason – not blind chance, but freedom.  Yet even though all men somehow know this, as Paul expressly says in the Letter to the Romans (1:21), this knowledge remains unreal:  a God who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all.  If he does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to him.  The novelty of Christian proclamation is that it can now say to all peoples: he has revealed himself.  He personally.  And now the way to him is open.  The novelty of Christian proclamation does not consist in a thought, but in a deed: God has revealed himself.  Yet this is no blind deed, but one which is itself Logos – the presence of eternal reason in our flesh.  Verbum caro factum est (Jn 1:14): just so, amid what is made (factum) there is now Logos, Logos is among us.  Creation (factum) is rational.  Naturally, the humility of reason is always needed, in order to accept it:  man’s humility, which responds to God’s humility.

Our present situation differs in many respects from the one that Paul encountered in Athens, yet despite the difference, the two situations also have much in common.  Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities.  God has truly become for many the great unknown.  But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him.  Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times.  A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences.  What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture. Thank you.

The speech to the Bundestag echo’s the need to remember God. While Habermas seems far from agreeing with the Pope when he claims that “a new narrative for European unity doesn’t therefore need to be far−fetched” we can speak of a certain ‘religious opening’ in general, albeit not connected to the European issue. This will be dealt with in Part II.

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