Back to first principles

Posted: Jul 12, 2005 12:00 AM

On Sunday they packed 'em in -- a circumstance you wouldn't have noted for some long while in English churches, which, like European churches in general, seem to resound mainly with historic echoes. But there was praying to be done, and it seemed to the English people meet, right and their bounden duty -- as the Book of Common Prayer would have it -- to lay their sorrows and perplexities before the Lord.

 And so, three days after the explosions and screams that scarred a London morning, something like the old European civilization popped back into view. I didn't say that the old civilization itself -- abounding in faith and zeal and confidence -- made a return appearance. I said something like it emerged for just a moment. It was a sight for sore eyes, because even before the bombs exploded, Europe was in trouble. In trouble it remains. It appreciates better now the measure of that trouble, if not fully the nature of the solution.

 Modern Europe lacks a first-order purpose. That lack discloses itself in the London explosions.

 Europe is full of second-order purposes: enjoyment, economic security and vacations. What does Europe exist to affirm? It's doubtful if Europeans know any more.

 Not Christian transcendence. In most of Europe, Christian practice barely exists. The famous, now dormant, European Union constitution lacked any acknowledgement of the historical fact of the continent's Christian past. No, no, not secular enough.

 Accordingly, the European population base is in grave decline. As Robert Samuelson wrote recently in the Washington Post, "Europe's birthrates have dropped well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children for each woman of childbearing age. For Western Europe as a whole, the rate is 1.5. It's 1.4 in Germany and 1.3 in Italy."

 It is what happens when those second-order purposes -- enjoyment, etc. -- choke out the older, nobler ones -- justice, reverence, etc. "Me First" is Europe's reigning principle. The first-order purposes require inconvenient sacrifices: me second, third or fourth. Who cares to change a diaper? Pay for a nanny? Send the kids, or the kinder , through college? Down goes the birthrate.

 With what consequences? Not the smallest is the disappearance of a population base requisite to funding future retirees' benefits. We know something of this in America due to the Social Security debate. The case is much harder in Europe, though, than in America. That can mean bring on the immigrants: Start them paying into the system! But Europe has long been doing this. It has meant, in practice, the creation of a very large population of European Muslims -- 4 percent of Britain's population, 10 percent of France's. It would be one thing if these were happy immigrants assimilating themselves happily into the larger society. As the Wall Street Journal notes this week, the larger reality is the self-distancing of European Muslims from their neighbors. In France, as in England, "the signs of fundamentalist Islam are on the rise," and jihadist preachers address themselves to what one expert calls Muslims "unmoored from their traditional beliefs and ripe for recruitment."

 The bishop of London, Richard Chartres, preaching at St. Paul's Cathedral the day after Bloody Thursday, recoiled from attacking Islam as a religion. He probed more deeply. He saw "a spiritual vacuum" into which "false religion" had intruded itself -- a religion, heedless of God, "awesomely powerful and destructive." The strayed or departed Christians of Europe -- of Britain -- might on such a reading reproach themselves for creating an opening for the murderous radicals of Islam to reach through and plant their explosives.

 The evil purposes of murderous bombers are just the present problem. Evil itself is the original and enduring problem -- one that, as Europe for centuries maintained and preached, reflects humanity's willing breach of its relationship with God.

 Is it back, now, at last, to first principles for Europe? Is there, indeed, a shred of a choice?