"Has Europe Lost Its Soul?" is the title of a recent talk (12 Dec.) given by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Not merely another speech, it is already viewed in religious circles as highly significant and dynamic; indeed, among the most arresting talks of our current world scene.
The Rabbi’s topic was one which Pope Benedict XVI and the Rabbi discussed during the Pontiff’s historic visit to Britain last September; the private conversation occurred at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham. The speech at the Gregorian in mid-December chanced to take place when various political leaders of Europe were meeting in an effort to save the European Union.
In his introduction, the Rabbi briefly refers to Niall Ferguson’s recent book, Civilisation, detailing the argument that Christianity is the key by which the Western world gained pre-eminence over China. In other words, the crucial difference is not found in the number or power of weapons, or the very best political system, or even the most profitable economic plan. Rather, it is the culture itself. And at the heart of this culture has been religion; specifically, Judaeo-Christian doctrine and ethics.
When the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was asked to explain how the Western World eventually eclipsed the Far East, Ferguson explained, the answer was found especially in Christianity, which provided the "moral foundation of social and cultural life," leading to the "emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics."
Similar argumentation in behalf of the same position, Lord Sacks noted, can be found in Harvard University’s economic historian David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Whereas the Chinese introduced the wheelbarrow, compass, paper, printing, gunpowder, porcelain, weaving tools and blast furnaces (for iron), they nonetheless failed to structure a market economy, or a scientific "explosion," or an industrial revolution, or "sustained economic growth."
Thus, the Rabbi concluded, if Europe loses the Judaeo-Christian heritage that gave it its historic identity and its greatest achievements in literature, art, music, education, politics and economics, it will lose its identity and its greatness, perhaps even prior to this century’s close. When a civilization turns away from its faith, he added, it abandons its future. But when it seeks faith anew, it regains its future. For the sake of future generations, he pleaded, we – Jews and Christians, side by side – must reignite our faith and our "prophetic voice."
In the process of building his case for Christian and Jewish collaboration in saving Europe, Lord Sacks points to our "shared values." Besides the "deep biblical respect" for every person, reflecting the individual’s creation in the image of God, he says, personal dignity and freedom of choice are honored more than in any other economic system. Second, the Judaeo-Christian model honors the concept of respect for the right to private prosperity – opposed today in socialistic and communistic theories. Third, both the Jewish and Christian traditions defend the nobility of human labor.
Interestingly, the Rabbi here describes the creation of jobs, according to Judaism, as "the highest form of charity" because it is protective of human dignity. Labor, he argues, renders us "partners with God in the work of creation." And this process is facilitated by a market economy – all served, again, by the "religious ethic."
On the other hand, this same religious ethic has acted as a check with respect to the limits of capitalism. Indeed, the Rabbi sees in the Bible "an entire structure of welfare legislation; the corner of the field, the forgotten sheaves, and other parts of the harvest, left to the poor, together with the tithe on certain years, … debt cancelled and slaves set free; and the jubilee year in which ancestral land returned to its original owners."
The Rabbi’s discourse is, in brief, eloquent, moving and highly relevant. It opens up the way to an especially meaningful dialogue between the Holy Father and our Jewish colleagues. The bottom line, one could reaffirm, is that "the birth of the modern economy is inseparable from its Judaeo-Christian roots." If Europe has begun to lose its soul, Rabbi Sacks’s analysis needs to be addressed.
Writing in the Vatican journal, L’Osservatore Romano (12 Dec.), Lord Sacks explained: "A world in which material values are everything and spiritual values nothing, is neither a stable state nor a good society. Humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind."