Saturday, May 07, 2005

"The Cube and the Cathedral"

Blogging from the bookstore (as I am doing) is a perilous occupation (not least of which because I'm on "company time") , but I'm looking through catalogs (for work! Honest!) and came across what looks like an interesting book.

The title is in the caption. It's by George Weigel. Mr. Weigel is, from the biographical information available, apparently both an intellectual, a Catholic (the author of a biography I coincidentally just shelved, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II), and, from the plaudits, conservative. None of which is truly relevant, but in the blogosphere especially, such things usually determine how fair a hearing one's ideas get. So let's put all the cards on the table.

The book, which I won't have a chance to read for a while, is subtitled: "Europe, America, and Politics Without God." I should say at the outset that I have my own thesis about how Jeffersonian separation of church and state spared America much of the dissolution of religious life Europe seems to have undergone; but that's another thesis for another day. Mr. Weigel's thesis seems to be...well, let me quote the catalog:

Weigel traces the origins of "Europe's problem" to the atheistic humanism of the nineteenth-century European intellectual life, which set in motion a historical process that produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, the Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cold War--and, most ominously, the Continent's de-population, which is worse today than during the Black Death.

And yet, many Europeans still insist--most recently, during the debate over a new EU constitution--that only a public square shorn of religiously-informed moral argument is safe for human rights and democracy. Precisely the opposite, Wiegel suggests, is true: the people of the "cathedral" can give a compelling account of their commitment to everyone's freedom; the people of the "cube" cannot.

Can there by any true "politics"--any true deliberation about the common good, and any robust defense of freedom--without God? George Wiegel makes a powerful case that the answer is "No," because, in the final analysis, societies are only as great as their spiritual aspirations.
The "cube," by the way, is the Great Arch of La Defense, in Paris. The "cathedral" is Notre Dame, also in Paris.

I don't know that I would agree with Wiegel's reasoning, or even all of his conclusions (and the reasoning often guides the consequences of the conclusions, so that is a large caveat), but the very concept is worthy of deep consideration. It is certainly possible to consider a society without spiritual aspirations at all: Voltaire claimed to have done it, as well as Rousseau, Sartre, and many French and Continental intellectuals. But they all did it in the context of a society still pursuing some spiritual aspirations. Were they right? Or were they naive? In America today, I would argue that we are as godless as the Europeans. Our "common good" is not defined in spiritual terms, but monetary ones. The true measure of worth of any public policy or "public good," is financial. James Dobson and Pat Robertson command attention not because they are spiritual leaders, but because of the money they raise, and the audiences that supply that money. A large audience equals a large bank account, equals a guaranteed place at the table of public discourse. But has it anything to do with God?

And is our answer to them that God has no place in the discussion? Or that their God is not the only version at the table?

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