Europe and the Faith: Arguing with Hilaire Belloc
The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith. - Hilaire Belloc
These words of Hilaire Belloc, possibly the most famous and notorious of all the words he ever wrote, are the final words of his book, Europe and the Faith. There was a time when I approved of these words to such a degree that they became almost a mantra in my mind, an indelible marker by which I oriented my understanding of reality, much as Monsignor Ronald Knox had described the paradoxes of Chesterton as having become the platitudes of Knox’s own thought. Today, however, I find myself in disagreement with Belloc, at least on this issue. Whereas Chesterton’s paradoxes remain for me, as they had been for Monsignor Knox, almost platitudinous, recurring in my thought processes as perennially reliable nuggets of wisdom, Belloc’s equating of Europe with the Faith strike me as dangerously wrongheaded, at least if the words are taken literally (and how else are we meant to take them?).
The claim that the Faith is Europe, and that Europe is the Faith, is the reduction of the universal (“catholic”) claims of Christianity to the level of ethnocentricity. It is to take the Divine and to redefine it as something essentially human. It is to take the King and Creator of the Cosmos and make him the King of Europe. One can say, of course, quite correctly, that the King of the Cosmos should also be the King of Europe, and that all the kings of the European nations should be subject to this One True King; this is simply a definition or description of Christendom, or at least what Christendom should be. But this is not what Belloc is saying; or rather, if he is saying this, he is also saying something much more than this. He is not simply saying that the Faith has forged Europe, which it has, but that Europe has forged the Faith, which is to say that the Church has been guarded and guided by a certain ethnic culture and not that She is being guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit. It is almost to claim that She is the Bride of Europe and not the Bride of Christ (who, in case we need to remind ourselves, was not ethnically a European). He is saying that becoming a Christian is to become a European, if not ethnically at least in an honorary sense, which is to make Christianity a subject of Europe.
To be fair to Belloc, it is very unlikely that he meant his words to be taken this literally. He was a bona fide Christian, a robustly orthodox Catholic in point of fact, who believed in Christ’s divinity and in the ecclesiological understanding of the Church, or the Faith, as the Mystical Body of Christ. He knew that the Faith was infinitely and eternally larger than Europe. His point was merely that Europe is nothing without the Faith; that it was the Faith which forged her, which made her what she is, and perhaps that her spirit has helped to form the very fabric of the Faith itself, at least in its physical manifestation in terms of its art and architecture. The problem perhaps is that he allowed the figure of speech to disfigure the words he was intending to speak, the chiasmus causing chaos by its privileging of rhetorical means over meaning. What Belloc should have written is that Europe means nothing without the Faith because it was the Faith which gave it meaning, or that Europe is found in the Faith and is lost in its absence. This is what he should have said, and I believe that it was what he meant to say, but the fact is that he said something different, and not only something different but something which is wrong.
In order to better understand what Belloc meant to say when writing the provocative words that we’ve criticized, it will be well to see them in the context of the words he wrote immediately preceding them. Belloc wrote that the “edifice of civilization which we have inherited, and which is still our trust, trembles and threatens to crash down”. He is warning us about the impending destruction of European civilization. “It is clearly insecure. It may fall in any moment. We who still live may see the ruin. But ruin when it comes is not only a sudden, it is also a final, thing.” Compare these doom-laden and ultimately pessimistic words with those of Chesterton: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died,” he wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Why should we despair at the death of the corrupt, hedonistic anti-Christian Europe, which we see unfolding before our eyes today? Why should we believe that the death of secularist Europe signifies the death of Christian civilization? Shouldn’t we see the death and decay of this latest anti-Christian revolution in the light of the others that have preceded it? Revolutionaries believed that France had killed Christianity in 1789; revolutionaries of a similar ilk believed that Russia had killed Christianity in 1917. In both cases, the Revolutions failed and Christianity rose from their ashes. The same could be said of Hitler’s preposterous “Thousand Year Reich”, which lasted twelve ignoble years. In all of these cases, the killers of Christians ended up killing themselves and each other, leaving in their wake a renewal of Christianity. Given these solid and sordid examples from history, why should Christians believe in death but not in resurrection?
As a great admirer of Belloc, it hurts to find myself arguing with him. It is, therefore, a great consolation to be able to quote the lines that immediately precede the words for which I have excoriated him:
In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church.
Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.
This is indeed the crux of the matter, and let’s not lose sight of the fact that crux is Latin for the Cross. Europe may indeed perish, crucified by the sins, errors and heresies of her own sons, but Christianity will never perish because, as Chesterton reminds us, it has a God who knows the way out of the grave.