Tides of faith roll out, but they always come back

By  Wayne A. Holst, Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006
 Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War,  by Michael Burleigh. (HarperCollins Canada, 530 pages, hardcover, $26.37 at amazon.ca).

The tides roll out. They also return. The metaphor of tides slipping away from a beach became a favourite of writers and commentators after Matthew Arnold penned his famous lines in Dover Beach (1867) about the loss of faith and religion. What is sometimes forgotten about this analogy is that tides return, though probably never in exactly the same way.

Michael Burleigh, a British historian who has taught at Oxford and several major American universities, builds on the larger tidal image of Dover Beach. In this wide-ranging yet accessible book Earthly Powers: The Clash Between Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War  he shows that through the 125 years he covers in this first of two volumes on the secularization of Europe Christianity’s retreat was always met by a return. People need something to believe in, but the substitutes for religious faith never quite come through.

The French Revolution, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, precipitated  “a new kind of religion, an incomplete religion, it is true, without God, without ritual and without life after death, but one which nevertheless... flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles and martyrs.”

The French have a saying, however, that the more things change the more they remain the same. Religious substitutes may rise to fill a void. But Christianity discarded is never Christianity ultimately lost.

Burleigh’s book is an exploration of the politics of religion, the religion of politics and the modern emergence of what we know as civil religion. This is not a history of Christianity, but rather the telling of “the fitful... history of European secularization.” Burleigh relates the erratic relationship between church and state in a broad sweep of nations and the culture wars fought among Christians. It describes how religious institutions, for better or worse, intervened or shaped political life.

Even though we humans tend not to learn from history, a thoughtful reading of Burleigh will confirm that history does have a nuanced way of repeating itself and it is possible to see ourselves and our worlds in that narrative.

Burleigh is a good historian who focuses on what happened in the past, but he opens windows for present and future interpretation. In some places the book is more a ramble than a tightly argued assessment. But it demonstrates that many of our current challenges are not new. They only appear in different guises.

After completing these 500 pages — and in spite of the inevitable disillusionment that results from reading parts of it — I ended with some hope that, in spite of the evils inherent in both religion and its substitutes, there is also great good out there and mature discernment is required.

The book reveals that not all significant developments occurred in major centres. Such European backwaters as Ireland and Poland were influenced by and in turn influenced situations elsewhere. Burleigh creatively weaves various threads of religious expression throughout his work. The Enlightenment, for example, morphed into many secular and religious forms. Consistent through the entire narrative, however, is the human quest for meaning — an ardent desire to believe in something, and the tendency to believe in anything.

For those who feel battered by endless criticisms of the church, it may come as some small consolation that most secular states were just as capable of unimaginable barbarity as religious organizations. In fact, secular reactionaries often eclipsed in violence such atrocities as the Inquisition and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. These were infamous but modest affairs when set alongside rampaging mobs decrying religious excess.

All this suggests those who attempted to create alternate societies without benefit of healthy faith and its requisite institutions have fared no better than various, hated ancien regimes. In fact, they usually fared worse.

Today, Pope Benedict XVI is attempting, through his papacy, to return the church and Christian culture back to the centre of European life. He worries the church in Europe and, indeed, in Canada as well, has been sidelined by secularism and by cultural and moral relativism. Benedict brings a Teutonic perspective to history that gives him just cause for his fears.

Whether or not you are a history buff, Earthly Powers offers intriguing European background to contemporary issues faced by Canadian Christians. If we are willing to learn from history, we may yet avoid some of its pitfalls and claim some of its blessings.

The tides of faith roll out. They also return.

(Holst has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to facilitate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.)

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