The end of the second millennium of Christian history seems to coincide with decisive steps towards a new form of European unity. The final political form of that unity is not yet clear, but it is already evident that the European nations are approaching a degree of economic integration that needs some political framework beyond a mere alliance of sovereign states. This situation raises understandable anxieties. Few people would like to see a monolithic bureaucratic and political structure established at the expense of the various national cultures. But European unity in the form of some kind of confederation should not entail such a thing as its consequence. On the contrary, a confederate organization may allow for an even higher degree of regional independence than the traditional form of the nation state provided. On the other hand, a new sense of cultural identity is required, an awareness of how all those national and regional cultures belong together within the encompassing unity of one cultural tradition, however diversified. Economic integration is not enough to bring forth and nourish the continuous feeling of belonging together. Nor can any political framework by itself achieve that purpose. In fact, the process towards European integration could hardly have developed to its present stage, if there was not already throughout the nations of Europe an awareness of sharing the same cultural world – notwithstanding the particularities of the national cultures that contribute to the abundance of our cultural consciousness as Europeans.
It constitutes an important task of intellectual leadership in our time to strengthen the awareness among the people of Europe of being united already within a single cultural climate. This element of unity is largely due to the common cultural heritage of the various European nations, a heritage that has been variously developed in each of them. One may discern two main sources of that common heritage: the continuing memory of classical integrity and the Christian religion. In the course of our cultural history, these two sources were sometimes in conflict, but mostly they were united in forms of a happy though somewhat strained marriage. In fact, it was mainly through the Christian reception of the classical Greek and Roman cultures that their heritage continued to be alive and periodically renewed in the course of Europe’s cultural history.
It is true that to a certain degree modern European culture emancipated itself from both these roots. Greek and Roman art and literature lost their functions as classical models to be imitated or further developed. But even where no longer imitated, these models continue to serve as points of reference in the creative minds of artists as well as in the public evaluation of their work. The Christian religion has largely lost its formative influence on the public expressions of our cultural consciousness. In recent years, it is even losing its impact upon the consciousness of moral norms, not to mention moral behaviour. But it would still be difficult to conceive of modern European culture without its Christian background and heritage. Visitors from other cultures are often more sensitive to this fact than Europeans are. In the prospect of a uniting Europe the Christian roots and background of its cultural life could become more important again, because Christianity is one of the few potentially unifying factors in the emerging consciousness of European culture. Granted that pluralism is not enough to provide for the element of unity in our cultural consciousness, perhaps there should be a new appropriation of the Christian rootage of the various national cultures of Europe. Such a recovery of our Christian roots might commend itself more strongly, if the churches themselves had not contributed so heavily to the disruptions and tragic conflicts in the course of European history.
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