History repeats

By  Wayne A. Holst, Catholic Register Special
  • November 18, 2007
{mosimage}Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics From the Great War to the War on Terror by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 557 pages, hardcover, $34.95.)

In his first volume of two on the co-mingling of European culture and faith covering the late 18th century to modern times, the encyclopedic and masterful British scholar Michael Burleigh laid down a basic theory to ground his work: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In other words, the tides of history roll out, but they also return. Faith may seem to disappear, but in fact it does not.

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics From the Great War to the War on Terror reaffirms this principle as Burleigh completes his project, examining the last three-quarters of the 20th century and conveying us into the early 21st.

A second principle of Burleigh’s work, more evident in this second volume, could be summed up by Winston Churchill who once said: “You leave out God and you substitute the devil.” Bereft of religion, humanity invariably invents other deities. Mortal attempts to devise substitutes for God — whether based on science, politics or something else — invariably end in failure and disillusion.

{sa 006058095X}In this volume, Burleigh cleverly combines these principles to prove the constancy of faith in God amid the vagaries of history. He focuses on the pseudo-religious pathologies of fascism, communism and capitalistic materialism — all founded on philosophical atheism. For the author, the end-result of the pursuit of godlessness is despair. To counter such pursuits Burleigh traces the responses of the churches, nationally and internationally, to European political developments. He also describes the interventions of the churches in post-war politics.

Much of Europe’s history during the last century, the author believes, illustrates “the secularization of religion” and the “sacrilization of politics.”  At times, the blend was positive. But it usually failed miserably.

Modern European secularism is not the first godless challenge to European Christianity over the past two millennia. Nor will it be the last. The tides of faith roll out, but they also provide an opportunity for a good return, even though that recovered core may express itself in new ways.

Christianity’s historical achievements deserve more notice than they customarily receive,” Burleigh writes in his preface. He rejects his colleagues’ tendencies to ignore the contribution of faith to Europe’s long and tortuous evolution. The influence of faith permeates and ultimately redeems even the darkest of times.

He describes what happened to the big players, such as Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Spain and Russia. But he enriches our awareness of developments in these countries by contributing insightful reports from other nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as the smaller players such as Ireland, Holland, Austria and Romania.

Burleigh’s attempt to integrate religion and politics is noble and he is quite successful.  But he occasionally offers opinions from which even his most supportive readers will detract. His take on terrorism in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years could be challenged. Burleigh assumes a narrowly conservative, British suspicion of peacemaking efforts there. After rehearsing many stories of IRA atrocities in that land of the Troubles, he offers little hope for true political change. This, in spite of the amazing changes currently taking place in Ulster. I hope recent developments will prove him wrong.

A glaring omission, beyond a passing reference, is the author’s silence on the contribution of the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who emerged as a shining example of faith speaking truth to power during Nazi Germany’s most evil days.

Burleigh is quite transparent about the kind of Christianity he prefers. While attempting to maintain a certain scholarly objectivity, he displays a strong admiration for Roman Catholic Christianity in many of the countries he covers. The author is clearly supportive of traditionalist popes, including Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. His testimony is a rarity in the secular academy and deserves special mention, no matter if one can’t always agree with him. Readers will be immensely aided in their understanding of the national contexts that shaped the lives of the most recent popes (Poland and Austria/Germany).

The last chapter of Sacred Causes tackles a phenomenon not previously encountered by Europe until the dreadful, world-changing event known as 9/11. Burleigh introduces debate  on both the internationalization of terror and the concept of Eurabia — the possible Islamification of a continent traditionally identified with Christianity.

 Burleigh ends his study in a spirit of qualified optimism. He believes Christian faith has not only survived the severest test, but that it can, with core in tact, evolve in new and dynamic ways.

Why read a book about religion and politics in modern Europe? Canadians can learn from that history. This holds particularly true as we continue to define ourselves in relation to our neighbour to the south. We are still influenced by Europe. We continue to reflect the best and worst European and American values.

(Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps facilitate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.)

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