Faith & Reason: The wild surmise of Keats and capitalism

Politicians and economists have forgotten that religion could prove the explosive element as Europe expands
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK the new Church and Society Commission of the European Council of Churches was launched in Brussels. It was addressed by Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, who talked about the contribution of the Churches to the enlargement of Europe. The event was more exciting than it sounds, for nobody seems able to capture the drama of European enlargement, and the potentially explosive element in the process - religion.

The prospect of Europe's expansion calls for some larger vision than European bureaucracy offers. In Brussels, I recalled John Keats's description of the moment that Hernando Cortez first glimpsed the Pacific:

when, with eagle eyes,

He stared at the Pacific - and

all his men

Looked at each other with a wild

surmise -

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats imagines that unexpected moment when the world became suddenly much larger - when Europe discovered its Pacific coast. As old empires fell and new oceans became known, these Europeans knew their discoveries were providential. And that power of Providence was clearly Christian - given by the God of Isaac and Jacob, of the Creed and the Mass, of Castile and Aragon. His truths were regarded as irrefutable. His enthusiasm for the Spanish cause was indicated by their spectacular triumphs, and set at naught the horrendous human cost of their conquest.

Now a new extraordinary moment has arisen in Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe has a Pacific coast once more. But the feelings aroused by that vision are more complex than those which occurred to Cortez.

Our culture is unused to the idea of Providence, and responds more cautiously to the new European panorama. The European Union's response has been to offer the prospect of membership to a hundred million of Europe's poorest people, in 10 countries from Estonia to Bulgaria. Half the countries have begun the accession process, much the biggest being Poland. Beyond lie Ukraine, Belarus - and Russia. The larger project is for these states to be neighbours rather than members. The prospect of shaping a common civilisation, from Galway to Vladivostok, is breathtaking; the chances of success mixed; the consequences of failure alarming.

The banner of European enlargement is not marked "For Christ and Spain", but it does carry convictions of a sort. These are embodied in the programme agreed at the European Council in 1993. New member states must enjoy democratic institutions, which offer protection to minorities. They must also have created a functioning market economy, with the ability to compete in the single market. So, "Democracy and Capitalism" are the new credal statements. These are less troubling than the godly greed of the Conquistadors, but their universal virtue and utility are not self-evident.

First, the Europeans have found it notoriously difficult to harness capitalism and democracy. Mark Mazower's widely praised recent book The Dark Continent is about Europe, not Africa. It insists that in the first half of this century Europeans have too often been afraid of capitalism, contemptuous of democracy and embarrassingly content with dictatorship. A humane form of social democracy has held sway since the Second World War, but it is not clear how it will survive the current transformations in British, German and French politics. Europe's dispossessed economic minorities are swelling to unprecedented levels. Old solidarities are dissolving.

Second, Democratic Capitalism is not obviously virtuous to serious religionists, in and around Europe. Democratic Capitalism is about the satisfaction of individuals' desires, provided they can plausibly claim not harm others. To the seriously religious - for whom life centres, in whatever tradition, on obedience to the will of God - "perfectly selfish and perfectly harmless" sounds like the epitaph for a civilisation based on religious values.

Most striking of all is the resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, as firm in its convictions as ever. Alexei Zolotov, the correspondent for the Moscow Times, who came to Brussels last week to receive the Templeton Prize for Religious Journalism, got that prize partly for his scrutiny of the new Russian law on religion, which severely limits non-Orthodox religious activity. The Russian Church sees itself as acting in obedience to its tradition, in the face of religious aggression which is only possible because Russia is so weak. The Democratic Capitalist project will have to carry more substantial moral credentials before the Russian Church can be wholly blamed for defending its own divine calling.

Some traditions are more accommodating to European liberal norms than others. The Catholic Tradition is modelled in a sense on the Holy Roman Empire. In every facet of Orthodoxy is mirrored the whole of Byzantium - while Methodists like me tend to betray their roots in the Co-operative Wholesale Society. On the whole I am optimistic about our new European venture. But European Capitalist Democracy has not worked for long, and currently owes more to convenience than to conviction. Its religious critics may go the way of the Aztec and the Inca, but their sharp questions will remain.