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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, say DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin