Faith and Reason: Old order savagely on display again: The Bosnian crisis shows the Mediterranean world reliving its history, writes The Rev John Kennedy, a Secretary in the Methodist Church Division of Social Responsibility

A MORAL TALE, especially for those who have been lounging around the Mediterranean this summer.

In 798, Charlemagne wanted to build a monastery in Jerusalem, which was then under the nominal rule of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. So Charlemagne sent an embassy to Baghdad, led by one Isaac the Jew. After four years Isaac returned, bringing a fabulous present from the Caliph - an elephant called Abulabaz.

With the elephant came building permission for the Jerusalem project, and a Benedictine community was ordered to establish a monastery. They appear to have been a very up-to-date crowd, getting into the ninth century well ahead of everyone else. Not only did they sing the Creed in the Mass, but used the controversial 'filioque' clause - asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and not simply from the Father. But the Greek Christians of Jerusalem had spent a century and a half maintaining the older form of the Creed in the face of Muslim dominance, and were outraged. The rest, as they say, is history, with Christendom splitting asunder in 1054. The elephant died on campaign in Saxony in 810. His tusks were made into chess pieces, some of which still survive. He is buried in Aachen, the Frankish imperial capital.

This little tale is told by Judith Herrin in her remarkable book The Formation of Christendom. She uses the story to illustrate her case that the European, Mediterranean culture of Christendom was a product of interaction between Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim, and indeed of the conflict between them. This seems at first sight an interesting notion, a plot line Mary Renault could have used, but redundant in a world made new by Columbus and Lenin. Except that the Atlantic has got so much wider in recent years, and Lenin now seems as historically remote as Abulabaz.

We certainly see the old order of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim savagely on display in what we once more call the Balkans. But this is not simply an isolated instance. The collapse of Leninist rule has signalled a big comeback for the anciens regimes. Muscovy is back with us, and Cathay seems on the way. Indeed, Europe is beginning to look as it might have done had the Thirty Years War been over by Christmas. It is said that Otto von Habsburg is not just sitting in the European Parliament - he is waiting.

It all seemed unlikely in the ages of simple faith - faith, that is, in the secular ideologies which once swept the world. Take the 1860s. With Bismarck, Garibaldi and the rest running amok, Pius IX produced the deathless phrase to describe their brave new world - 'Civilisation as recently invented'. There seems hardly a better way effectively to resign from the modern world.

But over the past half century something odd has happened - Catholic lay politics has moulded modern Europe as much as it has itself been changed. The politics of Christian Democracy have also shaped official Catholic social teaching somewhat. If you go to Germany with Centesimus Annus in hand, you seem to have got a map of the place - just the same careful balance of competition and co-operation, rights and obligations.

Looking at what seems to be our common European model of political economy, the idea suggests itself - the European settlement is a Catholic settlement. Hardly suprising on reflection, when those who said most emphatically after the last war 'never again' were convinced Catholic laymen - Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer.

And, astonishingly, quasi-Catholic Europe has recognisably the same neighbours as in Charlemagne's day - the Muslims of North Africa and Turkey, and the lands of Orthodoxy, now stretching away to Vladivostok.

For both these communities the European settlement still looks rather like 'civilisation as recently invented'. The fact that neither of them has reached a settlement remotely like the European one is certainly unnerving, and is likely to loom large in the next century. But Judith Herrin's point is that we always were different, and it looks as if we shall have to endure that difference for some time to come.

Our Mediterranean Europe has at least four main characters, however - Isaac the Jew is, after all, rather central to the story of Haroun al-Rashid's elephant. And the Israeli settlement is something like the European one - to the scandal of Israel's neighbours. It is also perturbing how much the Balkan horrors resemble Europe's past, including its anti-Semitic past. It remains to be seen how these four characters cope with the coming century, without Lenin to blame if they make a mess of it.

But there's always the strong sense that the future lies to the north and west - that nobody gets it right till they have been through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Eton and Oxford of European belonging. And yes, it is true, from these experiences there sprang great wells of imagination and human sympathy. But where, apart from a rather fraying altruism, is this superiority clearly evident - and, such as it is, will it survive a serious faltering in economic growth?

The tragedy of the last 1,000 years is that our communities thought they had nothing to learn from one another. The irony is that each has actually been thoroughly shaped by the others. If we do not understand this, we are likely to blunder through the coming centuries in much the same fashion as the last few. There is here what might be called the Paradox of Haroun al-Rashid's Elephant - that things change terrifyingly fast from one year to the next; but not very much over a millennium.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Guru Careers: HR Administrator / Training Coordinator

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: An HR Administrator / Training Coordinator is requi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'